fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

Texas, New Mexico towns still duel over death of Billy the Kid

HICO, Texas — The corner of Texas 6 and Pecan Street, in downtown Hico, is a curious place for a political rally aimed squarely at New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

But then this has to do with the slippery truth about Billy the Kid, so maybe nothing is really surprising.

Standing in front of a Billy the Kid statue, in which a likeness of the Kid is aiming a revolver at the antiques stores down Pecan Street, Hico Mayor Lavern Tooley brought whatever pressure she could to bear on Richardson's consideration of a pardon for the Kid, whose name was William H. Bonney, Patrick McCarty or Bill Roberts, depending on which version of history you're buying.

"In recent weeks, descendants of Pat Garrett met with you, Gov. Richardson, to make their case against a pardon," said Tooley, a school nurse by career. "I am asking for an opportunity to make the case for a pardon and to explain how Billy came to spend his final years in Hico. We would be honored to entertain you as a guest of the city of Hico, or we could arrange for a delegation to make the trek to Albuquerque." (Better not stop there, though — the state capital is Santa Fe.)

One could legitimately wonder why Hico cares if a long-dead outlaw gets a pardon from the New Mexico governor.

But if you wonder out loud in Hico, someone will surely bend your ear about the biggest thing this town has going for it — a link with the most notorious outlaw in American history, a character so big that he didn't need a last name.

The widely accepted version of history is this: The lawman (and noted gunman too) Pat Garrett surprised Billy in a darkened room in Fort Sumner, N.M., on July 14, 1881, and put a bullet in his chest. Billy's last words, according to history, were, "Quien es? Quien es?" spoken because he had no idea who shot him.

He was buried in the town cemetery next to a pair of buddies whom Garrett's posse had shot the year before.

True-blue history, right?

Not if you live in Hico, a small town about 70 miles southwest of Fort Worth.

The folks here have a markedly different version of Billy's end. They contend that Garrett shot the wrong man and that Billy the Kid died of old age in 1950 after escaping from Fort Sumner, moving to Texas and assuming the name "Brushy Bill" Roberts.

A cemetery in Hamilton, 20 miles south of Hico, has Roberts' grave, declaring that Billy the Kid lies there.

Two towns, two Billy the Kid museums, both wanting a piece of the tourism that comes with his legend.

This latest Billy the Kid giddyap happened when word got out that Richardson was considering a pardon for Billy. Richardson has already ordered up historical documents and met with the angry descendants of Garrett.

Former New Mexico Gov. Lew Wallace, the same man who wrote "Ben-Hur," reportedly promised Billy a pardon for his crimes if he testified about another murder. Richardson wants to examine what Wallace promised and whether it should still be honored, considering that Billy held up his end of the bargain.

Sue Land, director of the Hico Billy the Kid Museum, acknowledges that publicity around Billy is a good thing. That's why Hico's mayor called a news conference. A row with New Mexico stirs things up and edges up the number of visitors to town.

"Hico doesn't have industry," Land said. "We have tourism. That's our industry. We have some wonderful stores, but people can go shopping anywhere. What is unique about us is the Billy the Kid Museum."

The museum opened in 1987 after Justice of the Peace Bob Hefner wrote a book that claimed to substantiate Roberts' claims. A statue went up, and the town started its annual Billy the Kid Day festival in April.

"It's not that we're promoting an outlaw or a killer," Land said. "We're promoting Hico."

Pat Ross, whose husband grew up next door to where Roberts lived in Hico, said some people in town scoff at Brushy Bill's story as "poppycock."

"But my husband and I definitely believe Brushy Bill was Billy the Kid," Ross said.

However, New Mexicans have never bought the Roberts-was-really-Billy yarn.

As an old man, Roberts pleaded his case in person in 1950, right before dying, and was rebuffed by the New Mexico governor as a fraud. Several other men have similarly said they were Billy the Kid, just as several men tried to convince the world that Jesse James wasn't shot by a friend but died of old age.

Rick Hendricks, New Mexico's official state historian, concedes that no one can prove that Billy died in Fort Sumner. (Despite several efforts to exhume Billy's remains and compare them with his mother's, no ground has ever been turned to answer the question.)

"As far as we're concerned, he's buried at Fort Sumner," Hendricks said. "I haven't seen any persuasive evidence he's buried anywhere else."


Whether he died in 1881 at the hands of Garrett or in 1950 at the hands of Father Time, Billy the Kid is unquestionably the biggest of the Old West outlaws.

Entire forests have been cut down to furnish the paper for books, magazines and articles about him. Tour buses with visitors from Japan and England unload in the tiny town of Lincoln, N.M., where the infamous Lincoln County War took place in 1878. Fathers make wildly out-of-the-way detours in New Mexico to stop at Fort Sumner to see his grave.

Hico has certainly recognized the tourist value of a Billy connection — the museum guest book contains signatures from people all over the Southwest and a smattering of international visitors.

Hendricks calls him the "most outsized bad guy that the Wild West ever knew," likely responsible for the deaths of only nine men or so. That's a big number by today's standards, but maybe not in the Wild West of the post-Civil War years.

Billy was a killer but a literate and reportedly good-natured one, a baby-faced youth who made his name before he was 20. He was a far more romantic gunman than Jesse James, Sam Bass or John Wesley Hardin, who killed people in the act of robbery. In other words, it's OK to be fascinated with Billy without getting the "creepy" label.

Hendricks said Billy was something of a "matinee idol." He's found research that teenage girls tried to attend his murder trial in Mesilla, N.M., in 1881 because they "felt the Kid was good-lookin'." (He was convicted of murder but escaped from the Lincoln jail by killing his two guards.)

"Despite all the ink spilt to write about Billy the Kid, there's still a tremendous amount of information we don't know," Hendricks said. "Because there's a certain amount of mystery about him — his name, who his parents were, the circumstances of his death — maybe that adds to the allure. It's more than a cottage industry surrounding him."

The Hico mayor made another request of Richardson — that he pardon Billy before the town's 150th birthday, Oct. 2.

"We want the day's festivities to include a celebration of Billy's pardon," she said.


(c) 2010, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Visit the Star-Telegram on the World Wide Web at http:www.star-telegram.com.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BILLYTHEKID

AP-WF-08-18-10 1203GMT