Letter From Wild West – August 2012

Wouldn’t It Be Great if We Had a Billy the Kid Photo Album?
The lone accepted image only tells part of William Bonney’s story

Gracing our cover is the most treasured Wild West photo—a Billy the Kid tintype that went for $2.3 million at auction to Florida billionaire William I. Koch in June 2011. The tin Billy looks a bit silly, less than graceful and not particularly dangerous, even with a Winchester carbine in one hand and a holstered Colt within easy reach of his other hand (his right, as seen when the tintype’s reversed image is corrected). If you have ever wondered about the Kid’s southpaw status, that bulky sweater, his posing for the picture and the history behind the iconic image, flip to Richard Weddle’s article in this issue. The tintype dates from late 1879 or early 1880, but the photographer remains unknown, as does the reason the Kid decided to pose for him in (probably) Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory—the same village in which Sheriff Pat Garrett would shoot Billy dead on July 14, 1881.

Other Billy the Kid images have popped up, but only this tintype has gained full acceptance. Still, he could have had his picture taken at other times. Imagine a whole album full of Kid photos, all with dates, captions and unshakeable provenance. Why, if such a Billy bonanza existed, Bill Koch might have to borrow a few bucks from brothers Charles and David Koch to buy it. Of course, barring a miracle frontier find, Richard Weddle, Bill Koch and yours truly can only dream of this collection:

Earliest image (summer 1864, Manhattan, N.Y.): Toddler Henry McCarty swings a broom handle at the head of little brother Joe during a game of stickball.

Laundry image (March 1871, City Laundry, Wichita, Kan.): Bare-chested preteen Henry hands a soiled shirt to proprietor Catherine McCarty (alias Mom).

Wedding picture (March 1873, Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory): Bill Antrim, in his Sunday best, and Catherine, in her wedding dress, stand hand in hand while teenager Henry (not yet called Billy) is crying and clutching the bridal bouquet.

Funeral picture (September 16, 1874, Antrim Cabin, Silver City, New Mexico Territory): Henry, dressed in black, again holds flowers, but this time at his mother’s funeral.

First arrest picture (spring 1875, Silver City Jail): Henry reads the Police Gazette on a jailhouse cot, but the cell door is open, and Sheriff Harvey Whitehall stands to the right, grinning at the lad.

Windy and Henry photo (August 17, 1877, George Atkins’ Saloon, Camp Grant, Arizona Territory): Red-faced blacksmith Francis P. “Windy” Cahill holds his bleeding belly. Henry’s back is mostly to the camera, but he clearly holds a smoking gun (hard to tell, though, if it is in his right or left hand).

Bonney and the Boys picture (October 9, 1877, Tularosa, New Mexico Territory): A red-eyed Henry (who now calls himself Billy Bonney, Henry Antrim or Kid Antrim) toasts his freedom with Jesse Evans, Frank Baker and several other outlaws calling themselves “The Boys.”

I shot the sheriff photo (April 1, 1878, Lincoln, New Mexico Territory): With a smoking gun in hand, Billy stands over prone Lincoln County Sheriff Bill Brady while eyeing the sheriff’s Winchester.

Fire shot (July 19, 1878, McSween House, Lincoln): The place is on fire, and the smoke makes things blurry, but Susan McSween is at the door waving goodbye to Billy and perhaps her husband, too.

Escape photo (April 28, 1881, outdoor privy at Lincoln Courthouse): Billy, sitting stoically inside, removes newspaper wrapping from a revolver. A few words are scribbled at the bottom of the dark image: “Most likely taken by Deputy Sheriff James W. Bell.”

Death photo (July 14, 1881, Fort Sumner): A barefoot Billy the Kid, looking disturbingly like a young “Brushy Bill” Roberts, lies dead on a bench at Pete Maxwell’s place. Blood stains the photo. Place a magnifying glass over the left-hand corner, and you’ll see these words: “Wish you were here, Kid!—Lincoln County Sheriff Patrick F. Garrett.”

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