Billy the Kid Week 2011: Review of Pat Garret’s The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid
Billy the Kid, aka William H Bonney, aka Henry McCarty, was killed by sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, New Mexico 130 years ago today. All this week I am celebrating the anniversary of Billy’s death by reading and reviewing books about the enigmatic outlaw.
Today I am reviewing the book about Billy. The main source of most of our information about him. The book was released within a year after Billy was killed and written by the main who killed him, Sheriff Pat Garret. That book is called The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid. Before I get started, I want to say I’m sorry if this runs a little long. It’s just such a seminal work in Old West literature and a very important book for me personally because of my enthusiasm for the subject matter. I’ll try to keep it short, but I may let my enthusiasm get away with me.
The two covers above are for one of the original printings of Garrett’s book around 1882 (left) and the more recent printing of the book in the Oklahoma Library Press Western Frontier series (right). The latter printing being the one I read. The official title of the book tends to change a bit with each edition. The title page of the edition I read has An Authentic Life of Billy, The Kid: The Noted Desperado of the Southwest Whose Deeds of Daring and Blood Made His Name a Terror in New Mexico, Arizona and Northern Mexico. The cover of the earlier edition just has An Authentic Life of Billy the Kid The Noted Desperado of the Southwest. It was ghost written by Ashmun Upson, a sheriff buddy of Pat.
This book is considered the authority, but many people don’t realize there was another first hand account of Billy’s death. John Poe, a deputy who rode with Garrett the night Billy was killed, wrote his version of the events of that night. It was released in Wild World Magazine in 1919 and then collected into a hardcover titled The Death of Billy the Kid in 1933 (cover above). Poe’s account mostly matches up with Garrett’s but there are a few inconsistencies between the two.
I got Garrett’s book off Paperbackswap.com. You can also buy copies from Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com. Or, if you prefer, you can just read it for free on the internet. I’ve wanted to read this book for years and I thought the 130th anniversary of Billy’s death is as good a time as any.
This book is an interesting read. It’s fascinating on many levels. It’s a first hand account of events in the Old West. That alone is interesting. Plus, it details the events in Billy’s life by someone who knew him and it supposedly details the events of his death by the man who killed him. However, it’s obvious that this book was a PR move by Sheriff Garrett. Billy was very popular with the people of New Mexico and the way Garrett supposedly killed Billy in the dark in what can only be called a surprise ambush was certainly frowned upon. Garrett needed something to “clear the air” and tell his side of the story…however true that side was. Immediately several things are called into question. The first half of the book is obviously written by Ashmun Upson in the style of the old “dime novels”. The events in Billy’s life are portrayed in fantastic style. Plus, many of the supposed events are suspiciously similar to tales of outlaw daring-do from other dime novels. Some of the wording of the stories isn’t even changed from stories printed in the 1840s. The last half is written in straight forward frontier prose by Sheriff Garrett. He meticulously tells the tell of his hunting down and killing of The Kid.
However, his events and details don’t really mesh up with each other and he contradicts himself several times. A few days before he kills Billy, Garrett mentions that his party stumbled upon some voices talking in an orchard. They could also see a shadowy figure walking around but couldn’t identify him. Garrett would later find out it was, in fact, Billy. Then, on the night of the killing, Garrett says he couldn’t see Billy’s face but he immediately recognized his voice. If he could easily recognize just Billy’s voice, why didn’t he in the orchard?
I’m going to look at a passage concerning the shooting of Billy the Kid and point out a few inconsistencies. This passage is spoken by Garrett on the night he killed Billy:
He came directly towards me. Before he reached the bed, I whispered: “Who is it, Pete?” but received no reply for a moment. It struck me that it might be Pete’s brother-in-law, Manuel Abreu, who had seen Poe and McKinney, and wanted to know their business. The intruder came close to me, leaned both hands on the bed, his right hand almost touching my knee, and asked, in a low tone: –“Who are they Pete?” –at the same instant Maxwell whispered to me. “That’s him!”
According this passage, Pat Garrett is sitting in Billy’s friend Pete Maxwell’s darkened bedroom on the bed asking Pete for the whereabouts of Billy. A figure walks in and comes close to the bed asking “Who is it?” At first, Pat thinks it may be Pete’s brother-in-law, Manuel. Garrett actually tells us he has no idea who the hell just entered the room and they are standing right next to the bed with their hand almost touching his knee. Pat says Maxwell whispered to him, “That’s him”, but who is him? Maybe Pete meant it was his brother-in-law.
“Retreating rapidly across the room he cried: “Quien es? Quien es?” (“Who’s that? Who’s that?”) All this occurred in a moment. Quickly as possible I drew my revolver and fired, threw my body aside, and fired again.
The Kid spoke fluent Spanish. Pat barely spoke any Spanish. So Pat hears someone speaking fluent Spanish and just pulls his revolver and fires? From the passage, it doesn’t really sound like Pat recognized his voice at all (but if he did, why, again, didn’t he a few days earlier in the orchard?). It sounds like Pat fired after Pete Maxwell said “It’s him”. And, still, Pete didn’t say it was Billy, he just said HIM.
I told my companions I had got the Kid. They asked me if I had not shot the wrong man. I told them I had made no blunder, that I knew the Kid’s voice too well to be mistaken. The Kid was entirely unknown to either of them. They had seen him pass in, and, as he stepped on the porch, McKinney, who was sitting, rose to his feet; one of his spurs caught under the boards, and nearly threw him. The Kid laughed, but probably, saw their guns, as he drew his revolver and sprang into the doorway, as he hailed: “Who comes there?” Seeing a bareheaded, barefooted man, in his shirt-sleeves, with a butcher knife in his hand, and hearing his hail in excellent Spanish, they naturally supposed him to be a Mexican and an attache of the establishment, hence their suspicion that I had shot the wrong man.
Here, Pat is addressing the fact that BOTH of his deputies said he shot the wrong man. Pat says that no, he knew his voice too well (again, really?). Then Pat mentions the Kid was not known by either of his two deputies, which means they really only had Garrett’s word to go on. Garrett then goes on to explain why he thinks his deputies thought he shot the wrong man. The fact that his deputies heard Billy speak perfect Spanish so they assumed he was Mexican is interesting. So Garrett knows Billy’s voice so well that he can pick it out even when Billy is speaking perfectly fluent Spanish (which Garrett doesn’t understand)? I call bulls**t, Pat. Bull. And. SH*T.
Also, throughout the book, Garrett and Upson attribute several kills to Billy that have been later refuted. Most notably, Buckshot Roberts who killed Billy’s friend Dick Bruer. George Coe, one of Billy’s friends, wrote a book in 1934 called Frontier Fighter that essentially removes those kills from Billy. Coe’s account is even corroborated by other eyewitness testimony. The actual number of people Billy killed is in debate. The oft heard axiom “he killed a man for every year of his life” (21 not including Mexicans and Indians) is a fantasy cooked up by over eager authors looking to dramatize the events in Billy’s life. It’s probably closer to 5 or 7.
But that’s what makes this book so interesting. In trying to tell their story, Garrett and Upson dramatize the events in Billy’s life and essentially create the legend they were trying to talk down. And that is why I enjoyed reading this book. Not because it’s a good read because, honestly, it’s not. However the events depicted and the implications put forth by the authors are fascinating as is a look at life in the Old West circa the 1880s.