FORT SUMNER – Tim Sweet first saw the photo about two years ago. A cousin of the owner of the 1870s-era tintype brought it into the Billy the Kid Museum in Fort Sumner.
“They asked me to look at it, didn’t tell me anything about it,” he recalled. “I looked at it 10 minutes, maybe longer, and said, ‘If that’s what I think it is, somebody’s going to be rich.’ ”
Sweet, whose family has owned the Kid museum since 1952, said he recognized four people in the photo – the outlaw Billy Bonney, and friends Tom O’Folliard, Charlie Bowdre and Sallie Chisum.
If it’s real, it’s only the second known photo of the young gunslinger and cattle thief who was killed by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881.
The National Geographic Channel last week aired a two-hour special on the photo, narrated by Kevin Costner. The documentary told the story of how Randy Guijarro of Clovis, Calif., purchased the photo from a Fresno County, Calif., antique shop in 2010 and set about trying to prove that those depicted include Bonney and his gang, the Regulators.
It concluded with Kagin’s auction house in Tiburon, Calif., claiming to have authenticated it and insuring it for $5 million.
An undisputed Kid photo, believed to have been taken in Fort Sumner, sold for $2.3 million in 2011. That photo was printed in a book Garrett wrote in 1882, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Despite the documentary’s findings, skeptics abound regarding the latest photo, purportedly taken near Ruidoso on a ranch owned by John Tunstall, who employed the Kid.
Marcelle Brothers, a Kid historian who operates the website aboutbillythekid.com, said she doubts the building in the photo could have existed on Tunstall’s ranch when the photo was supposedly taken in 1878.
Tunstall lived in a dugout, she said, and the only other structure on the ranch was a small adobe building.
The “facial recognition” computer software shown in the documentary was little more than “morphing” one face onto another, she said.
“There is a website online where you can take two photos and morph them together so they become one,” she said.
The documentary also failed to show exactly what the computer was analyzing, she said in a telephone interview from her home near Los Angeles.
In a Facebook post, she also noted that, while the Kid and the Regulators were in the Ruidoso area when the photo was allegedly taken, they were running for their lives.
The idea they would pose for a photo while playing croquet, without weapons, when they would have been targeted for ambush “makes no sense,” she wrote.
Multiple other Old West historians have also disputed that the photo depicts Bonney.
But Fort Sumner’s Sweet is convinced.
He’s displayed a blown-up version of the croquet photo in his museum since February 2014.
“My opinion is it’s the real deal,” he said.
“Those facial recognition points, I think, are pretty convincing.”
But even if the photo is ultimately discredited, Sweet and Fort Sumner will benefit because the Kid is back in the news.