The Kid Is Forgiven.
That should be the headline.
His enemies say he was a backshooter, a cow thief, a pimp and an amoral, psychotic criminal. Based on this, you’d think most of the members of the New Mexico state legislature would readily identify with him, but they probably won’t. They’ll likely juggle this hot enchilada right into someone else’s hands.
So why should he be forgiven? Well, first of all, think of the good the lad has brought to New Mexico. Tens of thousands have come and continue to come to see where he lived and plied his trade. How many New Mexicans can you say this about? Georgia O’Keefe? Oliver Lee? Gary Johnson?
Plenty have profited from his short existence in the Land of Enchantment. Casa de Patron, a bed and breakfast in Lincoln, advertises that Billy the Kid slept at their abode. They just bought a new car. Who do you think paid for that car? Billy the Kid.
The boy outlaw has impacted my life: when I was in eighth grade, my history teacher, Mr. Lamasny (who was from Las Vegas, NM) said, “Billy the Kid shot everyone in the back.” And I smarted off and said without raising my hand, “He did not. They just didn’t turn around fast enough.” I got a big laugh and a swat for that comment. After that I straightened up, got an A in history, printed a book about the Kid’s life, and today I have a Santa Fe style adobe that just appraised for $350,000. Thanks Billy! But enough about dollars and cents. Let’s look at his character:
• He was bilingual before it was cool to be bilingual.
• He was a good dancer.
• He shot people who didn’t agree with him.
Why he wasn’t elected governor of New Mexico is beyond me. The Brady family is still upset. And they have a right to be. Sheriff William Brady was ambushed and murdered most foul. But, Lincoln County was a war zone and there were plenty of murders on both sides (each side claimed “legal” authority and there were no white hats). Billy was only one of at least a half-dozen who were allegedly shooting through port-holes in the high adobe wall that April Fool’s Day in 1878. It’s doubtful the Kid could be convicted of that crime today. And, it must be pointed out, virtually no one of any import on either side spent time in jail for crimes committed during the Lincoln County War. Only Billy. As he succinctly put it, “[I] think it hard I should be the only one to suffer the extreme penalty of the law.
So he was tried and convicted on dubious grounds and he subsequently killed two lawmen when he escaped hanging in April of 1881, but the French have a saying: “To understand all is to forgive all.” (And, by the way, the French love Billy the Kid. Paul Newman’s film, The Left-handed Gun, which was a 1950’s take on the Kid, played for decades, yes decades, in a Paris theatre.)
We are all his family. He is one of us. That’s why so many love or hate him. Could you have that much emotion for a mere stranger? Hardly. He connects to something deeper in those of us who love New Mexico. With all his warts and failings, he is the Native Son.
Show some compassion and maturity. Forgive him.
Bob Boze Bell is the executive editor of True West and the author of The Illustrated Life & Times of Billy the Kid. His editorial appeared in the Albuquerque Tribune on February 14, 2001.
Newspapers, magazines, radio and television bring news and tragedies, but they also provide chuckles that help each of us make our day. My chuckle of the month has been the news that various New Mexico figures are seeking a pardon for Billy the Kid.
The president of the United States can’t award something like this, of course, but a governor likely can at the state level. So the thinking is that not only does Billy deserve it, but the pardon will somehow encourage tourism to New Mexico. Presumably more folks will visit the state after some forthcoming assurances that the Kid is no longer a menace.
In a way I owe a lot to Billy the Kid. As a youngster growing up in West Virginia, I read heavily, but the only book I still vividly recall was The Saga of Billy the Kid, by Walter Noble Burns. To a very large extent that book still influences who and what I am, even thought it has been discredited for decades in terms of accuracy.
But Burns did one thing that still echoes through the entertainment industry today. His book created an ongoing legend, the concept of the good badman: Billy the Kid. Today the good badman remains a Hollywood staple. He still carries a gun, but instead of a horse he drives a highspeed roadster.
But the question remains: does Billy deserve a governor’s pardon? And what was it he did, anyway?
Well, he didn’t kill the legendary 21 men, but he shot at least a half-dozen. One was Lincoln County, New Mexico, Sheriff William Brady. Then there were two deputies. Other than that, he shot another four or five people, all of them ne’er-do-wells whom most historians generally list under the “deserving” category. (Most writers also put the sheriff in that group.)
Of course, Billy the Kid requested a governor’s pardon, and even met with Governor Lew Wallace in a Lincoln, New Mexico, home to discuss it. The governor subsequently gave it to him provided the Kid would testify at a trial. The Kid said OK, then got to thinking about it and walked out during the proceedings. The governor then got to thinking about it, and he revoked the pardon, placing a $500 reward on the Kid’s head, the $500 of course being a lot of money in those days.
So Sheriff Pat Garrett, a new player in the drama who had nine kids to support and needed the money, shot the Kid dead at the crack of midnight in a Fort Sumner, New Mexico, bedroom in 1881. The Kid subsequently became famous in death, while Garrett came to El Paso and drank too much in life.
So should Henry McCarty, alias Henry Antrim, alias Kid Antrim, alias William Bonney, alias Boney, alias Kid, alias Billy the Kid, receive a belated pardon? Not in this writer’s judgment.
It’s not that I think a pardon is non-deserving, because it isn’t. The Kid never did anything to deserve a pardon, but even that is beside the point. My point is that the Kid as outlaw is why he is still remembered.
Consider that the sheriff and the lawmen he killed, and the sheriff who killed him, all had names that nobody today recognizes. Therefore, I would suggest that turning Billy the Kid into a good good-guy instead of a good bad-guy, is tantamount to kissing him good-by in terms of the tourist industry.
Leon Metz is the author of the definitive biography Pat Garrett: Story of a Western Lawman. His article appeared in The El Paso Times on February 19, 2001.