MICHAEL H. PRICE: Can’t Get Enough of B.T.K.
You just can’t live in Texas if you don’t have a lot of soul, as Doug Sahm would have it. No, and you can’t live in Arizona if you don’t have a sense of Yuma.
But we were talking about Texas, where you also just can’t live without an immersion in the lore of Billy the Kid. Folklore and pop-fiction, that is, as opposed to factual knowledge or even perceived truth. By the time of the post-middle 20th century, such mis-familiarity had so thoroughly outstripped the facts in the case of this most notorious badman that most of the B.T.K. legendry bombarding the youth of America – and not merely the Texas / New Mexico Plains region – came not from Texas, but rather from Texas as filtered through the movies and the comic books.
For years on end, my most vivid images of Billy the Kid came from Toby Press’ Billy the Kid Adventure Magazine (29 issues, spanning 1950 – 1955 and boasting efforts by the likes of Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, and Harvey Kurtzman) and from the after-school telecasts of an extensive run of low-budget movies starring, by turns, Bob Steele and Buster Crabbe. At a turning-point for such awareness, while visiting Northwest Texas’ Panhandle–Plains Historical Museum with the folks, I noticed a display containing this document:
Thursday Oct 26th
Know all persons by these presents that I do hereby sell and diliver [sic] to Henry F. Hoyt one Sorrel Horse Branded BB on left hip and other indistinct Branded on Shoulders, for the Sum of Seventy five $ dollars, in hand received.
[Signed] W.H. Bonney
Jos. E. Masters
Geo. J. Howard
“You know who wrote that, don’t you?” asked my Dad. “Your teevee-cowboy hero, Billy the Kid – that’s who. Billy Bonney.
“Except he wasn’t any teevee hero,” Dad continued. “More of a juvenile-delinquent punk, if you ask me.”
“They had juvenile delinquents in 1878?” I asked in reply, missing the point altogether. I was sufficiently flabbergasted by the revelation that Billy the Kid had been a Real Guy – or that the movies and the comic-book series (both loosely conceived and dense with internal contradictions) could claim a basis in fact – to find myself at a loss for words as to this larger issue.
The right words would occur to me later. My father had heard at first hand some harsh accounts of Billy’s dealings, via a Depression-era acquaintance with Elizabeth “Frenchy” McCormick (ca. 1852–1941), last survivor of the long-abandoned frontier settlement known as Tascosa. So Dad and I had plenty to discuss – my Hollywood-and-funnybooks perception, vs. Dad’s owlhoot-punk opinions.
I’ve spent the bulk of a career in attempting to reconcile folklore with fiction with historical documentation – whether dealing with the motion-picture industry, or music, or the comics – and to this day Billy the Kid remains one Great Enigma of a persistent interest in the Western frontier as represented and misrepresented in history and pop-literature.
I’ve returned time and again to that Panhandle – Plains Museum, drawn chiefly by such relics as the W.H. Bonney letter – one of the rarest of autographs. Most eminences-become-legend will leave a trail of many signatures. But Billy the Kid was a man of few words, written or uttered.
The horse mentioned in the bill-of-sale was a gift from William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid – going through the motions of a sale, for the official record – to Dr. Henry Hoyt, the first civilian physician in the Texas Panhandle. The witnesses were the proprietors of a general store. Dr. Hoyt eventually became Surgeon General of These United States. The bill of sale found its way into the museum early in the last century.
Many historians consider Billy to have been a moronic thug. Certainly, there are facts to support such a view. A visit to New Mexico’s Lincoln County Courthouse, where some of Billy’s correspondence is preserved, gives cause for second thoughts, however. Written in a flowing hand and showing only occasional misspellings, the letters suggest that the writer was a fairly erudite chap despite a lack of formal education.
An opposing camp pictures Billy as an avenging angel – a Hamlet on horseback, as suggested in Bob Steele’s movie portrayals of the 1940s – bringing relentless justice to murderers beyond the reach of the law. There is some justification for this romanticized view, as well, for most of the men against whom Billy set his hand were among the instigators of a terrible range war in which innocents were slain while the elected authorities looked the other way or even participated.
Billy was feared and despised and adored and revered. The one tintype-photograph generally accepted as an authentic likeness reveals an ungainly and repellent-looking youth. This tintype, being a metallic mirror-image, also has given rise to the legend that Billy the Kid was a left-handed gunslinger. (Hence Gore Vidal’s The Left Handed Gun, as filmed by Arthur Penn in 1958.)
Other photos, identified as genuine by associates who survived Billy, show a much better-looking cowboy – closer to the descriptions provided by friends. Sallie Chisum, an Eastern-educated niece of the cattle baron John Chisum, called Billy “as courteous a little gentleman as I ever met.” And George Coe, a fellow ranch-hand, stated: “Billy, with his humorous and pleasing personality, got to be a community favorite… so popular that there wasn’t enough of him to go around.”
An arrest-warrant poster, issued when Billy was 18, describes him as blond, standing five-foot-three, weighing 125 pounds and possessed of “regular” features. The same poster describes him as being the leader of “the worst gang of desperadoes the Territory has had to contend with.” Then there are those 21 men he is supposed to have killed before his 21st birthday.
Only one thing is certain: The true story of Billy the Kid will forever be obscured by a tangled mythology.
Apart from a likely birthdate of November 23, 1859, in New York, the first fact known (or generally accepted) about Billy is that his widowed mother, Catherine McCarty, married a drifter named William H. Antrim in 1873 at Santa Fe, New Mexico. The younger of Mrs. Antrim’s sons, Henry, is the individual later known as Kid Antrim, who re-christened himself William H. Bonney and, from that, Billy the Kid. The first killing formally ascribed to Bonney is that of a blacksmith named E.P. Cahill, on August 17, 1877.
But only after Billy’s arrival that same year in Lincoln, New Mexico, does his career come into a crisper focus. Lincoln County was the site of a vicious range war, with ranchers John Chisum, Alexander McSween and John H. Tunstall allied against a banking-and-mercantile syndicate run by Major L.G. Murphy and J.J. Dolan. Although Bonney had first gone to work for the Murphy-Dolan gang, Tunstall saw in the youngster the makings of a leader and hired him away. Tunstall became the nearest thing to a father that the Kid had known.
Tunstall’s murder in 1878 on orders from the Murphy-Dolan interests – a scenario re-enacted most vividly in a motion picture of 1988 called Young Guns – triggered a vengeful impulse in Billy. Within months, Billy had begun making good on an oath to kill everyone involved in the ambush-slaying. The act that made Billy a fugitive-for-life was his attack on four lawmen in the employ of Murphy and Dolan.
Billy migrated during the fall of 1878 to Tascosa, in the Central Panhandle of Texas. Though a known fugitive, Billy Bonney had many friends in Tascosa. Meanwhile, the New Mexico warfare had escalated to a point that President R.B. Hayes intervened. Hayes installed a new governor, General Lew Wallace, who proposed to calm things down by offering amnesty to all concerned – all except Billy the Kid, that is.
In a letter to Wallace, Bonney offered to testify against the Murphy-Dolan thugs in exchange for exemption from prosecution. The outlaw and the governor reached an agreement, which of course ended in betrayal for one of them, and I don’t mean the governor. After escaping a death-cell in April of 1879 and eluding capture for months, Billy finally met his end in an ambush by Sheriff Pat Garrett.
Billy the Kid had been long in the grave when Dr. Henry Hoyt learned the truth about the horse Billy had given him in 1878. In 1921, a detective named Charles Siringo showed a copy of that bill of sale to James Brady of Carrizozo, New Mexico.
“That was my father’s horse!” Brady shouted. “He was riding it when he was killed by the Kid!” Brady’s father, William Brady, was the corrupt sheriff who had arranged for the ambush of John Tunstall, and who in turn fell prey to Billy’s campaign of vengeance.
A longtime accomplice, the late George E. Turner, and I have related this yarn in print on several occasions since we first pieced it together from original research during the 1960s. A 2004 version in my home-base newspaper, The Business Press of Fort Worth, Texas, received an immense popular response – including a letter-to-the-editor rebuttal sufficiently audacious to bear mentioning. There’s always something new that bears learning, even by those of us who make a profession of inflicting our opinions upon a massed audience.
I have tended, or pre-tended, to ignore the past several years’ ruckus over a campaign to order the exhumation of the mortal remains of Billy the Kid – and those of his purported and/or actual mother – for newfangled DNA sampling. My preference is to stick with the story as researched and codified by Turner and Yrs. Trly., in league with Texas’ Panhandle – Plains Historical Society.
Genealogist Emily C. Smith, of Idaho, wrote in cordial disagreement:
“Billy was born December 31, 1859, in Buffalo Gap, Texas (not New York!), and he died December 27, 1950, in Hico, Texas. His mother was Mary Adeline Dunn-Roberts,… a half-sister to Catherine Bonney-McCarty… Billy’s mother died when Billy was about three years old, and he went to live with Catherine, her husband, William H. Antrim, and Catherine’s son, Joseph, by her first marriage to Michael McCarty…”
Smith’s response seems in accord with our qualified perception of Billy the Kid as something of an avenger. But Smith insists: “Billy did not meet his death at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett; that is a lie historians have handed down over the years after reading Pat Garrett’s own accounting…”
The notion of the Kid’s long-term survival – into an age of his golly-gee-whiz portrayals in the movies and the comics – is fascinating, if only because it grates so strikingly against the romanticized notion (accepted in lieu of any thesis more authoritative) of a volatile career and an early crash-and-burn. Such sweeping revisionism parallels that which has been applied to Billy’s Southern contemporary Jesse James, who might seem nowadays to have survived a 19th-century ambush and lived to an advanced age in Louisiana and Texas.
Further, from Emily Smith: “… on November 29, 1950, Billy [traveled] to meet with the governor of New Mexico [to renew a] petition for [a] pardon… [T]he two men met with such opposition and confusion that Billy, now known as Brushy Bill Roberts, age 90, became so ill that [his lawyer] had to take Billy to a local doctor… Billy returned home to Hico… [Then,] on December 27, 1950,… [while] walking to the post office, Billy fell to the ground… dying from a heart attack… Billy’s heart was literally broken because his pardon was never granted…”
Smith added: “I realize, with great distress, [that this] information is not popular thought, nor does it follow what historians … believe to be true.”
New Mexico’s new-century re-investigators – talk about a Cold Case Unit! – appear to have grown resentful of having the likeness of Pat Garrett emblazoned upon official insignia, having grown to believe that Garrett was a murderer, or a liar, or some combination thereof. Outcries both for and against an exhumation have surfaced in Texas. (“Part of the interesting problem,” per Emily Smith, “is that you have several Billy the Kids in graves in the South.” All of which, one might add, make for a greater boon to tourism than to historical integrity.)
And yes, folklore and history are inseparable, here, in any event. My favorite Kid stories, and history-be-damned, occur in producer Sigmund Neufeld’s entirely fraudulent series of WWII-era movies starring Bob Steele and, later, Buster Crabbe. (Neufeld and his brother, director Schmuel “Sam” Neufeld/Newfield, fared well over the long haul with borderlands world-beaters named Billy, from a Lightnin’ Bill Carson series of the 1930s, through the Billy the Kid pictures and a interrelated Billy Carson franchise.) Other Kid movies, from name-brand studios and grindhouse factories alike, date from Old Hollywood to times very recent. Even Roy Rogers tackled a Kid picture, in 1938.
The original version of George Turner’s and my account, incidentally, had appeared under the title “They Couldn’t Get Enough of Billy.” Seems they still can’t get enough of Billy. Whoever they are.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price re-deploys his Billy the Kid research in a new book of rip-snorting frontier yarns called The Cruel Plains, forthcoming from Zone Press at www.zonepress.com. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.
Comics: cover artwork Copyright 1950 Toby Press. All Rights Reserved. Billy the Kid illustration Copyright 1997 M.H. Price & George E. Turner. All Rights Reserved.