Billy the Kid’s Writings, Words & Wit, by Gale Cooper, Gelcour Books, Albuquerque, N.M., 2011, $34.95
Author Cooper prides herself as a revisionist historian who considers William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, to have been a freedom fighter against the corrupt Santa Fe Ring during the 1870s Lincoln County War. She developed this “Billy is not an outlaw” theme in her 664-page novel (she also calls it “docufiction”) Joy of the Birds, which first came out in 2009. Her next two offerings have not been without controversy: MegaHoax: The Strange Plot to Exhume Billy the Kid and Become President (2010) and Billy the Kid’s Pretenders: Brushy Bill and John Miller (2010), which was excerpted in part from MegaHoax. Cooper’s intense involvement in upholding the “truth” about the Kid has also placed her in legal fights against what she calls the “modern Santa Fe Ring.” The fight has hardly gone out of Cooper, but her latest book offers in 592 pages something believers and nonbelievers alike should find of value—a printing of all of all the words Billy left in a disposition, letters, court testimony and newspaper articles.
His words, she writes in her preface, “are of a teenager unintimidated by authority; audaciously bargaining for clemency with a governor, or testifying against murderers and the military for his own anti-Ring agenda.” Along with these writings, of course, the book includes plenty of commentary (in brackets or boldface and often intriguing) by the outspoken author. But if you want the stuff straight, she reproduces all of Billy’s original writings in Appendixes 1–11. She notes that the Kid’s early letters are articulate and literate and written in fine Spencerian penmanship, and that later he wrote imperfect script because he was wearing handcuffs.
In addition to her commentary—based on her read of “40,000 pages of archival documents and books” related to the Kid—Cooper offers a new (or at least long overlooked) document she has authenticated. She found it in the Lew Wallace Collection at the Indiana Historical Society (suggesting Governor Wallace was the likely recipient) and calls it the “Billie” letter fragment, because she couldn’t find its missing front page or pages, and because the Kid signed it “Billie” rather than “Billy.” Cooper says the “ie” instead of a “y” might have been the Kid’s usual spelling, since his other signatures use only “W.H.,” “W,” “Wm” or “William” along with “Bonney.” The letter alludes to events in the Lincoln County War (“less a pardon plea, and more a sharing of Billy’s insights,” says Cooper) and was written on folio stationery with a “Lady Liberty” stamp Cooper says matches that in signed letters of Bonney allies in Lincoln, New Mexico Territory, in 1879. And what about the Wit in the book title? Well there is a chapter called “Billy’s Ironic Wit.” Once when a reporter suggested prisoner Bonney appeared to be taking things easy, the Kid areed: “Yes. What’s the use of looking on the gloomy side of everything. The laugh’s on me this time.”