“He did look human, indeed, but there was nothing very mannish about him in his appearance, for he looked and acted a mere boy. He is about 5 feet eight or nine inches tall, slightly built and lithe, weighing about 140; a frank and open countenance, looking like a school boy, with the traditional silky fuzz on his upper lip and clear blue eyes with a roguish snap about them… he is, in all, quite a handsome fellow….”
This was one newspaper reporter’s impression of the appearance of William Bonney, alias “Billy the Kid” who was killed on today’s date, July 14 in 1881. One can see some of those features in the photo above (taken by a traveling photographer at Fort Sumner in early 1880 and the only documented photo of the Kid known to exist). But his lover Paulita Maxwell didn’t think it was a good picture. But once again the correct view of the young man depended on who the viewer was. To the lawmen on the New Mexico Territory he was a vicious killer. But to the Mexican-American community in the area he was a kind of “Robin Hood”.
The Kid and Pat Garret
When we last saw the Kid he was galloping away (and singing a song) from the Lincoln County Courthouse wherein he had just shot his two guards, James Bell and Bob Ollinger. The man who had put Billy in jail to begin with was Pat Garret (below). This was a man who cut quite a commanding presence wherever he went, standing six feet tall at a time
when most men were five feet. Women found him attractive and men took notice of him too. He was a man who felt that he was destined for bigger things than work as a cowhand, or a barkeep as he had been doing up until then. Well Garret managed to make the right connections to get elected Sheriff of Lincoln County in November of 1880. It was Garret’s prison from which Billy had escaped, and now this youngster had been dubbed “Billy the Kid”. Garret wanted the fame that would naturally go to the man who shot Billy the Kid, and he was determined to get it.
Publicity About the Kid Explodes, Where Was He?
Ever since the Las Vegas Gazette published its editorial wherein Billy was first named as “Billy the Kid”, publicity about his exploits had gone national. Papers in Chicago, New York, even London, as well everywhere in the U.S. were running increasingly lurid accounts of the Kid’s allegedly bloody exploits as well his daring escape from the Courthouse in Lincoln, and of Garret’s pursuit of him. And thanks to the telegraph news of his escape spread across the county almost
instantly. Where had the Kid gone? It would certainly have been wise for him to go to Old Mexico, as many friends urged him to do. “I told him to leave this place and go to Old Mexico.” said his old friend Yginio Salazar. But the Kid instead chose to linger around New Mexico. Why? There are those historians who believe that the reason he stuck around was to be near Fort Sumner, and the beautiful young lady Paulito Maxwell (above). Others say it was simply because Ft. Sumner was familiar, and comfortable to him, and filled with many friends and the pretty senoritas whom he had always courted.
Pat Garret Closes in on Billy the Kid
Whatever the case, the Kid certainly was keeping in or near Ft. Sumner. It had gotten to be nearly three months since Billy’s escape from the Lincoln Courthouse had put even more attention on the Kid, and more eyes upon Pat Garret to see what he would do to catch, or kill this mere 21 year old who had slipped away from him. Some began to think that
maybe Garret was afraid of going directly after the Kid. But Garrret was biding his time to get a fix on the Kid’s exact location. Garret got reports from various quarters. Some say the tips were from men such as Ft. Sumner rancher Manuel Brazil, and Texas officer John W. Poe, who was one of Garret’s deputies. And others say the tips were coming from Pete Maxwell, the older brother of Paulito Maxwell, who knew of her romantic link to the Kid, and strongly disapproved of it. This would certainly be given credence by the fact that it was at Pete Maxwell’s home in Ft. Sumner (above) where Garret showed up on today’s date in 1881 expecting to find the Kid.
Billy the Kid Finally Meets His Maker
So it was that on July 14 Garret met with Poe, and another deputy, Thomas McKinney, with the hope of finding the Kid at the Maxwell home. They stayed in the Peach Orchard outside hidden for a long time when they saw someone stand up in the orchard jump the picket fence and disappear from view. He was too far away for them to recognize, but it might have been the Kid. At around midnight the three men left the orchard and slowly stepped towards the house. Posting his deputies on the porch, Garret entered the house to ask Pete Maxwell of he had seen the Kid. Finding Maxwell in his bed, Garret sat on thee edge of the bed. Then someone entered the room. it was the Kid who had removed his boots and was in his stocking feet. He went out on the porch to get some meat from a deer stag hanging there. but he saw Garret’s deputies lurking in the dark. So he backed into the house. This is the way Garret described it later in his book:
“He came directly towards me. Before he reached the bed, I whispered: ‘Who is it, Pete?’ but received no reply for a moment. The intruder came close to me, leaned both hands on the bed, his right hand almost touching my knee, and asked, in a low tone: -‘Who are they Pete?’ -at the same instant Maxwell whispered to me. ‘That’s him!’ Simultaneously the Kid must have seen, or felt, the presence of a third person at the head of the bed. He raised quickly his pistol, a self-cocker, within a foot of my breast. Retreating rapidly across the room he cried: ‘Quien es? Quien es?’ ‘Who’s that? Who’s that?’) All this occurred in a moment. Quickly as possible I drew my revolver and fired, threw my body aside, and fired again. The second shot was useless; the Kid fell dead. He never spoke. A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasped for breath, and the Kid was with his many victims.”
The Legacy of Billy the Kid
News of the killing of the Kid quickly spread in national and world newspapers. And Garret eventually wrote his own account, “How I Killed Billy the Kid” – quoted above. And of course it can be assumed Garret’s account almost certainly embellished the details. When the Kid saw the figures on the porch, he likely backed in the front door making a perfect silhouette against the moonlit sky for Sheriff Garret to aim at. Then the Kid spoke in Spanish: “Quien es? Quien es?” Garret knew he had his man, and shot him without waiting. Whatever the details, Billy the Kid was dead. Most of the main players
in this story fell into obscurity in the years following this event. Garret had his temporary fame, but later fell into huge gambling debt. In 1908 he was shot and killed on a New Mexico desert road under circumstances for which nobody was ever convicted. The great interests who had wanted big profits from developing New Mexico, never realized their gains until New Mexico was granted statehood some thirty years later. By then James Dolan and Lawrence Murphy and “the House”” had fallen into bankruptcy and been forgotten. But the legendary name of
“Billy the Kid” and his exploits has lived on ever after…. immortalized in fiction and film.. leaving only that one grainy picture of him; almost smirking at the camera, with his pistol at the ready near his right hand, yet confidently balancing his rifle in his left. This is all we have to give us any clue to what and whom the Kid really was. Robin Hood or villain? We can only read and research and guess for ourselves.
“Billy the Kid – the Endless Ride” by Michael Wallis, W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 2007
“Billy the Kid – A Short and Violent Life” by Robert M. Utley, Univ. of Nebraska Press,
“Billy the Kid – the American Experience” Dir. by John Maggio, WGBH Boston, Public Broadcasting Stations, 2012
by William A. Keleher – Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, 2007