Interview with Author Mark Lee Gardner

By Johnny D. Boggs
4/2/2010 • Abraham Lincoln Assassination, George Custer, Geronimo, James Gang, John Wilkes Booth, Outlaws, Theodore Roosevelt, Wild West

Mark Lee Gardner visits the Kid's grave in Sumner, N.M.
Mark Lee Gardner visits the Kid's grave in Sumner, N.M.
Mark Lee Gardner is a man of many hats. A professional historian of the Old West, he has written for the National Park Service on a variety of subjects, including the Santa Fe Trail, Geronimo and George Armstrong Custer. He’s also a traveling musician—often performing Old West tunes with Rex Rideout—and in-demand music historian (Gardner edited and wrote the introduction to Jack Thorp’s Songs of the Cowboys, published by the Museum of New Mexico Press, which includes a CD of songs Thorp collected, performed by Gardner and Rideout).

Visiting professor, consultant for various museums, historic sites and humanities councils—Gardner’s résumé goes on and on. His latest book is To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West (William Morrow, $26.99), a dual biography of these Southwest legends. Gardner, who lives in Cascade, Colo., took time from researching his next book (about the James-Younger Gang’s 1876 bank robbery fiasco in Northfield, Minn.) to speak with Wild West about Garrett and the Kid, those two intertwined Westerners.

‘There’s no question [Pat Garrett] was a dogged lawman with a well-deserved reputation for getting the job done. At the same time, he is a tragic figure, with the greatest tragedy being his transformation into a villain for killing Billy the Kid’

What made you want to tackle Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid?
I originally considered doing a biography of Pat Garrett, as I have long been fascinated by his story, particularly his final years and his 1908 murder, but when I mentioned the idea to my literary agent (Jim Donovan, author of A Terrible Glory), he suggested a dual biography of the Kid and Garrett. The more I thought about it, the more I liked Jim’s idea, because it’s impossible to tell Garrett’s story without writing about the Kid, and you can’t tell the Kid’s story without bringing in Garrett. They truly made each other. Yet no one had ever published a dual biography, which made Jim’s suggestion even more appealing.

Among the great myths of the Pat and Billy legend is that they were best friends. What did you learn?
Although some Lincoln County old-timers—Kid sympathizers—claimed the Kid and Garrett were close friends, I was not totally convinced. I wondered if they were trying to demonize Garrett even more by making the lawman into a traitor who killed his best friend. And, obviously, there’s no denying the drama and tragedy in the story of two friends on opposite sides of the law. But I believe I came across their true relationship in the obscure account of James E. Sligh, a White Oaks newspaper editor who came from the same Louisiana parish as Garrett. Sligh said Garrett told him that while he knew the Kid well, they were neither friends nor enemies: “He minds his business, and I attend to mine.” That struck me as very believable.

Actually, if there’s a traitor in the story, it’s Barney Mason, Garrett’s friend and deputy. Mason was chums with Billy and the gang at Fort Sumner (gang member Billy Wilson boarded in the Mason home). But Mason eventually allied himself with Garrett and became a paid “informer” against his old buddies—$2 a day plus expenses.

Is Billy a major or minor player in the Lincoln County war?
Minor. Billy owned no stores, cattle or land in Lincoln County. Although his feats during the war are now legendary, he remained a hired hand/gun.

Billy’s pal was named Tom Folliard instead of O’Folliard. How did you discover that?
I first learned of the O’Folliard error through a now-defunct Billy the Kid discussion board (none of the Kid boards seem to last very long; the discussions tend to get a little heated). I next did a search of the U.S. census, and, sure enough, I found him in the 1870 census as Thomas Folliard (and his parents in the 1860 census with their surname spelled Fulliard). This doesn’t really change the story, but as a historian, you always strive to get the details right.

Who do you think killed posse member Jimmy Carlyle at the Greathouse Ranch in November 1880?
I believe it was either the Kid, Dave Rudabaugh or Billy Wilson, perhaps all three. I think this because Dave Rudabaugh later admitted that both he and Wilson fired a shot apiece at Carlyle, and that the Kid had fired twice.

Why is there almost no record, especially in newspapers, of Billy’s trial in Mesilla?
We’re missing the issue from the Mesilla News that would have covered the trial, although Newman’s Semi-Weekly of Las Cruces, which we do have, failed to say much about it. The reason is that Billy was then far from becoming the international icon that he is now. He was a notorious outlaw, yes, but the excitement had passed shortly after his capture by Pat Garrett in December 1880, and the outcome of his trial was a bit of a foregone conclusion.

You say Billy overpowered Deputy James Bell and took his gun when he escaped from the Lincoln County Courthouse. Others claim someone stashed a pistol in the outhouse. Why the change?
I don’t feel the accounts claiming there was a gun in the outhouse are credible. It makes for a good story, but that’s as far as it goes. I follow the John P. Meadows version of the escape, which Meadows claimed to have gotten directly from the Kid. Meadows said that Billy struck Bell with his handcuffs at the top of the courthouse stairs, and the two then fell to the floor as they struggled over Bell’s gun. Significantly, a 2004 luminol test conducted by the Tom Sullivan/Steve Sederwall investigation at the top of the courthouse stairs revealed substantial blood residue, blood I believe came from the severe blow Billy delivered to Bell’s head.

You cite the importance of the U.S. Mail in Garrett’s search for Billy. Talk a bit about this.
Lincoln County was then the largest county in the United States, nearly 30,000 square miles. Garrett could not be everywhere at once, but then again, he did not have to be. The mail helped him gather leads on the Kid’s whereabouts, and it was so much more discreet than a large posse of gunmen. We know from Garrett’s own statements that he received several communications from Fort Sumner regarding the Kid (we also know that Garrett sent at least one letter to rancher Manuel Brazil asking if the Kid was around). Garrett later told former Texas Ranger James B. Gillette that a Fort Sumner merchant had written him that Billy was hanging around Pete Maxwell’s place because of a sweetheart. The U.S. Mail allowed people who were otherwise terrified of the Kid to inform on the outlaw without arousing any suspicions.

You also claim Billy had a gun when Garrett killed him. How did you reach that conclusion?
Garrett and Deputy John Poe wrote that the Kid had his pistol that night. I believe them. It’s usually the case that Kid sympathizers (and he has plenty today) are the ones to raise the question of whether or not Billy the Kid had a gun when he was killed, primarily for the purpose of condemning Garrett for shooting an unarmed man. Unabashed Kid lovers Jesus Silva and Deluvina Maxwell told author and former [New Mexico Territory] Governor Miguel Antonio Otero that Billy was unarmed. But Silva and Deluvina left contradictory accounts of that night. Also, it’s important to note that Garrett examined Billy’s pistol shortly after the shooting to see if the Kid had fired his weapon. It’s highly unlikely Garrett would have placed the Kid’s pistol back on the floor next to the body, which would explain why Fort Sumner residents saw Billy without a pistol. Lastly, I just can’t imagine Billy the Kid, the most wanted man in New Mexico Territory, going anywhere without a firearm, in sunshine or shadow.

What happened to Garrett’s fortunes after Billy’s death?
There were several triumphs and failures during the 27 years Garrett lived after killing Billy. His terms as Doña Ana County sheriff and especially his appointment as the El Paso customs collector by President Theodore Roosevelt were true high points. But Garrett was an inveterate risk taker who amassed huge debt from constant speculation in irrigation projects, mines, ranching, you name it. Had he stuck with what he was best at—being a man-hunter and lawman—I think his career would have had a far different outcome and legacy.

Garrett looked into the 1896 disappearance of attorney Albert Jennings Fountain and his son. Who do you think killed them?
I believe it was the men Garrett thought committed the crime: Oliver Lee, Jim Gililland and William McNew.

What was Garrett’s role in the manhunt and trial?
Garrett had two main objectives: find the Fountain bodies and obtain convictions of the murderers. Despite his best efforts, which included the loss of a deputy in a now-famous shootout with Lee and Gililland at Wildy Well, Garrett was unable to do either. The evidence presented at the 1899 trial of Lee and Gililland was indeed incriminating, but it was largely circumstantial. Garrett was a celebrity at the trial and remained unflappable on the witness stand, but Lee and Gililland were acquitted. New Mexicans continue to debate the Fountain case, and to this day the bodies of Albert and Henry Fountain remain undiscovered.

Pat Garrett. Tragic figure? Stalwart lawman? Murdering SOB? Or a combination?
There’s no question he was a dogged lawman with a well-deserved reputation for getting the job done. At the same time, he is a tragic figure (even more so than Billy), with the greatest tragedy being his transformation into a villain for killing Billy the Kid, a transformation that began soon after that fateful night in Fort Sumner. A perfect example of how Garrett is generally viewed today is Garrett’s presence in a 2001 volume titled The Book of Assassins. Pat Garrett, a duly elected county sheriff who risked his life (more than once) to end the Kid’s outlaw days, is featured in this book alongside the likes of John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. That’s a travesty. I hope (and I know this is asking a lot) that my book will perhaps change the way most Americans consider Garrett, humanize him to some extent. He was much more than just “the man who shot Billy the Kid.”

Billy the Kid. Heroic lad led astray? Homicidal maniac or murderous thug? Or a combination?
The mythic Billy is indeed heroic, but I don’t consider the real Billy to be heroic. Sure, the Kid got a raw deal when Governor Wallace failed to grant him the promised pardon, but I just don’t see the Kid going straight. He was too used to the easy way, and it was easier to steal what he wanted than to work for it. But he was no maniac or thug, either. The Kid had some good qualities and no lack of charisma. In fact, it was Billy’s humanity that cost him his life in the end. He hesitated to shoot Pat Garrett in Maxwell’s bedroom, because, I believe, he was afraid that shadowy figure next to Maxwell might be a friend. The fact that so many adored Billy, contemporaries who spoke fondly of him until their own deaths decades later, says a great deal about the Kid’s character. Is it possible to be a cold-blooded killer and a nice guy at the same time? You bet. The Kid lived in a very violent time and place, and he hung out with some desperate people. Killing was part of surviving.

Any thoughts on Billy’s birthplace?
I believe it was New York City. That’s the story Billy seemed to stick with the most, and that’s what was published in his own lifetime. Like Folliard’s true name, it’s a detail that would be nice to get right, but it doesn’t change the story. The story is what Billy did in New Mexico, not where he was born.

You uncovered some rather obscure accounts of Billy and Pat and the time in which they lived. Talk about some of these, where you found them, and the overall research process for this book.
Well, everyone who writes about the Kid, the Lincoln County War, and Garrett is fortunate to have an excellent body of scholarship to build upon, from such historians and writers as Maurice G. Fulton, William Keleher, Frederick Nolan, Leon Metz and Robert Utley. But you still have to do your legwork, and that means visiting archives and libraries that have pertinent collections. For instance, I spent a week at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, going through the papers of Eve Ball. She interviewed numerous Lincoln County old-timers, beginning in the late 1940s. These have hardly been touched by scholars. In addition to research conducted in archives and institutions, I also took advantage of modern technology, specifically the thousands of newspapers that have been digitally scanned and made available online. I spent hours and hours and hours on Newspaper Archive, where I found some great, previously unknown accounts.

One of my most exciting finds was definitely assisted by the Internet. I came across a reference in a 1960s interview by Leon Metz that one of the suspects in Garrett’s murder had later gone to prison in Arizona for killing a brother-in-law. I had no idea if there were any lists or records of Arizona territorial prisoners online, but there were, and I quickly located my man. After a few e-mails and phone calls I learned that these prison records had been microfilmed and digitally scanned. The prison record for my man included his photograph—the only one known and previously unpublished. Because I soon zeroed in on this individual as Pat Garrett’s killer, it became perhaps the most important find of my research. His prison record, complete with photo, is an illustration in my book.

Who killed Pat Garrett, and why?
It wasn’t Wayne Brazel, the man eventually tried for Garrett’s murder and acquitted on grounds of self defense. However, Brazel may very well have been responsible for the second shot, the one that struck Garrett in the stomach. The lethal first shot hit Garrett in the back of the head while he was urinating. As the identity of Garrett’s killer is a major revelation in my book, I think I’ll save that for your readers to discover. Most of them will probably be surprised at the killer’s identity.

Hey, you’re a noted music historian. Name some great Billy the Kid songs.
I really like Bob Dylan’s “Billy,” from the soundtrack of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Another favorite is the Marty Robbins’ version of “Billy the Kid,” written by Andrew Jenkins and Irene Spain in 1927. A truly great recent song is “Paulita Maxwell,” by the very talented (and very pretty) Lovell Sisters. You can listen to this song for free on their Web site.

So why doesn’t anybody write songs about Pat Garrett?
For the same reason that no one writes books about Pat Garrett. He has become the bad guy, the scoundrel who cut short the bold, romantic life of America’s—maybe even the world’s—favorite outlaw.

Your next project is on the James-Younger Gang’s Northfield raid. What can we expect from this book?
My manuscript is due the fall of 2011, and I’m already deep into the research. My goal with this next book is the same one I had with To Hell on a Fast Horse—produce an exciting, fast-paced narrative that accurately portrays these larger-than-life personalities and the dramatic events that made them legends. I find the story of the Northfield Raid and the subsequent manhunt for the robbers (the largest in the nation’s history up to that time) just as thrilling as the Billy the Kid/Pat Garrett story, and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to tell it.

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