The outlaw Billy the Kid is arguably the most famous western bad man in the world. He is well known to Americans and is a popular figure in Europe. His real and alleged exploits have been the subject of over 800 books, thousands of articles, and at least one dozen films. But few know the truth about Billy the Kid.
Most of what is accepted as common knowledge about the Kid comes from one principal source: Sheriff Pat Garrett. Garrett is credited for shooting the Kid in the dark of night at Fort Sumner, New Mexico on July 14, 1881. Shortly thereafter, Garrett released a book titled The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. The book has since been exposed and denounced as filled with made-up events and outright lies. The truth is, Garrett wanted the outlaw to look formidable so that he, Garrett, would come across to the American public as a hero for killing him. But Garrett was a known liar who was obsessed with his image, and he aspired to higher political office.
But the problem lingered: Garrett’s book, followed by dime novels featuring the outlaw, fixed the image of the Kid in the minds of Americans, an image that has little to do with the truth.
Another truth is that Garrett did not kill Billy the Kid at all. The sheriff shot and killed a young man who looked much like the Kid. Garrett did everything he could to remove or cover up the evidence of his mistake. Consider this. No photos exist of the man Garrett shot. In those days, a noted outlaw who was shot and killed was always photographed, most of the time alongside the man who shot him.
In addition, the corpse was buried soon after the shooting. Garrett couldn’t get the body in the ground fast enough. When the body was laid in the coffin, a newspaper man who was there wrote that the dead man was dark complexioned and had a beard. Billy the Kid was fair-haired and incapable of growing a beard. Furthermore, Garrett’s deputy, John Poe, informed the sheriff he had shot the wrong man.
There were three coroner’s reports written, one clearly dictated by Garrett. Others contained signatures of men who were not present. One man who was present at one of the coroner’s inquests claimed the body they were examining was not that of Billy the Kid.
If it became common knowledge that the dead man was not Billy the Kid, Garrett could have been charged with murder.
In 1948, an old man living in Hamilton County, Texas, was identified by a former veterans of the Lincoln County War was the outlaw, Billy the Kid. His name was William Henry Roberts. During his lifetime he used several aliases, including Bonney, McCarty, and Antrim, all names of relatives. Other men and women who had known the Kid came forth and likewise identified him, claiming they knew all along he had never been killed by Garrett.
Still, there were doubters, mostly academic historians and outlaw hobbyists. The historians were guilty of simply repeating what Garrett had claimed and written.
In-depth investigations were conducted on the man who was identified as the outlaw. It turned out that he knew more about the Lincoln County War and related events, people, and places than the historians of the day. He communicated information unknown to the scholars, information that has since been substantiated by discoveries of substantiating documents stored in obscure and remote archives. This is remarkable since Roberts could barely read or write.
Most of Roberts’ recollections, along with more evidence, were published in my book, Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2005) Included are the results of the only statistically valid photo-comparison study made between the outlaw and the old man. The study was conducted at the University of Texas with the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. When the study was concluded, the principle investigator called and invited us to come to the laboratory and examine the result. We said we were busy and could they send it? The investigator replied, “You need to come and see it in person. You are getting ready rewrite history. Roberts and the Kid are one and the same.”
When the book was released, a number of Billy the Kid enthusiasts applauded, but many, mostly historians and a few hobbyists, were outraged. They angrily disagreed with the results, but when challenged declined to discuss and debate. Instead, they offered only criticism, condemnation, and even death threats. For the few who claimed to be experts on Billy the Kid, the notion of admitting something happened that was different from what they have long espoused would be tantamount to stating they have been wrong for decades. Like Pat Garrett, they were more concerned with their reputations than with the truth.
We’re delighted to report that more books are being released in recent years that challenge the status quo of much of the history that we have been taught. As it turns out, much of it was bogus. What was taught turned out to be what others wanted us to know, regardless of the truth. And isn’t that what history is all about, a quest for truth?
Billy the Kid, one of the most famous outlaws in the history of the United States, was not killed by Pat Garrett. He went on to live another sixty-nine years, always in hiding, for he feared he was still under sentence to hang for the killing of another sheriff, a crime of which he was probably not guilty.
For more information consult the book Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave (Taylor Trade Publishing).
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W.C. Jameson is a singer/songwriter from Llano, Texas. He is also the award-winning author of 60 books and over 1,500 published articles and essays.One of his recent books, Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave (Taylor Trade Publishing), was a regional best-seller. His latest novel is Beating the Devil (University of New Mexico Press). In addition to writing fiction, Jameson is the creator of the series, W.C. Jameson’s Lost Treasures of America. Jameson is the best-selling treasure author in the world.