History is full of conspiracy theories. Everything from the assassination of President Lincoln to the Apollo Moon Landings to UFO sightings is fair game to people who are convinced of government cover-ups. While I don’t always agree with them, I do enjoy a good conspiracy theory. They make life more interesting! And, they tend to introduce us to some very interesting folks.
Today, I’m going to tell you about a good ol’ Wild West conspiracy theory. This one involves the infamous outlaw, Billy the Kid, and a man who was known as Brushy Bill Roberts.The question is. . .which one is the real Billy the Kid? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions and I’m going to try to keep an open mind, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned with age, it’s that I don’t know half as much as I used to think I did!
Before we get into the nitty gritty conspiracy stuff, let’s cover some of the Billy the Kid basics. He was born in 1859, in the slums of New York City. Yes, before he was Billy the Kid, he was Billy the Baby. We’re going to skip right over his childhood because most of what can be found about that is myth. Sources can’t even agree on his real name, but it was likely William Henry McCarty Jr. Or maybe it was William Bonney. Or perhaps it was Henry Bonney. For all I know it was Rumpelstiltskin, but I don’t suppose it matters. The good thing about Western history is that we’re not tied down the to the facts and that makes for fantastic stories. The bad thing is that over time, it becomes almost impossible to separate truth from balderdash!
But I do want to clear up a few things, right off the bat:
- Billy the Kid did not kill his first man at the age of twelve. By the time Billy was supposed to have killed a man for insulting his mama, his mama had already been dead for a year!
- He was not illiterate.
- He wasn’t known as a drunk.
- He wasn’t known for being ugly. Hey, anyone can take a bad picture. It’s just unfortunate that the only official photograph of Billy the Kid wasn’t a flattering one!
- There were no “Wanted” posters for Billy the Kid. The images you have seen were made as souvenirs.
- He was never a member of the James Gang. He might have been an outlaw, but Billy the Kid had no interest in robbing banks and trains with Jesse James! Outlaws have standards, too!
- He wasn’t known for his hot temper and he did not kill twenty-one men.
Now, I realize that this is taking a lot of the air out of the “Billy the Kid as an outlaw” balloon. If it will make you feel any better about his outlaw status, he is believed to have killed somewhere between four and nine men, although most of those shootings are said to have been in self-defense. Is your head spinning? Well, hold on to yer hat! I haven’t even gotten to the conspiracy theory yet!
Are You Kidding Me?
Billy the Kid was shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881. Right? I mean, that should be easy enough to verify. Well, it depends on whom you ask! Billy the Kid was about to be hanged from a noose in New Mexico for the murder of Sheriff William Brady. The Kid escaped from the Lincoln County Jail. Sheriff Garrett tracked him down and shot him in Fort Sumner.
Billy the Kid was quickly buried and Sheriff Garrett had the glory of being the one responsible for taking down the photogenically challenged outlaw. (Yes, I know that “photogenically” is not really a word.) Soon after the shooting, Garrett wrote a biography entitled, The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid, though he didn’t let accuracy get in the way of a good story.
There were always people who doubted Sheriff Garrett’s story. Even one of the men who was with Garrett at the time of the shooting, said that the man who was shot was not Billy the Kid. The speed of burial led to more gums flapping about a cover-up. And then there’s this guy… Brushy Bill Roberts!
New Kid on the Block
Long after the person shot by Sheriff Garrett was buried in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, Brushy Bill Roberts surfaced in the small town of Hico, Texas. That wouldn’t be notable except Brushy Bill claimed to be Billy the Kid. This “Billy the Kid” made more than a few believers of the townfolk, and from this comparison photo, I’d say that they had good reason!
The Hico town motto is, “Where everybody is somebody!” And, in Hico, Brushy Bill Roberts could be Billy the Kid!
When not going by the name Brushy Bill, Roberts went by Ollie Partridge Roberts. He claimed that to be an assumed name. He would also answer to William Henry Roberts. He lived in Hico for seventeen years, but it wasn’t until the late 1940s that his claim of an outlaw past surfaced. Of course, people didn’t just take his word for it. They wanted proof. And, when an examination revealed that Brushy Bill had bullet wounds to match those of Billy the Kid, the folks of Hico were sure that they had a living ghost in their midst. The fact that Brushy Bill’s dates were a bit sketchy didn’t seem to matter. When Brushy Bill died in 1950, he was buried with an elaborate marker identifying him as Billy the Kid, in Hamilton, Texas.
You might think that this issue could be easily resolved. Hey, I’ve seen enough crime shows to know that a little DNA can wrap up a case in one hour of prime time television. But, by golly, that requires DNA. A 1904 flood destroyed the cemetery where Billy the Kid #1 is buried. The bodies were collected, but there was no way to identify them. So, although there is a tombstone for Billy the Kid in New Mexico, there’s no telling who is resting beneath it. Billy the Kid #2 (or Brushy Bill) is resting comfortably in Hamilton, Texas, but there’s no living relative to provide a DNA match.
One thing is for sure. Fort Sumner, New Mexico and Hico, Texas are both happy to lay claim to the outlaw. Both towns have their own Billy the Kid Museum, though, as you might guess, they have different stories to tell.
I have a hunch that neither the residents of New Mexico nor Texas are chomping at the bit to solve this mystery. I suppose there are worse things than the same man having two museums and two graves. As I said before, this is the stuff that makes life interesting!
Here’s Billy’s whole story, beautifully told in an hour-long video, from the PBS series The American Experience!
Happy trails, y’all!