I vividly recall the first time I saw the 1988 Hollywood film Young Guns in which Emilio Estevez played the role of William H. Bonney also known as Bill the Kid (1859-1881). The film was sensational and for many years it was the sole source I had for what Bonney’s life was like. Of course, as a kid I was naive to the way Hollywood works and the liberties that filmmakers take. Today, I know that the story of Billy the Kid is far less glamorous. And while it is true that the Kid did commit several murders, he was not a psychopathic killer or reckless outlaw. Researchers have done their best to set the record straight about the Kid’s violent life. Daniel A. Edwards has thrown his hat into the mix and in this intriguing book, he examines the claim of William “Brushy Bill” Roberts (1879-1950) that he is Billy the Kid and had not been shot by Pat Garrett (1850-1908) on July 14, 1881, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Brushy’s claim was quite bold, and he has been written off by some as a crackpot. By all accounts, Brushy was born in 1879 and if so, his claim to be the Kid holds no weight due to the fact that it is generally accepted that the Kid was born in 1859, twenty years earlier. However, Roberts did have knowledge of important events that was not widely known in an era before the internet, social media, and the ease of access to information we have today. His claims are eye catching but is he really the Kid? There is much in the book that could lead readers in either direction. I came away with mixed feelings.
In all fairness, Edwards is aware that Brushy’s claims were quite extraordinary. Anyone claiming to be Billy the Kid must have known what would come with that revelation. Further, after the Kid’s death, he was still being placed on wanted posters across the southwest. The Kid had earned a reputation as a gunslinger and was certainly known to the region. I do find it a little hard to believe that Roberts was able to slip away from Garrett’s trap and continue to live under the radar as he claims. But on the other hand, how did Robert know such critical information not widely available? Edwards does his best to rectify the matter and I do believe he presents a compelling case that Garrett might have shot the wrong man in 1881. His attempt to prove Roberts was the Kid does not come off as strong and at times is a little difficult to believe.
The author does provide a good explanation of the Kid’s early life based off of what is known. Historians have never had extensive material to use, and details of the Kid’s childhood are sketchy. The exact month and day of the Kid’s birth are unknown and likely lost to history as record keeping then was not as efficient or present as it is now. What is clear is that the Kid did not live an ordinary life and moved frequently during his childhood. The film was correct about his closeness to John Tunstall (1853-1878) and his participation in the Lincoln County Wars. Edwards revisits the feud providing a clear and concise narrative that does not glorify the Kid nor demonize him. I did take notice of the figures that wore badges at the time. And I believe this is a critical part of the Kid’s story that explains some of his actions. Today it might be hard to picture corrupt lawmen, but it was uncommon in Billy’s time and money talked. This is not an excuse for murder but rather it allows the reader to understand the climate in which the Kid and others deemed to be “outlaws” lived in. It was called the “wild west” for good reason.
The crux of the book is the alleged murder of the Kid by Garrett. I believe there is strong evidence that Garrett may have shot the wrong person that night. The official story of the Kid’s death comes from one major source: Garrett himself. His description is at odds with the Kid we learn of in the book. Added to this are statements by several individuals who were very firm in their belief that Garrett did not kill Billy that night. These statements include sworn affidavits in which the affiants also swear to seeing the Kid in person years after his alleged death. I have no reason to suspect that they were not being honest but is it possible that the Kid did survive but that Roberts was not him? I think it is very possible and that many details about the Kid’s life and death will never be known. It is an issue that has stirred researchers into action for decades but this article might be of interest to those who read this book. The article clears up a few things that are discussed in the book, in particular the absence of a death record for the Kid. The reason for the absence of the document is actually quite simple and makes perfect sense as per the article.
I believe that Edwards had an impossible task in proving without a doubt that Roberts was the Kid. But where he succeeds is in casting doubt on a story that has been widely accepted for over one hundred years. Of course, Garrett may have shot the Kid that night and his story tells exactly what happened. There is the chance that Garrett was mistaken due to the darkness in the room. Sadly, DNA examination is not possible as the Kid’s resting place was washed away in a flood in 1904. There is a tomb at Fort Sumner cemetery today which might contain some of his remains. But without exhumation it will be impossible to know.
In death, Billy the Kid became an American icon and a symbol of the old west. The fascination with his life continues but the reality is that the Kid was one of many men who carried and used a gun in an era filled with lawlessness. There were other gunslingers, some just as dangerous as or even deadlier than the Kid. I am sure that a good number met their fates at the gallows. The Kid would have joined them had he not been handy with a pistol. He took lives but lived in a world that operated on violence and corruption. We are forced to asked if the Kid a cold-blooded killer or product of his environment? You be the judge. The story presented here in interesting and will raise eyebrows but is it accurate? And did Billy the Kid die at the hands of Pat Garrett? Edwards leaves it up to you to decide.