The 2014 book, “Billy the Kid: An Autobiography” by Daniel A. Edwards, tells the story of how former Hico resident William H. “Brushy Bill” Roberts came to have his picture taken “alongside his own grave.”
That man, Edwards concluded, was the infamous wild West character Billy the Kid. The gravesite was 84 miles west of what is now Roswell, New Mexico — where legend has it that he had been killed by sheriff-turned-bounty-hunter Pat Garrett.
Edwards, 46, is a researcher and publisher who lives in a suburb of Philadelphia. He began researching Billy the Kid and "Brushy Bill" in early 2014.
“If Brushy Bill was not Billy the Kid, he must have been at the Kid’s elbow when some of these things happened,” Edwards wrote in his book.
Billy the Kid may not have been the cold-blooded, murdering gunslinger recorded in history books. Some believe he may have been more of a product of his times — perhaps a victim of the lawless frontier world where he lived.
The passage of time, along with blurred lines between the “good guys” and “bad guys,” may have contributed to the conflicting stories about cattle ranchers, lawmen and real-life cowboys in the old West.
“These guys were cowboys. They were breaking horses. They were rustling cattle,” Edwards said in a recent telephone interview.
Most historical accounts describe Billy the Kid as an outlaw, accused by some of killing more than 20 people. One source claims the number of people who actually died from “led poisoning” (old West slang for being shot) after crossing paths with the Kid may have been “only” four.
Billy the Kid, aka William Bonney, aka William Henry Roberts, had a rough start in life and became an orphan at age 14. He reportedly was arrested for the first time at 16 for stealing food. He was accused of murdering a blacksmith in Arizona Territory in 1877.
He spent most of his latter years in the territory that eventually became the state of New Mexico. New Mexico didn’t become the 47th state until Jan. 6, 1912.
The consensus seems to be that Billy the Kid died at age 21 on July 14, 1881 in the town of Fort Sumner in New Mexico Territory, shot dead by Garrett. The sheriff was hoping to collect a $500 bounty — but never did because the body was quickly buried and he had no proof to show.
But a man known as “Brushy Bill” Roberts, told the story before he died in December 1950 that he was actually Billy the Kid. Brushy Bill was 90 — three days shy of turning 91. His wife, Lizzie, had him buried at a cemetery on the north side of Hamilton.
The Brushy Bill story led to the opening of the popular Billy the Kid Museum, on North Pecan Street in downtown Hico in 1987.
Sue Land, director of the Billy the Kid Museum, said she wasn’t really a believer in the Brushy Bill claim until she read Edwards’ book. Now her doubts are gone, and she is confident that Brushy Bill was Billy the Kid.
“The man Pat Garrett killed had black hair and was dark-complected, and a black beard. Billy couldn’t grow a beard,” said Land, who at first had worked at the museum but took over as director in 2009 to prevent it from shutting down. “He had fair skin and light-brown hair.”
Land said that after Garrett shot the man in Fort Sumner, a deputy sheriff rolled over the body and told Garrett it was not Billy the Kid. That scene was also witnessed by a U.S. marshal who filed notice of it, according to Land.
“Nobody questioned the newspaper description,” Land said. “The grave in Fort Sumner has no body.”
Land said that it wasn’t the first time Garrett had failed in his attempt to get Billy.
“That was the third person Garrett shot (that) he thought was Billy the Kid,” Land said. “Garrett wanted to be a big shot, and he wanted that reward. And it made him famous.”
The legendary Kid — who had escaped from jail several times — was in Fort Sumner at the time Garrett was, but slipped away.
“Those that liked him (Billy) helped him get out of town,” Land said. “He was given a chance to start over.”
Land said Billy went to Mexico for about three years, then lived in Texas for three years. She said at one point Billy even worked in law enforcement, using his cowboy skills to hunt down horse rustlers.
The interest in Billy the Kid’s legend has remained high, with his name sometimes mentioned in the same breath as other infamous gunslingers — Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, John Wesley Hardin, Sam Bass and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Several movies have been made about the Kid’s legend, including four titled “Billy the Kid” (in 1911, 1930, 1941 and 1989). Two of the most famous and more recent were “Young Guns” (part I and II) and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.”
One source claims there have been more than 50 movies that included a Billy the Kid character. Young Guns I and II were both based around the Lincoln County War, a clash between rival frontier groups that began in 1878 in New Mexico Territory.
LINCOLN COUNTY WAR
Billy the Kid played a key role in the Lincoln County War, which began in Lincoln County, N.M. in 1878. In his book, Edwards described the Lincoln County War as “the bloodiest cattle war in western history.”
Edwards wrote that the conflict was between a group known as the Murphy-Dolan faction and an Englishman named John Tunstall and his allies — “one of whom was Billy the Kid.”
Land said Billy “did what he had to do to survive." Tunstall gave him a job as a cowboy.
“Billy was not an outlaw. He was a gunman. He never robbed a bank, or stage coaches or trains.”
Billy the Kid survived the Lincoln County War, but Tunstall was among those who did not.
In the book, “Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life,” three shooting deaths that occurred during the Lincoln County War were mentioned. Then the writer states, “As with the slaying of Tunstall, the only witnesses were the killers themselves.”
Land said, “I always tell everybody to research it yourself. Believe nothing you hear, and only half of what you see.”
After Billy’s involvement in the Lincoln County conflict, his reputation exploded and his life was never the same.
As Edwards wrote in his book, “In a matter of months during the years 1880 and 1881, he was transformed from a relatively minor player in a small-town cattle war to the most wanted outlaw in the West.”
Edwards explained that Billy “found himself the last man standing against what was then known as the ‘Santa Fe Ring,’ a corrupt group of politicians, businessmen, and lawmen that operated on both sides of the law.”
The book states that Billy “even appealed many times to Governor Lew Wallace for assistance and offered to testify regarding the corruption that was rife in the territory. The governor had originally taken Billy’s side and promised him a pardon, but in the end the governor reneged on his promise and left Billy to die.”
But, as Edwards wrote, Billy the Kid did not die, and his “courageous, almost single-handed, struggle against a rigged system inspired a folk hero type following among the citizens of his time.”
Jesse Evans, a childhood friend of Billy, told a lawyer who was working on a property claim case in Florida that he and Billy the Kid were two of the three surviving combatants from the Lincoln County War.
Edwards wrote that Morrison contacted the then 90-year-old Billy to interview him, he was “reluctant to share his story, especially since he was technically still wanted and condemned to hang for the murder of Sheriff William Brady, a crime he claimed he didn’t commit.”
But, Edwards wrote, Billy “decided it was more important to make an attempt to secure the pardon that he was promised more than seventy years earlier than it was to remain a fugitive outlaw hiding in the shadows.”
Sue Land, the museum’s director, said Billy decided to talk to Morrison so he could help him get the pardon he had long wanted.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to promise me I won’t go to jail, and I want my pardon,'” Land said. “I can’t see why a 90-year-old with a bad heart would stand up and say he was a wanted killer, and was facing going back to jail the rest of his life.”
Edwards’ richly detailed book about Billy the Kid is full of fascinating information uncovered by Edwards.
One remarkable passage, under the header, “A page from an interview with Brushy Bill Roberts, June 16, 1949, at Hamilton, Texas,” quotes Billy as saying:
“All these years I have been running and hiding when I knew I wasn’t wrong. But I had to hide. Been thinking about it more since I don’t have long here anymore. I want to get straightened out before I die, I do.”
Land said the museum gets visitors from all over the world. One of them, from the United Kingdom, told her why he was so interested in learning more about Billy the Kid’s legend.
“He said, ‘I’m not rooting for the man. I’m rooting for the 14-year-old kid.'”
Land then added her own take on Billy and the museum’s visitors, saying, “He was fighting in a time that was wild and vicious. They want to know that a 14-year-old made it.”
A statue of Billy the Kid is planted in the median of Pecan Street in downtown Hico. The plaque below the statue states: “Ollie L. ‘Brushy Bill’ Roberts, alias Billy the Kid, died in Hico, Texas on December 27, 1950. He spent the last days of his life trying to prove to the world his true identity and obtain the pardon promised him by the governor of the state of New Mexico. We believe his story and pray to God for the forgiveness he solemnly asked for.”
Hico had its first Billy the Kid Film Festival in 2015, and plans are in the works to bring it back this fall. Phillip Vasquez, a Stephenville attorney who lives with wife Lucy on a ranch near Hico, has been planning the last two years for the re-launch of the festival, Nov. 1-2. The original festival featured films about the old West and its gunslinger legacy. This year entries will be open to films that include a general “outlaw” theme, Vasquez said.