FORT SUMNER, N.M. (CN) - An historian has petitioned New Mexico to issue an official death certificate for the 1881 death by gunfire of William H. Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid.
Arizona State University professor Robert J. Stahl does not challenge the official story: that U.S. Deputy Marshal Pat Garrett shot the Kid to death in Fort Sumner on July 15, 1881. Garrett collected a $500 reward for it.
Stahl said he wanted to put to rest the rumors that the Kid survived until 1950, or was killed in Mexico, or married and became a rancher, or ...
His Feb. 16 petition begins: "Enough is enough about and from the supporters of the Billy the Kid imposters ..."
The petition, which Stahl has copyrighted, states: "A major reason millions have supported these imposters is their claim that no official death certificate was issued ..."
Stahl said that after doing research at the New Mexico Division of Vital Records and Health Statistics in Santa Fe, he asked to see the death certificate, and was told he would need a court order to get one. So he's asked for a court order.
Most historians accept that the Kid was born Henry McCarty, changed his name to Henry Antrim, and also went by the names of Kid Antrim, William H. Bonney, and Billy the Kid.
He became a legend not because he was a bloodthirsty gunslinger, but because he was one of very few employees of a British store-owner, John Tunstall, who was trying to break monopoly in trade in Lincoln County, run by the "Santa Fe ring," whose members included territorial Attorney General Thomas Catron. With the cooperation of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady and the U.S. Army, Irish store- and bank-owners James Dolan and Lawrence Murphy essentially ran the county.
Tunstall was shot to death after soldiers from an Army post surrounded his store and the Dolan and Murphy gang burned it. The Kid, then known as William Bonney, was one of a few of Tunstall's employees who escaped the back way into a wash, and then sought vengeance against Dolan and Murphy. The Kid and his gang became known as the Regulators.
Adding to his legend is the fact that after he was caught and jailed and was awaiting hanging, he starved himself thin enough to slip out of his handcuffs, grab a jailer's gun and kill him and escape.
The authoritative history of Billy the Kid is Maurice G. Fulton's "The Lincoln County Was," from the University of New Mexico Press.
Stahl's 29-page petition examines the historical evidence and concludes that Billy the Kid died, as Pat Garrett stated, on July 15, 1881.
New Mexico then was a territory. It did not become a state until 1912. The territory did not issue death certificates. When there was a question about a death, or if it was someone of importance, a coroner's jury was assembled to conduct an inquiry and reach a verdict. The jury would create a report of its findings, to be submitted to a county clerk, and this would serve as the official recognition of death. This was especially true in rural areas, which often had no judge or justice of the peace on hand when there was a high-profile death in the community.
Fort Sumner had no standing justice of the peace in 1881, so a coroner's jury of leading citizens was assembled to conduct the inquiry into the Kid's death.
According to Stahl's petition, the jury determined that the man calling himself William H. Bonney had been killed by a bullet from Deputy Marshal Pat Garrett's gun in a justifiable homicide.
The jury's report was handwritten in Spanish, which was the official language of New Mexico at the time. A copy was made in English for Garrett to take to Santa Fe as proof of Billy the Kid's death. Garrett needed the report, which was accepted by the acting governor, to collect his $500 reward.
Stahl's petition explains this process, and cites several contemporary sources, including "The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, the Noted Desperado of the Southwest, Whose Deeds of Daring and Blood Have Made His Name a Terror in New Mexico, Arizona and Northern Mexico, by Pat F. Garrett, Sheriff of Lincoln County, N. Mex., by Whom He Was Finally Hunted Down and Captured by Killing Him."
Also cited is an article from the July 18, 1881 Las Vegas (N.M.) Daily Optic, interviewing a recently discharged Army private who happened to be staying in Fort Sumner on the night of July 15: "[S]oon the startling information, 'Billy, the Kid is killed,' was the theme of every tongue. The wild inquiry, 'Who killed him?' was soon answered by the facts which soon became known to all. Pat Garrett had done it with his trusty revolver backed up by cool judgment and undaunted courage."
(Some historians accept the scenario that Garrett caught the Kid literally with his pants down and shot him before the Kid could get to his own gun.)
Stahl's petition examines rumors that Billy the Kid did not die that night, presenting evidence ranging from a quote from a friend of Bonney's who insisted that "if there are dead men in this world, Billy the Kid is among them," to a family Bible citing the birth of Oliver P. Roberts, aka Brushy Bill Roberts, who for years claimed to be Billy the Kid. Roberts, who died in 1950, apparently was born in 1879, which would have made him 2 years old when the Kid was shot.
The Office of Vital Records and Health Statistics of the New Mexico Department of Health was not created until 1919, but Stahl says there is nothing in its charter that prevents it from issuing a death certificate for an event that happened in 1881.
His petition offers proposed wording for the content of the death certificate, including a description of the fatal wound (massive internal hemorrhages near the heart, lungs and chest cavity) and a modest inclusion of Stahl as the informant for the certificate.
De Baca County Judge Albert Mitchell has been asked to rule on Stahl's petition.
(Courthouse News editor Robert Kahn contributed reporting.)
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