Billy the Kid’s legend has hovered over the landscape of the American West for 125 years, a Hindenburg of hype and fantasy, always there to nourish those who merely look up. It will never crash and never burn.
The only question is where will it go next? In its latest incarnation, Airship Billy has come to Arizona.
Last May 19, Tom Sullivan and Steve Sederwall traveled to Prescott to exhume from the Arizona Pioneers’ Home cemetery the bones of John Miller, a man who claimed that he was the real Billy the Kid.
True West readers should recall those names. They’re the New Mexico investigators who caused a ruckus in 2003 with their ambitious plan to extract DNA from Billy’s mother, buried in Silver City, and from Billy himself in Fort Sumner. Entrenched interests in New Mexico stopped them cold, and it seemed as if the investigation was dead.
Then Sullivan and Sederwall found what they believe is the workbench on which Billy’s body was laid after Pat Garrett killed him on July 14, 1881. Dr. Henry Lee, famous for his forensic work on the O.J. Simpson trial, pulled DNA from the bench, possibly Billy’s DNA.
Enter range ruffian John Miller.
He died at the Home in 1937 after injuring his hip in a fall. Miller had always sworn that he was the Kid, and Helen Airy seconded that very thin contention in her 1992 book, Whatever Happened to Billy the Kid.
Pretending to be the real Billy has become a booming business. Sullivan and Sederwall recorded the names of 26 men—including crazy, old Brushy Bill Roberts—who claimed to be the homicidal Lincoln County gunman.
Imagine that—26 otherwise sane men raised their hands in public to declare that these others are frauds and liars. “It’s me, I tell you! I’m the cold-blooded killer and how dare you suggest I’m not?!”
It seems everybody wants a piece of the Kid, and they’re willing to sully their own names to have it. Why? Because our Western legends hold such power. They define the frontier that continues to define us, and that gives them entry into the deepest part of ourselves as a people.
Maybe Miller figured that out and used it to grab fame he never earned in life. Sullivan and Sederwall believed his claim, and the two former lawmen sneaked into Arizona on stocking feet before their critics could “lawyer up” to stop them.
But the exhumation was hardly clear-cut. The investigators found two sets of remains side by side but didn’t know which was Miller. So they pulled bones from both graves. Dr. Laura Fulginiti, the forensic anthropologist supervising the dig, said the first body had buck teeth and a scapula fracture, which caused excitement.
“He had buck teeth just like the Kid,” Sederwall said, “and a bullet hole in the upper left chest that exited the shoulder blade.” An equally enthused Sullivan suggested this might be the man Garrett shot.
But Fulginiti didn’t support their enthusiasm: “There was evidence of trauma on the scapula, but I couldn’t tell whether it was from a gunshot wound or not.”
Fulginiti examined the second body, finding no evidence of gunshot wounds. But she did find a hip injury, which fit Miller’s story. Based on this, Fulginiti proceeded on the assumption that this man was Miller, and continues to do so. Told of Fulginiti’s statement, Sullivan responded, “Well, we think it’s the other guy.”
“It’s a Billy Buff War,” is how Prescott police detective Anna Cahall characterized the disagreement to Prescott’s Daily Courier after she contacted several people present at the disinterment in Arizona.
The “war” has no clear winners. The DNA expert at the dig couldn’t extract useable DNA from Hip Man, but he did get a usable sample from Scapula Man. Did it match the workbench blood? We don’t know. The tests haven’t been completed, but the odds of a match seem long.
To make matters worse, at press time, the Yavapai County Attorney’s office was investigating whether a felony was committed—not in exhuming Miller but in removing body parts from the cemetery, the Daily Courier reported.
Are we sure the workbench blood was Billy’s? No. Are we sure Miller was Scapula Man? No. Do historians think this investigation has gone caddywampus? Oh, yes. “This disgraceful charade is historical inconsequentiality gone mad,” e-mailed Kid historian Frederick Nolan.
If history really mattered, the pedestrian story of this scrawny delinquent sent to the angels with a well-deserved hole in his heart would’ve stayed buried with his body in Fort Sumner.
But the angels sent him back to us to remake into a legend, and Billy’s is so without merit, it’s guaranteed to last forever. It rests less on what he did in life than on the image that generations of writers have created for him—a rebel without a cause. Or facial hair.
And it began in Arizona. The Kid shot his first man on August 17, 1877, at Camp Grant. Blacksmith Francis Cahill was bullying the Kid by pinning him to the ground and slapping him repeatedly across the face. The Kid went postal. Actually, given the era, we should probably say he went Pony Express. At any rate, he jerked out his hog leg, jammed it into Cahill’s belly and delivered the loudmouth to the angels.
Nearly 130 years later, the investigators looking into the Kid’s death may fly aboard Airship Billy to Texas to exhume Brushy Bill from his grave near Hico, and try to get DNA from Billy’s mom in Silver City, New Mexico.
“They told us to come back if we found more evidence,” Sullivan says. “Then we got DNA from the bloody workbench and the people in Silver City went, ‘Oh … my … God!’ They called us nutcases and stupid. Well, we’re just going to let them sweat for a while.”
You have to love it. Here we have a street fight, a nutty, eye-gouging brawl over a juvenile delinquent who, through some strange historical alchemy, has captured America’s imagination.
As for Sederwall, he thinks he’s located the body of A.J. Fountain, a lawyer for the Kid who was murdered in New Mexico in 1896. After unlocking that mystery, the former mayor of Capitan, New Mexico, says he’d like to come to southeast Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains and dig up another legend—Johnny Ringo, an enemy of Doc Holliday and the Earp boys. “I think we could determine pretty quick whether Ringo was murdered or committed suicide,” Sederwall says.
Will they sneak into Arizona again? Should we put out an APB for two old boys in big Stetsons, trolling for DNA?
Oh, let them come. What does it matter? No fact they unearth is likely to change a single thing we believe about Ringo, the Kid or any of the others, and thinking it will, misses the point.
They are legends, after all, people, stories and iconic events that we hold as much in our hearts as our heads. They’ve become part of us, part of the frontier that made us. For that reason, we can’t bear to let him sleep, beyond our shovels and our damnable science.
Tucson-based Leo W. Banks has been writing about the West and its legends for 30 years.