History Stories

An historian fed up with doubts about Billy the Kid’s demise has petitioned a New Mexico court to create a death certificate for the famous outlaw.

As midnight approached on the night of July 14, 1881, Pat Garrett’s posse closed in on the most wanted man in the West. After three months of searching, the Lincoln County sheriff had received a tip that the gunslinger who had escaped jail—as well as a date with the noose—was holed up in the small town of Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Seeking information on the fugitive’s whereabouts from one of Fort Sumner’s leading citizens, Garrett entered the open door of Peter Maxwell’s residence like a cooling breeze on the hot summer night. Just moments after the sheriff roused Maxwell from his slumber to ask about the outlaw, another figure appeared in the doorway of the unlit room with a six-shooter in one hand and a butcher knife in another.

“That’s him,” Maxwell whispered. As the shadowy figure in the doorway spotted Garrett’s outline, he drew his gun and yelled in Spanish: “Who’s that? Who’s that?” Instantly recognizing the fugitive’s voice, the sheriff fired his revolver as a bright flash lit up the bedroom. The bullet pierced the heart of the wanted man, and when Garrett’s posse entered the room, the flicker of their candlelight fell upon the body of William H. Bonney—better known as “Billy the Kid.”

The only existing photo of Billy the Kid, likely taken in 1880.

The only existing photo of Billy the Kid, likely taken in 1880.

As Billy the Kid’s legend grew in the following decades, however, so did doubts about whether he died that night in Maxwell’s bedroom. Some said Garrett had shot a different man or even conspired with Billy the Kid to stage the killing in order to claim the $500 reward money. The conspiracy theories gained momentum in 1950 when an old man in Hico, Texas, named Ollie “Brushy Bill” Roberts proclaimed himself the authentic Billy the Kid and petitioned New Mexico Governor Thomas J. Mabry for a pardon. Although the testimony of Roberts proved flimsy, doubts about the official demise of Billy the Kid remained strong. In Hico today, a Billy the Kid Museum continues to vouch for Brushy Bill’s story.

Fed up with the persistent stories that the notorious outlaw escaped death and went on to live a long life, historian Robert Stahl last week went to a district court in Fort Sumner and petitioned the state of New Mexico to retroactively create an official death certificate for Billy the Kid. “Enough is enough about and from the supporters of the Billy the Kid imposters,” Stahl writes in the opening of his 29-page petition.

“A major reason millions have supported these imposters is their claim that no official death certificate was issued because there was insufficient evidence to confirm that it was the authentic Billy the Kid who was shot and killed that night,” Stahl goes on to write. He points out, however, that death certificates were rarely issued in 1880s New Mexico, particularly in rural areas such as Fort Sumner.

Pat Garrett

Pat Garrett

“I believe the petition provides overwhelming evidence that Billy did die by a bullet fired by Pat Garrett and that there were enough people around to substantiate that,” says Stahl, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University and a longtime member of the Billy the Kid Outlaw Gang. His petition includes eyewitness accounts from Maxwell, Garrett’s posse and Fort Sumner residents and friends of Billy the Kid who arrived at the scene shortly after the shooting and confirmed the body was that of the outlaw. “Not a single person who reported himself or herself as being in Fort Sumner on July 15, 1881, ever publicly denied that Sheriff Garrett had killed Billy the Kid that day,” Stahl writes in the petition.

Stahl says that in 1880s New Mexico a coroner’s jury report was considered the equivalent of an official death certificate today, and just such a report was issued for Billy the Kid. Within hours of the shooting, a nearby justice of the peace formed a six-person coroner’s jury that interviewed Maxwell and Garrett, examined the body and crime scene and certified that the dead man was indeed William H. “Billy the Kid” Bonney. In a letter to a New Mexico newspaper, the jury foreman confirmed “it was ‘the Kid’s’ body that we examined.” Indicating there was no doubt about the validity of the coroner’s jury report, New Mexico legislators unanimously agreed to grant the $500 reward to Garrett.

Historian Robert Stahl

Historian Robert Stahl

The petition notes the lack of any recorded statements in newspapers or documents questioning whether Billy the Kid escaped or not for decades after the incident at Fort Sumner. The first mention of the outlaw being alive that Stahl could find came from a 1920s El Paso newspaper. In rebutting the claims of Brushy Bill, Stahl reports that Roberts’s family Bible as well as his World War I draft registration list his birth as 1879, which would confirm that in 1881 Roberts was not Billy the Kid, but just merely a kid.

Don’t expect science to be able to settle the matter; a 1904 flood washed away the grave markers in Billy the Kid’s Fort Sumner cemetery. “No DNA testing is possible because we have no idea where, if at all, Billy is buried,” Stahl says.

Although New Mexico did not achieve statehood until 1912, Stahl says he believes there is nothing to preclude it from issuing a death certificate from its territorial days. His petition has been forwarded to District Judge Albert Mitchell who will decide whether or not to hold an official hearing in Fort Sumner.

Does Stahl truly believe that the creation of a death certificate would be taken as “proof” of the official story by skeptics? “Hopefully individuals who will look at the information in the petition will accept that the death certificate is an official report, and some people will finally accept the fact that he died,” Stahl says. “For those true believers, though, nothing to my knowledge will ever change their minds.”

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