In April, 1881, Billy the Kid was convicted of the murder of Sheriff William J. Brady in Mesilla, New Mexico. He escaped from jail but a few months later was tracked down and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett in a shootout. 140 years later, New Mexicans are still debating whether justice was served, with the descendants of The Kid and Garrett leading the conversation. Tracing family histories can’t bring our ancestors back, but family history can keep their legends--and controversies--alive.
Here’s the thing about being related to a notorious criminal: it makes for a fascinating anecdote--just as long as the crime is in the faraway past. Nobody really wants to claim they’re related to anyone on the FBI’s 2021 Most Wanted list… but 1721? 1821? Even 1921 is long ago enough that descendants (or people who claim to be descendants) of notorious bank robbers Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger now brag about their relation to two men who were once Public Enemy #1.
Most of the time, having an outlaw in the family tree is just a topic of family lore. But sometimes, if the outlaw was notorious enough, their legacy may continue to impact the lives of their descendants. Take the case of Billy the Kid.
Billy the Kid was born Henry McCarty in 1859 (and sometimes also went by the pseudonym William H. Bonney). Orphaned in New Mexico Territory at age 15, Billy was soon arrested for his first known crime: stealing food to survive. Eventually he moved on to rustling cattle and horses and killed a man in a saloon gunfight. Billy got involved in the New Mexico Territory’s Lincoln County War of 1878-1881, during which he was accused of killing three men, including William Brady, the Sheriff of Lincoln County. By 1880 Billy the Kid was infamous, profiled in major newspapers from coast to coast.
They called him The Kid because he looked even younger than his tender age. But behind that boyish grin was a killer who would eventually be charged with the murders of six men. He was tracked down and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett in a private home near Fort Sumner, New Mexico in 1881.
Or did he? Several men later claimed to be Billy the Kid, playing on a myth of friendship between Billy and Pat Garrett and a scenario in which Garrett let The Kid go free (which Garrett always denied). The most famous of these was a man known as Ollie “Brushy Bill” Roberts, who died in the town of Hico, Texas in 1950 (Billy the Kid would have been 91). At the end of his life Brushy Bill agitated to receive the pardon that had been promised to Billy the Kid by former Governor of New Mexico Lew Wallace. He never got it.
Back in 1879, in an attempt to bring an end to the Lincoln County War, Governor Wallace had offered amnesty to anyone willing to testify against those involved in the skirmishes. "I have no wish to fight anymore," wrote Billy in a letter to the Governor, "indeed I have not raised an arm since your proclamation." Wallace supposedly accepted his help and The Kid kept his side of the deal, informing on fifty Lincoln County men for crimes including murder.
But once the Lincoln County War was over, Wallace refused to honor his promise to The Kid.
He was captured and convicted of the murder of Sheriff William J. Brady. His was the only successful murder conviction to come out of the bloody Lincoln County War. But Billy soon escaped from the jail where he awaited sentencing, killing two deputies as he did.
Three months later Billy was tracked down to the ranch of his friend, Lucien Maxwell, where Garrett ambushed Billy and shot him. Afterwards, Garrett went to claim the $500 reward money offered by New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace. But his successor, Acting Governor William G. Ritch, refused to pay. Hearing this, the local residents who had lived through the brutal Lincoln County War were outraged and collected $7,000 to pay Garrett themselves.
Over a century later In 2010 Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico announced his intention to investigate pardoning Billy the Kid. Richardson was open to righting a wrong, if a wrong existed. But the descendants of both Pat Garrett and Gov. Lew Wallace were strongly opposed.
“If Billy the Kid were living amongst us now,” wrote descendants of Pat Garrett, “would you issue a pardon for someone who made his living as a thief and, more egregiously, who killed four law enforcement officers and numerous others?” To the Garrett family, Billy the Kid was and remains nothing more than a cop-killer.
The descendants of Governor Lew Wallace argued that there was no evidence that Wallace had actually promised Billy a pardon. The point to an 1881 newspaper interview in which Garrett denied he had any intention of granting one.
Three of Pat Garrett’s grandchildren and two of his great-grandchildren met with Gov. Richardson in 2010 to make their case. The advocates for Billy’s side were less organized. Billy was only 21 when he died, unmarried, with no known children. Although rumors circulated that he was the father of young Paulita Maxwell’s unborn baby, later research seems to suggest that was not the case (Paulita also denied it, though she admitted to having a crush on Billy that was unrequited). A few different people claiming to be Billy’s relatives agitated to Gov. Richardson on his behalf, and the majority of public opinion was on Billy’s side.
In the end, Gov. Richardson decided not to grant the posthumous pardon to the outlaw.
"It was a very close call,” explained Richardson, a self-described history buff. “I've been working on this for eight years. The romanticism appealed to me to issue a pardon, but the facts and the evidence did not support it and I've got to be responsible especially when a governor is issuing pardons," he said. "What I think maybe tipped the scales with me is that Billy went ahead after not getting this pardon and killed two deputies, two law enforcement individuals, two innocents," Richardson said.
The Garrett and Wallace families were satisfied with the decision. “This is our history,” granddaughter Susannah Garrett, 55, told the New York Times. “It’s important to New Mexico and we can’t arbitrarily alter it.”
Ongoing efforts to test Billy the Kid’s DNA are also unresolved. Those who claim him as an ancestor would like his body to be exhumed so the remains can be tested, while critics argue that nobody is really sure who is buried under Billy’s headstone--it may not be Billy at all.
Why is there still so much controversy about Billy the Kid and Sheriff Pat Garrett? “There’s still family involved,” said Dorothy Massey of Santa Fe. “If Pat Garrett had no kith and kin and Billy the Kid had no kith and kin, this would be history and nothing more.”
Did your grandfather tell you stories about your great--great-uncle Jesse James, the legendary Wild-West outlaw? Perhaps your great-grandmother spoke about her cousin Kate Clark from Missouri who made “some wrong choices in life” and you have often wondered if the relative Kate was the same person who, as an adult, would become the ruthless matriarch of the Barker-Karpis gang known as Ma Barker.
As time passes, the stigma of being related to a notorious outlaw wanes and potential descendants become eager to confirm familial connections alluded to in the family lore, which has been passed down from generation to generation. For some inexplicable reason this legacy becomes a thing of pride. Maybe it is the way many grew up watching the cowboy westerns or glorified gangster movies, or perhaps it is the intrigue of how they were able to elude law enforcement for relatively long periods of time, thanks largely to their intelligence and grit. Whatever the reason, Americans seem to be drawn to these stories, like moths to a flame.
Confirming a connection to the infamous should be undertaken in the same manner as any other genealogical research, beginning with the most recently documented details in your family and ascending back through time. However, due to so much misinformation surrounding the nefarius, one should be particularly cautious when researching these individuals and consult original records and reputable sources. In addition to the greater-than-normal amount of erroneous or embellished publicized information, in regard to the notorious, they can prove difficult to locate in conventional records. They were known to spend a great deal of time evading government officials and law enforcement, much of that by leading a very nomadic life.
Create a timeline of documented life events, comparing and contrasting extracted details, providing clues to geographical locations and time periods where additional records may be located. In addition to the go-to census, vital, land and military records, search for more obscure records, such as criminal records. Some prison records can be found online, such as the admission records from New York’s Sing Sing Prison or the California Prison and Correctional Records spanning from 1850 to 1950, while others are held by state libraries and archives. These records normally detail much more than the crimes committed, they can also include large amounts of biographical details, such as birth dates and locations, parents’ names, occupations and the like. Make sure that you don’t overlook local county criminal records, including jail and court records. Even witness testimonies can include genealogically-pertinent facts.
Criminal tendencies were sometimes groomed in institutions, such as orphanages and asylums. If you are unable to locate the subject in census records with their families, look in the census enumerations at institutions in areas where they were known to have lived. If they were wards at an orphanage, microfilms of original registers are sometimes available for viewing. Locating these records can take some research in itself, but the rewards can definitely be worth the extra effort on your part. Court notices and newspaper articles can also provide information about warrants or arrests, dates of court proceedings, verdicts and other valuable genealogical information.
Last, but certainly not least, review available record collections for either the criminal themselves, or even collections belonging to the people responsible for apprehending, such as law enforcement agents, judges that presided over trials, or even government officials who may have been involved with potential pardoning processes. These types of records are normally held at state archives, like the James Brothers documents, university libraries, such as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral records, or historical museums and societies. These records may include anything from personal journals to warrants for arrest, and everything in between.
Maybe Uncle Ernie was not spinning a yarn! Maybe, just maybe, Doc Holliday was the common-law husband to your great-grandfather’s Hungarian-born Aunt Kate!
Learn more about Investigating Your Family’s Legends with this helpful article.
NBC News (https://www.nbcnews.com/ : accessed 1 April 2021), “Billy the Kid’s DNA sparks legal showdown.”
PBS (https://www.pbs.org/ : accessed 1 April 2021), “The Pardoning of Billy the Kid.”
ABC News (https://abcnews.go.com/ : accessed 1 April 2021), “Gov. Bill Richardson: 'I've Decided Not To Pardon Billy the Kid'.”
Marc Lacey, The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/ : accessed 1 April 2021), “Old West Showdown Is Revived.”
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Billy the Kid corrected.jpg : 1 April 2021), digital image of original artwork, “File:Billy the Kid corrected.jpg;” photograph uploaded by user Hydrargyrum.
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pat Garrett2.jpg : 1 April 2021), digital image of original artwork, “File:Pat Garrett2.jpg;” photograph uploaded by user Materialscientist.
“New York, U.S., Sing Sing Prison Admission Registers, 1865-1939,” database with images, Ancestry.com (https://ancestry.com : accessed 1 April 2021), entry for Albert N. Fish, December 1903, no. 54594; citing, “Sing Sing Prison, 1852-1938,” Box 14 Volume 36, New York State Archives, Albany.
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