Saturday, December 13, 2008

Billy the Kid and the parallel universe


More than a few times, working as a reporter and covering a specific event, I have read accounts of the same event by other reporters in the morning paper and wondered if we were in the same universe the night before. History can be the same way, I think. Consider the legend of Billy the Kid.
“I don’t blame you for writing of me as you have. You had to believe other stories, but then I don’t know if any one would believe anything good of me anyway,” according to Billy the Kid's comment to a Las Vegas (New Mexico) Gazette reporter in December of 1880.
So many different versions of The Kid’s life have bubbled to surface over the years, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to separate fact from fiction, real from make-believe.
Popularity of the story and embellishments in the form of fabrication, speculation, and supposition for the last 130 years, only add to the difficulty in locating the truth.
Historians generally can’t agree on his date of birth, his real name, where he was from, crimes he committed, number of men he killed, or even when he was killed. Shoot, they can’t even decide if he shot people with his left hand, right hand, or both.
The origins of the legend may explain some of that.
The first widely-circulated version of the story came from the man who claimed to be his killer, Pat Garrett, and a biographer, Ash Upson, who helped Garrett write “The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid,” shortly after he hunted him down and shot him in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in the summer of 1881. Various accounts have Garrett and Billy the Kid as friends, or at least acquaintances. But Garrett’s version of the story, a year after The Kid’s reported death, is considered by many to be self-serving and sensational to enhance the Sheriff’s own image. Other suspicious facts, such as Ash Upson’s recorded birthday coinciding with The Kid’s, and details of his life and death, (i.e. 21 murders, one for every year of his life) don’t universally hold water.
The only known photograph of him further distorted the story when, though the young outlaw appears to be left-handed in it because of the positions of his guns, it was revealed that the ferrotyped photo had been flopped by examining the Winchester rifle that appears in the photo. Unfortunately, that was discovered after the 1958 film “The Left-Handed Gun” starring Paul Newman.
Perhaps one of the most interesting disputes over the life of Billy the Kid is the date of his death. And I guess that is at least one way that Colorado figures into the picture. Several people have claimed that the young outlaw was not killed by Garrett in Fort Sumner in 1881, but instead, the death was faked and “the Kid” lived out his days in other locales.
In 1949, “Brushy Bill,” also known as Ollie P. Roberts claimed to actually be the outlaw, sought a pardon from the governor of New Mexico, but died shortly after making public his claim. His hometown of Hico, Texas, however has capitalized enough on the idea that they now host the Billy the Kid Museum. John Miller’s family, in Prescott, Arizona made a similar claim.
Which brings us to the Colorado tie.
After his reported death in 1881, Billy the Kid sightings were made in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Colorado. Claims were made that he lived under his many aliases (Billy McCarty, William H. Bonney) and mischievously flaunted his identity.
The Meeker Hotel, for example can show you the faded signature of one “William H. Bonney” lingering in the dusty hotel registry from the summer of 1889.
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