Legends Around Billy the Kid

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Brian Lebel.

Billy the Kid had a brief, bloody life as a 19th century frontier outlaw.  With his boyish face, delicate features, thin figure and soft voice “the Kid” not only looked like an eternal adolescent he also acted like one.

“I don’t blame you for writing of me as you have,” he said to a Las Vegas Gazette reporter in 1880.  “You had to believe other stories, but then I don’t know if any one would believe anything good of me anyway.”

Billy’s real name was Henry McCarty.  Nicknamed “the Kid” as a teenager, his story abruptly ends in 1881 at age 21 when he dies from a bullet wound.  The bullet came from the gun of celebrated sheriff Pat Garrett. 

Ever since his death folklore has followed Billy the Kid’s legend around like flies. 

Billy never actually killed a man for snoring too loud in a hotel.  He never actually rode with Jesse James or executed 21 men, one for each year of his life. 

Billy was a gambler and cattle rustler.  The cold-bloodied killer adjective is a stretch.  It seems he terrorized the New Mexico territory during an era when knowing how to use a gun was the difference between living and dying in a lawless land. 

Myths about the gunfighters of the Old West die a slow death.

“The truth is not hard to kill and a lie well told is immortal,” said Mark Twain.  That’s especially true when it comes to “the Kid.”

Almost all the stories told by the people who actually knew Billy were written by his friends.  Mostly it’s friendly fire and his role in history is exaggerated.  Nonetheless, Billy the Kid has evolved into a folk hero.  What some people call a nuisance, others call an icon.   

The only known 19th century tintype photo of “the Kid” pictures a dusty, scruffy looking young man looking like he might have just ridden in from the range and climbed down from his horse.  He’s looks windblown and real in this photo, not stiff and suited up with plastered down hair like you see in some vintage photography.   

Billy’s wearing the screwball hat he liked so much and beat up boots.  He’s carrying an 1873 Winchester carbine and a Colt single action rests in the holster on his right hip. 

Not a flattering photo of Billy the Kid but clearly a fascinating one.

Paulita (Maxwell) Jaramillo an alleged sweetheart of “the Kid” told writer Walter Noble Burns in 1924 that a traveling photographer came to Fort Sumner in 1880 (a New Mexico military fort) and took the tintype photo. 

One of the first times Billy’s image showed up in print was in a Jan. 8, 1881 copy of “Boston Illustrated Police News.”  He was still alive at the time housed in the Santa Fe, New Mexico, jail.  The image used in the Police News was a woodcut crafted from the original tintype image.  Being able to directly print photos in books and magazines wasn’t possible until the 1890s.

On June 25, Brian Lebel’s Old West Auction featured a selection of Billy the Kid items in its Denver, Co., auction.  

Billy the Kid

Newspaper; Santa Fe Daily New Mexican; announcing the sale of the book “The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid;” by Pat F. Garrett; 1882;  $403.

Book; limited edition; “The True Story of the Killing of Billy the Kid;” John W. Poe; Los Angeles; circa 1923;  $2,300.

Tintype; only authenticated photo of Billy the Kid; unknown photographer; circa late-1879 or early-1880; 3 inches by 2 inches;  $2.3 million.    

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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