Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett — The Shadow of Doubt

Paul Colt and I had had a few interesting exchanges in the AmericanWesterns group of Goodreads when I learned he had written a book about the Lincoln County War.  I’ve been lucky enough to snag him here to write a bit about one of the protagonists in that episode of New Mexico’s history, William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid.

Paul’s creative work in western fiction gives expression, as he notes, to his life- long love of the west; his other life as President and CEO of Prism Clinical Imaging would hardly hint at this love of western culture.  Among Paul’s many accomplishments is the fact that he was the founder, designer and director of the nation’s first ATM network.   He has designed, developed and launched no less than fifteen information technology products.  However, let me tell you that I had to prod this information out of him, and it is my guess that he is equally proud of being a Western Writers of America Spur finalist in 2009 for his book, Grasshoppers in Summer.  In addition to this and his two previous novels, his recently completed Boots and Saddles– a Call to Glory, about the early career of George S. Patton, received the Marilyn Brown Novel Award, presented by Utah Valley University for excellence in unpublished work.

Paul and his wife of 42 years, Trish, live in Lake Geneva, WI.  They have two grown children and four grandchildren—their very good reason for not moving to Cody, WY.  Paul does, however, manage to get western dust on his boots when he researches his stories—whenever possible from the back of a horse.  And his choice of his pen name is an obvious nod to his longstanding love of the west.

I’m privileged to have him here  to share his theories about the death of Billy the Kid.

The Shadow of Doubt   

Paul Colt

History: A prismatic lens through which we view the past as seen by those who record it.

With all due respect to serious western historians, I have come to take my historical helpings with that proverbial grain of salt. The power of the printed word may have reached its zenith in the nineteenth century. Recorded history from the period comes down to us with the cachet of fact. But is it always? Pick an historical character or event to research and the next thing you know you’re in the middle of some unresolved controversy. I encountered the phenomenon while researching my first book, Grasshoppers in Summer. A few years and a couple more controversies later I came to the prismatic lens observation. That phenomenon leads to one of my favorite controversies.

Historians agree: Sheriff Pat Garrett killed Billy the Kid, July 14, 1881. Why? Because Pat Garrett and Pete Maxwell said he did. One hundred thirty years later questions remain. John Poe, Garrett’s deputy on the scene that night, and others question Garrett’s claim. They suggest he killed the wrong man and covered it up. Garrett was prompted to write his 1882 book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid in response to those questions. Enter the power of the printed word. That book comes down to us today as the accepted historical account of the Kid’s death. Is Garrett’s claim proven beyond the shadow of doubt? Or is it a hastily conceived cover up?

Conspiracy theorists got a dose of encouragement in the 1930’s when Brushy Bill Roberts surfaced in Texas, claiming to be Billy the Kid. Historians were vindicated when Robert’s claim was proven a hoax. Still the controversy persists to this day. Why? Because there are contradictions, irregularities and unanswered questions that simply won’t go away.

According to Garrett, he rode out to Fort Sumner accompanied by deputies John Poe and Kip McKinney, acting on a tip the Kid was hiding in the area. They set up a watch for the Kid in an orchard on the edge of town on the night of July 14th. Garrett’s account states that he saw someone resembling the Kid approach Pete Maxwell’s house and followed him. Poe has it that Garrett entered the Maxwell house to question Pete Maxwell before the man they believed to be the Kid arrived. By Poe’s account, Garrett left his deputies on watch outside where they were seen by the man who next entered the house. This is potentially a significant difference in the two stories. As Garrett tells it, the Kid entered Pete Maxwell’s darkened bedroom and, in Spanish, asked Maxwell the identity of the men outside. Garrett claims he recognized the Kid’s voice and shot him.

Poe’s assertion that the victim entered the Maxwell house after Garrett is intriguing for substantive reasons. According to Poe, the victim reached the Maxwell front porch and encountered the two deputies. Put yourself in the Kid’s stockings that night. (The victim wasn’t wearing shoes.) You are a wanted desperado with a death sentence hanging over your head.

Lincoln, NM:The wall in the foreground is where Billy the Kid and the Regulators ambushed and killed Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady and one of his deputies.

You encounter strangers skulking about your intended destination. Do you go inside to find out who the unknown visitors are or do you scoot back to your hidey-hole? By Garrett’s own account the Kid was too smart to take such a risk. If, by contrast, you are one of the Kid’s many friends in the area, you have no reason to fear the unidentified strangers. If your friend is hiding nearby, your instinct is to warn him of potential danger. You might go inside to find out the identity of the strangers. Then there is the matter of language.  Why inquire in Spanish? Maxwell spoke English. The Kid spoke Spanish but it wasn’t his first language. He did have a goodly number of Mexican friends in the area. Someone entered Pete Maxwell’s bedroom that night and very likely died. Was it the Kid as Garrett asserts, or one of his friends?

If the Kid was hiding in the area when the shooting occurred, he probably got word of his ‘death’ pretty quickly. In a ‘Mark Twain moment,’ he could easily have decided that an exaggerated report of his death was better than a pardon. Could he have escaped that night and later assumed some new identity? It seems possible. That, of course, is speculation. Reaching such a conclusion from here would require a good sized leap in logic if it weren’t for the rest of the story.

Following the shooting, Garrett and Maxwell took charge of the body and the events of that night and the next morning. Their actions are tainted by serious irregularities. Maxwell is reported to have written the coroner’s report and the verdict for a coroner’s inquest. The local postmaster signed the inquest verdict as foreman the following morning. The jurors never met as a group. The coroner’s report and inquest verdict were entrusted to Garrett to file at the Lincoln County Courthouse. Neither document has ever been found. A facsimile of what appears to be the inquest verdict was discovered decades later. Misspellings and the use of ‘marks’ witnessed by Pete Maxwell suggest that some of the jurors signatures may have been falsified. Is it possible Garrett ‘lost’ documents he feared wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny? The body was buried the following morning. It was not publicly displayed as was the custom with high profile outlaws in those days. No photos were taken of the body or Garrett with the body as was also the custom.

These irregularities circumstantially favor the appearance of a cover up. The Kid had a reward on his head. Garrett was not a rich man. Presumably he could have used the money. Under the circumstances you would expect him to take the customary steps to substantiate his claim. He didn’t take those steps, which probably accounts for the long delay in authorizing payment of the reward.

If Garrett killed the wrong man, he had motive enough for a cover up. He also had the notoriety, celebrity and opportunity for reward associated with having killed the most wanted outlaw in the territory.  That leads to the question why would Pete Maxwell help him? History tells us that the Kid was romantically involved with Paulita Maxwell, Pete’s younger sister. The relationship is thought to have deepened in the weeks following the Kid’s escape from the Lincoln County jail. Pete Maxwell’s motive for participating in a cover-up might have been to get the Kid out of Paulita’s life once and for all.

There are those who vigorously defend the account of the Kid’s death as told by Garrett in his book. Apart from money, which Garrett denied was his motive in writing the book, the publication seems self-serving in other respects. The power of the pen firmly established his claim on having killed the Kid. In the book, he suggests Poe and McKinney questioned the identity of the victim at the time of the shooting. He then goes on to refute that allegation. According to Poe, he initially supported Garrett’s claim. His doubts and the question of mistaken identity came later. Garrett’s recounting the events in his book more than a year after the fact seems a convenient response to Poe’s suspicion.

Did Pat Garrett kill Billy the Kid? Historians are convinced. They have Pat Garrett’s word on it. The state of New Mexico is convinced. They’ve got an iconic legend and the tourist attractions that go with it. One hundred thirty years later some of us are still troubled by the contradictions, irregularities and unanswered questions. Which leads to the ultimate question; if Garrett didn’t kill the Kid that night, what happened to him? Did he simply ride off into the sunset never to be heard from again? A plausible answer to that question is ‘Maybe he did.’ Like so much of this controversy, that supposition depends on circumstantial evidence and hearsay that came to light years later.

I’ve written a book based on Poe’s account and the loose ends Garrett and Maxwell left behind. I call it A Question of Bounty, The Shadow of Doubt. One of these days I hope to find a publisher for it. When I finished, I concluded that the controversy is one man’s word against that of another. Both cases are circumstantial. Neither case can be proven conclusively. Once again history has opened a window to the past shadowed in doubt.

Paul Colt

http://paulcolt.com

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Paul has very generously offered to give away copies of his book,                        Case File: Union Pacific, to no less than 5 lucky people who leave a comment.      And the winners chosen by Paul are:  Alice Trego, Eunice Boeve, Arletta Dawdy, Karen Casey Fitzjerrell and Alethea Williams.    Thank you Paul, and thanks to all who left comments!

When President Ulysses S. Grant suspects a  fraud worth millions of dollars involving the transcontinental railroad, he sends Marshal J.R. Chance to Wyoming to investigate. Chance joins forces with a Cheyenne woman who saves his life. Together they confront a ruthless conspiracy that will stop at nothing –including murder– in its quest to monopolize Union Pacific construction contracts and the lucrative land grants that go with them.

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32 responses to “Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett — The Shadow of Doubt

  1. Hello Andi and Pat,
    I enjoyed the blog and debate about Garrett killing/not killing the Kid. Whatever happened to Paulita Maxwell; did she “ride off into the sunset” with Billy? Might there be DNA material for Billy to compare to the curied corpse? Ah, such delights to pursue in imagination if not in fact! Thanks for this romp down history’s lane!
    Arletta

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  2. Sorry…PAUL and the Buried corpse!

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  3. One of my favorite things about history is that it leaves us with doubts, questions, and the opportunity to speculate based on what we know and don’t know. Don’t we all like a mystery? And when history presents one such as this Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett controversy we writers are thrilled because we can have another subject to write about. Your addition to Andi’s blog is fascinating. Thanks so much for entertaining us with your suppositions, and I hope you find a publisher for your book real soon.

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    • Velda, don’t you think that, not only does history leave us with doubts and questions, but that Time itself shifts perspectives on what happened in the past? No doubt Paul will weigh in on this.

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      • Andi, You’re absolutely right. Things that were forbidden to reveal in the past, such as intermarriage, the gay issue, etc., are now coming to the forefront. When I originally wrote a great aunt to get information on the Cherokee branch of our family, she hotly denied it existed. Yet today we can find ourselves listed on the rolls in both Cherokee and Tahlequah. That’s a good example of history being changed by Time itself.

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      • Velda, that’s so interesting that your Aunt would try to deny your own heritage like that. But I was also thinking in terms of what was acceptable at one stage, that we now look on with horror–say the McCarthy hearings. I guess that is just the reverse of what you mention, e.g. gay issues, intermarriage, that were once unacceptable and now are, so historically will be viewed differently.

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      • Funny that we’d go the opposite directions. But that’s what’s interesting about writers. We think sideways, forward and backward and sharing our thoughts is so much fun.

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      • If those who record history give us a prismatic view, we who observe have our own lenses too. Sometimes we have to set aside our modern norms when we look to the past.

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    • Thanks Velda. And thanks for the good thoughts on a publisher.

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  4. I really enjoyed reading about this Pat Garrett/Billy the Kid paradox. I have read many versions about the famous sheriff and outlaw and have watched many documentaries about them, as well. But Paul presents some interesting questions here that made me say “Hmmm.” As writers of history, we tend to research as much as we can to find the answers to our own original questions, which eventually leads us down some still-unknown trails of history. And that is the stuff of stories…

    Thanks to Andi for having Paul here today. Enjoyed my visit!

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    • Alice,
      Thanks for the kind words. I love those ‘Aha’ moments in research when you stumble onto the thread of a great story. I’ve been writing for ten years now and have had the experience three times. With this one I didn’t start out with the idea of questioning Garrett’s claim. I turned up Poe’s account, set it beside Garrett’s and said wait a minute. By the time I finished I came down firmly on the side of I’m not so sure.

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  5. I love historical mysteries, and hope very much to win a copy of Case File: Union Pacific. My WIP is set in that time period in Cheyenne, and it’s simply amazing how many different fictional viewpoints of the same events there are — as many as there are writers! Andi, thanks for bringing Paul to the attention of WWW. Paul, good luck finding a publisher for A Question of Bounty.

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  6. Althea,
    Thanks for your good wishes. We could probably have some fun comparing maps of Cheyenne in 1869-70. I had a lot of fun with that. The Union Pacific depot in downtown Cheyenne has a museum. One of the exhibits included a useful map. Yeah I stood there and sketched it.

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  7. Hi Paul – Andi, I’m coming in late here because I’m on sabbatical and wifi connections are rare and far between. Paul, I loved your take on the ongoing debate about Garrett and Billy the Kid. History-mysteries are the backbone of fiction, don’t you think? I mean if we had all the answers, DNA proof where would the fun of speculation be?

    Andi – thanks for bring Paul here and Paul, thanks for sharing!

    kcf

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    • Karen,
      Thanks for the comment. Dusty Richards once told me “There are more stories out there than blades of grass.” I think he’s right. That bodes well for those of us who write the west. Sebbatical? Where does one apply for one of those?

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      • fitzjerrellk

        Sabbatical this year is my sister and brother-in-law’s ranch in central Texas….while they are vacationing. For 10 days I sit on the porch and write, watch after the cattle – a simple job of counting them as they amble by on the way to the barn evenings – feed the cats and enjoy the gorgeous countryside evenings when coyotes take up their songs.

        Jealous yet?
        Karen Casey Fitzjerrell

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      • Well if Paul isn’t I certainly am. Thanks for sharing Karen!

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  8. Can you say pea-green……

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  9. I love the West…and history…as does my husband. Book sounds fascinating, Paul 🙂 Thanks, Andi, for this neat and different blog. Have your LOVELAND in my ereader queue!
    Diane
    dianeokey.com
    CHERISH THE KNIGHT

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  10. Ah, the hoax lives on! I would suggest that Mr. Colt consult BILLY THE KID’S PRETENDERS: “BRUSHY BILL” AND JOHN MILLER, by Gale Cooper. Lookit: Two things are sure in this world – Billy died as history records, and Obama was born in the US.

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  11. Al
    I’ve looked into both Roberts and Miller. Thanks for the suggestion.
    Paul

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  12. John A. Aragon (Author of historical novel, BILLY THE KID'S LAST RIDE)

    Nice article, Paul. Thank you very much.

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  13. John,
    Thanks for the comment. The Kid is a fascinating character that gives rise to some equally interesting stories.
    Paul

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  14. Hi Paul,

    Sorry we missed you in Door County. Hope the family is well.

    The Old West- truly one of the most exciting places and times in American history. My English 3 students get a taste of it with Bret Harte’s “Outcasts of Poker Flat” and Twain’s tales of the California mining camps. I will surely be sharing your titles with them later this year to show them that the most amazing heroes and villains are not vampires and sorcerers, but our own historical figures from the West.

    Take care,
    Beans

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  15. Jenny,
    Thanks for stopping by. We were disappointed we didn’t connect this summer. Glad to hear you are giving those English 3 kids a taste of western literature in your class. The classics are great. We also have an outstanding cadre of contemporary writers turning out solid historical fiction and western literature.
    Paul

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  16. Well, I’ll be darned! I sure thought Garrett killed Billy the Kid. Now, I’m not so sure. Paul, your reasons for doubt are very plausible. Do you suppose these questions get answered in Heaven? Trouble is I may forget by the time I get there. 🙂 Seriously though, it’s an excellent story. I hope it gets published and soon.

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  17. Eunice,
    Thanks for your comment. Plausible is the word. The rest of the story- what happened to the Kid if he did escape that night- makes for a good yarn. You can’t prove it beyond the shadow of doubt, but that’s not much different from Garrett’s yarn. You can be sure I will let Andi know when I find that publisher.
    Paul

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