Search This Blog

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Billy the Kid is Still an Outlaw!

A couple of year back, there was talk about the possible pardon of the notorious outlaw, Billy the Kid. It ended up not happening.   Billy the Kid is still an outlaw. 

In his last day in office, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson announced on New Year’s Eve he would not grant a posthumous pardon to the infamous Old West bad guy, after drawing international attention by entertaining a petition on Billy the Kid's behalf. 

The pardon request had centered on whether Billy the Kid, who was shot to death in 1881 after escaping jail where he awaited hanging in the killing of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady in 1878, had been promised a pardon from New Mexico's territorial governor, Lew Wallace, in return for testimony in killings he had witnessed. 

But the descendants of Wallace and Sheriff Pat Garrett, who fatally shot the fugitive, were outraged over the proposal.  Pauline Garrett Tillinghast expressed her concern that a pardon would tarnish her grandfather's legacy. Though the pardon might have been narrowly tailored, she said, "It's ridiculous to pardon a murderer.  Hollywood has turned him into some sort of a folk hero."  Pat Garrett's grandson J.P.Garrett and Wallace's great-grandson William Wallace also publicly opposed the possibility of pardon.
According to legend, Billy the Kid killed 21 people, one for each year of his life. The New Mexico Tourism Department puts the total closer to nine. The Kid was a ranch hand and gunslinger in the bloody Lincoln County War, a feud between factions vying to dominate the dry goods business and cattle trading in southern New MexicoBilly the Kid killed two deputies while escaping jail. 
The person filing the request for pardon argued that LewWallace promised to pardon the Kid, also known as William Bonney or Henry McCarty. She said the Kid kept his end of the bargain, but the territorial governor did not. But, J.P.Garrett of Albuquerque said there's no proof Gov. Wallace offered a pardon -- and may have tricked the Kid into testifying. 

"The big picture is that Wallace obviously had no intent to pardon Billy -- even telling a reporter that fact in an interview on April 28, 1881," he wrote. "So there was no 'pardon promise' that Wallace broke. But I do think there was a pardon 'trick,' in that Wallace led Billy on to get his testimony."

Garrett also said that when the Kid was awaiting trial in Brady's killing, "he wrote four letters for aid, but never used the word 'pardon."'

William Wallace of WestportConn., said his ancestor never promised a pardon and that pardoning the Kid "would declare Lew Wallace to have been a dishonorable liar." 

According to historians, The Kid in fact wrote Wallace in 1879, volunteering to testify if Wallace would annul pending charges against him, including a murder indictment in Brady's death.

A tantalizing part of the question is a clandestine meeting Wallace had with the Kid in Lincoln in March 1879. The Kid's letters leave no doubt he wanted Wallace to at least grant him immunity from prosecution.  Wallace, in arranging the meeting, responded: "I have authority to exempt you from prosecution if you will testify to what you say you know."

But when the Las VegasN.M., Gazette asked Wallace shortly before he left office about prospects he would spare the Kid's life, Wallace replied: "I can't see how a fellow like him should expect any clemency from me." 

The historical record on the pardon is ambiguous, and there are no written documents "pertaining in any way" to a pardon in the papers of the territorial governor, who served in office from 1878 to 1881. 
Of interest, Governor Richardson’s office set up a web-site so citizens could weight in on the subject of the pardon. His office received 809 e-mails and letters, with 430 favoring a pardon and 379 opposed. Comments came from all over the world.  I’d say the issue was fairly split down the middle probably along moral and political line, I suspect.

Governor Richardson said that he decided against a pardon "because of a lack of conclusiveness and the historical ambiguity as to why Gov. Wallace reneged on his promise."  Richardson states said the Kid is part of New Mexico history and he's been interested in the case for years. 

I’m not writing this post from a political point of view, strictly from an historical one.  The interesting part is some 136 years after killing numerous people, including lawmen, and being shot to death, the life and legend of Billy the Kid still can’t be put to rest.

So tell me who is your favorite controversial historical figure?


  1. Such is the joy and curse of mythos surrounding the lawmen and outlaws of the expasion of a country. The offering of both sides of the story allow people to either make up their mind or to dig deeper. Either way, I enjoyed this post. Doris

  2. Hi Doris, so glad to hear from you. I think Billy the Kid was one of the most interesting outlaws ever. Of course he ran this area, so that makes him a tad more appealing. The women loved him. There was definitely two sides to this outlaw. Thanks for leaving a comment. Hugs, Phyliss

  3. Phyliss, I have to agree with the families--it IS ridiculous to pardon a murderer! Even after all those years, the fact remains that he still did the murders. LOL Oh, what an interesting outlaw he was--but so many of them are--just makes you wonder what set them on their life of crime and kept them on it. My favorite controversial historical figure...I'm not sure who that would be...there are so many of them. By the way, as a side note--did you know that Lew Wallace was the author of Ben Hur? Besides being the governor of New Mexico Territory for a spell, he was also a Union general in the Civil War, and wrote Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ that has been a bestselling book since it was published in 1880.

    Very interesting post. I love to learn these little tidbits about historical people.



  4. Phyliss,

    Putting aside the historical accuracy (or inaccuracies) about Billy the Kid's life, I have to admit that I'm a fan of both the 'Young Guns' movies.

    Favorite controversial historical figure... now, that's a difficult question to answer. From the American Old West, I am enamored with Doc Holliday. He was such a 'colorful' character.

    From history in general, it would be Rasputin. Maybe that Alan Rickman portrayed Rasputin in a movie by the same name influenced me just a little. ;-) It's intriguing to me that he had such power over Czar Nicholas II's family.

  5. Phyliss,

    Very interesting post. It amazes me how Billy The Kid remains an outlaw hero even after killing so many, and I have to admit to finding his life and history fascinating. But I have to agree with families, he shouldn't be pardoned.

    There are so many controversial historical figures, I don't know if I could choose just one. Kaye brings up a good one in Doc Holliday, but there are so many more.

  6. Hi Miss Cheryl, I think I did know that Wallance was an author, but totally forgot. It's one of those things that get hidden under the bed of your mind and comes out when someone else mentions it. Thanks for doing so! I am positive I did not know about the second book. Thanks for dropping by and I'll talk with you soon. Hugs, P

  7. Good to see you, Kaye. You gave me information I didn't know about; however, I agree with Doc Holliday. Colorful to say the least. Have a great day! Hugs, Phyliss

  8. Hi Kirsten, glad to see you today. It is amazing how someone could be a good outlaw, but there are. Guess it proves out our writing theory that good guys have to have one bad trait and a bad guy three bad ones, but a good one. Seems Doc Holiday is the winner, so far! Have a great day. Hugs, Phyliss

  9. I'm not sure what to make of this whole controversy. It seems a little ridiculous to pardon anyone 150 years after his death, unless there's clear evidence he or she was wrongly convicted. In Billy the Kid's case, he's dead. Does he care? To the best of my knowledge, he had no direct descendants, so I'm not even sure why someone would tender a request for pardon.

    On the other hand, neither Wallace nor Garrett had a particularly stellar reputation. Wallace was a disgraced Union general whose behavior at Shiloh could have changed the outcome in favor of the Confederacy. He spent the rest of his life trying to get out from under that persistent blot on his character. (He wasn't elected governor of New Mexico; instead, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him as a political favor.) Had Wallace not written Ben Hur, he would have died in poverty. One does have to give the man props for Ben Hur, but if not for that novel's extraordinary success, he would have been little more than a historical footnote. To this day, ask 100 people who Lew Wallace was, and 99 of them will respond, "Who?"

    Garrett reportedly was somewhat known as an accomplished shootist during his lifetime, but killing Billy the Kid is what made him famous. Garrett was better known as an unpleasant person to be around, according to published reports of the day. Like Custer, Garrett's family kept his legend alive, and that may be what made Billy the Kid legendary, as well. Without their famous dust-up, both of them might have been relegated to footnote status, too.

    I can't for the life of me figure out why everyone is fighting over this. None of the three men would have become legendary without the others.

    Off the soapbox now. **sheepish grin**

  10. Phyliss,I got carried away and neglected to mention I really enjoyed your post. I hadn't realized there was some weird controversy about Billy the Kid. This is exactly the kind of little-known thing I dearly love. :-)

  11. Hi Kathleen, good to see you today. I didn't know everything about Wallace. Actually, very little, so thanks for sharing. I'll add that to a little white space in my head and maybe, just maybe, one day will need it and it'll burst forward thanks to you. Also, thanks for the compliment. I wrote this blog originally when the whole thing came up but since then it's been forgotten by all. Have a great weekend. Hugs, Phyliss

  12. Nice post Phyliss,

    I personally can't imagine why there should be a pardon. It's not going to change the history of this interesting young man.

    Another controversial outlaw was Jesse James. I recently read a couple of books on him. He was credited with robberies he may or may not have committed. But like Billy the Kid, they were what the media made them out to be during their lives. Otherwise they wouldn't have been as romanticized by the public. Black Jack Ketchum was a wicked, evil hearted man. Most of the accounts I have read on him were truly horrid. He didn't get the media coverage Billy the Kid and Jesse James got. lol

  13. What an amazing article, Phyliss. I never heard of the possibility of a pardon. As much as the media has glorified Billy the Kid for the sake of making money, I have to agree with the decision not to pardon the outlaw. Can you imagine years from now giving a pardon to Manson? I was gripped by your blog. Great research. I apologize for showing up late.