Longform

THE KID IS ALL RIGHT

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.

"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."