KID KEEPS LAUGHIN’

Billy the Kid, based on his one accepted surviving photograph, didn’t look much like Paul Newman, Kris Kristofferson, Emilio Estevez or any of the other actors who portrayed him in film. For one thing he had those imperfect choppers. “The Kid used to have buckteeth that made him look like he was laughin’ when he wasn’t,” recalled Fort Sumner (N.M.) tour guide Old Man Charlie Foor in Walter Noble Burns’ popular 1926 book The Saga of Billy the Kid. “It kind o’ gives you the creeps to think of him down there under the earth still laughin’,” If the Kid is still laughing, despite being shot down by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett 138 years ago, it’s likely due to the sometime quarrelsome fuss made over his short, violent life. “The Kid holds a grip on the world’s imagination shared by few other Americans,” says University of New Mexico (UNM) history professor Paul Andrew Hutton, who lives and works in the state where Billy’s grip remains tightest. “He is certainly America’s most famous outlaw, bigger than Jesse James or John Dillinger.”

The Kid’s grip definitely extends to Virginia-based Wild West, perhaps only exceeded hereabouts by George Armstrong Custer, the Civil War “Boy General” of Little Bighorn infamy. In this first issue of 2019 author Richard Eutlain, who taught at UNM from 1979 until 2001 and shares Hutton’s fascination with bucktoothed Billy, considers seven lingering questions about the Kid. A definitive answer to Etulain’s No. 1 question—Where was Billy born?—has eluded researchers for decades. He is reputed to have New York City origins, though Bronx–born, Long Island–raised singer-songwriter Billy Joel suggests in his historically spurious “Ballad of Billy the Kid,” the outlaw was “from a town known as Wheeling, West Virginia.” Etulain and Hutton concur the mystery only deepens with regard to Billy’s early years.

Rumors also persist regarding the Kid’s death on July 14, 1881. Etulain’s No. 6 question—Did Pat Garrett kill Billy the Kid?—stems from a longstanding myth that Billy lived to a ripe old age. Hutton, like almost all Western historians, dismisses the notion, though he admits such mysteries “add to the Kid’s allure.” So, too, do all the alleged photos of him, creating what Hutton calls a “cottage industry” around his image. “What is fascinating about all this,” he suggests, “is how relatively unknown Billy was before Walter Noble Burns’ best seller and the many movies derived from it and other Billy tales. He is in many ways a Hollywood creation.”

Ah, those Kid movies! Wild West special contributor Johnny D. Boggs revisits 75 of them in his 2013 book, Billy the Kid on Film, 1911–2012, and concludes they mostly deliver flawed history, and that a great Kid film has yet to be made. Regardless, fans of the Kid and Westerns tend to be serial watchers of the various offerings. “My favorite Billy films are Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Kristofferson my No. 1 as Billy), Young Guns (Estevez is fabulous as Billy) and the original Johnny Mack Brown Billy the Kid (1930),” says Hutton. “I also enjoy The Left Handed Gun (Newman as Billy) and One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando plays the Billy figure), because they are such great period pieces. Billy’s escape from jail is always a great scene, as are several of his death scenes (not to mention the high drama of when he ‘does in’ Dracula in Billy the Kid vs. Dracula). He certainly was an outlaw boy for all seasons.”

In response to his final question—Why does Billy the Kid remain a phenomenon 138 years after his death?—Etulain offers several answers. So does Hutton: “What helps sustain his place in memory is that he was a true Robin Hood character—dispensing gun smoke justice in a truly lawless land (well, there was law, but it was corrupt). He would not compromise, never surrendered and thus just keeps riding.” And possibly laughing, too, especially if the forever young outlaw seemingly blessed with eternal life (or at least as long as Wild West is published) ever caught a glimpse of his on-screen battle with that most famous of all vampires. WW

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire wrote the 2014 historical novel Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly and “Halfway to Hell” in the 2018 anthology The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories. His article about frontier baseball in Roundup, the membership magazine of Western Writers of America, earned him a 2015 Stirrup Award.