The Man Who Invented Billy the Kid: The Authentic Life of Ash Upson, by John LeMay with contributions by Robert J. Stahl, Bicep Books, Roswell, N.M., 2020, $29.99
The name Ash Upson is fairly well known among Wild West aficionados, but only for one reason: He was the ghostwriter of Pat Garrett’s 1882 book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, published the year after Lincoln County Sheriff Garrett shot down Billy in Lincoln, New Mexico Territory, and still in print today. That book helped create the mythology surrounding the Kid, as it is full of falsehoods, some of which displeased Garrett himself. Upson was a longtime newspaperman, among other things, who definitely invented or embellished “facts,” but he also had a way with words and actually knew Billy. “I don’t intend to go down the same path as Ash by making up fantastic exploits of Ash’s life—though he may have liked that,” writes John LeMay, whose earlier books include Tall Tales & Half Truths of Billy the Kid (2015) and Tall Tales & Half Truths of Pat Garrett (2016). “I will stick to the facts. I will warn you, though, dear reader, that before he settled in New Mexico in the 1970s, the events in Ash’s life are very, very hard to pin down.”
Although Connecticut-born Upson’s life is shrouded in mystery, not unlike that of the Kid, LeMay does a good job of presenting the case that Ash deserves to be known for more than just ghostwriting the one book for his friend Garrett. Besides working for newspapers in New York, Cincinnati, Denver, Albuquerque and elsewhere, the itinerant journalist published in local papers his reminiscences of the Lincoln County War and the origins of Roswell, N.M. “Had Ash not done this, the history of Southeastern New Mexico would be very lacking,” writes LeMay, a Roswell native and past president of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico, based in that New Mexico city. Upson lived for a time at Garrett’s ranch near Roswell, and he wrote favorably of the former sheriff’s ambitious 1880s plan to irrigate the Pecos Valley. In an 1888 newspaper article about the “gigantic undertaking,” Ash wrote that Garrett, “in addition to being long-headed…is likewise long-legged, his full height being somewhat under 10 feet.” In the previous decade Upson claimed to have met young Henry Antrim (the future William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid) at the Silver City boardinghouse run by the boy’s mother, Catherine Antrim. That might not be true, but the author confirms Upson “did meet Bonney in Roswell, the small hamlet which Ash had a hand in protecting during the Lincoln County War.”
Upson wrote often colorful letters to his Connecticut relatives, particularly to nephew Frank Downs and favorite niece Florence “Hurricane” Downs Muzzy, who kept her uncle’s letters. Thus LeMay was able to “let Ash tell his story in his own words as much as possible”—a wise decision, as Upson had much to say about events in the Pecos Valley and elsewhere in Lincoln County. LeMay not only quotes liberally from those letters in the main text but also includes two appendices devoted to Upson’s letters and correspondence. At age 37 in 1866 Ash wrote sister Em about his wanderlust, saying, “It’s no use to recapitulate my life, but know, sister dear, if I had a fortune at command today, you might as well attempt to follow the gossamer in a gale as to keep track of me.” Thanks to LeMay we can better keep track of a man who rubbed elbows with Garrett, knew the Kid and just might rate as the foremost literary figure in 1880s Lincoln County.
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