There's something irresistible about Billy the Kid. Nearly 130 years after Sheriff Pat Garrett gunned down the charismatic young outlaw, we still can't get enough of him. He figures in hundreds of books, from nickel novels to scholarly histories to comic books. No fewer than 60 Hollywood films have been made featuring Billy, and he is celebrated in numerous songs, with modern ballads penned by the likes of Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, and Jon Bon Jovi. And in New Mexico, Billy is such an important tourist draw that the state recently developed an elaborate web site all about him and the places his celebrated exploits have turned into popular attractions.
During the research for To Hell on a Fast Horse, I constantly encountered the special reverence given to any artifacts associated with the Kid. And I have to admit I was just as obsessed with some of these pieces of the True Cross. Historically, the obsession for all things Billy began immediately after his 1881 death. Less than two weeks after the Kid's body was laid to rest at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, a Las Vegas newspaper claimed to have the outlaw's trigger finger on display in an alcohol-filled jar. The same newspaper later reported that it had sold the finger for $150 to a buyer in the east. The story was a complete hoax, but it was carried by several gullible newspapers across the country. It caused such a stir that Pat Garrett made a special trip to the Fort Sumner cemetery to confirm that Billy's grave had not been disturbed.
Over the years, many people have claimed that certain items have once come in contact with the notorious Billy the Kid, and some of these things are on public display today: spurs, firearms, and the shackles Billy broke out of during his famous daylight escape from the Lincoln County jail. There's even a dubious wad of hair said to have come from one of Billy's haircuts. The truth of the matter is, Billy had very few possessions when he was killed. The pistol he was holding when Garrett ended his life would be the crown jewel of any western museum collection — if only someone knew what happened to it. Cowboy detective Charlie Siringo was in Lincoln, New Mexico, when Garrett put the dead outlaw's Colt six-shooter up for public auction. There were only two bidders — Siringo and the deputy county clerk. The pistol sold for the clerk's high bid of $13.50. The gun has not surfaced since that time.
Perhaps as important is the item Billy was holding in his left hand that fateful night at Fort Sumner: a simple butcher knife. Billy had been on his way to cut a piece of fresh meat from a slaughtered beef hanging at Pete Maxwell's house when he came upon Garrett's deputies. Gun in one hand and knife in the other, Billy burst into Maxwell's darkened bedroom, not knowing that Garrett was inside talking to Pete. Recognizing Billy's voice, Garrett drew his revolver and sent the Kid into eternity. Over the decades, the butcher knife was carefully preserved and handed down from generation to generation in the family of Billy's sweetheart, Paulita Maxwell (Pete's sister). In 1997, the knife was purchased from the family by English writer and Lincoln County War historian Frederick Nolan. The knife now belongs to a Santa Fe collector; it is currently on loan to the New Mexico History Museum.
The items that give the greatest insight into the Kid, however, are the letters he wrote to Governor Lew Wallace to try to get a pardon for the 1878 killing of Sheriff William Brady. Wallace and Billy worked out a deal for the pardon, but Wallace never came through with his part of the bargain. "I guess they mean to send me up without giving me any show," Billy wrote to the governor of his impending murder trial, "but they will have a nice time doing it. I am not entirely without friends." Thank goodness Wallace preserved Billy's letters (several are in the Lew Wallace Collection at the Indiana Historical Society). Billy's story would be sadly incomplete without them, and we would not have the opportunity to ponder over his handwriting, which generally was neat and legible.
While there are few relics of the Kid, there are a plethora of artifacts associated with his killer. Pat Garrett's family struggled greatly after his 1908 murder, but throughout the hard times, they refused to part with the possessions of a cherished husband and father. Most of these artifacts stayed with the family until the final years of Garrett's youngest son, Jarvis, who died in 1991. There were numerous letters written between the famed sheriff and his loved ones, some of which periodically turn up on eBay. Most impressive was a solid gold Lincoln County sheriff's badge presented to Garrett after he killed the Kid. It was given to the lawman by a prominent Mesilla, New Mexico, attorney named Albert J. Fountain. Years later, Garrett would chase after the murderers of Fountain and his eight-year-old son (no one was ever convicted of the crime). In June 2008, the gold badge sold at a California auction house for $100,000. It is now on display in the private Ruidoso River Museum, Ruidoso, New Mexico.
Unquestionably the most significant Garrett-Kid artifact is the .44 caliber Colt Frontier Six-Shooter that Garrett used to kill the outlaw. Well-documented even down to the serial number, the pistol is now the property of a private collector in Texas. I got to see this weapon, protected by guards and stout plexiglas, when I toured a major exhibition on Billy the Kid hosted by the Albuquerque Museum in 2007. The pistol looked cold and sterile, quite fitting for an instrument of death, but I had a hard time imagining it in Garrett's hand as he cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger on Billy. I asked the exhibit's curator what value he placed upon the pistol for insurance purposes. The weapon was irreplaceable, he pointed out, and technically priceless, but they'd settled on a value of $1,000,000.
With the scarcity of Billy relics and such astronomical prices for anything that does find its way to the market, more than a few have sought their own piece of the Kid in the same tradition of the outlaw himself: they steal. They especially like street signs and historical placards. "If it says 'Billy the Kid' and it can move," remarked one Fort Sumner resident, "it'll go." Billy's grave is now covered with a metal cage because someone stole an engraved footstone from the outlaw's resting place back in 1950 (the stone was recovered and reset after being missing for more than two decades).
I've been a lot luckier than most. Through the course of my research, I've had the pleasure of seeing rare and priceless artifacts, holding letters and objects handled by Pat Garrett and various notables involved in the Lincoln County War, and carefully walking the ground where one of the most exciting and thrilling chapters in the history of Old West was played out. If I had wanted to, I even could have picked up and held the butcher knife that Billy grasped when he died. The owner had opened the case; it was right in front of me. But I didn't ask. I think I felt that the mystique of Billy the Kid would somehow be lessened if I touched it. Now, if it had been Billy's trigger finger...
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Mark Lee Gardner has written a broad range of books and articles on the American West, including a number of interpretive guides for the National Park Service on subjects ranging from George Custer to Geronimo. As a historian and consultant, he has worked with museums, historic sites, and humanities councils throughout the West. He has been a visiting professor in the Southwest Studies department at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. He lives with his family in Cascade, Colorado.
Books mentioned in this post
Mark Lee Gardner is the author of To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West