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 Mexico. Billy 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.”
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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