A Question of Bounty

Back in October 2012, Paul Colt visited this blog with a post about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  Paul’s latest book, A Question of Bounty:  The Shadow of Doubt is published this month by Five Star.  Here he takes a second look at the death of Billy the Kid.

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Paul Colt

Paul Colt

Two years ago Andi gave me the opportunity to share one of my favorite historical controversies. Pat Garrett claims he killed Billy the Kid, July 14, 1881. 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.

Today, Garrett’s claim rests on his 1882 book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. The printed word has never been more powerful than it was in the nineteenth century yet it was not always dependable.. Libbie Custer’s idyllic portrayals of her husband George and the legendary treatment given numerous nineteenth century figures all testify to the difference between fact and the cachet of fact.

Garrett’s book remains the accepted historical record of the Kid’s death. What is surprising is that the controversy surrounding his claim also continues to this very day. Why? Because there are contradictions, irregularities, and circumstantial evidence that simply won’t go away. We are left with the question: is Garrett’s claim proven beyond the shadow of doubt, or is it a hastily conceived cover-up?

The controversy piqued my curiosity when I picked up John Poe’s memoir, The Death of Billy the Kid, and laid it beside Garrett’s book. Poe, a respected law enforcement officer and political figure of his time, enjoys a somewhat better reputation than the often financially troubled Garrett. If you take Poe for a credible witness to the events of the Kid’s death, you are left with two differing accounts, procedural irregularities, circumstantial evidence and unanswered questions.

According to both Poe and Garrett, they, along with deputy Kip McKinney, set upBilly_the_Kid_corrected-SOURCE-Wikipedia-Public-Domain-197x300 a watch for the Kid in an orchard on the edge of Fort Sumner on the night of July 14th. Garrett states that someone resembling the Kid approached Pete Maxwell’s house and he followed him. Poe claims that Garrett entered the Maxwell house to question Maxwell before anyone 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 significant.

Imagine you are the Kid, a desperado with a death sentence hanging over your head. Late at night 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? If you are one of the Kid’s friends in the area, you have no reason to fear the unidentified strangers but your instinct is to warn your friend. You might go inside to find out the stranger’s identity.

As Garrett tells it, the Kid entered Pete Maxwell’s darkened bedroom and asked Maxwell in Spanish the identity of the men outside. Poe’s account agrees with this. But why would the Kid inquire in Spanish? Maxwell spoke English. The Kid spoke Spanish but it wasn’t his first language. On the other hand, the Kid had a goodly number of—obviously Spanish-speaking—Mexican friends in the area. Garrett claims he recognized the Kid’s voice in the dark and shot him. Was it the Kid, or one of his friends?

If the Kid was hiding in the area when the shooting occurred, he could easily have decided that a report of his ‘death’ was better than the pardon he’d sought. Could he have escaped that night and assumed some new identity? It seems a reasonable speculation.

DickBrewer_BillytheKid_Regulators1620_0910Garrett and Maxwell took charge of the body and the events that followed. 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 Justice of the Peace, who allegedly impaneled the jury, made no official record of it. The coroner’s report and inquest verdict were entrusted to Garrett to file at the Lincoln County Courthouse. Neither document has ever been found. Is it possible Garrett ‘lost’ documents he feared wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny? 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. Then there is the facsimile. The technology wasn’t invented until decades later. If a photocopy was made of the original, what happened to that document? Could the original have been a forgery disguised by facsimile to prove the Garrett claim?

The body was buried the following morning. It was not publicly displayed as was the custom with high profile outlaws. No photos were taken of the body or Garrett with the body as was also the custom. All this favors the appearance of a cover up.

If Garrett killed the wrong man, he obviously had motive enough for a cover up. That begs the question why would Pete Maxwell help him? History tells us that the Kid was romantically involved with Pete’s younger sister, Paulita. 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 Garrett’s account of the Kid’s death. The publication itself seems self-serving. The printed word firmly established Garrett’s claim to have 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 the allegation. According to Poe, he initially supported Garrett; his doubts came later. Garrett’s book seems a convenient response to those suspicions.

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 questions remain. And leads to the ultimate question: if Garrett didn’t kill the Kid, what happened to him? Did he simply ride off ?

Two years ago I said I’d written a book based on Poe’s memoir. The story I call A Question of Bounty: The Shadow of Doubt speculates about what might have happened to the Kid if he did indeed walk away that night. The story focuses on a mysterious character, resembling the Kid, who appears out of nowhere mere weeks after the Kid’s alleged death. He lives a quiet life, never claiming to be the Kid and dies of natural causes years later. Admittedly his story is based on circumstantial evidence and hearsay. 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 beyond the shadow of doubt.

Five Star Publishing will release A Question of Bounty: The Shadow of Doubt this QuestionOfBounty Cover-2month. If you’re curious about what makes a controversy last one hundred and thirty years, I think you’ll find this one entertaining. In the end, you decide.

Enjoy the ride.

 

Paul Colt

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Paul  very kindly agreed to give away a signed hardback copy of A Question of Bounty to one person who left an interesting comment.  The winner is Ashantay Peters.  thanks to everyone who stopped by and left a comment.

‘Award winning author Paul Colt follows Billy the Kid’s outlaw adventures and unlikely young love affair to that fateful encounter with Sheriff Pat Garrett in Pete Maxwell’s bedroom. Colt gives the reader insight into the Kid’s life with richly visual settings and believable characters.’

 

 

 

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26 responses to “A Question of Bounty

  1. Great article. Looks like a really good book.

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    • Thanks for the comment. The story is a tad controversial in some corners based on the email feedback I got to the pre-order announcement. That said, I think we’ll have some fun with it.
      Paul

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  2. Hmmm? Paul, I’ve heard that the photo of The Kid standing with his rifle was taken after his was dead. No? If one studies the photo closely, he does look odd. Especially the eyes. Wish to goodness I could remember where I read/heard this.
    Karen Casey Fitzjerrell

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    • Karen,
      The photo has a controversial history too. I’ve not heard the speculation that it was taken after he died. Based on my research, I’m not aware that any photos were taken of the body. That is a significant part of the controversy surrounding the Kid’s death. As I heard it, the photo was printed with the plate reversed. The hat is a one off too as the Kid wore a sombrero. Thanks for the comment.

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  3. I live in NM & have been fascinated about the mystery surrounding BTK death. I took my children, as teenagers to visit Ft. Sumner & his “gravesite” & museum. We’ve toured Lincoln several times & read about his life…I can’t wait to read this book. It sounds as well researched as is possible!

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  4. Thanks for the comment. A good deal of the research for the book was done in New Mexico. I especially enjoyed doing the ‘landscaping’ from the back of a beautiful black horse named Grant.

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  5. Kathy Heare Watts

    I have noticed a good bit of history is he said they said type of “facts” and I think there is controversy with many cases. Sounds a lot like the death and quick disposable of Osama Bin Laden! (I still question that one??) As a genealogist we say that information without documentation is just a story.

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    • Good observation Kathy. They say history is written by the winners. I think it is written by the person with the pen. The pages are full of controversies that make it entertaining.

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  6. Nice work, Paul. The record shows Pat Garrett was a great lawman who successfully dealt with some bad actors. However, close scrutiny of that same record shows that when it came to collecting reward money he was not above twisting the facts, ignoring facts, and if former NM Gov George Curry is to be believed, giving false testimony at a trial. His actions in your story are well within the limits of other things he did in his career as a lawman. The truth seems so tantalizing close, yet so far away. We’ll never know. This is another great mystery of the southwest in which Pat Garrett was involved.

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  7. An interesting thesis. You are right, a lot of circumstantial evidence and one persons word against another. If in fact Billy did walk away, it does seem a miracle that he completely changed his personality. It can and has been done. Lot to think about. Doris

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    • Doris, thanks for the comment. Going straight enough to disappear is a pretty high threshold. Then again a close encounter with a gallows might just make a person take stock of their life.

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  8. What a fabulous mystery – love the intrigue and your post. I’m curious – is there a reason modern scientific methods haven’t been used on whatever remains are in the grave?

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    • Good question Ashantay. There are complications and legal entanglements that have prevented that. The Kid’s grave was destroyed by flood years ago making it impossible to get DNA samples. Attempts to get get samples from Mary Antrim (the Kid’s mother) and John Miller have so far failed in court. Given the value of the tourist attractions today, I can’t help but wonder if the legend isn’t worth more than the truth.

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  9. Fascinating account!

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    • Thanks Barbara. We just got a great review from Booklist that starts “You wouldn’t think anything was left to say about Billy the Kid, but….” They liked it. Hope you do too.

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  10. After interviewing people and writing their history for almost 20 years, I know that history is never going to be totally accurate. Too many variations of stories from one person to another, both who claim to have been there. I’m fascinated by your take on this particular story and look forward to reading your book.

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  11. Velda, thanks. Hope you enjoy it.

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  12. This sounds fascinating! Thanks for the interview!

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  13. Thanks stopping by.

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  14. Wow! Very interesting. Another book to add to my ever growing list. From what you say here on Andrea’s blog, it is certainly possible, and I’d not be surprised. Somewhere I got the idea that Pat Garrett was not entirely an upstanding fellow and the chance for fame may have been too alluring to pass on by. Wouldn’t it be neat if the Kid fathered a child and the child grew up and passed on the story to his/her children and chidlren’s children? And then among the Kid’s descendants, a writer sprang, and he/she wrote the story, documented by letters, etc. passed down through the generations of his/her family? Ahhhh! Wouldn’t that be neat? Maybe he/she will read your story and come forth with the answers. We can only hope. Paul, do you suppose there are books in Heaven, written by the angels , with the truth to all the mysteries we mortals so desire to know? 🙂

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    • Eunice, Thanks for you comments. Garrett did have his share of troubles, many of them financial. I don’t know about the Kid having descendents. The most plausible candidate for the Kid if he survived that night, had one adopted son who went missing in WW I. You might have fun writing that story. As for angles and the mysteries of the ages- I’ll leave that to higher authority for now.

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  15. The following was sent to me by Barbara Marriott who was unable to comment as she is out of the country: “In 1950 University of New Mexico conducted Oral History interviews. One of their informants was Montegue Stevens, rancher and good friend of one of Garret’s deputies the night he “killed” Billy. Stevens was 90 at the time and described as having all his cognitive abilities. Interesting reading. The interview was incorporated in the Billy the Kid chapter in my book OUTLAW. TALES of NEW MEXICO. ” Barbara Marriott

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  16. Thank Barbara for the comment, Andi. I’ll have to check out that chapter.

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  17. Interesting information about The Kid that raises a number of questions such as DNA.

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  18. Mary, the questions are there alright, answers are elusive. The Kid’s grave was destroyed by flood so there are no good samples to be had there. The courts have thus far refused examining his mother’s grave to see if there might be matches to any other suspected samples. As I said to another person with a similar question, I wonder if the legend isn’t worth more than the truth.

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