Billy the Kid's legend has hovered over the landscape of the American West for 125 years, a Hindenburg of hype and fantasy, always there to nourish those who merely look up. It will never crash and never burn.
The only question is: Where will it go next? In its latest incarnation, Airship Billy has come to Arizona, and it's entirely fitting. After all, unknown to most, the Kid shot his first man right here, about 120 miles southeast of Tucson. It happened on Aug. 17, 1877 at Camp Grant, near Safford.
A blacksmith named Francis Cahill--nicknamed Windy, for his inability to shut up--indulged his habit of bullying the Kid by pinning him to the ground and slapping him repeatedly across the face.
The Kid snapped. He jerked out his hog leg, jammed it into Cahill's belly and, with a bang, began the agonizing process that would, the next day, deliver the loudmouth to the angels.
Prior to the shooting, the combatants rendered their opinions of each other in the unambiguous language of the West.
Cahill to Kid: "You pimp!"
Kid to Cahill: "You sonofabitch!"
Ah, yes. To lovers of the frontier, the dialogue trumps Shakespeare.
The latest twist in the Kid's ever-expanding legend came last May, when two New Mexico men traveled to Prescott to exhume the body of John Miller, a complete unknown whose most memorable life deed was claiming that he, in fact, was Billy the Kid.
Miller died in 1937, which, if his claim is true, means that Sheriff Pat Garrett did not kill Billy with a bullet through the heart in Fort Sumner, N.M., on July 14, 1881, as the official version says.
You might remember the names of the two investigators--Tom Sullivan, a retired sheriff of Lincoln County, N.M., and Steve Sederwall, a former federal cop.
Two years prior to coming to Prescott, they opened an official investigation into Billy's killing of two deputies during his escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse in April 1881.
Their ambitious plans included exhuming Catherine Antrim, the Kid's mother, from her grave in Silver City, N.M., and using modern forensics to compare her DNA to Miller's, and to the DNA of Ollie "Brushy Bill" Roberts of Texas, who also claimed to be the Kid.
A match of either man to Catherine might force historians to rewrite one of the West's most iconic stories. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson promised state help in the effort, and in June 2003, The New York Times played the investigation on its front page.
The story ignited a worldwide Billy bonfire. The possibilities seemed positively grand.
Until they didn't.
The plan, which included the possibility of exhuming Billy himself, generated an angry backlash. Respected Kid historian Frederick Nolan, author of The West of Billy the Kid, declared the dig-up effort ridiculous, and its perpetrators ignorant of history. Other critics chimed in accusing Sullivan and Sederwall of behaving like grave robbers and out-of-control cowboys hunting their 15 minutes.
But these cops-turned-history sleuths say the criticism came from people who want to keep the story exactly the way it is--to preserve their reputations and their incomes.
These days, the Kid generates more dollars for New Mexico's Lincoln County than cattle. What happens if he didn't really die there? What happens if he's actually buried in Arizona?
"People at Fort Sumner wouldn't allow us to exhume Billy's remains, because they're not sure he's there," says the 65-year-old Sullivan, still smarting from the criticism. "Everybody lawyered up, and we ran into a lot of legal B.S."
So Sullivan and Sederwall stole into Arizona on stocking feet, working quietly to get Miller's bones out of his grave at Prescott's state-run Arizona Pioneers' Home, snag some DNA and head back home.
"We slipped in there and slipped out fast," Sullivan told the Weekly. "We all stayed at the same hotel, sort of to keep it quiet. If the media got word, our critics would've gotten together to lawyer the whole thing up, serve people with papers and temporary restraining orders, and all that crap."
The media blackout wasn't total. Employees of Bill Kurtis Productions, which does popular historical and investigative shows for the cable channel A&E, were on hand to film the exhumation for possible use.
Says Sederwall: "We're just looking for the truth."
But even the "truth" won't tell us why history chose to bless scrawny, bubble-cheeked Billy with immortality. With most other Western luminaries, their fame rests on some reasonable foundation.
Take William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody. He's remembered today as a showman who peddled a heroic frontier in his traveling Wild West shows. But Cody was authentic. As a young man during the Indian wars of the late 1860s and early 1870s, he scouted for the Army and won the Medal of Honor for valor.
Let's not forget George Armstrong Custer, with his flowing golden hair and unforgettable death on a Montana hillside in 1876. Notwithstanding years of bashing from the politically correct, he was also ridiculously brave, a great tactician and genuine American hero.
But the Kid? What did he do, apart from gun down his enemies in a dispute over government contracts? How pedestrian. Did he kill 21 men by the time of his 21st birthday, as his legend claims? Not even close. Most historians put the number at four.
Even with a bow to the Kid's charm and his intelligence, evident in his letters, it's hard to see him as much more than a malignant twerp who couldn't control his temper and often reacted to affronts by drawing down on the offender.
"He wasn't a terribly romantic figure," says Tucson historian Neil Carmony, editor of 15 books. "In that photo of him, he looks like a doofus. It's not a flattering depiction. He was a thug, an ordinary frontier bum. It puzzles me why he's so big."
The answer might be simple enough: Billy's legend has reached its present heights because so much of his life remains a mystery. This inscrutability has flamed our interest, inviting us to fill the holes with a mix of fact, nonsense, rumor and romance.
Historians still puzzle over such basic Billy facts as the day and place of his birth, and even his real name. Was he born Henry McCarty in New York City in November 1859, as some believe? Or was he Henry Antrim? Where did William H. Bonney come from, the alias he adopted in the wake of the Cahill killing?
And what did he actually look like?
As Carmony notes, the famous tintype--the only photographic image historians concur is really Billy--shows an impossibly homely boy, so buck-toothed that he could, as has been written, eat a pumpkin through a picket fence.
But wait. Paulita Maxwell, his favorite squeeze, insisted that he was much better looking than the picture. We know that the Kid, who spoke Spanish, loved to woo Mexican women at bailes, dances, and they reportedly wooed him right back.
So, did our Billy break mirrors or hearts? Even with something so elementary, we can't be sure.
Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of True West magazine, put it well in his book, The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid: "The Kid lived two-thirds of his life in circumstances that remain to this day almost entirely undocumented."
But we do know that the Kid began his criminal career, at age 15, in Silver City. He stole some clothes and two pistols from a Chinese laundry and landed in jail. Two days later, he escaped by squeezing up the jailhouse chimney and fleeing to Arizona Territory.
While here, Billy made the rounds of Southeast Arizona's backwater, an apprentice bad man on the loose. He cowboyed at Henry Clay Hooker's Sierra Bonita Ranch in the Sulfur Springs Valley, where Gus Gildea noted: "He came to town dressed like a country Jake with shoes instead of boots. He wore a six-gun stuck in his trousers."
Billy gambled and drank in Globe City and Safford, and joined a gang of malcontents that specialized in swiping military mounts. After plugging Cahill, he rode into New Mexico and the Lincoln County War.
This ultra-violent and fabulously irrational clash pitted a ranching faction against a mercantile faction over contracts to supply beef to the government. Billy and others made beasts of themselves in fighting it, not once, but over and over, for several years.
As if an actor on stage, hot-head Billy played his bloody part well, earning a conviction for murdering Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady, even though Brady died in a hail of bullets fired by numerous gunmen. Many found it strange that the Kid was the only one tried for the murder, and most agree it was a crooked trial. The judge sentenced him to hang.
But on April 28, 1881, while being held in the Lincoln Courthouse awaiting the noose, he engineered a violent escape, leaving the bodies of Deputies James Bell and Robert Olinger in his wake. The latter killing was particularly cold.
Olinger heard shots from across the street and raced back to help Bell, who'd already been shot. From a window in the second-story of the courthouse, Billy, now armed with a shotgun, looked down at Olinger, smiled and--imagine a soft, venomous tone--said, "Hello, Bob." When the lawman looked up, Billy gave him both barrels.
Three months later, Sheriff Garrett, a former bartender, tracked Billy to Fort Sumner. Garrett paid a post-midnight visit to the home of Pete Maxwell, waking him to inquire about Billy whereabouts.
As the sheriff sat on the edge of Maxwell's bed, with two deputies standing guard outside, Billy came from a house nearby, hatless, in stocking feet. Aware strangers were afoot, he pulled his pistol and slipped into the darkness of Maxwell's bedroom.
The Kid, who didn't see Garrett on the bed in the darkness, approached Maxwell and whispered, "Who are they, Pete?"
Maxwell said to Garrett: "That's him!"
Kid back-stepped, asking, "Quien es!? ... Quien es!?"
Garrett fired twice, later writing: "The Kid fell dead. He never spoke. A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasped for breath, and the Kid was with his many victims."
It sounds open and shut, but Sullivan and Sederwall say that, as cops, Garrett's accounts of Billy's escape and subsequent events raise too many questions.
The sheriff claimed that Billy broke away from Bell, ran all the way up the interior stairs of the courthouse, around the corner to the armory, got a gun, ran back to the top of the stairs and shot Bell, who, after all that time was still only halfway up the stairs in pursuit. How could Billy pull that off, while wearing 17-inch leg irons?
With his jail holding such a prized prisoner, why was Garrett out of town at the time of the escape?
Was Sheriff Garrett, a known friend of the Kid, outraged at Billy's conviction in the Brady trial and somehow involved in helping Billy escape justice?
"From a law-enforcement perspective, nothing fits," says Sullivan, who designed the shoulder-patch likeness of Garrett worn by present-day Lincoln County sheriff's deputies. He told True West that his integrity hangs on finding out if Garrett was a liar and a conspirator in a double murder.
Sederwall points with suspicion to the last line of the coroner's report on Billy. "It says Garrett deserves the reward money for killing him," he says. "I've never seen that in a coroner's report before."
As legends go, the Kid's forms a pretty thin gruel. But writers loved the image of the reckless youth, the James Dean precursor, a rebel without a cause. Or facial hair.
With his gloriously written and popular 1925 book, The Saga of Billy the Kid, Walter Noble Burns became the Kid's biggest salesman. But by then, the snowball was already well on its way down the mountain.
Through a ghost writer, Garrett himself told his version in 1882, and even at that early date, he had plenty of company. Within 10 months of Billy's death, according to Time-Life Books, publishers flooded the market with eight dime novels about Billy, lurid tracts that prized entertainment over fact.
Think of them as the Wild West's equivalent of the romance novel, bodice rippers for the foul-smelling and the heavily armed. Did they sell? More than a million copies.
But efforts to explain the Kid's fame, while fascinating and loads of fun, will always fail. Our Western legends often repel logic because, ultimately, they're not about the truth. They're about us.
We hold them close because we need them. They help us through the dreary days, providing a vicarious thrill, a diversion, in the same superficial way that soap operas do.
But our legends do something much more. They define the frontier that continues to define us, and that gives them entry into the deepest part of ourselves as a people.
Everybody wants a piece of that, which explains why there are so many Billys.
A cemetery near Hico, Texas, holds the remains of the aforementioned "Brushy Bill" Roberts, who made a splash in 1950 saying he was the Kid. His claim drew derisive laughter and wasn't even supported by the family Bible. It listed the year of his birth as 1879, which would've made him a 2-year-old gunman in the Lincoln County war.
Now that would've been worthy of a dime novel. No, a picture book by Dr. Seuss. Shoot the gun because it's fun ... go, little Brushy ... run, run, run.
But old Brushy won't go away. The town of Hico promotes its ties to the great pretender and hosts a museum dedicated to the proposition that he was genuine. Writers who are not insane keep trying to stand up his story.
And Brushy is far from alone. When Sullivan and Sederwall's New Mexico plan hit the wall, they consulted their list of those who claimed to be the real Billy. It held 26 names.
Think about that: 26 men raised their hands in public to declare that these others are mere pretenders. Frauds and liars, they are! It's me! I'm the cold-blooded killer, and how dare you suggest I'm not?!
John Miller's claim to being the Kid rests on a 1993 book by the late Helen Airy, called Whatever Happened to Billy the Kid?
She traced Miller's life through his years in New Mexico in the early 1880s, then to San Simon, Ariz., around World War I, and later to Buckeye, near Phoenix. Miller arrived at the Arizona Pioneers' Home on March 14, 1937, after injuring his hip in a fall from a roof, and died there eight months later.
The evidence he was Billy? He told numerous friends and family of his secret identity. Plus, he had buck teeth, skill with a pistol and good relations with outlaws and lowlifes. And at his Las Vegas, N.M., wedding on Aug. 8, 1881, he supposedly wore a large-caliber six-shooter and appeared pale and weak with bandages covering a chest wound visible through his flimsy summer shirt.
It's weak stuff, almost as rickety as Brushy's claim.
But Sullivan thought it sounded good. "Helen Airy's book triggered it for me," he says. "It made a lot of sense. I read it and thought, 'We have another Billy the Kid.'"
Then he and Sederwall found additional evidence to work with.
Doing what Sullivan calls "good police work," they found a descendent of the Maxwell family, who had, stored in his chicken coop, the washstand from Maxwell's bedroom, the headboard from his bed and, most significantly, the wooden workbench on which the Kid's body was supposedly laid after being shot.
This bench was saturated in blood. Did this mean they had the Kid's blood? Could it be our mysterious range ruffian, Miller? The famous forensic expert Dr. Henry Lee successfully pulled DNA from the bench, making possible a comparison with Miller's.
"When we found the bench and the other evidence, we thought, 'Let's forget about these other bodies,'" says Sullivan, referring to Catherine Antrim and the Kid. "Let's do Miller. And if that doesn't work, we'll go down to Texas and do Brushy Bill.'"
Although the Prescott exhumation has raised some critical eyebrows, Gary Olson, superintendent of the Pioneers' Home, said Arizona law exempts the facility from normal procedures governing exhumations, and that the superintendent has sole authority over management of the home's cemetery.
The superintendent who approved the dig, Jeanine Dike, has since retired and didn't return a call to comment for this story.
But the Pioneers' Home already had one Old West celebrity buried in its cemetery--Doc Holliday's girlfriend Big Nose Kate, who died there in 1940--and Dale Tunnell, the Phoenix investigator who first approached the home on behalf of Sullivan and Sederwall, said Dike thought it would be great to add another.
"The attitude was that it would be a pretty good coup to find William Bonney buried in their cemetery," says Tunnell, who runs a Phoenix company called Forensitec, which specializes in something called psycho-linguistics, the analysis of text or conversations to find truth, deceptions or omissions.
See how everybody wants a piece of the Kid, even a celebrity like Henry Lee? He's worked on just about every high-profile murder case you can name, from O.J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey, to the Lindbergh baby and JFK.
But when he heard about the Kid dig-up efforts, he called Sederwall to volunteer his services. At the moment Sederwall's cell phone rang, he was riding shotgun on a stagecoach in New Mexico, filling in for a short-handed friend who runs a coach line for tourists.
As the two men talked, the famous Dr. Lee heard the clippetty-clop/jingle-jangle of the coach all the way back in civilized Connecticut, and asked, "What's that noise?"
Sederwall chuckled. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
The Miller exhumation began about 1 p.m. on May 19 last year, and didn't end until about 7:30 that night, with investigators examining the last of the remains by flashlight. A backhoe did most of the heavy labor, after which the diggers worked by hand to avoid damaging the coffins or the remains.
But they soon learned that the coffins had already collapsed with age, which had also made the bones extremely fragile. Each piece was carefully photographed, measured and cleaned, then placed on a white sheet on the ground.
Dr. Laura Fulginiti, a well-known forensic anthropologist from Phoenix, supervised the dig. She describes the atmosphere as collegial and charged with excitement as they removed the tobacco-colored bones from the ground.
"At one point, they were holding up the skull and comparing it with pictures of Billy," Fulginiti says. "They recited the story to each other, and when we found something that matched, like the scapula (shoulder) fracture, they were like little kids. They were really invested in this, and that added to the enthusiasm."
But the effort was anything but clear-cut.
In the first place, Miller's grave held no marker or headstone, and neither did the grave closest to his. To determine where Miller's plot should be, the investigators used a map provided by the Pioneers' Home, which pinpointed the location to within 20 square feet.
As Tunnell acknowledges, ground shift and weather patterns can sometimes move bodies underground, and Miller had been 6 feet under almost 70 years. How certain were they of digging in the right place? "Probably upwards of 90 percent," says Tunnell.
Once in the ground, the investigators found two sets of remains, both white males, resting side by side in graves separated by 3 to 4 feet. Which one was Miller? Nobody knew. So they pulled bones from both graves and examined them.
Fulginiti says the first body she studied had buck teeth and the scapula fracture that caused such a commotion with investigators.
As Sederwall told the Weekly, "We were shocked when we got him up. He had buck teeth just like the Kid and a bullet hole in the upper left chest that exited the shoulder blade."
Sullivan made a similar statement, suggesting this might be the man Garrett shot the morning of July 14, 1881.
But when contacted by the Weekly, Fulginiti didn't support their enthusiasm. "There was evidence of trauma on the scapula, but I couldn't tell whether it was from a gunshot wound or not," she said.
Fulginiti then examined the second body, finding no evidence of a gunshot wound. But she did find a hip injury that was still in the process of repairing at the time of death. This fit with the story from Airy's book that Miller had fallen off a roof just prior to coming to the Pioneers' Home.
Based on this, Fulginiti proceeded on the assumption that this man was Miller, and she continues to do so to this day.
Told of Fulginiti's statement, Sullivan responded, "Well, we think it's the other guy."
So who's the right dead guy--Hip Man or Scapula Man?
Truth is, it could be either one. Or neither. The Billy the Kid merry-go-round continues to spin.
It gets better.
The DNA expert present at the exhumation, Dr. Rick Staub, of Orchid Cellmark Labs in Dallas, was unable to extract useable DNA from Hip Man. But he did get a usable sample from Scapula Man.
Did it match the blood on the workbench?
We still don't know.
Orchid has been overwhelmed in their effort to process Hurricane Katrina victims, and hasn't turned its attention to Miller's supposed remains, which they are assessing free of charge. Sullivan expects an answer soon.
The problems the investigators encountered in the Prescott dig-up mimicked the central criticisms they heard in New Mexico. After so long, how can you tell who is buried where?
Eight years after Catherine Antrim's 1874 burial in Silver City, as several Kid Web sites point out, the whole cemetery was moved, and we can't know how diligent the workers were in matching graves with markers in the new location.
Same with Billy. He was buried beside two friends, which would fuzz up the results, as it did with Miller, and his gravesite was said to be unmarked for years following a tremendous flood that washed through the Fort Sumner Cemetery in 1904.
Was the new marker returned to the right place? Did floodwaters mangle bodies and bones underground, or move them to some new location?
Hello, Billy? Are you down there?
Fulginiti says she's glad she took part in an endeavor that's so much a part of history. But she struggles with the question: Was it respectful to Miller to dig him up?
"Part of me says it wasn't, given that the information we had wasn't the best," she says. "From the beginning, I assumed it was another of these Wild West goose chases. But they believed the information and believed they had Billy's blood. So the only way to put the rumor to rest was to do the tests. I give them credit for contacting me and doing it by the book."
Sullivan and Sederwall insist that, through Dr. Lee's work, they've changed history. They say they've proven that Bell and the Kid grappled at the top of the courthouse steps, not halfway up.
Using sophisticated laser tests, they say they've also established that Garrett fired his second shot back over his shoulder as he stumbled in the doorway of Maxwell's room, and that second bullet lodged not in the headboard, as previously believed, but in the washstand.
If these seem like small matters, remember--the word "small" has been banished from the Billy World dictionary.
Will the forthcoming DNA results change history? Will we have a "new Billy"? Historians scoff at the question.
"None of these kinds of stories ever pan out," says Carmony. "Ever! It's Bigfoot! The people who believe in these things are being silly."
Boze Bell at True West supports using science to find out whether Billy is buried in Fort Sumner or Hico, Texas. But he's disturbed by the Miller exhumation. "About five people actually believe Miller is the Kid," Bell says. "It sounds like this investigation has gone off the rails."
In an e-mail from his home in England, historian Frederick Nolan says that even if Sullivan and Sederwall were to acquire the correct DNA from all the correct corpses, it would only confirm what history already knows--that Billy the Kid died in Fort Sumner on July 14, 1881.
"This disgraceful charade is historical inconsequentiality gone mad," Nolan wrote. "... It's sad to have to, yet again, rev up a steam engine to squash such an insignificant bug. But although it's insignificant, it's also highly toxic."
Will negative DNA results mean this is finally over? Will our Billy be allowed to rest? Don't count on it.
Sullivan says he might try to exhume Brushy Bill next, and even return to Silver City to dig for Catherine Antrim's bones.
"The judge in Silver City said you can't exhume Catherine, because you have nothing to compare her DNA to," says the former sheriff, who keeps a framed copy of the Times' Page 1 story on his dining-room wall.
"They told us to come back if we found more evidence. Then we got DNA from the bloody workbench and the people in Silver City went, 'Oh ... my ... God!' They called us nutcases and stupid. Well, we're just going to let them sweat for a while."
You have to love it, no matter how it turns out. Here we have a street fight, a nutty, eye-gouging brawl over a juvenile delinquent who, through some strange historical alchemy, captured America's imagination.
For his part, Sederwall says he's now looking for the body of A.J. Fountain, one of the Kid's lawyers during the Brady trial. Fountain was murdered in New Mexico in 1896, along with his young son, and the two bodies mysteriously vanished. Sederwall thinks he's located the corpses.
After unlocking that mystery, the former mayor of Capitan, N.M., says he'd like to come to the Sanders Ranch on Turkey Creek in Southeast Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains and dig up another legend--Johnny Ringo, an enemy of Doc Holliday and the Earp boys during the Tombstone excitement.
"I think we could determine pretty quick whether Ringo was murdered or committed suicide," says Sederwall.
Will they sneak into Arizona again? Should we put out an APB for two old boys in big Stetsons, trolling for DNA?
Oh, let them come. What does it matter? No fact they unearth is likely to change a single thing we believe about Ringo, the Kid or any of the others, and thinking it will misses the point.
They are legends, after all, people, stories and iconic events that we hold as much in our hearts as our heads. They've become part of us, part of the frontier that made us, and for that reason, we can't bear to let them sleep, beyond our shovels and our damnable science.