Billy the Kid Pardon



Earlier this year, I wrote about the possible pardon of notorious outlaw, Billy the Kid. It ain’t gonna happen.  Billy the Kid is still an outlaw.

In his last day in office, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson announced on New Year’s Eve he would not grant a posthumous pardon to the infamous Old West bad guy, after drawing international attention by entertaining a petition on Billy the Kid’s behalf.  

The pardon request had centered on whether Billy the Kid, who was shot to death in 1881 after escaping jail where he awaited hanging in the killing of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady in 1878, had been promised a pardon from New Mexico’s territorial governor, Lew Wallace, in return for testimony in killings he had witnessed. 

But the descendants of Wallace and Sheriff Pat Garrett, who fatally shot the fugitive, were outraged over the proposal.  Pauline Garrett Tillinghast expressed her concern that a pardon would tarnish her grandfather’s legacy. Though the pardon might have been narrowly tailored, she said, “It’s ridiculous to pardon a murderer.  Hollywood has turned him into some sort of a folk hero.”  Pat Garrett‘s grandson J.P. Garrett and Wallace‘s great-grandson William Wallace also publicly opposed the possibility of pardon.  

According to legend, Billy the Kid killed 21 people, one for each year of his life. The New Mexico Tourism Department puts the total closer to nine. The Kid was a ranch hand and gunslinger in the bloody Lincoln County War, a feud between factions vying to dominate the dry goods business and cattle trading in southern New MexicoBilly the Kid killed two deputies while escaping jail. 

The person filing the request for pardon argued that Lew Wallace promised to pardon the Kid, also known as William Bonney or Henry McCarty. She said the Kid kept his end of the bargain, but the territorial governor did not. But, J.P. Garrett of Albuquerque said there’s no proof Gov. Wallace offered a pardon — and may have tricked the Kid into testifying. 

“The big picture is that Wallace obviously had no intent to pardon Billy — even telling a reporter that fact in an interview on April 28, 1881,” he wrote. “So there was no ‘pardon promise’ that Wallace broke. But I do think there was a pardon ‘trick,’ in that Wallace led Billy on to get his testimony.” 

Garrett also said that when the Kid was awaiting trial in Brady’s killing, “he wrote four letters for aid, but never used the word ‘pardon.”‘ 

William Wallace of Westport, Conn., said his ancestor never promised a pardon and that pardoning the Kid “would declare Lew Wallace to have been a dishonorable liar.” 

According to historians, The Kid in fact wrote Wallace in 1879, volunteering to testify if Wallace would annul pending charges against him, including a murder indictment in Brady‘s death. 

A tantalizing part of the question is a clandestine meeting Wallace had with the Kid in Lincoln in March 1879. The Kid’s letters leave no doubt he wanted Wallace to at least grant him immunity from prosecution.  Wallace, in arranging the meeting, responded: “I have authority to exempt you from prosecution if you will testify to what you say you know.” 

But when the Las Vegas, N.M., Gazette asked Wallace shortly before he left office about prospects he would spare the Kid’s life, Wallace replied: “I can’t see how a fellow like him should expect any clemency from me.” 

The historical record on the pardon is ambiguous, and there are no written documents “pertaining in any way” to a pardon in the papers of the territorial governor, who served in office from 1878 to 1881. 

Of interest, Governor Richardson’s office set up a web-site so citizens could weight in on the subject of the pardon. His office received 809 e-mails and letters, with 430 favoring a pardon and 379 opposed. Comments came from all over the world.  I’d say the issue was fairly split down the middle probably along moral and political line, I suspect.

Governor Richardson said that he decided against a pardon “because of a lack of conclusiveness and the historical ambiguity as to why Gov. Wallace reneged on his promise.”  Richardson states said the Kid is part of New Mexico history and he’s been interested in the case for years. 

I’m not writing this post from a political point of view, strictly from an historical one.  The interesting part is some 133 years after killing numerous people, including lawmen, and being shot to death, the life and legend of Billy the Kid still can’t be put to rest.

So tell me who is your favorite controversial historical figure?

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A native Texan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Phyliss Miranda still believes in the Code of the Old West and loves to share her love for antiques, the lost art of quilting, and the Wild West.

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21 thoughts on “Billy the Kid Pardon”

  1. I was very excited to have the background from your previous post when this story hit the news again.

    I think it boils down to our wish to rewrite history, view historical figures in either a two dimensional or multi-layered way (depending on how you feel about the person and issue), or just because….

    Any Robin Hood type character fascinates me. The ends justifying the means question and all.

    Happy New Year!

    Peace, Julie

  2. Thanks, Julie. I think you hit the nail on the head about wanting to rewrite history … which only historical romance writers are allowed to do … LOL I like Robin Hood type characters, too. Thanks for dropping by.

  3. Great post, Phyliss. I read of this during the holidays and reckoned it would make a terrific P and P post. I admit, I like reading about those outlaws.

    Good one, filly sister! oxox

  4. I had heard just a little about this on the news and was hoping to find out more. Thanks for explaining the issues here. I agree it is interesting that we care 133 years later, but we do!
    My favorite controversial figure is Jesse James. Did the horrors his family experienced during the Civil War push him over the edge or was he just a psycho using the war as an excuse?
    No need to enter me in the drawing Phyllis, since I am still enjoying the bubble bath I won earlier and don’t want to be greedy!

  5. Never thought about a favorite controversial historical figure… I like Julie’s answer… Robin Hood types! Thanks for sharing this post with us!

  6. Phyliss, I’m glad you came back to tell how this saga ended. I do think our elected officials have better things to do with their time. I’m sure Billy the Kid is laughing at all the commotion he’s caused 133 years later! Outlaw types of all kinds tend to be controversial. Wyatt Earp is also one who’s story never dies. Seems we never really know if he was a bad guy or a good one.

    Very interesting blog.

  7. I heard about this on the news, but never had time to find out what the governor did. Thanks for the post. What is it about Billy the Kid’s tragic life that continues to draw us in? History is never boring.

  8. And thanks, Phyliss, for the link on facebook reminding us you’re blogging here today. This is one of my favorite blogs!

  9. Well, I definitely like Robin Hoods, too. But a controversial historical figure? Only one I could think of was captain James Cook. In Europe he was a hero, but ask for instance the Maori or Australian Aboriginals what they think about him and everything he brought in his wake.

  10. It is interesting that the politics back then were tainted. With this background, I would hate to see history change now.
    The whole story is fascinating, though.

  11. Thanks, Tanya. I had another post, which I’ll use next time, but like a lot of folks I was watching for the decision on Billy the Kid, and when it came, I changed blogs. Looks like you all liked the update. I’m pleased. And, Judy, I like Jesse James too. He’s really interesting. Glad you like the Bath and Body Works gift certificate you won a while back. Hugs, Phyliss

  12. Colleen, thanks for dropping by and commenting. Linda, I like Wyatt Earp, too. He’s interesting, and no doubt The Kid would really enjoy the new publicity. I do feel sorry for Wallace and Garrett’s family, because they don’t want good men’s named dragged through the mud.

    Nat, glad to see you here. Gotta agree that history sure isn’t boring. Glad to know that folks read my posts on Facebook. LOL I try to bring folks over this way several times a week. It’s a great way to promote. Hugs, Phyliss

  13. With stories like this, I’ll never understand how anyone could find history boring. Some characters retain their fascination, and it seems to be the ambiguous ones who do it best. Great post!

  14. Did you know that Gov Lew Wallace wrote the book Ben Hur? And yes the movie was made from his story. And he was born in IN since I recall a road sign by a little town in that state that read, the birthplace of Lew Wallace.”

    Truth is stranger than fiction!

  15. Lyn, I didn’t know that; however, it fits with some of the research I did. I couldn’t figure how his picture and the book were related, so dummy me figured he was just reading it. Ouch! Thanks for the information. I just never put the name, as an author, with the book. Now I’ll have something to tell my first grade grandson when he asks what I learned today!

  16. Yep, Robin Hood types facinate me! I have found this whole story interesting and wonder what I would ask those who encountered him and what they would answer!

  17. Minna, Captain Cook … now that’s a good choice. And, Mary, yep politics has been involved in about everything we do for a long time, I guess, when we really look back at the Bible and looked for it, there’s a ton of politics there, too. Jennie, I couldn’t agree more. Thanks, ladies, for stopping by today.

  18. Fascinating post! I read about that over the weekend too.

    For historical figures, I’m fascinated by Bonnie and Clyde 🙂

  19. I actually got here early today and couldn’t get a comment box. I love technology.
    Anyway, thank you for the post. I had heard last year something about this, then of course heard the news this week that it had been denied. Nice to have the background information.
    After reading here several weeks ago about the shoot out at the OK Corral, I think the Earp Brothers and company qualify. They certainly aren’t the hero figures they are presented as. Billy the Kid doesn’t have as shiny a patina painted by his fans, but no matter what, he was still an outlaw and murderer. The Earp Brothers and Doc Holiday were too, they just had better PR and were able to get away with it.

  20. Melissa, I think Bonnie and Clyde are fascinating, and since I’m a follower of our famous Texas Ranger it’s interesting to note that four Rangers took them down in Louisiana. A historical account I read recently stated “four Texas lawmen” … dang, don’t they know a Texas Ranger isn’t now nor have ever been “just a lawman”?

    Patricia, the comment box went MIA earlier this morning, and I apologize. A little gremlin got into the system and decided nobody could leave a comment for a little bit! I apologize. Love the Earp Brothers and Doc Holiday. One of my favorite heroes, Bat Masterson, had some very yucky hidden secrets (that really aren’t secrets now, but were then) but I absolutely adore him, like most folks. He, as a character, appeared in my story in “Give Me a Texan” and I read three books on him just to make sure I was historically accurate on how I wrote him and his verbal Mastercisims, as he was known for.

    Thanks for stopping by. Got everyone commenting today in for the drawing, so check back tomorrow. Hugs, P

  21. This site is a wealth of information and I love checking in to see what you ladies are talking about. I also read about Billy the Kid not getting a pardon. I was surprised to hear that someone requested the pardon in the first place. I think all historical figures are controversial in some way or we wouldn’t be as drawn to them.

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