Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
The National Geographic Channel’s airing recently of a documentary about a newly discovered photo, ostensibly showing the famed outlaw Billy the Kid playing croquet at a wedding in 1878, has spawned numerous similar claims, including one by a North Carolina attorney who was in New Mexico recently hoping to authenticate his find.
Frank A. Abrams believes that a 3¼-by-3-inch tintype he bought at Smiley’s Flea Market in Fletcher, N.C., in 2011 might depict both Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, the sheriff who killed the notorious outlaw in Fort Sumner on July 14, 1881.
Abrams said he believes the photo of five seated cowboys was taken Jan. 14, 1880, at the dual wedding of Pat Garrett to Apolinaria Gutierrez and Barney Mason to Juana Madril. Mason, who once rustled cattle with Billy the Kid, could be the man in the center of the photo, Abrams said.
“If I’m right, this will be the only known picture of Billy the Kid with Pat Garrett,” Abrams said last month in Albuquerque.
Though Abrams says he’s not “advocating a position” on the authenticity of the photo, he spent 10 days traveling to historic New Mexico sites linked to the Kid and Pat Garrett, and meeting with people familiar with the duo’s history. He said he’s now searching out “experts” in photo recognition in hopes of proving his theory.
A trio of renowned Old West historians, however, say Abrams has a daunting task ahead.
“Provenance is the key in these situations, and that is usually difficult to establish,” said Paul Hutton, distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico.
“I have received at least a dozen queries from folks who believe they have Billy photos since the Nat Geo special aired,” Hutton said, “and a handful of Jesse Jameses.”
The documentary, first aired Oct. 18, follows Clovis, Calif., collector Randy Guijarro’s efforts to authenticate a photo he bought for $2 at a Fresno County memorabilia shop in 2010. Guijarro believes the photo shows Billy the Kid playing croquet with other “Regulators” from the Lincoln County War, ostensibly at a wedding.
Kagin’s Inc., a company with expertise in Western Americana and rare coins in Tiburon, Calif., says the photograph is authentic and has insured it for $5 million.
It’s widely accepted among historians that only one authenticated photo of Billy the Kid exists and billionaire businessman William Koch bought it for $2.3 million at a Denver auction in 2011. It’s the famous photo of the Kid – also known as Henry McCarty and William H. Bonney – posing awkwardly with a rifle at his side.
“The great thing about the real Billy photo that was sold to Bill Koch is that it was held in the same family from the day it was taken,” Hutton said. “Even moreso, we know it’s the real photo because Pat Garrett had one as well and he used it in his book published the next year. So there’s just no question about (the authenticity of) that photo.”
“That’s the kind of rock-solid provenance that makes a photo credible,” Hutton said. So far, that’s an element Abrams’ tintype lacks.
“Abrams has a very interesting photograph, but only as a historic photograph of cowboys,” he said.
“The character that he identifies as Pat Garrett, I think, does have a strong resemblance to the one photograph we have of Pat Garrett when he was young,” Hutton said. “Otherwise, I don’t see any resemblance in any of the others in the photograph, and I certainly don’t see any resemblance to the character he says is Billy – but then, I’m no photography expert.”
Abrams said he understands the importance of establishing the photo’s origin.
“My trip (to New Mexico) is to meet with experts and determine whether or not this photo contains the individuals I believe it does,” Abrams said.
“I assume it’s a process where you get enough people who have credibility to do the necessary scientific analysis, and that’s what we’re going to be doing,” he said, noting that Kagin’s Inc. has shown interest in having its experts analyze his photo.
In the meantime, Abrams is touting several computer-generated facial comparisons done between his photo and authenticated photos of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett – comparisons he says support his belief that both are in his tintype.
Historian Robert J. Stahl, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Arizona State University, said there’s little scientific evidence available to prove or disprove Abrams’ contentions about his photo – other than the fact that tintypes were in use from the 1850s through the 1880s.
“If there’s nothing on the photo itself with any kind of date, you’re left with guessing at the date” on which the photo was taken, he said.
Stahl has plenty of doubts about Abrams’ photo.
“I can’t imagine a time that Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid would have been in the same picture at all,” Stahl said. “What he (Abrams) is trying to do is figure out a time and place where that could have happened.”
“When I look at that photo, I have a hard time seeing Billy the Kid and I have a hard time seeing Pat Garrett,” he said.
“Pat Garrett was 6 foot, 5 inches tall,” Stahl noted. “… You can see in the picture that his feet (the man Abrams thinks is Garrett) are about the same size as the other guys, who appear relatively short. You don’t see three guys who were 6 feet 5 sitting in the front row.”
Stahl was quick to point out that, even with current technologies, the best the experts can offer is a quantitative opinion as to whether its probable – or improbable – that a specific individual is in a photo.
He said the experts cited in the National Geographic documentary on Guijarro’s croquet photo determined that there was an 80.1 percent likelihood that the photo depicts Billy the Kid.
“But if I’m going to spend a million dollars to buy that photograph, my notion is that I want a higher than 80 percent comparison,” Stahl said. “More like 95 to 99 percent.”
Even if a consensus is reached on the Abrams photo, he said, “That doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the person. It’s not majority rules; there has to be a scientific process.”
At best, Stahl said, “Frank (Abrams) has probably got a photograph of five cowboys, one of whom is probably a Mexican (second from left) because of his dark skin. But that’s about all we can say until the scientific facial comparison data are in.”
Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of True West magazine, said he’s skeptical not only of Abrams’ tintype, but also of the use of facial recognition technology to “authenticate” old photos.
Bell said Abrams showed him the photo earlier this month.
“I’m a skeptic by nature and profession,” Bell said by phone from his office in Cave Creek, Ariz. “I’ve looked at probably 50 of these photos in the past 16 years since I’ve been editor and they basically have two things in common: They’ve all used facial recognition software; and they’ve all made a match.
“That has certainly given me pause about facial recognition as being scientific, because, ultimately, it’s kind of a parlor trick. If they all match, they can’t all be right.”
“It’s a great photo,” Bell said of Abrams’ tintype. “These are some rough old birds – the cigars and the gun. I love the photo just because it’s so cool. But I don’t think it’s Billy the Kid.”
Ever since William Koch paid $2.3 million for the only authenticated photo of the Kid, Bell said there’s been a deluge of people claiming to have historic photos.
“People have been coming out of the woodwork” with alleged photos of the Kid, the James Gang, Wyatt Earp and other historic Old West figures, Bell said. “Because they smelled a payday.”
Abrams said that doesn’t apply to him.
“I’m not hunting money. I’m an attorney for gosh sake. I’m doing all right for myself,” he said.
If his tintype eventually proves to be valuable, what will Abrams do? “I’ll make that determination when the time comes,” he said
“This is obviously something that would belong in a museum … . It is so incredible to have a picture of these cowboys, of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, assuming that it is. This would be an American treasure,” he said.