Billy the Kid was easily the most notorious desperado of the Wild West. He reportedly killed 21 men, one for every year of his young life. History tells us that “The Kid” was born William Bonney in New York City in 1859. He later fought against rich ranchers in the Lincoln County Cattle War in New Mexico, and was given a death sentence for killing Sheriff William Brady.
According to most sources, Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett was eager to collect the $500 dollar bounty on Billy the Kid. In July of 1881, he tracked down Billy in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and killed him.
History also tells us that Billy was buried the following day in a simple grave. But now some people say that history is wrong. That Billy wasn’t the man in that grave. Sixty-eight years after Billy’s death, a man from Texas, named “Brushy Bill” Roberts, claimed he was Billy the Kid.
Research historian, William Tunstill, believed the public was misled about Billy the Kid:
“This whole legend of Bill the Kid… 90% of what we have heard and been taught as students in schools is not true. There is no doubt… Brushy Bill and Billy the Kid was one and the same person.”
Brushy Bill or Billy the Kid?
Most historians completely dismiss Brushy Bill’s story. But there is evidence to support his claim. It all started in 1948, when an attorney named William Morrison was told that Billy the Kid might not have died in 1881. A client said he had actually fought Billy the Kid in the Lincoln County Wars and that the Kid was still alive. Morrison was so intrigued that he decided to do some of his own investigating. He traveled throughout the West talking to other old timers about Billy the Kid, and he discovered that many thought that Billy was still alive. They said he was going by the name of “Brushy” Bill Roberts. Finally, in 1949, Morrison made the trip to Hico, Texas, to confront Brushy Bill in person. He wanted to ask Brushy if the rumors were true. According to William Tunstill, Brushy was at first hesitant:
“We must keep in mind that this man did not seek publicity, he did not seek to come out from seclusion, he was drawn out.”
Plaque honoring Brushy Bill
Brushy Bill finally admitted that he was, in fact, Billy the Kid, and asked Morrison to help him get the official pardon that New Mexico’s governor had promised him back in 1879. But Morrison wanted proof that he was indeed speaking to the infamous outlaw. It was then that Brushy Bill showed Morrison his scars, all of which matched the wounds received by the Kid during his time as an outlaw. To further convince him, “Brushy Bill” took William Morrison on a guided tour of some of Billy’s former haunts in Lincoln County. Morrison died in 1976, but his daughter, Barbara Kuchler, remembered her father’s trip:
“Brushy Bill would give incidents that only someone that was actually involved in the Lincoln County War would have known. My father was convinced that this man was… Billy the Kid.”
Morrison then contacted five people who had known Billy the Kid during the Lincoln County War. Each of them, separately, met Brushy Bill in person. All five witnesses signed sworn affidavits stating that Brushy Bill Roberts was indeed Billy the Kid. If this is true, then one puzzling question remains … What really happened on the night the Kid was supposedly killed?
According to Brushy Bill, on the night of the shooting, he was with his girlfriend, Celsa, and his partner Billy Barlow, at Jesus Silva’s house. Unknown to the Kid, Garrett and his posse were waiting for him across the yard. When Garrett opened fire, one of the first shots struck Barlow. The shots that followed struck the Kid in the head and shoulder. He passed out from the pain and woke up the following morning under the care of Celsa. She informed him that Barlow had been killed and was being buried in Billy’s place.
According to William Tunstill, Pat Garrett knew he killed the wrong man:
“In a normal procedure, the sheriff would have brought the corpse to a place for anyone to witness. He would have demonstrated his guns, his clothing, his boots, his rifle. Pat Garrett did not follow that procedure. He took every precaution to conceal the identity of the corpse.”
By 1950, William Morrison felt he had gathered enough evidence to request a pardon from Governor Mabry of New Mexico. The Governor agreed to meet both men in person. But the meeting turned into a press circus. Brushy Bill was 90 years old at the time. He was confused and scared by the crowd of reporters.
According to Barbara Kuchler, Brushy Bill’s testimony was all for nothing:
“The governor never even gave him a chance to present the evidence, by just flat out telling him he wasn’t even going to consider it.”
Morrison’s legal arguments and affidavits were not even entered into evidence. Brushy Bill felt he had been humiliated, his claims ridiculed. His pardon was not granted. Shortly after the meeting with Governor Mabry, Brushy Bill suffered a heart attack and died on a street in Hico, Texas.
Was Brushy Bill Roberts the notorious outlaw, Billy the Kid? His friends and neighbors believe so and have even erected a memorial in his honor which reads, “…he spent the last days of his life trying to prove to the world his true identity. We believe his story and pray to God for the forgiveness he solemnly asked for.”