Billy the Kid, the mythologized gunslinger whose bloody exploits have been both romanticized and condemned, may receive his pardon from New Mexico’s governor this week – 130 years after historians say it was promised.
Bill Richardson, a long-time enthusiast of Old West lore who is leaving office after eight years as governor, polled his constituents via the state website, seeking their thoughts on whether the Kid deserves a posthumous reprieve for court testimony he gave in an 1879 murder.
The governor’s office reported receiving more than 800 e-mails, mostly in favor of the pardon.
Like anything associated with Billy the Kid, whose real name may have been Henry McCarty but who also went by the names William Bonney and William Antrim, among others, legend and fact do not play well together.
Hundreds of films, novels, poems, songs, televisions and stage plays have offered widely divergent versions on Billy the Kid’s life, where he was born, his motivations for killing, how many people he actually killed and even the circumstances of his death.
Public perception regarding the Kid is split into two camps, says Paul Hutton, a history professor and Old West expert at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque: “people who see him as this homicidal maniac and [others] who see him as a romantic character fighting for justice against a corrupt New Mexico system.”
Governor Richardson has long acknowledged how that fascination with the Kid, and Wild West stories in general, can generate tourism dollars, much like Wyatt Earp in Arizona and Davy Crockett in Texas. Tourists already can arrive in New Mexico and visit his foster home in Silver City, where he liked to gamble in Ruidoso, and his final resting place at an old military cemetery in Fort Sumner, although whether or not his body is there remains a matter of debate.
In 2000, Richardson assembled a team of scholars, including Mr. Hutton, to investigate competing claims to Billy the Kid’s identity. An effort to dig up the remains of a woman thought to be his mother for DNA sampling created a public outcry and Richardson abandoned the effort to concentrate on his presidential campaign.
He is returning to this issue just a few days from leaving office. Historians say documents show Billy the Kid was promised a pardon by Lew Wallace, then the state governor, in exchange for testimony the Kid gave against the three men who killed a one-armed lawyer during the Lincoln County wars.
The petition to pardon the Kid, filed by Albuquerque attorney Randi McGinn, quotes an exchange of letters between the Kid and Mr. Wallace in which the governor tells him, “In return for your doing this, I will let you go scot [sic] free with a pardon in your pocket for all your misdeeds.”
Hutton says most historians agree that Billy the Kid’s life was not as violent as the legend suggests and that he was a product of his unwieldy times of government corruption and vigilante justice.
“He certainly felt solving problems with a gun was the way to go, but that was the world in which he lived in,” he says. “The forces of authority in 1877 New Mexico were nothing to brag about.”
Whether or not Richardson will decide in favor of the Kid remains to be seen, although the state website specifies that any decision will be confined to the pardon owed to him and nothing more.
“Any decision will be made in light of the explicit concern as to whether one of [Richardson’s] predecessors as governor committed the state of New Mexico to a specific act, and whether that pledge was upheld,” he states.
Hutton says the historic ramification of a pardon will simply be “a state recognition that the Kid was wronged, which he actually was.”
However, others suggest the decision will do nothing to re-frame how the Old West is perceived, truthfully or otherwise.