Copied from the legendary tintype, this image sold at auction last June for $15,000.
Biographers of William H. Bonney have long suspected that his tintype—the rarest, most sought-after and representative image of the Wild West—was commercialized after his death on July 14, 1881. Researchers scoured the country, but no contemporary copy of the tintype had turned up in the 133 years since… until last November.
In 1880 and 1881 sensational news reports of the manhunt, capture, escape and killing of the Kid naturally raised curiosity regarding his appearance. Only a handful of people had laid eyes on any of the four 2-by-3-inch tintypes, on which the subject’s features were scarcely larger than a dime. Although a woodcut had been published during his lifetime, it was not widely circulated, and the few simple lines depicting the face were devoid of description and expression.
In September 1881 The Leavenworth Times announced it had received a “genuine picture of Billy the Kid…for the purpose of having copies taken by some one of our photographers.” The Kansas newspaper did not identify the photographer or what type of copies he would print, but the editor claimed it “shows the features well enough to give anyone who sees the picture an idea of the face of the boy.” The editor must have used a magnifying glass. “The picture,” he wrote, “represents the Kid leaning on a gun and looking square to the front with a jaunty daredevil kind of an expression, which he is said to have cultivated to an extreme.”
The report soon appeared in other newspapers, including the Albuquerque Daily Journal. The editor of Santa Fe’s Daily New Mexican must have read that edition, as on September 30 he quipped: “It is said that there is only one photograph of Billy the Kid extant, and [Lincoln County Sheriff] Pat Garrett has that. Most people in this section have seen as much of the Kid as they want to and will be able to get along without a picture.”
The second indication the tintype had been commercialized did not come until 1907 when noted Western author Emerson Hough (see “Pat Garrett’s Writing Pal Emerson Hough,” by Jeffrey R. Richardson, in the February 2014 Wild West) published a coarse halftone of it in his book The Story of the Outlaw. The image had an arched top and a straight bottom with rounded corners, indicating the tintype either sat in the window of a page in a photo album or in a paper display mat when Hough shot his copy negative. Decades passed before the badly faded silver-gelatin print used to make the halftone came to light in the author’s papers. On the back Hough had written in heavy lead pencil: “I found the old photo, carte de visite size, in old Fort Sumner. Return to E. Hough, 6140 Woodlawn Ave., Chicago.”
Evidently, Hough’s instruction to return the silver-gelatin enlargement was directed to George B. Anderson, who also published the image that year in History of New Mexico: Its Resources and Peoples. Although Hough’s publisher had etched lines into the background, identical surface marks indicate that both halftones derived from the same silver-gelatin print or from the now lost copy negative from which it was printed. The halftones had one other thing in common: The face was indistinct, the features unreadable; the image captured the Kid’s jaunty posture, but not his daredevil expression.
In November 2013 a carte de visite surfaced within 20 miles of the Kid’s boyhood home of Silver City, N.M. It is a copy photograph that shows the authenticated tintype sitting in the beveled window of a page in a tintype photo album. The face is well defined, the expression distinct. The 17/8 by 31/4 image is centered on a 21/2 by 41/8 card with rounded corners (machine cuts manufactured from 1870 to 1891) on 6mm card stock (manufactured from 1873 to 1884). It is consistent, therefore, with an 1881-era carte de visite, the year in which demand for the Kid’s photo was at its peak. On closer examination it bears the same surface marks later recorded by Emerson Hough on his copy negative and silver gelatin print. Hough had snapped his shutter not on a tintype and when it was made or who made it. However, it is a good example of a period carte de visite that may very well have come out of Leavenworth, Kan. As of this writing the carte de visite’s history has remained a mystery, though, as the family that owned it insisted on anonymity and refused to respond to inquiries.
The carte de visite found its way to the annual Brian Lebel’s Old West Show & Auction [www.denveroldwest.com] at the Denver Mart. Lebel grabbed headlines in June 2011 when he sold the tintype of Billy the Kid for $2.3 million —the highest amount ever paid for a photograph of the American West. At the Denver auction this past June 28 the CDV of the Kid sold to a phone bidder for $15,000 plus the 18 percent ($2,700) buyer’s premium. The pre-auction high estimate was $10,000.
Richard Weddle is the author of the 1993 monograph Antrim Is My Stepfather’s Name: The Boyhood of Billy the Kid, the August 2012 Wild West article “Shooting Billy the Kid” and the forthcoming book Billy the Kid: An Iconographic Record. Weddle thanks Robert G. McCubbin and Brian Lebel, both of Santa Fe, and Sherry B. Stuart, of the Open Range Gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz., for their assistance.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.