Billy the Kid…the Five Million Dollar Man

I subscribe to a magazine called True West. It’s free online.

And it comes into my inbox and has some of the most interesting stories in it.

A recent one was about the picture of Billy the Kid. They call it The Tintype. And they know it’s him because he had it in his possession when he was arrested and he said it was and back then, I guess they could just look at the guy and say, “Yep, that’s you.”

So this picture is a for-sure, real-deal picture of Billy the Kid. But it turns out just recently two MORE tin type pictures have surfaced both claiming to also be a picture of Billy the Kid. And there is no way to prove it except to hold it next to the proven tin type and look at them both and say, “Yep, that’s him.”

Well, if it IS him, then it’s worth $5 million dollars. And if it’s NOT him it’s worth the $5 paid for it at the flea market. So a lot is riding on it. This article in True West has experts claiming it’s bogus.

But then other sources online claim it is really him.

While I was reading…and reading…and reading… (I’ve got a book to write, ok!!??) I found the second unverified picture with an equally shady provenance. Also worth either millions or nuthin’. And, being a historical research addict even if there is NO BOOK RELATED POINT TO IT, I started reading other things about Billy the Kid.

And there are two schools of thought on Billy. Either he’s a vicious killer, or he’s a folk hero.

I’ve always been in the vicious killer camp.

But reading all these articles, then watching documentaries, then watching a movie…(and My Cowboy Husband comes up behind me while I’m “working” and says, “Are you STILL reading about Billy the Kid?)

But anyway, I’ve changed sides to an extent. Billy the Kid was caught up in the Lincoln County War. In this battle for power in Lincoln County, New Mexico, over seventy people were killed.

One man was caught and shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett for it. Billy the Kid. And before this he was arrested and charged,convicted and sentenced to hang for it while everyone else got off scot free.

It’s believed (though some numbers are wildly inflated) that Billy the Kid killed six men. One, the first man he killed, was a blacksmith and it was generally considered to be self-defense. But instead of standing trail, Billy escaped jail and ran and became a wanted man.

Then in the course of the Lincoln County War he killed the town sheriff William Brady and one of his deputies. The sheriff and his staff were the hired men for James Dolan who had a monopoly on all the stores in Lincoln County. He charged brutally high prices and burned out or drove out anyone who came in to compete with him.

This made Dolan a hated man in Lincoln County which was at the roots of the Lincoln County War.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to write about that. Maybe in another blog.

So Billy killed this villainous sheriff who ran the town for Dolan, in a shoot-out. So it was generally considered self-defense, too, except it was the sheriff so not exactly, except the sheriff was a villain, so kinda…You start to see why people have mixed feelings about Billy the Kid.

Billy was arrested after this killing and Dolan, too. The governor of the territory of New Mexico came to Billy and said if he’d testify against Dolan they’d let him off on the murder charge.

Billy said no way, because they’ll kill me.

The governor—they have paperwork that admits this—told Billy he’d protect him. Billy agreed to testify but Dolan was still acquitted. Then Billy’s turn came for trial and the judge said, “No territorial governor is going to tell me how to judge a case…” and he denied Billy the deal the governor had made.

So, Billy broke jail…this was about the fourth time he’d done it. But this time right in front of waaaay too many witnesses, he killed a sheriff’s deputy guarding him—sheriff’s deputies who were loyal to the man he’d killed, Sheriff Brady.

Billy escaped but now he was wanted for murder.

BUT if the governor had stood by his deal Billy would have gone free. Billy put his fate in the hands of the governor and he was betrayed.

So yes, Billy the Kid was a killer. But the Lincoln County War was treated on all sides like a war. No one was charged with any crimes except Billy the Kid.

It gave me some sympathy for him and some understanding of why he is considered a folk hero.

I wasn’t sure about putting the two supposed pictures of the Maybe Billy Tin Types up. I understand they are old enough to not be copyrighted, but there are some murky laws about using someone elses PHOTOS of old photos. So, I can’t afford to pay any fines.

Here’s a link to what they call Billy the Kid Crochet Photo. I will tell you the True West photo specialists are universally skeptical. But other sources take the picture more seriously.

And the second unconfirmed photo is of Billy the Kid with Pat Garrett (and others). This is a great photo whether it’s Billy the Kid or not just because I love the attitude of these tough western types sitting together getting their picture taken acting cool. Seems like something people would do today.

So opinions? Is Billy the Kid a murderer or a folk hero? 

If you went to study and read about all these photos, what do you think?



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Author of Romantic Comedy...with Cowboys including the bestselling Kincaid Brides Series

25 thoughts on “Billy the Kid…the Five Million Dollar Man”

  1. Well now this is something to think about Mary I had always thought him bad. Recently I had a grandson and his name is Bill but will be called Billy and our pastor has taken to calling him Billy the Kid well I recently told my hubs I was going to tell him to stop calling him that and he says awe just leave it be so now after reading this I am going to go with folk hero lol

    • Good morning. I think those days were hard folks did what they had to. I wouldnt call him a murderer he made bad choices.

      • Yvonne the articles I read…and read…and read…really make him sound like a reckless kid. And everyone was gunfighting over this war and he was one of many. It is strange that he ended up sentenced to hang for it when no one else did.

    • Maybe get your pastor to call your grandson William the Conqueror instead? 🙂
      Yeah if Billy the Kid is a folk hero it’s not so bad being named after him. 🙂

  2. Great blog Mary. It’s funny you ask this question. To me he’s always been a folk hero, he was put into these situations sand did what he had to do to survive. I’ve never thought of him as a killer. On all I have read and watched I’ve always rooted for him, so do that make me a bad person or a supporter of the underdog kid?

    • Tonya there was no question that he was in the Lincoln County War on the side of the good guys. The men trying to end Dolan’s monopoly…a monopoly sustained by killing and crime and corruption.
      And the sheriff was a terrible villain who needed to be stopped.
      That Billy the Kid was caught up in this along with a lot of others…well, it’s strange how famous he got. There were a lot of gunman involved in this fight.

    • I don’t know if I would call him either a killer or hero. I think he did what he had to in order to survive. As hard as life was back then, some tough choices were always made.

    • Janine have you ever watched the movie Chisum? John Wayne is John Chisum and Billy the Kid. Dolan’s in it and…well that’s at least part of the story of the Lincoln County War.

  3. Great post and I want to say he is a folk hero because I just don’t believe he was all bad. Life can make a person do a lot of things.

  4. I think circumstances made him do things he probably would not have otherwise. It hink he is a legend.

  5. Thank you for sharing your very interesting post,Mary. Tough times make for tough situations. He probably did what he had to do to make it through.

  6. I subscribe to True West magazine as well and it’s awesome. So many wonderful articles and pictures to read. Thanks for sharing your insight and information.

    • This is probably the simple truth, Estella. He’s an interesting character.
      And reading about range wars…well, that’s something I can use in a book, right?
      So it wasn’t a complete time sink.

  7. Well now this is some interesting information. Easy to see why some think him a hero and others not so much. Thanks for sharing this today. Have a wonderful Thursday.

  8. Couldn’t they use facial recognition software to compare the suspected photos to the one they know for certain? I mean, why not?

  9. Ooh, you are amazing at presenting both sides without much effort!! Lol. I lean more towards innocent turned “fight for his life and it went wrong”. I think he got a bum deal and did what he thought he had to against dirty government. I’m curious to see what becomes of the new pictures claiming to be Billy!

  10. I looked at both photos and am not sure they are Billy The Kid. Among other things, the eyebrows aren’t right.
    Situations like the Lincoln County War are so difficult to judge. It is a bit like Robin Hood. You are fighting an evil man and his actions, but committing crimes to do it. It is difficult to judge. If he hadn’t been let down by the judge who would not honor the Govenor’s deal things would have been much different. The Governor should have intervened. Anyway, I am a bit more inclined to understand what he did. What I don’t understand is why no one else was charged and prosecuted. Maybe another research hole you can fall into when you have time. You already have a good start.

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