Pat Garrett raised his revolver and aimed it at the figure outlined against the doorway of the dark New Mexico cabin.
For months, the Lincoln County sheriff had been pursuing famed outlaw Billy the Kid. He had caught him and lost him. Now it was time to kill him once and for all.
Garrett pulled the trigger twice. A bullet struck the man’s back. But when Garrett flipped the corpse over, it wasn’t the Kid after all. The outlaw had escaped yet again. And rather than face ridicule, the sheriff covered up his mistake — leaving Billy the Kid free to live out his days in disguise.
Or so Bill O’Reilly would have you believe.
Billy the Kid’s miraculous 1881 escape was the climax of a May 17, 2015, episode of “Legends & Lies: The Real West,” hosted by O’Reilly.
“Much has been fabricated about Billy the Kid’s life but the fact is that little can actually be proven,” O’Reilly said in the episode. “Evidence to support Pat Garrett’s claim [that he killed the Kid] is hard to come by. The truth is that we may never know for certain how Billy the Kid died.”
O’Reilly isn’t the first to sow doubt over the outlaw’s death. The 1990 film “Young Guns II” ended with a wizened old Billy the Kid wandering off into the desert.
But O’Reilly’s slickly produced episode has helped rekindle a long-raging debate over Billy the Kid’s death. For many Wild West historians, the Fox News anchor’s show simply recycled discredited rumors in a salacious attempt to court viewers.
Now, however, if one historian gets his way, the dispute over Billy the Kid’s death could officially be coming to an end.
On Friday, historian Robert Stahl announced he was filing a lawsuit with the New Mexico supreme court demanding that the state end speculation over Billy the Kid’s death by issuing an official death certificate for the outlaw.
“Enough is enough,” Stahl wrote in a February petition to a lower court.
Noting the existence of several “imposter” Billy the Kids, Stahl continued: “A major reason millions have supported these imposters is their claim that no official death certificate was issued because there was insufficient evidence to confirm that it was the authentic Billy the Kid who was shot and killed that night.”
The story of Billy the Kid’s short and violent life isn’t just incredible. It is, as O’Reilly pointed out, indeterminate, with many parts still shrouded in mystery.
For decades, the primary text on Billy the Kid’s killing was written by none other than Pat Garrett, the sheriff who said he shot the cattle rustler turned killer.
Published in 1882, just a year after the reported shootout, Garrett’s book, “The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid,” sought to dispel the stories already swirling about Billy the Kid. From its title on, the book tried to lay ownership to the truth over the outlaw’s demise. It begins:
Yielding to repeated solicitations from various sources, I have addressed myself to the task of compiling, for publication, a true history of the life, adventures, and tragic death of William H. Bonney, better known as “Billy the Kid,” whose daring deeds and bloody crimes have excited, for some years last past, the wonder of one-half of the world, and the admiration or detestation of the other half.
I am incited to this labor, in a measure, by an impulse to correct the thousand false statements which have appeared in the public newspapers and in yellow-covered, cheap novels. Of the latter, no less than three have been foisted upon the public, any one of which might have been the history of any outlaw who ever lived, but were miles from correct as applied to “the Kid.” These pretend to disclose his name, the place of his nativity, the particulars of his career, the circumstances which drove him to his desperate life, detailing a hundred impossible deeds of reckless crime of which he was never guilty, and in localities which he never visited.
I would dissever “the Kid’s” memory from that of meaner villains, whose deeds have been attributed to him. I will strive to do justice to his character, give him credit for all the virtues he possessed — and he was by no means devoid of virtue — but shall not spare deserved opprobrium for his heinous offenses against humanity and the laws.
That tension — between sinner and saint, outlaw and avenger — is part of what has made Billy the Kid a legend of the American West.
Details of his life are still in dispute. Even his name is uncertain. But most historians agree that Henry McCarty a.k.a. William H. Bonney a.k.a. Billy the Kid was born in New York City to Irish parents around 1860. His father died when he was an infant, and his mother moved the family west, first to Wichita, Kan., and then to the territory of New Mexico.
When his mother also died, a teenage Billy the Kid began to get in trouble. He was arrested for stealing clothes but allegedly escaped by climbing out the prison’s chimney.
It would be the beginning of a short but chaotic life of crime. A few years later, while still a teen, the Kid allegedly made his first kill, shooting Frank P. Cahill dead in Arizona after the older man bullied and beat him.
But it was Billy’s role in New Mexico’s so-called Lincoln County War that would make him infamous. He fell in with an English cattle rancher named John Tunstall. When Tunstall was murdered by a rival posse, Billy the Kid and other ranch hands — who came to call themselves The Regulators — vowed revenge.
In the ensuing violence, Billy the Kid fatally shot at least several more men (some have claimed the tally is as high as 21). His victims included a pair of sheriff’s deputies during an escape from prison (after he was allegedly betrayed by the governor, Lew Wallace, who had promised him amnesty for cooperating only to order him hanged).
After his escape, Billy the Kid sought refuge with his friend Peter Maxwell in Fort Sumner. According to Garrett’s account, however, Maxwell betrayed his friend.
And so it was that Garrett was hiding inside Maxwell’s bedroom when Billy the Kid came in.
From Garrett’s 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 Kid’ had a lurking devil in him,” Garrett wrote. “It was a good-humored, jovial imp, or a cruel and blood-thirsty fiend, as circumstances prompted. Circumstances favored the worser angel, and ‘the Kid’ fell.”
In the years since Garrett’s book was published, however, his account has been undermined by critics and cruel events.
Some historians have come to doubt parts of Garrett’s story. Meanwhile, several of what Stahl calls “imposters” later claimed to be Billy the Kid.
One, in particular, gained a following. It’s a story recounted in both “Young Guns II” and O’Reilly’s “Legends & Lies”: In the late 1940s, a man named Ollie Roberts a.k.a. Brushy Bill came forward claiming to be Billy the Kid. He said he had escaped that night after Garrett mistakenly shot another man. And he demanded that the governor of New Mexico live up to his predecessor’s promise and pardon him for his crimes.
Brushy Bill died before his claim could be fully vetted, however, or before he could be pardoned.
At the same time, physical evidence showing whether Billy the Kid died that day has literally been washed away.
Gravestones marking the outlaw’s supposed final resting place in Fort Sumner were washed away multiple times by floods, making it a guessing game where, exactly, his grave is located.
In the mid 2000s, New Mexico officials decided to determine once and for all how Billy the Kid died. But without a body, they embarked on a costly and error-prone odyssey.
“Former Lincoln County, N.M., Sheriff Tom Sullivan and his partner, former federal officer and Capitan, N.M., Mayor Steve Sederwall, don’t believe that Sheriff Pat Garrett ambushed and killed Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner, N.M., on a July night in 1881,” the Arizona Republic reported in 2006. “They contend the Kid could have lived out his years peacefully using the alias John Miller.”
So the two officials dug up Miller’s grave. Then they sent the dead man’s bones and teeth to a Dallas laboratory for DNA analysis.
Even more outrageous, they plied splinters of wood off the bench where Billy the Kid’s bloody body was allegedly laid more than a century before.
But lab results comparing the two samples were useless, and the case just led to legal challenges and confusion.
“This is crazy stuff that probably shouldn’t have occurred, but it did,” Gary Olson, superintendent of Arizona Pioneers’ Home, told the Arizona Republic.
That wasn’t the end of the ordeal, however. A judge refused to exhume the body of Billy the Kid’s mother, and local politicians balked at disinterring Brushy Bill.
In a final twist, after a lengthy state investigation into the subject, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson decided in 2010 not to issue Billy the Kid the pardon that he had been promised.
The decision was a vindication for Garrett’s descendants.
“You can’t reward bad behavior with good,” Bill Garrett told ABC.
But the inconclusive state investigation still left uncertainty as to how, when and where Billy the Kid died. Two different towns — Fort Sumner, N.M., and Hico, Tex. — both claim to host his remains.
With his detailed 28-page legal brief, however, Stahl, a retired Arizona State University professor, hopes to finally settle the story. In his February petition, he pointed out that Ollie Roberts’s a.k.a. Brushy Bill’s own family said he was lying. A family Bible put his age in 1881 at just 2 years old: far too young for even a criminal nicknamed “the Kid.”
Stahl’s petition cites a coroner’s jury report, eyewitness accounts, news articles from the time, and a mountain of other evidence to support Garrett’s claim that he killed Billy the Kid in July 1881.
The professor is a member of the Billy the Kid Outlaw Gang, which is seeking to dispel errant accounts of the outlaw’s death.
“I already know what happened to him,” Outlaw Gang President Lori Goodloe told The Washington Post in an e-mail. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that Billy was killed by Pat Garrett in July of 1881. What’s important to me, and other members of our organization, is for the truth to be known.”
She said the Outlaw Gang was founded in response to a Hico, Tex., museum’s claim that Brushy Bill was actually Billy the Kid.
Goodloe said misinformation has always muddied the waters around the outlaw’s life and death.
“I think it goes all the way back to when Billy was still alive,” she said. “Newspapers during this time latched onto Billy and portrayed him as a murderous cutthroat. All sorts of crimes throughout the Territory were attributed to Billy when Billy had nothing to do with them. And things like, ‘He killed twenty-one men, one for each year of his life’ sounded better than, ‘He killed four to six men, mostly out of self-defense.'”
Goodloe said she isn’t surprised that rumors or myths persist about Billy the Kid’s death.
“His story is a fun one — he’s the underdog you root for,” she said. “You want him to escape from jail; you want him to get the jump on Pat Garrett instead of the other way around. You want his story to live on because you want Billy to live on.
But “the true story of Billy the Kid is amazing; it needs no embellishment.”
It may need no embellishment, but it does need an ending. Yet, even Stahl’s petition for Billy the Kid’s long overdue death certificate seems to admit that the official document won’t end the debate.
“Today we have no remains that we can dig up in the old Ft. Sumner cemetery and no photographs of Billy the Kid in death,” he wrote, wryly adding: “Even if we had the latter, doubters of Billy’s July 1881 death would find some reason to excuse these from being authentic.”