The young man in the sepia-toned photograph wears a baggy suit and rests his hand on a chair back. Kept in a leatherbound scrapbook, a clipped newspaper headline pasted to the page shouts: “DEATH OF A NOTORIOUS OUTLAW.”
Could it be the Kid?
An Albuquerque educator who sold a purported photo of Billy the Kid at auction in 1994 for $50,000 owns the photo in the scrapbook and says it is another image of the young William Henry McCarty Jr., also known as Henry Antrim or William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid. Ray John de Aragon said he has spent years researching the photograph, a “carte de visite,” or pocket-sized picture that was popular in the late 1800s. It’s mounted on cardboard and embossed with both a photographer’s name, Lucas, and a location, Silver City, N.M.
Ever since an authenticated and widely accepted image of Billy the Kid sold at auction for $2.3 million in 2011, other alleged photographs of the young cattle rustler have come out of the woodwork. Most recently, a Mesilla Valley man, Joe Soebbing, had a friend reveal a photo he claims is of the Kid and buddy Dan Dedrick. The authenticity of the image has been backed by at least one forensic analyst but has also been questioned by historians.
“We have a pretty regular stream of people with photographs supposedly of Billy the Kid, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or sometimes Abraham Lincoln,” said Rick Stattler, Americana specialist with the New York auction house Swann Galleries, which sold de Aragon’s previous photograph. That means two to three people a month, he said.
The $2.3 million sale of the tintype photograph taken at Fort Sumner, in which the Kid packs an 1873 Winchester carbine rifle and Colt revolver – and smirks buck-toothed at the camera – “makes collectors more rabid for finding similar photos,” said Megan Friedel, curator of photography at History Colorado and an expert in visual history of the Old West.
“It makes people more willing to believe they do have a photo of Billy. At the same time, we should be more skeptical given that the motivations may not be very pure.”
Given how elusive the outlaw was in his own time, nearly every would-be photograph of Billy the Kid opens the door on an historical mystery. And an image of the Kid can be as tough to pin down as the Kid was himself.
At his home one recent weekend, de Aragon leafed through impeccably preserved photo albums that contain images of some of the most prominent characters of New Mexico’s Old West, including portraits of Sheriff Pat Garrett, Gov. Lewis “Lew” Wallace, rancher John H. Tunstall and others.
His great-grandmother – a curandera, or healer, of Mora, who treated many personages of the day, including the Kid, according to family lore – began the collection. The albums were handed down to de Aragon’s late father, Maximiliano de Aragon, who as a boy became an aficionado of Old West legends – most especially of Billy the Kid.
De Aragon says that a Las Vegas, N.M., neighbor, Bonifacio Baca Jr., gave the photo that could be of the Kid to his father in the 1930s. Baca Jr. had inherited the photo from his grandfather, Saturnino Baca, who de Aragon says was present during New Mexico’s Lincoln County War, in which Billy the Kid figured prominently.
He says he believes without a doubt that it’s the Kid in the picture and has a pile of research to boot, from forensic analysis of the young man’s physical characteristics to historical evidence, that opens possibilities that the young man in the photo could well be the Kid. He says he hasn’t spoken publicly about the photo previously because he wanted to complete his research.
Yet in authenticating coveted photos of the Kid, there are often as many skeptics as believers, and many more theories than hard conclusions.
“There is nothing visible in the image that proves that it can’t be Billy the Kid,” said Robin Gilliam, former history curator of the Silver City Museum, who worked on a 1989 Lincoln County Heritage Trust project to locate and identify photos of Billy the Kid.
“At the same time, there is nothing in it that indicates that it is Billy the Kid,” she said. “It’s a young man at about the right time with an inexpensive photographer’s setup. The best most people can do is tell you that there is nothing in the clothing, photo studio, photographic process or physical features that proves things one way or another.”
William Henry McCarty Jr. was born in New York and moved to Silver City with his mother as a boy, according to Colorado State Historian Bill Convery, who has a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in American Western history. He grew up poor in Silver City and started getting into trouble in his early teens, rustling cattle with a local band of troublemakers.
By his late teens, he found a job on John Tunstall’s ranch in Lincoln County and got wrapped up in the tension that blew up between Tunstall and Lawrence Murphy, an organized crime boss who also operated a monopoly general store, when Tunstall tried to get into the dry goods trade.
“Billy was a natural-born killer,” Convery said.
Murders linked to the Kid catapulted him to local, then national, notoriety. While legend has it that the Kid killed 21 men – one for each year of his life – the historical record links four murders to him, Convery said.
News of the feud “becomes sensationalized because a newly appointed territorial governor, (Lew) Wallace, offers a bounty on the head of the Kid,” Convery said. “In New York, in Boston, in Chicago, the big newspapers were printing romanticized stories: Was Billy the Kid an outlaw or a hero? They took a breakdown of law and order and made it into a Robin Hood story.”
It was a time when the mass printing of dailies was gaining speed and stories of the Kid sold newspapers.
“People were thinking of the frontier as closing; they were losing this aspect of American history,” Convery said.
The war ignited in 1878; in 1880, when Garrett was named sheriff, he hunted down the Kid.
The itinerant photographer
De Aragon, an arts specialist in the Los Lunas school district teacher resource center and author of nine niche books on New Mexico history, says his photograph could have been taken by Harry W. Lucas during his travels, before he set up shop in Silver City in 1882. Other historians who have seen the photo say it could have been taken by an unknown photographer and reprinted by Lucas afterward, a common practice in the day.
But all agree that, if the photo is of the Kid, it couldn’t have been taken by Lucas in Silver City: Billy the Kid is believed to have died when he was 21 years old, shot dead by Garrett in 1881.
Susan Berry, an expert in historical photography who directed the Silver City museum for 27 years before retiring in 2010, exchanged dozens of emails with de Aragon in the autumn of 2012 after he sought her opinion on the photograph. She spent months investigating it, and their online debate explored the intricacies of Lucas’ whereabouts in the 1870s and a range of possibilities for where and when the photo could have been taken.
Berry shared her conclusions with de Aragon by email: “Based on all available information, I must conclude that – if Billy the Kid is indeed the subject of your carte de visite – it has to be a copy print made by Lucas from an earlier print or negative. No evidence that I have found excludes that possibility. This photo could not have been taken by Lucas in Silver City, unless the subject is someone other than Billy the Kid.”
Gilliam notes “there is no arbiter” of authenticity other than the collective opinion of scholars and experts and the viewing public. De Aragon said it’s up to the public to decide.
“I wanted to make it public,” he said, “because an additional photograph (of Billy the Kid) would belong to the world.”