Billy the Kid is Dead, Long live Billy the Kid!

An postcard photo of Billy the Kid
The Kid’s famous tintype as a colorful postcard sold to tourists in the 1940s. Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico, #914.

Billy the Kid. What pops into your head? Gunslinger? Bandit? Folk hero? The notorious William Bonney was a cipher. He took on the wild of the frontier, and came to embody all of the adventure, romance, and freedom that the rest of the world found in the tall tales of the American West. And even more so after his death, when Billy the Kid sightings, lore, and conspiracy theories exploded on the American landscape.

Billy, the Sequel

Billy’s life after his “death” was even more interesting than his real life. Enter O.L. “Brushy Bill” Roberts of Hico, Texas. Growing up on the frontier, “Kid” Roberts, as he was called then, was more than proficient with a rifle and a handgun. When he was old enough, Roberts traveled to Oklahoma to try his hand at cattle where he would meet future cattle rustler Belle Star, known by some as the Bandit Queen. At her ranch were the Younger brothers and Jesse and Frank James. Did Pat Garrett kill Billy the Kid, or was it Roberts who caught the bullet? He survived, and it was in this second phase of his life, post death, that he gained his new nickname, “Brushy Bill.” It’s possible considering there was only one authenticated photograph of Billy the Kid. When interviewed decades later, Brushy Bill shared his colorful and unverifiable past. More like a 19th century Forrest Gump, Billy was reported in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, aiding Pancho Villa during the revolution, and even joining the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

Conspiracy Theory

Billy the Kid was always a good subject for newspapers, magazines, and dime novels. In 1926, The El Paso Times Herald claimed that Billy the Kid was alive and living 200 miles away. Everyone knew the night of the fateful shooting in Fort Sumner when Sheriff Pat Garrett met up with Billy and gave him $1,000 to leave New Mexico and never return. Billy generously retorted that he only needed $25. Now here’s the conspiracy theory: the body of another man was buried in the grave. Did Billy live?

A photo of brush where Billy the Kid is presumably buried in Texas
The Kid’s unmarked grave as it appeared in 1928. Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries, Rose Collection, #2175. Imaged sourced from Tall Tales and Half Truths of Billy the Kid.

Billy’s Gravesite

Whether Billy was actually in his own New Mexico grave will always be disputed. But that never stopped curiosity-seekers and grave robbers from “paying their respect.” As one of the most infamous people of the era, Billy’s corpse was in danger of macabre souvenir hunters, and many travelled to see his trigger finger displayed in a jar. Odder still, Billy’s first grave marker, a crude wooden cross, was first “stolen” by none other than his alleged girlfriend, Paulita Maxwell, who would be later buried in same cemetery.

The Saint

One of the more fanciful folk tales of Billy the Kid comes from Frank Applegate’s book Native Tales of New Mexico. Set in 1881, on the day the Kid was to be hanged, Billy came to the small Spanish village of Escondida, where he sought refuge in the house of a Spanish man and his wife and daughter, Rosa. Later that night at a dance, Billy chased off a undesirable suitor of Rosa. When the creep saw the Kid, he muttered in fear, “El Chivato!” (Billy’s nickname in Spanish). Billy left Escondida the next morning with the entire town sending him off. And with constant retelling of this tale, talk grew of Escondida wanting to make Billy a saint! Saint Billy, anyone?