THE KID IS ALRIGHT
THE REMAINS OF Billy the Kid were assembled recently, for purposes of a postmortem. The Kid, a long-dead horse thief, gunman and ladies' man, still can draw a crowd, and the remains, in this case, were not your typical forensic mess of gristle and bone, but the crowd itself, as well as a few surviving artifacts. Three weeks ago, about 60 hard-core Billy the Kid fans came to Billy country--central New Mexico, around Ruidoso and Lincoln--to talk about their hero. "In the Days of Billy the Kid: Violence and the Western Frontier" was the title given to the symposium, the first ever such Billyfest at which hokey gunfight re-creations were not the whole point. Instead of dress-up gunfighters, the participants were a mixture of scholarly academicians, amateur Old West buffs and a few Kid kin. The artifacts included some letters and a tiny brown photograph made on tin. Also much discussed were many works of commercial art, including dozens of books about the Kid and almost 50 Hollywood movies. The groups sponsoring this event were the Lincoln County Heritage Trust, a nonprofit outfit dedicated to preserving the Kid's old stomping grounds in and around Lincoln, New Mexico; and the Recursos de Santa Fe, a group that assembles educational travel packages. A motel in the tourist town of Ruidoso was the site for most of the meetings, but field trips--including one coccyx-rattling 16-hour bus ride--scattered Billy believers far and wide. For five days, Kid scholars from around the world were grilled by semipro Kid buffs in an almost unholy melding of the academic and secular worlds. A handwriting analyst explained the Kid's loops and strokes. College profs chewed on the meaning of the unwritten Code of the West of 1880--and how it relates to the unwritten "wimp factor" of a certain latter-day Texas Ranger. Weekend-warrior geneology researchers dropped bombshells of information culled from dusty books in basements. Participants peered for hours at the only for-sure photograph of Billy, a defiant, cockeyed pose captured in a hurry, likely outside a bar somewhere. News was made by a researcher from North Carolina, who shook the Billy world with the discovery that the Kid had family ties in New Mexico. Until that revelation, noboby knew exactly why the Kid migrated to the Lincoln area back in the 1870s to continue his life of crime and meet his eventual death. Also, results of a high-tech photography project were announced, and holders of all but one of the many photographs purported to be of the young Billy the Kid came away disappointed. In the banquet room, historian and author Robert Utley rose to offer up the symposium's keynote address. The message scrawled on the blackboard behind Utley summed up the weekend quite well. "Billy is alive," it said.
ACTUALLY, THE chalkboard said more. Someone already had edited "Elvis" and "JFK" into the pantheon of legendary gunslingers, pop singers and romantic poets who died too young. Though many of the symposium participants were dead serious about chasing Billy the Kid, there was a wild element to the crowd. After all, the symposium's subject was not a world-class historical figure, such as a Caesar or a Pharaoh or even a prime minister. He was a hell-raising cowboy adolescent, a good kid gone wrong, a screenwriter's dream. A great American archetype, in other words. Around the world today, Billy is America personified, a brazen cowboy who shoots first and asks questions eventually. America's image as a young, reckless country is personified to the world by cowboys, and the personification of "cowboy" is Billy the Kid.
But others see the wild boy we idolize as a juvenile delinquent. Frederick Nolan, a writer, researcher and Billy expert, came to the symposium from his native London. He put our Wild West heritage into the perfect world-view perspective. "In England," he said, "a cowboy is someone who comes to fix your tap and ends up wrecking your car."
But who cares about the world view? A little bit of Billy sleeps within all the citizens of a country whose leaders endorse an Oliver North or who still draw lines in sand. John Wayne is not best remembered for his work in detective movies. Ronald Reagan did not make a transition to politics straight out of the movies he made with chimps, but instead came to his leadership role from a job as host of Death Valley Days, a TV anthology of Old West stories. You still see Billy the Kid all over, in the faces of guitar players, fighter pilots and urban gangsters. Billy the Kid would approve of the current status of American handgun laws. We are all sons and daughters of Billy the Kid. "In the folklore of the nation," said Robert Utley, during his keynote speech, "Billy the Kid is a figure of towering significance."
The Billy the Kid of legend was a rebel, a lifelong opponent of constituted authority, a rugged individualist "who could not or would not conform," Utley said. He was the product of a particularly lawless time in American society, when the corruption of seemingly all public works--from Grant's White House to the bosses of New Mexico's Lincoln County--was endemic. Billy was capable of lethal, mostly remorseless violence, as were most of his fellow citizens. During his lifetime, the Kid's exploits were well known and often celebrated around the New Mexico territory. He was a living folk hero--at least a bit of a hero to the folks who knew him or knew of him, and he was often kept from danger by friends--often friends of Spanish descent. In death he has grown exponentially larger. BILLY ESCAPED from jail several times. His last break came in 1881, in Lincoln. He was hiding out in Fort Sumner, 100 miles away, when he was accidentally discovered by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett, who had been tracking the Kid for months. They met in a dark room at about midnight. Billy never got a shot off.
His demise was celebrated, not mourned, in most of the early newspaper accounts of that event. Stories about the fatal confrontation, and retellings of Billy's own exploits with a six-gun, were reprinted in newspapers around the world. One of the local publications, the Santa Fe Weekly Democrat, captured the prevailing mood of polite society with this bit of prose, which ran a few days after Garrett's surprise attack at Fort Sumner: "No sooner had the floor caught the descending form, which had a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other, than there was a strong odor of brimstone in the air and a dark figure with the wings of a dragon, claws like a tiger, eyes like balls of fire and horns like a bison, hovered over the corpse for a moment and with a fiendish laugh said, `Ha, Ha! This is my meat!' and then sailed off through the window."
From demonic hellion, Billy's image has gradually evolved into something more angelic. Although the Billy legend began to flower immediately after his killing, the Kid spent the first phase of his afterlife as a bad guy. His image would not be rehabilitated until the times were right for the ascension of dark heroes.
By the middle part of this century, most of the popular Western-movie actors had had a chance to portray the Kid, including the decidedly nondemonic Roy Rogers and Buster Crabbe. By the 1950s and 1960s, Billy the Kid had become something of the hip antihero, a badly misunderstood, injustice-fighting hombre, the kind of guy that Kris Kristofferson, Paul Newman or Marlon Brando were likely to portray. The supernatural juvenile delinquent had become a sympathetic character, fodder for such Hollywood scramblings as The Left-Handed Gun, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Young Guns. Billy is one American hero who can be everything to everyone--and has been. The true facts of Billy's life, as presented at the symposium, show a boy well removed from the legend, a fact which does not devalue the importance of the legendary Billy one bit. "What people have agreed to believe about the facts," said Leon Metz, one of the symposium's faculty, "is as interesting as the facts themselves."
IT IS NOT FOR nothing that so much action in Hollywood Westerns is set in saloons. The citizens of the Old West drank often and drank hard. Then they would shoot one another. This is a problem for historians, one of many problems in assembling data from the era. Memories and accounts of the Old West were formed at a time when everybody was either roaring drunk, or sober but terrified that some drunk was going to start shooting at any minute. Alcohol-fueled horror--not a good atmosphere for accurate anecdote formation. Though historians place much faith in their tools--letters, documents, written or tape-recorded interviews with participants or friends and relatives of the participants, and ancient newspaper accounts of events of the day--doubt begins to creep in every time the reader is reminded of the booze 'n' buckshot context. On the topic of the Old West, historian Robert Utley's books are as close as the reader can get to gospel. His works include an analysis of the Lincoln County War (an extended shooting match between hired guns--the Kid among them--working for rival merchants in Lincoln, New Mexico), the life and times of George Armstrong Custer and, of course, the brilliant Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life, considered the current state of the art in Billy bios. It was not always so easy for would-be Billy followers to get at the Billy truth. The Kid's story has been told dozens of times, in degrees of accuracy tapering downward from Utley through Walter Noble Burns (The Saga of Billy the Kid, 1930) to Pat Garrett's ghostwritten book, published only a year after the sheriff killed the Kid in a dark bedroom in old Fort Sumner. Garrett's title says a lot: The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, the Noted Desperado of the Southwest, Whose Deeds of Daring and Blood Have Made His Name a Terror in New Mexico, Arizona and Northern Mexico. The Billy bibliography is rife with references to his beginnings, none particularly documentable. Typical of such guesstimates is Garrett's claim that Billy was born in New York City. He even claims to know Billy's birthday. That the birthday is the same as the birthday of Garrett's ghostwriter--a rambling journalist, printer, postmaster and drinker named Ashmun Upson--probably speaks to its authenticity. We do know that Billy the Kid, who used the surnames Bonney, Antrim and McCarty during his short and violent life, first appeared to history on March 1, 1873. Not yet a teenager, he was recorded as a witness to his mother's marriage in Santa Fe. His mom died the next year, and Billy was orphaned. From 1873 Santa Fe, Billy has been traced to Silver City, New Mexico, then to the eastern Arizona mining area for a stay of about two years, then to New Mexico's war-torn Lincoln County, then back and forth to the Texas panhandle, then to his final blind date with flying lead in Fort Sumner. Along the way he rustled cattle, shot and killed several people (though almost certainly not the legendary figure of 21 men--one for every year of his life), repeatedly escaped certain death, sang and danced (his favorite song: "Turkey in the Straw"), and romanced numerous women.
Until almost the very end of his life, he wasn't known as "Billy the Kid," but just "Kid." In the Lincoln County War, he fought on the side fighting injustice, yet he casually rustled cattle as if they were wildflowers. He was about five-foot-seven, right-handed, quite literate, a natty dresser, a cheerful scamp and/or a cold-hearted assassin, depending on which of the experts you're reading at the time. FOR THE MOST PART, the men who've written the books on Billy the Kid and his time are not young ones. Few of the historians/panelists at the Kid symposium appeared to be younger than 60. The Billy elders include, along with Utley, Leon Metz of El Paso, who has made Pat Garrett his specialty; and Frederick Nolan, an Englishman who has been working for years on the definitive text about the Lincoln County War (which will be published this fall). Among the next generation is Jerry Weddle, a 34-year-old researcher from Tucson. Weddle, who got hooked on the Billy story after seeing Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid at age 16, has spent the past five years sifting through Billy evidence and is considered the premier authority on the Kid's two-year Arizona interlude. He spoke to the audience about research he had done into photographs that were at one time believed to be of the Kid. "There are no mysteries in this business," said Weddle, "only facts we haven't learned yet, or information we haven't found. It's getting harder. We're at the end of another century, and the story is already over a hundred years old." As time advances, descendants of the participants in Billy-era events become less reliable as sources. Still, they exist, and must be mined for old letters, photographs and dim memories. This is one of Weddle's specialties. "There's been a lot of exploitation," he said. "People who enjoy Billy the Kid will take everything that comes into their path. The descendants are still here, in Lincoln, in Fort Sumner, but they're sick and tired of it and they don't always cooperate. It's a lot of work for a serious researcher to get on their good side. It takes awhile to earn their trust, but if you're patient enough to earn it, then you're the one who deserves it." WEDDLE, WHO'S neither a college professor nor a full-time writer-researcher, straddles the boundary between expert and buff--the category of Billyphile who has graduated from reading books about the Kid to maybe thinking about writing one of his own. According to the experts, part-time researchers play a key role in opening up the history of the American West. "I think the buffs are vitally important to the field of Western history," said Utley, dean of Billy professionals. "They are willing to invest the time and effort digging out grubby little details that don't make all that much difference in the overall scheme of things. I am not willing to spend the rest of my life trying to find out where Billy the Kid was born. I would be delighted to know, but I'm sure not going to pore through census records and church records and baptismal records to find out. Yet there are buffs for whom this is their life's passion. Bless 'em. They are essential."
One such essential buff, granted panelist status during the symposium weekend, was Herman Weisner, a self-described "hillbilly from North Carolina," who has been tracking Billy's roots for several decades. Many of the prof types who lectured wore neckties and suit coats. Weisner wore a ball cap and retiree-style coveralls, and delivered one of the symposium's few bombshells. Weisner had come across some records he believed linked Billy by family to the Lincoln area. This was a fine revelation, humbly delivered, and caused some eyebrow flapping among the crowd. Before Weisner, nobody knew what motivated the Kid to come to New Mexico after leaving Arizona. Weisner believes he had family in the area, that one of Billy's running buddies in Lincoln County, Yginio Salazar, was actually the Kid's first cousin. Weisner also revealed some research that may place the Kid's family roots in Missouri--the first real inkling anyone has had of where the young Bill Antrim, McCarty or Bonney spent his childhood. Last, Weisner revealed research that questions Billy's age at the time of his death, long accepted to be 21. The old hillbilly believes the Kid died younger, perhaps as young as 18 or 19. MOST BILLY BUFFS are less rabid than Weisner, perhaps for good reason. Near the end of his talk to the symposium, Weisner said that he suffers from lung damage which he believes was caused by spending too much time breathing old dust from historic documents. And most of the symposium audience comprised buffs below the Weisner/Weddle degree of commitment. Among others present were an El Paso judge, the chair of a university English department, several retired gents, an auto-parts retailer, a few journalists, a zoo administrator and a cartoonist for a free weekly newspaper in Phoenix. Alex Macias, at age 19 the youngest buff present, first got interested about two years ago. "I got tired of hearing stories that he was a killer," said Macias. "Then you'd hear other stories about how sensitive he was. I decided to find out for myself."
Macias brought his girlfriend along to the symposium, just to be sure he'd have someone to talk to. "I felt pretty funny walking in," said Macias, a sophomore at the University of Texas-El Paso. "I walked in and saw the gray-haired people and they all just looked at me, like, `Does he have a name tag?'"
Jim Armour is a thirtyish pathologist from the Orlando, Florida, area who's never been to Disney World. He came to Billy through an early interest in the Civil War. Armour, who said he'd read most of the important Billy books, kept careful notes throughout the weekend. "When I look at a slide, I think, `This may be a certain type of cancer. Why do I think it? Do I have enough here to call it that? What else could it be?' Looking at Billy the Kid, you have to think, `Is he a hero? Is he a villain? Is he somewhere in between? Where in between is he?'"
Ann C. Hamilton rode the bus for four days from her home in Massachusetts to be near Billy. "I had Billy the Kid curtains when I was little, in my bedroom," said Hamilton, whose husband stayed home to watch the kids. "Living in Massachusetts, there's nobody to talk to about Billy. That's why I came here. Even my husband, he'll listen, but he doesn't know enough about it to get into a good discussion. "I get a lot of flak from some people. They say, `Ha, ha, you've got a crush on Billy the Kid.' It's not like that. I can't even explain what it's like. To this day I think he needs to be defended."
Dick George, director of public relations for Phoenix Zoo, is an avid semibuff and served as unofficial photographer for symposium events. Bob Boze Bell, KSLX morning deejay and New Times cartoonist, was another member of the small Arizona contingent at the symposium. (See related cartoon, page 31.)
"This is so cool," said Bell, giddy even before the first session had begun. "I was talking to a guy over there. `I tried to buy land in Lincoln,' I said. `Me, too,' he said. `My wife hates it,' I said. `Mine too,' he said." Said one lifelong student of the Kid, up from El Paso for the weekend: "I thought I was into it, but shit, compared with these people I'm a short hitter."
AS ONE MIGHT expect, hard evidence of Billy the Kid's presence on Earth is pretty dear stuff to buff and expert alike. A hefty percentage of the symposium was devoted to extended examination of such artifacts. Maureen Owens, a handwriting analyst for the Chicago Police Department, was given some known samples of Billy's handwriting. These included a bill of sale for a horse (long considered the most reliable sample of Billy's hand) and several letters, all signed by William Bonney and thought to be genuine. Owens concluded that not all the letters were written by the same guy, however, causing considerable gab over lunch. Letters written by Bonney from jail cells in Fort Sumner and Santa Fe differed considerably from the penmanship in the other letters and the bill of sale. Who, if not Billy, wrote those jail-house letters? Or was it indeed Billy, writing while shackled? Multiple theories filled the air. The most spectacular presentations of the seminar centered on the only known photograph of Billy. In the months preceding the symposium, the sponsoring Lincoln County Heritage Trust commissioned a Billy the Kid Photographic Research Project. One of the original motivations for calling the symposium was to release findings of the photograph project. Among the experts enlisted in the project were a physicist from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a photograph conservator from the George Eastman House/International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York, and a computer-analysis expert from the University of Illinois-Chicago. The group was headed by Clyde Snow, who has done forensic investigations of the John F. Kennedy assassination, Nazi corpses in South America, General Custer and others. This project's key revelation had to do with the dozens of supposed Kid photographs floating around the Southwest. Some of these show the Kid as a curly-haired child; others purport to show the Kid as a toothless old man (a small but pesky faction of Billy buffs believes he survived Garrett's ambush in Fort Sumner). Computer analysis of the photographs showed none to quite match the face on the tintype, which has long been held to be the legit Billy. So the dominant image of Billy the Kid remains a crude, two- by three-inch photograph, likely taken in the street and developed in a tent. His jaw is slack in the photograph, his mouth open, his shoulders sloped. His clothes are baggy and his hat is a wreck. It is an unlikely icon. Said one female Billy buff: "I hope to God he didn't really look like that."
THE COMBATANTS of the Lincoln County War fought for control of the area's economic future. That future, more than 100 years later, has yet to arrive. Among the hard evidence of Billy the Kid's life are the actual towns of Lincoln and Fort Sumner--Billy country. There, key segments of the Lincoln County War were fought. There, Billy staged a spectacular jailbreak. There, he slept, ate, got shot and was buried. Symposium participants toured Lincoln and Fort Sumner, as well as other locations key to the saga. Rustic Lincoln, located in the green Capitan Mountains, is the true capital of Kid Land. At night, and even during some hours of the day, Lincoln appears unchanged from its 1880s nonsplendor. There are neither gas stations nor fast-food joints in Lincoln. There is no pay telephone. A small furor arose when a shop owner recently erected a small wooden "Eatery" shingle and began to peddle microwave hot dogs. When the eatery closes in mid-afternoon, Lincoln's entire hospitality industry consists of one pop machine.
Fort Sumner, located on the bleak high plains north and east of the Capitans, Lincoln and Ruidoso, is where Billy died. The old fort, built to oversee forcefully relocated Navajos and Apaches, was already obsolete by the time Billy made his last visit. The Kid's gravestone rests beside a museum/curio shop a few hundred feet from the site of his killing, a dwelling long ago washed away by the Pecos River. Some say the river erased the last of Billy, too, when floodwater swamped the Fort Sumner graveyard back before the turn of the century. The Pecos feeds into the Rio Grande. The Rio Grande feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. "So," muses one clear-eyed Billyphile, "there's a good chance that Billy's particles are floating out in the Caribbean."
ONE OF THE STARS of recent Lincoln festivals has been a young man who migrated to the area in the late 1980s. The Billyphiles gathered in Ruidoso swapped stories about him throughout their weekend. He is, they say, a dead ringer for the Kid. They say he cultivates the Billy "look," that he has studied the fabled tintype long and hard. Indeed, he regularly wins look-alike contests and generally startles the pants off anyone even slightly familiar with the real Kid's appearance. Until catching the Billy bug, he was a blond tennis enthusiast residing in Florida. This is not a new act. A small army of men have claimed over the years that they were Billy the Kid. The best publicized of these lived into the middle years of this century. He is buried in Texas, where a mob of advocates attempts to keep his crazy story alive. Two different national television news shows have given credence to these characters in the past couple of years. Worse yet, Young Guns II floats the possibility that Billy survived to become an adult, a twist of fate no doubt motivated by the inevitability of a Young Guns III.
No serious gathering of Billy people could be held without considerable scornful discussion of the boom industry in Kid surrogates. On one hand, any Billy talk--no matter how wacky--sells the serious researchers' books. On the other hand, serious researchers waste a lot of time trying to disprove the various ersatz Billys through history. "You find this in any subject in which the popular culture has imbibed," said Robert Utley. "I think Americans are unusually susceptible or attracted by conspiracy and cover-up. You see these bumper stickers: `Shit happens.' And it's true. Most things just happen, they are not contrived under the table by a conspiracy of people getting together to conceal from the world what they know.
"It's irritating and frustrating at times . . . but this whole business about a surrogate Billy running around, to me, it's just for funzy.
"The surviving evidence is credible and persuasive. Nobody has been able to come up with a shred of creditable evidence that would undermine the version I have written."
THROUGHOUT THE symposium, the published Kid scholars--Utley included--repeatedly called for someone to write a book exploring the Kid's Hispanic connections. Here, they said, is an area in which further creditable evidence might be mined. And in light of Herman Weisner's research, a peek down that shaft begins to make a lot of sense. Many of Billy the Kid's friends in Lincoln and Fort Sumner were Hispanic. He was a renowned ladies' man among the womenfolk of that community. His last words, in fact, were uttered in Spanish. "Quien es?" he said in the dark bedroom in Fort Sumner. "Who is it?"
"A lot of our organizations have been Anglo-oriented," said Bob Hart, director of the Lincoln County Heritage Trust. "The Hispanics are the people Billy the Kid felt safe with. Those families would be ideal subjects for future research. "The Hispanic community probably has watched all these silly Anglos running around, getting excited about all this stuff, when they know all the answers. In their time, at their pace, those answers will come forward."
Joe Salazar came forward for one day of the symposium, primarily to hear Herman Weisner's talk. Salazar's family has been saying for years that Billy had family in the area, and that they were it. Joe's grandpa, Yginio Salazar, was about the same age as Billy the Kid during the time he and Billy were friends (and, now, maybe cousins). Yginio was shot during one particularly hairy episode of the Lincoln County War, as he and Billy escaped from a burning house with guns blazing, but he survived and lived to be an old man.
Born and raised in Lincoln, Joe Salazar took off almost as soon as he could. He served in the Navy for a while, lived in California but moved back to town in 1976. He lives in his grandfather's house, on a ranch a couple of miles outside of Lincoln. There have been times when Joe Salazar has walked into his grandfather's living room to find a search party of Billy buffs making themselves at home. "Maybe they think it's a museum," he said. "Some Billy the Kid fans are at the point of being sick, you know," said Joe, who ranches and performs with a country band in area roadhouses. "It's kind of a problem to screen some of them.
"When I was a kid in school, Billy the Kid was about all I heard. There was a point when I was sick of hearing it. Now it means a lot more to me."
Perhaps someday Salazar will collaborate on a book about Billy's Hispanic roots, and commit to print some of the Salazar family theories. If so, Billy traditionalists are not going to like all of what they read. Salazar, separated from the real Billy the Kid by just one generation (Joe's mom--Yginio's daughter--still lives on the family ranch), isn't all that sure that the Kid is buried at Fort Sumner. Neither is he certain that Pat Garrett killed Billy in Pete Maxwell's house in 1881. He even questions the tintype. The Salazars have said for years that the guy in the photograph might not be Billy the Kid. "The people that really loved Billy, and I think a majority of 'em did, they didn't want him to die in Fort Sumner," said Joe Salazar. "Nobody wants their heroes to die, you know."
The message scrawled on the blackboard summed up the weekend quite well. "Billy is alive," it said.
He was a hell-raising cowboy adolescent, a good kid gone wrong, a screenwriter's dream. A great American archetype, in other words. "In the folklore of the nation, Billy the Kid is a figure of towering significance."
From demonic hellion, Billy's image has gradually evolved into something more angelic.
He rustled cattle, shot and killed several people, repeatedly escaped certain death, sang and danced, and romanced numerous women.
"Living in Massachusetts, there's nobody to talk to about Billy. That's why I came here." Billy the Kid's last words were uttered in Spanish. "Quien es?" he said in the dark bedroom in Fort Sumner. "Who is it?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Phoenix New Times Seeks News Freelancers
- The Grand Canyon Has an Alarming Amount of Mercury and Selenium
- Top 10 Wacky Right-Wing Beliefs in Phoenix