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Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett ended the life of Billy the Kid on July 14, 1881, when he shot the most wanted outlaw in the darkness of his friend Pee Maxwell’s bedroom in Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory.

That seems like a simple enough historic fact about arguably the most famous fatal shooting of a prominent 19th-century Western shootist. Also in the running are Bob Ford’s April 3, 1882, back-shooting of Jesse James in Jesse’s home in St. Joseph, Missouri, and Jack McCall’s assassination of Wild Bill Hickok on Aug. 2, 1876, in a saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory.

Killing Wild West legends

One thing those three shootings have in common is that in each case the victim didn’t have a fighting chance. When it comes to the deaths of both Billy and Jesse, various people (some even reasonable) through the years have disputed that the outlaws actually died at those days and locales. I have never heard anyone suggest that Wild Bill actually survived the point-blank shot to the back of his head and that his fine poker hand, aces and eights, should be called the “almost-dead man’s hand.”

Billy the Kid’s violent death differs from the other two in that the man who shot him, Garrett, is held in much higher esteem than either Ford or McCall. After all, the sheriff was acting in the line of duty and didn’t want to take any chances against the young man who on April 28, 1881, had killed two of his deputies during an escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse. Still, there are those who suggest Garrett acted cowardly for firing as soon as Maxwell identified the third man in the dark room as Billy.

“Half blinded by the gun flash, Garrett dived to one side to avoid return fire,” writes Frederick Nolan in “The ‘West of Billy the Kid.“Seeing the faint gleam of the washstand and fearing it was the Kid getting up, he fired off a panicked [second] shot that ricocheted and buried itself in the headboard of Maxwell’s bed.”


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questions about Billy the Kid’s Death

How cowardly Garrett might have been is not a question for those who don’t believe he even did it. These doubters contend Billy’s death was somehow faked.

“Such a hoax,” says Billy Markley, author of “Billy the Kid & Jesse James: Outlaws of the Legendary West,” “would have had to include Sheriff Pat Garrett and deputies, the Maxwell family, members of the coroner’s inquest and virtually every resident of Fort Sumner.”

Nevertheless, William “Brushy Bill” Henry Roberts’ claim that he was actually Billy the Kid has persisted long after Roberts’ death in 1950.

Even if we agree that Garrett, heroically or not, did kill Billy, could we be wrong about it having occurred on July 14, 1881? Yes, it’s possible, because it isn’t clear whether Pat pulled the trigger before or after midnight that Thursday night. One man who looked into the matter, Robert Stahl, says that the New Mexico Territory’s Las Vegas Daily Optic of July 18, 1881, relates an account of a man who stayed at the hotel in Fort Sumer on the 14th “and about 12:30 o’clock that night his peaceful slumber was disturbed by two pistol shots fired in rapid succession.”

A small matter perhaps because it’s still the same night, but to some of us, there is no small matter when it comes to the fascinating true story of Billy the Kid.