The intense, hot, steamy and illicit romance between 20-year-old Henry “Billy the Kid” McCarty and 16-year-old Paulita Maxwell has been accepted worldwide as fact. That the notorious outlaw had turned Paulita into a sexual conquest makes for an exciting story. Yet Paulita was never a love interest, much less a lover, of the Kid. Not one shred of evidence supports this story.
Popular lore asserts Paulita and the Kid had a romance prior to the Kid’s capture on December 23, 1880, and after his jail escape on April 28, 1881. The Kid died on July 14, 1881. So that their alleged love child would be born legitimate, Paulita’s influential mother, Luz, and older brother, Peter, corralled Paulita into a shotgun wedding, in January 1882, to a gullible local sheepherder, José Felix Jaramillo.
In reality, the Maxwell-Jaramillo marriage involved a loving couple and a Catholic ceremony in Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory, planned over several months. Relatives from both families traveled more than 175 miles to attend.
The Maxwells and the Jaramillo family had known each other for more than a decade and perhaps before Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell even moved the family and dozens of friends and workers to Fort Sumner in 1871.
The groom had a sheep ranch near the one owned by his older brother, Telesfor, in the Los Lunas area of Valencia County. More than a week before the wedding, Telesfor and his wife of eight years, Sofia Maxwell Jaramillo, Paulita’s older sister, left for their lengthy trip to Fort Sumner, by wagon, to join in the celebration.
The Jaramillos were at least as wealthy and well-respected as the Maxwells and were immune to being forced into a marriage they did not want. The truth was that Paulita and José loved each other.
The “Shotgun” Wedding
The wedding took place 18 months after the Kid’s death on July 15, 1881.
On January 14, 1883, Paulita, two months shy of her 19th birthday, married José, 21, during a Sunday mass officiated by Father A. Reden.
After mass, a reception followed that included just about everyone in the area. The celebration carried on until the wee hours of the next morning.
The newlyweds spent their wedding night in the Maxwell home in Fort Sumner. On January 16 or 17, the extended Maxwell and Jaramillo families left Fort Sumner with the bride and groom and traveled 125 miles to Las Vegas. Due to the tremendous amount of rain in the area along the Pecos River, the wedding party traveled along muddy roads and river banks overrun with floodwaters and suffered from chilling winds throughout the journey.
The weather delayed the wedding party’s arrival to the Plaza Hotel by five days. On January 25, the party arrived at the city’s newest hotel, opened in spring 1882, which offered spacious rooms, modern conveniences, a restaurant and a bar. A day or so later, the wedding photos were taken at a local studio.
The party left mid-week by train via Santa Fe and Albuquerque, then by wagon to José’s sheep ranch near Los Lunas. Upon arrival, the women helped Paulita establish her new household where she and José would live for the next 20 years or so.
Several newspaper articles, along with the Catholic Church’s marriage record, substantiate the 1883—not 1882—year for Paulita and José’s wedding.
Alleged Love Child
But what of Telesfor José Jaramillo, the alleged love child of Paulita and the Kid?
The child was named in honor of José’s brother, Telesfor, who had died unexpectedly in July 1891. And he was not their first-born child. The first of their three children, Adelina, was born in January 1884. Luz was born in November 1890. Telesfor José was born in Fort Sumner on June 7, 1895—14 years after the Kid’s death. No records or family stories reveal Paulita gave birth prior to Adelina.
Telesfor José spent his first 14 years on the family sheep ranch near Los Lunas, then 14 years living with his mother in Fort Sumner, before he moved back to Los Lunas in 1923, marrying Reina Romero. In 1934, Reina bore him one son, Luciano, who, after spending all his life in the same area, passed away in 2004, having never married and no known children. Telesfor José died of cardiac disease at age 64 on September 9, 1959.
Unfortunately for Paulita, by the mid-1890s, José was abusive toward her. She found a retreat at her brother Peter’s and mother’s homes in Fort Sumner, but these havens ended when Peter died in June 1898 and Luz died in July 1900.
Within a few years after the 1900 Federal Census, Paulita separated from José, rather than stay in that relationship, according to family lore. Given the era and the fact that José and Paulita were Catholic, they never divorced or had their marriage annulled. Neither remarried. She retained some of the real estate, as tax records show she paid taxes on land in Valencia County as late as 1917.
In late spring 1909, Paulita moved her children and household to the new site of Fort Sumner, about four miles from the original settlement, with its railroad depot and a boomtown population of nearly 700 residents. She purchased and managed the new Commercial Hotel across from the depot; her cousin, Rebecca Beaubien, owned the Pecos Valley Hotel down the street. The 1910 census has 15-year-old Telesfor José living with Paulita.
Paulita, 56, identified herself as a widow when the census came calling in 1920. We don’t know where José was living then; we do know he was in Fort Sumner when he met his maker on March 28, 1937.
Whatever the reason the two had parted, Paulita was retired and financially secure, having sold her hotel to an oil company, which freed her son, Telesfor José, 25, to manage her estate. The census also recorded other family members who were living with Paulita: her first daughter, Adelina; Adelina’s husband, Joseph Welborn; and their daughter.
Unfortunately, Fort Sumner’s boomtown “bust” in the late 1920s left Paulita near penniless by decade’s end. At the time of her death, she had a mere $100 worth of personal property, in addition to her venture real estate purchases.
In the early and mid-1920s, author Walter Noble Burns and others tracked down and interviewed the old-timers who had roamed the New Mexico countryside at the same time as the Kid. Paulita, in her late 50s, and other Old Fort Sumner residents never mentioned she was ever pregnant with the Kid’s child. Paulita stated that she and the Kid had never had a romantic relationship, although she admitted openly that she, like many others, had been infatuated with him and at one point would have married him if he had loved her.
Even after his interview, while writing his 1926 book, The Saga of Billy the Kid, Burns portrayed Paulita in alignment with all the unfounded rumors of a torrid love affair with the Kid. His publisher, who knew his descriptions could not be confirmed, wisely cut parts and modified others to prevent a probable defamation of character lawsuit. The publisher made the right decision.
Burns and those of his ilk do not appreciate the fact that, up to the time of her marriage, Paulita was tightly chaperoned, almost always by her Navajo household servant, Deluvina Maxwell, and by local adult women when she attended bailes and went into town. Even if Paulita had unlikely gotten away, why would she have romanced the Kid in the summer of 1881, after his murderous escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse jail when he had killed two deputy sheriffs, had the law gunning for him and would be hanged on the gallows if captured?
Despite Paulita’s interviews, some writers and TV documentary producers have stretched an unsubstantiated and denied romantic relationship into a ludicrous scenario in which brother Peter alerts Sheriff Pat Garrett of the Kid’s whereabouts in Fort Sumner and allegedly plots with him to ambush the Kid before he could elope with Paulita. Somewhere along the way, this wild, inaccurate tale became accepted as fact.
Rolling in Her Grave
After a two-day fight with pneumonia brought on by influenza, Paulita died at 65 on December 17, 1929, at her home on Sumner Avenue in Fort Sumner. Her body was buried in the Old Fort Sumner military cemetery. In 1937, her estranged husband, José, was buried next to her.
Paulita passed away frustrated because the stories of her true relationship with the Kid and the real family she raised with husband José were never accepted. Hopefully, once and for all, the tale that she was the Kid’s lover and gave birth to the Kid’s love child will cease, and Paulita can at last rest in peace.
Robert J. Stahl is a retired history and social studies education professor from the Teachers College at Arizona State University and an officer for the Scottsdale Corral of Westerners International. He gives thanks to his research assistants Nancy Nance Stahl and Marilyn Stahl Fischer.
Read more…. Yes, They Were Romantic by Mark Boardman