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How Did Billy the Kid Die?

May 14, 2020 in History

By Patrick J. Kiger

Even though a widely-accepted account says the outlaw was shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett in New Mexico, murky details have led to other theories.

Western outlaw Billy the Kid , one prospective Billy was John Miller, a farmer and horse trainer who lived in a small village in New Mexico near the Arizona border and died in 1937. (His few possessions reportedly included a pistol with 21 notches on the grip, the same as the number of killings that some accounts attribute to Billy. The other, a resident of Hico, Texas named Ollie “Brushy Bill” Roberts, actually managed to get a meeting with the governor of New Mexico in 1950, in which he unsuccessfully sought a pardon for Billy’s murders. He died soon afterward.

The persistent belief that Billy the Kid survived and hid out somewhere shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, explains Jim Motavalli, author of The Real Dirt on America’s Frontier Outlaws, that examines the legends and the reality of various famed desperados of the American West. After all, similar stories have arisen after the deaths of other people who captured the public imagination, from Elvis Presley to Adolf Hitler.

“Things like this typically start out as bar stories,” Motavalli says. “You want someone to buy you a drink, so you say, ‘I’m Billy the Kid.’”

To add to the confusion, the actual facts about Billy the Kid haven’t been easy to come by. Details of his early life are sketchy, and much of what was written about him just before and after his death was what Motavalli calls “scurrilous literature”—sensationalized newspaper accounts and quickie books churned out by publishing houses. “They didn’t do a lot of actual research when they did these biographies,” Motavalli says.

Pat Garrett’s Account of Billy the Kid’s Death

The 1882 biography The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, Noted Desperado of the Southwest, Whose Deeds of Daring and Blood Made His Name a Terror in New Mexico, Arizona and Northern Mexico, which was written by Garrett, his killer, contains what seems to be the most credible account of the fatal confrontation, according to Motavalli. Instead of depicting an epic gunfight out of a dime novel, Garrett makes his shooting of the outlaw seem like an incredibly lucky break.

That night, Garrett wrote, he and two deputies, John W. Poe and Thomas McKinney, went to the ranch where Maxwell …read more


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