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Fictionalized "Life of Billy the Kid" arrives at Library of Congress

Several copies of Sheriff Pat Garrett’s wildly inauthentic biography, An Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, arrive at the Library of Congress, beginning the widespread dissemination of this highly fictionalized story of the western outlaw.

Americans were no less hungry for violent stories of ruthless desperados in 1882 than they are today, and Garrett and his publishers shamelessly catered to these appetites. Garrett claimed to be writing the book to put an end to the exaggerated newspaper accounts of the day. Subsequent historians, however, have suggested that Garrett wrote the book to improve his own image and chances for a successful political career. His story portrays Billy the Kid as a ruthless killer who was only stopped by Garrett’s own selfless and brave actions.

For more than a century, Garrett’s “eyewitness” account remained the principle historical source on Billy the Kid and his involvement in the famous Lincoln County War. The book influenced countless subsequent accounts in print and on film, giving rise to one of the most powerful myths of the American West. The first full, realistic biography of William Bonney (the Kid’s principle alias) was not published until 1989. Since then, Garrett’s version of history has been steadily challenged and undermined.

Far from being a simple cold-blooded killer who took 21 lives (the actual number was probably closer to 10), Billy the Kid was a literate and ambitious young man who tried valiantly to find a niche in law-abiding society. The death of his mother in 1874 left young Billy with few resources. Fleeing imprisonment for a petty theft he may not have committed, Billy became a fugitive. He eventually found a home as a cowboy on a ranch in Lincoln County, New Mexico. There, a fierce loyalty to his employer and a violent temper brought Billy into a struggle between competing economic forces that became known as the Lincoln County War.

As a participant in the Lincoln County War, Billy killed several men in alliance with a local constable, which gave his actions some semblance of legality. Fighters on both sides of the bloody skirmish attempted to claim the legal high ground for their murders, though neither was fully justified. Nonetheless, Billy was the only killer to be charged with murder and pursued by the law.

As the new sheriff of Lincoln County, if fell to Garrett to arrest Billy the Kid. After capturing Billy only to have him again escape, Garrett eventually tracked his quarry down and shot him dead in 1881. In justifying his actions, Garrett’s 1882 book ignored the complicated circumstances behind many of Billy’s killings, suggesting that all of Billy’s murders had been inexcusable. Likewise, Garrett’s account exaggerated his own role in bringing Billy to justice, failing to acknowledge the considerable assistance he received from private detectives and Billy’s powerful enemies.

Today, historians realize that An Authentic Life of Billy the Kid is a highly biased and inaccurate portrait of a poorly understood young man living in a complex time. Nonetheless, Garrett’s mythical version of Billy the Kid continues to live on in the popular imagination and in countless western books and movies.

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