A petition filed recently in state District Court requesting that New Mexico issue a death certificate for outlaw Billy the Kid is the latest effort to “prove” something no genuine historian disputes – that Pat Garrett shot the Kid dead in July 1881 in Fort Sumner, N.M.
Fact is, there’s a more legitimate controversy about who killed Garrett, shooting him twice in the back on Feb. 29, 1908, a few miles east of Las Cruces.
“There is a lot more value in discovering who killed Pat Garrett,” said New Mexico author Don Bullis, who has written nine books about New Mexico history. “I don’t think there is a real serious question that Billy was killed by Pat Garrett. We’ve been arguing about it since 1881, and I just don’t see the point.”
The point is Billy himself and that a lot of people just don’t like the ending events dictated for him.
“He’s just such an international figure, one of the great historical characters in American history,” said Paul Hutton, distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico.
Hutton was the guest curator of “Dreamscape Desperado: Billy the Kid and the Outlaw in America,” a 2007 exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History.
“There’s a never-ending interest in him, steeped in so much romance, mystery and derring-do,” Hutton told me this week. “People just can’t resist him. Sixty movies can’t be wrong.”
Actually, according to Santa Fe writer Johnny D. Boggs, author of “Billy the Kid on Film: 1911-2012” (McFarland and Co., 2013), there are more like 75 movies about the Kid if you counts flicks such as “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.”
In some of those movies – 1930’s “Billy the Kid” and 1990’s “Young Guns II” – Billy eludes death in Fort Sumner and rides off to live another day. “Young Guns II” suggests Billy lives into old age as Brushy Bill Roberts of Hico, Texas, an actual person who claimed in 1949 that he was the Kid.
Boggs, former president of the Western Writers of America and a six-time winner of the WWA’s Spur Award for excellence in writing about the West, thinks it is people’s love of conspiracy theories and not movies with happy endings that perpetuate the notion that the Kid dodged Garrett’s bullet.
“They just don’t want these people to die,” Boggs said. “It’s not just Billy. It’s Jesse James, John Wilkes Booth, Elvis. And getting a death certificate for Billy is not going to stop anything. You can never convince a conspiracy theorist there is no conspiracy.”
Boggs conceded that “Young Guns II” may have fanned the flames of the Brushy Bill saga, exposing younger people to a story they might not have heard before seeing the movie. And then there’s John Miller, another Billy the Kid claimant who ranched in western New Mexico before moving to Arizona and dying there in a Prescott retirement home in 1937.
In 2003, lawmen in Lincoln and De Baca counties launched an investigation into the death of Billy the Kid, seeking to dig up the Kid in Fort Sumner, his mother in Silver City, Brushy Bill in Texas and Miller in Arizona in attempts to obtain DNA evidence. The investigation, supported by then-Gov. Bill Richardson, who viewed it as a boost to New Mexico tourism, went badly. All the exhumations were blocked by courts or local officials except for that of Miller. Two skeletons were unearthed in the Miller dig, but all that came out of that were threats of criminal charges against the “grave robbers.”
And now Robert J. Stahl, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University’s school of education and an Old West enthusiast, is seeking a death certificate for Billy, primarily to call attention to an 1881 coroner’s report and the testimony of witnesses that it was the Kid that Garrett killed in Fort Sumner.
“I can’t believe all these people (who testified) were lying,” Stahl told me in a telephone interview. “It recognizes that they were saying the same thing and what they were saying loud and clear is that Billy was dead. I think (the death certificate) will help the people who aren’t sure. But those people who believe it’s a conspiracy, I don’t think it will change their minds.”
Which brings us back to Garrett. You want conspiracy theories? We’ve got that here.
The official version is that Garrett was shot and killed by Wayne Brazel, a cowboy involved in a leasing dispute with Garrett. Brazel said he shot Garrett in self-defense. He was tried and acquitted in a trial in which the only other known person at the scene of the shooting did not testify and the jury returned a verdict in 15 minutes.
Some historians, including UNM’s Hutton, believe Brazel was hired to stand trial in place of the actual assassin. The theory is that Garrett was killed because he breathed hot and heavy on some prominent necks during his investigation of the disappearance and presumed murders of Albert Jennings Fountain and his son Henry in the winter of 1896 in the White Sands. Fountain, a prosecutor for southern New Mexico livestock growers associations, had successfully obtained rustling indictments against a big-time rancher.
Hutton believes a hired killer named “Deacon Jim Miller” shot Garrett. Miller, by the way, was lynched in April 1909 in Ada, Okla., for shotgunning another ex-lawman.
Bullis, author of “Unsolved” (Rio Grande Books, 2014) which explores the deaths of Garrett and the Fountains and other New Mexico mysteries said Garrett was flat-out murdered.
“If there were some important political persons involved, we should probably find out about it,” he said. “But we probably never will, because Garrett was not well-liked.”
But a lot of people liked Billy. A lot of people still do. Death certificate or no death certificate, Billy’s not going to die.