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The Billy the Kid Reader

edited by Frederick Nolan, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2007, $29.95.

“No famous figure of the American West has more successfully and more tantalizingly resisted definitive understanding than Billy the Kid,” writes Frederick Nolan, who should know. Perhaps today’s most distinguished historian on the troubles in Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory, Nolan adds to his bibliography with an engaging collection of more than a century of writing about William H. Bonney.

The compendium of 26 articles is divided into two parts. The first nine stories highlight “The Legend,” the writings that popularized the myth shortly after Pat Garrett killed the Kid at Fort Sumner in 1881. Here is Don Jenardo’s “The True Life of Billy the Kid, No. 451” in the Five Cent Wide-Awake Library series published within six weeks of the Kid’s death—a precursor to Garrett’s own (with ghostwriter Ash Upson’s help) The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, published a year later. Neither of these works was true or authentic. Surprisingly, no excerpts come from the Garrett-Upson book, but Nolan includes works by Charles Siringo and Walter Noble Burns. The second half, “Legend into History,” examines the chroniclers who have reexamined the Kid’s life and times, from historians Philip J. Rasch, Robert N. Nullin and Nolan himself to Almer Blazer, who was 13 during the 1878 fight at Blazer’s Mill, and Deputy John W. Poe’s account of the shooting of the Kid.


Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here