Did the Kid Survive his “Murder” in 1881?
On July 14, 1881, lawman Pat Garrett shot and killed the outlaw William H. Bonney – the legendary “Billy the Kid” – at Fort Sumner in present-day New Mexico. Or did he? Over the years, rampant speculation, strange stories and a lingering mystery have all combined to suggest that perhaps that day in 1881 was not the end of the line for Billy the Kid after all. In 1948, a mysterious old man appeared who called himself “Brushy Bill Roberts” and there were many people who believed that he was actually “Billy the Kid,” still in hiding after all of years that had passed. Was he? And if not, then why did so many people who knew the Kid claim that it was him? And how did he have the same scars that William Bonney had? And how did he know stories that only the Kid could tell?
Bill Roberts may have lost his day in court, but many still believe that he was really Billy the Kid. Read the story and decide for yourself…
The most famous image of Billy the Kid
The outlaw known as Billy the Kid, although both colorful and legendary, may be one of the most overrated characters of the Old West. The Kid -- whose real name might have been William H. Bonney, or William McCarty, or Henry Antrim -- was an accomplished rustler and horse thief but his prowess with the gun has been greatly exaggerated, starting with sensationalized dime novels and continuing into modern day films. Billy was credited for killing as many as 21 men, one for each year of his life. However, it is difficult to prove that he actually killed more than a dozen. In spite of this, Billy did become a major part of the conflict that came to be called the Lincoln County War, a volatile series of events that claimed many lives and wreaked havoc in New Mexico.
What came to be known as the Lincoln County War is remembered today mostly because of the part that Billy the Kid played in it, but the conflict itself had much greater significance. It was a full-scale war that was conducted by rival banking, mercantile and ranching interests in which ordinary cowboys made up most of the casualties. There were passions and personal hatreds involved that gave it the aspects of a blood feud, especially in the case of Billy the Kid and the murder of a man that he considered his adoptive father.
Lincoln County, New Mexico, was a remote and lawless section of the territory when one of the West’s great cattlemen, John Chisum, known as the Cattle King of the Pecos, pushed his herds into the area in the early 1870s, taking over huge sections of government land. At the time, the area was dominated by a businessman named Lawrence G. Murphy, who ran a mercantile store in Lincoln called The House. Because of the importance of the store, Murphy was able to literally hand-pick the lawmen and public officials in the area. He later sold his business to two tough Irishmen, James Doland and Patrick Murphy, who made The House even more dominant in the region.
The real power in the county came from controlling government contracts for supplying beef to Army posts and Indian reservations. Through The House’s close ties to influential officials in the territorial capital – known as the notorious Santa Fe Ring --- the profits from such contracts were enormous. The Santa Fe Ring was comprised of corrupt Republican officials, while Doland and Murphy, the owners of The House, were Democrats. Their alliance was probably the first proof that Republicans and Democrats can work well together, if there is money to be made.
Chisum resented the control of cattle marketing by mere merchants and so he formed an opposing alliance with an attorney named Alexander McSween and John Tunstall, a young, ambitious Englishman who had established a large ranch. It was Tunstall who recruited Billy to work as a cowboy on his ranch. In the conflict that arose between the two factions, a number of small ranchers were caught in the middle. Many resented Chisum for taking over the public lands and lined up with The House, but others, who detested the businessmen for buying their cattle cheaply and then selling the beef at exorbitant prices to the government, sided with Chisum and the insurgents.
John Tunstall, the English rancher who became a father figure to Billy the Kid. His murder inspired the Kid’s first bloody rampage and involved him in the Lincoln County War.
The owners of The House had the initial advantage in the conflict. One of their puppets was Sheriff William Brady who, on their orders, harassed their opponents and charged the cattle barons with numerous offenses. As a counter move, Tunstall opened a rival store in Lincoln that offered better terms to farmers and small ranchers. He soon rallied more men to the side of Chisum, McSween and Tunstall.
The Doland and Murphy faction did not stand for this for very long. In early 1878, Sheriff Brady was ordered to execute an arrest warrant against Tunstall. He gave the job to a hastily organized posse of gunman while he remained conveniently behind in Lincoln. The posse rode out to the Tunstall ranch and, catching him alone and on foot, shot and killed him.
It was this event that created the legend of Billy the Kid. Billy had likely already shot and killed at least one man by this time, but now his murderous urges had a purpose as he vowed to avenge the death of the man who had shown him kindness. He and some of Tunstall’s other cowboys formed a renegade band they called the Regulators and went looking for trouble. The two members of the posse who had done the actual shooting, William Morton and Frank Baker, were soon captured by the Regulators. The pair surrendered on the promise that they would be returned to Lincoln alive. Of course, that was not allowed to happen. Three days after their capture, Billy gunned down both men and began the bloodbath that turned into all-out war.
With Tunstall dead, Billy transferred his loyalties to McSween and became the leader of the warring faction. More murder and gunfighting followed and in the spring, Billy led the men in a memorable battle against Brady and his cohorts at Tunstall’s store. Sheriff Brady was shot down during the fight. In July, the two factions fought another pitched battle with Billy and his men barricaded inside McSween’s adobe house in the center of Lincoln. On the fifth day, most of them escaped but McSween was killed.
After the attorney’s death, the owners of The House and the Santa Fe Ring won the Lincoln County War. Chisum remained a powerful cattle baron but never achieved complete domination of the region. Billy the Kid didn’t stop killing. He went to become a western outlaw legend as he led his pursuers on a wild chase across New Mexico.
According to the history books, Sheriff Pat Garrett killed Billy on the night of July 14, 1881 in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. In truth, though, an impressive amount of evidence exists to say that Billy wasn’t killed that night at all. This evidence seems to show that he actually escaped and managed to live for another 69 years, longer than Pat Garrett and all of the other participants in the Lincoln County War.
Sheriff Pat Garrett
In March 1878, Garrett became the sheriff of Lincoln County. One of his campaign promises had been to rid the county of the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid. Garrett handily won the election and soon had Billy locked up. He had been captured at Stinking Springs and arrested for the murder of Sheriff William Brady. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang on April 28 in Lincoln. But to Garrett’s embarrassment, Billy escaped from jail, killing two deputies in the process. Eventually, Garrett and his men tracked the Kid to Fort Sumner, where Billy had a girlfriend.
Garrett allegedly killed Billy around midnight on July 14, 1881. According to his story, he was visiting with Pete Maxwell in the rancher’s bedroom when a stranger stepped through the doorway. Wearing only a pair of socks and carrying a knife, the stranger whispered, "Quien es?" (Who is it?) Garrett, believing the stranger was Billy the Kid, raised his pistol and shot the man in the chest.
A moment later, Garrett ran out the door and shouted to his deputies outside, "Boys, that was the Kid, and I think I have got him!" One of the lawmen, John Poe, leaned in the doorway and looked at the body on the floor and then turned to Garrett. "Pat, the Kid would not come to this place. You have shot the wrong man!"
The word quickly spread through Fort Sumner that the dead man was not Billy. Of the three officers present, only Garrett had ever seen Billy in person but the other two men quickly went along with his identification. With Billy "officially" dead, Garrett could claim the reward as well as the fame and prestige of having killed the famous outlaw.
But things would not go smoothly for Garrett after that.
Strangely, two different inquests followed the killing, one of them on that same night and the other the following morning. The inquests only made things more confusing. The first was "lost" and the second appears to have been slanted by Garrett to make himself look good. Some have even claimed the second inquest documents are forgeries. According to one author, only three of the six witnesses who signed the report could even identify the body and one of these later stated that it was not the Kid. Neither document was ever recorded, so technically, there exists no legal proof of the death of Billy the Kid at the hands of Pat Garrett.
The burial of the dead man was as controversial as the shooting and the inquest. The body of the man who was buried had dark skin and wore a beard. Billy had been described by newspaper editor J. H. Koogler as "a mere boy... with the traditional silky fuzz on his upper lip,” and having "light hair and complexion."
Who Pat Garrett actually killed that night is unknown, but it seems unlikely that it was Billy the Kid.
As time passed, things grew much quieter in Lincoln County -- almost quiet enough to hear the whispers that circulated about how Billy the Kid was still alive and that someone else had been killed in Fort Sumner. In the years that followed, many of those who knew Billy reportedly claimed to have seen him alive and well after his alleged death. In addition, there were many who claimed to be him, especially on the sideshow circuit of the early 1900s. Most of them were not taken seriously because they were clearly imposters. Now and then, though, one would come along that had to be looked at a little closer. One of them was a man named John Miller, who died in Ramah, New Mexico, in 1933. Many of the old-time residents of the area believed that Miller was the Kid, but there was little evidence to support the idea. Miller’s claims would pale when compared to those of another man, who came to public attention in 1948. His name was William Henry Roberts, and there is a very good chance that he was Billy the Kid.
In 1948, an attorney named William Morrison was working on an estate settlement in Florida when he accidentally learned about a man in Texas that some people claimed was Billy the Kid. Morrison became intrigued and set out to find him, driving across several states and interviewing dozens of people. He eventually found Roberts in a small town called Hamilton. He arranged an interview and told him that he had heard rumors that he might be Billy the Kid. Roberts immediately denied it, but he did admit that the Kid was his half-brother and that he was alive and living in Mexico. After the two men talked for a few minutes, Morrison thanked him for his time and got ready to leave. Roberts walked him to the door and they stepped outside into the sunshine. As they shook hands, Roberts leaned forward and whispered to Morrison. He said he didn’t want his wife to hear him. Could the attorney come back the next day and speak to him in private?
William Morrison (right) with Bill Roberts, the man who claimed to be Billy the Kid.
The next morning, Morrison returned to the house and Roberts sent his wife out on an errand. When the men were alone, he confessed that he really was Billy the Kid. He said he did not want his wife to know about it, but he was anxious to be pardoned for the crimes that he had committed in New Mexico. He had long ago been promised a pardon by the governor but he had never received it. Even though it was 1948, Roberts said he feared that he was still under the death sentence that he had been given for the murder of Sheriff William Brady.
Morrison explained that he would try to help if he could, but that he was going to need some proof to show that Roberts was actually the Kid. He told him that he knew of some bullet wounds that had been suffered by the real Billy the Kid and he asked Roberts to show him any scars that he had. Roberts obliged him by removing his shirt and trousers and by showing Morrison not only the scars that he knew about, but 20 others as well!
Morrison reminded the man that the Kid was known for being able to slip out of a pair of locked handcuffs. Roberts didn’t hesitate to show how it was done. He held out his hands, and in a double-jointed move, tucked his thumb inside his palms, making his hands narrower than his wrists.
While Morrison could still not be certain, he was starting to believe that Roberts really might be Billy the Kid. He made arrangements to take the old man to Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he could question him in detail about certain aspects of the Lincoln County War and ask him about the people, places and incidents from that time. Amazingly, Roberts was able to come up with information that was unknown to historians who had studied the war, as well as much that could be confirmed as accurate, although not general, knowledge.
“Brushy Bill” Roberts – was he Billy the Kid?
Morrison then asked Roberts to recount what had occurred on the night of July 14, 1881. Roberts explained that it was not he who had gone to Pete Maxwell’s house, but a friend named Billy Barlow. Barlow was about the same age as the Kid, but was half-Mexican. The two were about the same size, but Barlow was darker skinned. Barlow, along with Roberts (the Kid), Saval Guiterrez and a woman stopped at the home of Jesus Silva after a dance that night. As Silva prepared a meal for his guests, he mentioned that a side of freshly cut beef was hanging near Maxwell’s room. He sent Barlow to bring some back and the young man left in his stocking feet, carrying only a knife. It was Barlow, Roberts said, that Garrett mistook for the Kid.
When Roberts heard the shooting, he grabbed his guns and ran towards Maxwell’s house. He was fired on by Garrett and his deputies and was struck in the lower jaw and in the back of his shoulder. A bullet also grazed the top of his head. He was stunned and bleeding badly but managed to make it to the home of a Mexican woman who kept him hidden while she tended his wounds. In the early morning hours, a friend brought him his horse and told him that Garrett had killed Barlow and had passed the body off as the Kid. He and his friend rode off into the darkness and the Billy the Kid vanished for the next 67 years.
The famous outlaw was gone and William Henry Roberts took his place. During the next several decades, Roberts told Morrison that he worked on ranches in Mexico and in the United States, served with Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, rode with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution, worked for a couple of small-time Wild West shows and had even served as a law officer for a short time. He married three times but never had children and was 88 years old when Morrison found him in Texas.
On November 15, 1950, Morrison filed a petition for a pardon for William Henry Roberts, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, with New Mexico governor Thomas J. Mabry. The governor agreed to meet with Roberts and Morrison on November 30, assuring them that the meeting would be kept private. The meeting turned out to be anything but private. Mabry turned the whole thing into a publicity stunt. He invited the press, along with descendants of Pat Garrett and other figures from the Lincoln County War. Questions were asked of Roberts that had nothing to do with seeking the truth and it was clear that Mabry never really intended to consider the petition filed by Morrison. The pardon was ultimately denied.
Heartbroken, Roberts returned home to Texas and died from a heart attack two months later. He had tried to make amends, but forgiveness had eluded him.
Could William Henry Roberts have been Billy the Kid? It’s very possible that he could have been. Even those researchers who were skeptical of Roberts’ claims admit that the existing of history of Billy the Kid is badly flawed and contradictory, especially when it comes to his alleged death in 1881. It had long been determined that what most people believe they know about Billy the Kid comes from a single source: Pat Garrett. Garrett spent time on both sides of the law, and as a born politician, had little use for the truth. Even his book (used by many of the subject’s foremost researchers), The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, was written by someone else, an alcoholic newspaperman named Ashmon Upson. Time has not been kind to Garrett’s book and dozens of errors and outright lies have been discovered in it. But for some reason, it is considered the best reference on the life of Billy the Kid.
In 1998, authors W.C. Jameson and Frederic Bean began unraveling the many problems with Garrett’s book and also began digging into the story told by William Henry Roberts. They found some pretty amazing evidence to show that Roberts may have really been the Kid, including a genealogy (reconstructed from a family Bible owned by relatives) that, among other things, shows that Roberts was related to people named McCarty, Antrim and Bonney. These were all names that Billy the Kid used as aliases and prior to Jameson and Bean’s research, the origin of the name “Bonney” had eluded researchers. They also tracked elements of Roberts’ story, starting with his escape from Fort Sumner, and where documents could be found, were able to follow his trail for years. In the end, it turned out that Roberts’ credibility far exceeded that of Pat Garrett.
Billy the Kid’s grave – but is the Kid really buried here?
Even after all of this, some questions remain. One of the most important is whether or not Pat Garrett knew that he had not killed Billy the Kid? If he did, why did he pass off another body as Billy, knowing that the Kid might return? It’s possible that Garrett’s quest for fame and glory caused him to throw caution to the wind. Or perhaps he believed that if the Kid escaped, he would feel safe enough with people believing him dead that he would leave and not come back. Or perhaps, as many believe, Garrett and the Kid concocted the scheme and Garrett knew all along that Billy had gotten away.
We’ll probably never know the answers to these questions, but we still have to wonder why Garrett’s deputies, Poe and McKinney, backed up Garrett’s version of events if they knew it was not the Kid who had been gunned down. The truth is, the statements attributed to Garrett, Poe and McKinney on that night do not agree with each other at all. It was Poe who first informed Garrett that he had gotten the wrong man and in 1933, he published a book called The Death of Billy the Kid that while supportive of Garrett, referred to the circumstances of Billy’s death as a “mystery.” According to a cousin of McKinney, he often spoke of that July night in his later years and admitted that the Kid got away and that Garrett had fabricated the events that he claimed happened that night.
Will you find a conservative history book that admits Billy the Kid was not killed by Pat Garrett in 1881, but survived until 1950? It’s unlikely, to say the least, but believe it or not, the death of Billy the Kid remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the West.