Here Lies Billy the Kid, by David S. Turk, Cold West Publishing, Barto, Pa., 2019, $28
Controversy and mystery shroud the life of Billy the Kid, from just where and when he was born to his role in New Mexico Territory’s Lincoln County War (whether he deserved amnesty, as others received, from Governor Lew Wallace), and from his 1881 death in Fort Sumner at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett to modern-day fights over the exhumation of his body (for DNA testing) and his prominent place in New Mexico history (including his value to the tourism industry, despite his outlaw status).
Author David Turk, historian of the U.S. Marshals Service, previously wrote Blackwater Draw, an examination of the murder of three of Billy the Kid’s enemies in Lincoln County. In the introduction to Here Lies Billy the Kid Turk says right off the bat he thinks there have been “too many books about Billy the Kid,” but then suggests his book about the battle between two New Mexico towns over Billy’s body “adds to the genre” and is “perhaps one of the last original topics on Billy the Kid.”
The Kid spent most of his short adult life in New Mexico Territory, primarily in and around the town of Lincoln in Lincoln County. But he also made his presence felt in Fort Sumner, where Garrett gunned him down and which later became the seat of De Baca County. The towns have had different ideas about how to deal with Billy, particularly his remains. Fort Sumner jealously guarded his grave (the main reason visitors came to town), while many in Lincoln felt he should have been reinterred in their town, which in the 1950s sought to become a “Williamsburg of the West.”
Lois Telfer, a redheaded beautician living in New York City, claimed she had an ancestor who was a twin to Billy’s father, and when she sided with Lincoln in April 1961, it prompted the battle central to Turk’s book. Local newspapers published missives from commissioners and others from both communities, and as battle lines were drawn, lerk writes, “attorneys battled in the courts and newspapers, bringing mocking comparisons to the Lincoln County War—when the Kid was alive.”
As the author details, the fight over Billy’s body was made more complicated by the remains of Kid compadres Charlie Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard, which are reportedly buried beneath the same Fort Sumner tombstone. The exhuming process, a judge concluded, might unnecessarily disturb the other remains. Talk of digging up Billy resurfaced early in the 21st century, but that’s another story. The 1961–62 story Turk relates is an interesting one, at least to the many folks who continue to have Billy the Kid very much on their minds.