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of George S. Patton, received the Marilyn Brown Novel Award, presented by Utah Valley University for excellence in unpublished work.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
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.
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 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.