Museum lecture focuses on Billy the Kid, Lincoln County War

Curator Jeffrey Richardson explores myths, facts in presentation scheduled for Saturday

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The presentation is part of the Curator's Choice Lecture Series at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.
  • Richardson says the Kid's life began to take on legendary status even before he died.
  • Saturday's lecture is free and open to the public.
Commonly referred to as the Upham tintype, this is the only authenticated image of Billy the Kid. Taken around 1879 or 1880 in Fort Sumner, it sold at auction for $2.3 million in 2011.

FARMINGTON — In a 1991 survey of several hundred Western historians, fiction writers and journalists, historian Walter Nugent attempted to pin down those who responded on the rather slippery notion of where, exactly, they believed the West existed — its boundaries, its distinguishing characteristics — and where it didn't.

To the surprise of almost no one, the answers Nugent received didn't come close to allowing him to declare that a consensus had been reached. In fact, the responses made it clear that -- even among those who studied, analyzed and wrote about the region for a living – it was almost impossible to get a lasso around the idea of where "the West" resides on a map and what qualifies any particular locale for membership.

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Curator Jeffrey Richardson of the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park chuckles when he recalls those survey results and what they reveal about the nature of their subject.

"None of them could agree on it," he said. "They'd say, 'Here it is' and then contradict themselves in the next paragraph."

Clearly, Richardson said, the study of Western history is a field that leaves plenty of territory wide open for interpretation. And few episodes from that history have invited more of that activity than the life of Billy the Kid.

Richardson — who will continue his Curator's Choice Lecture Series at 3 p.m. Saturday at the museum, 3041 E. Main St., with a presentation on "Billy the Kid and New Mexico's Lincoln County War" — acknowledges that the amount of verified, reliable information about the life of the infamous New Mexico outlaw is limited. The real name of the figure whose criminal career was cut short when he was gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett on July 14, 1881, in Fort Sumner is up for debate, as is his birth date and birth place, among other issues.

Dime novels, such as “The True Life of Billy Kid” published in the wake of his death in 1881, turned the man into a myth.

As a historian, those limitations present him with challenges, Richardson said, but they also make room for opportunities.

"Some people think history is an absolute. But history in and of itself is about interpretation," he said, describing the lack of specifics about the outlaw's life as a chance to recognize that we don't know all the answers.

Billy the Kid was one of those few Western figures whose life started to take on legendary status even before he died, Richardson said, placing the Kid in the company of such men as Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickok.

Despite the best efforts of historians over the years, much of his life remains a blank canvas today, and the young outlaw was still roaming the New Mexico Territory when overzealous newspapermen, dime novelists and others already had begun the process of filling in the blanks in his background with tales that were dubiously sourced, greatly exaggerated or outright fabricated. That trend has only continued over the years in various Hollywood depictions of the Kid.

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The result has been a man whose life is far more fiction than fact, Richardson said.

"In his death, his life became something mythic," the curator said.

But Billy the Kid indisputably played an important role in the famed Lincoln County War of 1878, a dispute between rival business factions that quickly escalated into a violent feud and sparked the Kid's rise to infamy. It is that chapter in the young outlaw's life that Richardson intends to focus on in Saturday's presentation.

The Lincoln County courthouse circa 1885. Billy the Kid’s escape from confinement at the courthouse in 1881 solidified his legacy.

"That story in and of itself is not very well known," Richardson said, citing the 1988 film "Young Guns" starring Emilio Estevez in the role of Billy the Kid as an especially poor representation of that conflict. "It's just so rife with inaccuracies from the moment it starts to the moment it ends. It's a story we know, but we don't know it very well or very accurately."

Richardson outright dismisses that film's portrayal of the Kid as a Robin Hood type, a good boy who got caught in a bad situation.

"He was a murderer," Richardson said flatly. "He was an outlaw."

Nor was he a leader of the Regulators, a group of armed men loyal to the John Tunstall-Alexander McSween faction in the war, as he so often has been portrayed.

"For most of the Lincoln County War, he was just one of the gang," Richardson said. "But he was the last man standing, and he certainly held a grudge for the killing of John Tunstall for the longest time."

Richardson said it is unclear how the Kid, who supposedly was born in New York City, even made his way to New Mexico as a youngster. But his exploits as a young man would make him the most famous figure the state has ever produced, and his story eventually would become entwined with that of his adopted home state.

The murder of John Tunstall, Billy the Kid’s employer, was the spark that ignited the Lincoln County War.

"New Mexico was still what would come to be known as the Wild West in those days," Richardson said, noting that even as civilization was closing in all around it, the state remained a largely untamed, anything-goes concern in the 1870s and 1880s, serving as the perfect environment where a figure like Billy the Kid could rise to prominence.

Even so, the Kid's actual life bore little resemblance to the charming rogue he was portrayed as by Estevez in "Young Guns," Richardson said, noting he had seen the film again for the first time in several years only recently.

"I was shocked when I watched it again and realized how bad it was," he said, launching into an assessment of other Billy the Kid films such as director Sam Peckinpah's 1973 "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" starring Kris Kristofferson and 1958's "The Left Handed Gun" starring Paul Newman. Richardson described the former as the most cerebral version of the Kid's life ever committed to film, while he said Newman came the closest to capturing the Kid's swagger in the latter.

But in the category of presenting a dark and realistic portrayal of a Wild West outlaw, all those films fall short of 2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Brad Pitt's performance in that film was "majestic," he said, setting a standard that none of the Billy the Kid films have approached.

"I still think they haven't made the quintessential Billy the Kid movie just yet," Richardson said.

Admission to the lecture is free. For more information, call 505-599-1174.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.