Questions & Inconsistencies Regarding the Killing of Billy the Kid
Almost from the second that the man Sheriff Pat Garrett killed in Pete Maxwell's bedroom hit the floor, questions began to arise about the aspects of the shooting. Today, over 120 years after the event, it's fair to say the shooting was not as cut-and-dry as Garrett tried to make it seem. To read the commonly accepted version of what happened (the version Garrett himself told), click here. The purpose of this section is to expose the numerous inconsistencies between the different first-hand accounts surrounding the shooting. In order to do this, we must first make clear the known facts. The principle, first-hand sources of nearly all the information we have on the shooting comes from two sources, namely, Pat Garrett, told via his book, "An Authentic Life of Billy the Kid," written in 1882, and his deputy, John Poe, as told in his book "The Death of Billy the Kid," the manuscript of which was written in 1919. However, there are several glaring contradictions between both sources. Futhermore, there are several places in each account where they are almost too similar, as if either Garrett and Poe had rehearsed their stories, or Poe used Garrett's book as a reference when writing his own. It also needs to be noted that while Garrett and Poe are responsible for most of what he we know about the shooting, they are not responsible for all of it. Whereas other principal witnesses Dep. Thomas McKinney and Pete Maxwell never publicly gave their accounts of the shooting, several other Fort Sumner residents, such as Deluvina Maxwell, Jesus Silva, and Francisco Lobato, did. In the early 1900s, these people were interviewed by Miguel Otero, future governor of New Mexico, for his own book, "The Real Billy the Kid." These accounts, when compared to those of Garrett and Poe, also show many discrepencies. Below is a listing of Garrett's and Poe's inconsistencies when presented on their own, when compared to each other, and when compared to the accounts of other Sumner residents.
Inconsistencies with the Garrett and Poe accounts
Pat Garrett claimed the reason he and his deputies went to Fort Sumner was because rancher Manuel Brazil wrote to him and told him Billy the Kid was in the area. However, John Poe claimed they went to Sumner because a drunkard from White Oaks told him he had overheard Billy’s friends, Sam Dedrick and Harvey West, discussing Billy’s presence in Sumner. Poe then relayed this information to Garrett, who only then decided to investigate around Sumner.
In his book, Garrett claims, while he and his men were hiding out in Sumner’s peach orchard before going to Maxwell’s, they heard nearby voices and shortly thereafter, saw a man stand up and walk out of the orchard. Only later, Garrett continues, did he discover that this man was actually Billy the Kid (Garrett does not, however, explain how he learned this). Poe, on the other hand, makes no mention of this noteworthy event. It would stand to reason that if this actually did happen, Poe would have surely remembered it. Furthermore, to contradict his own claims, Garrett states that he recognized Billy in Maxwell’s bedroom by his voice alone, yet when he heard his voice earlier in the evening in the orchard, he did not recognize it.
After Poe and McKinney encountered Billy near the Maxwell house’s porch, Poe claims that Billy slowly backed into Maxwell’s bedroom. Garrett, though, claims that Billy “sprang quickly” into the room.
Following the shooting, when Garrett, Poe, McKinney, and Maxwell returned to the bedroom to view the body, Garrett claims that a .41 caliber pistol was lying in Billy’s hand. Poe, however, claims that it was a .38 caliber pistol. To further complicate matters, Billy’s friends, Jesus Silva, Deluvina Maxwell, and Frank Lobato, claim that Billy went to Maxwell’s with only a butcher knife in his hand and no gun at all. Possibly verifying the latter position, the knife Billy was alleged to have carried was immediately recovered and its presence still documented today, whereas what happened to the purported pistol has never been solved.
Garrett claims he and his men stayed in the Maxwell house throughout the night, with the body of Billy still lying on the bedroom floor. Garrett goes on to say that a coroner’s jury, with Milnor Rudulph as president, convenes the following morning at the Maxwell house. According to Poe, the body was removed by Billy’s friends “a very short time after the shooting,” carried to a carpenter shop, dressed for burial, and a wake was held. Jesus Silva, Frank Lobato, and Vicente Otero, Sumner residents and friends of Billy the Kid, concur with Poe on this point.
Poe claims when he, Garrett, McKinney, and Maxwell reentered the bedroom, they found Billy’s body lying face up. However, Jesus Silva claims that when he entered the Maxwell room, the body of Billy was lying face down, and that he had to turn the body over.
Poe claims that Garrett didn’t truly want to be in Sumner on the 14th, not believing the Kid to be in town, and appeared eager to leave. Poe, however, felt sure Billy was in town and insisted they visit Maxwell’s house before leaving Sumner. Immediately following the shooting, according to both Garrett’s and Poe’s accounts, Poe’s first words to Garrett were “the Kid would not have come here; you have shot the wrong man.” This is a complete 180 turn from Poe’s previous stance. He had gone from being positive Billy was somewhere nearby to jumping to the conclusion that Garrett had killed the wrong man simply because the real Kid would not have been around Maxwell’s.
The next major shroud hanging over the shooting is the case of the coroner's jury, or juries. Due to the already conflicting first-hand accounts, it is extremely difficult to seperate the facts from the fiction in regards to the jury(ies) and the verdicts rendered. What tends to make this so difficult is the claim and counterclaim between the members of the jury(ies), coupled with the already contradictory testimonies of Garrett, Poe, and other Sumner residents. Basically, all that can be done now is to let the claims speak for themselves.
The Claims of Paco Anaya---Fort Sumner resident A. P. "Paco" Anaya claims in his book "I Buried Billy," that immediately following the shooting, he and his brother Higinio Garcia were called by Justice of the Peace Alejandro Segura to be part of a coroner's jury. Before the jury went to the Maxwell house to view the body, Garrett handed Segura a piece of paper with the jury's verdict already written on it by himself. Segura, Anaya, and the rest of the jury then merely signed the paper and gave it back to Garrett, who said he would file it. According to Anaya, the report simply read: "We the jury find that Billy the Kid (met) his death by a bullet which was fired from a gun in the hands of Pat F. Garrett. (Signed) Higinio Garcia - President, Antonio Savedra, Jose Silva, Sabal Gutierrez, Lorenzo Jaramillo, A. P. Anaya, Alejandro Segura - Justice of the Peace." Anaya goes on to say that sometime before the next morning, Garrett apparently lost the verdict, which leads us to the next claim...
The Claims of the Rudulph Coroner's Jury---According to Pat Garrett, he had Justice Segura form a coroner's jury on the morning of the 15th. Segura did just that, organizing six men and appointing Milnor Rudulph to serve as jury president. The jury then viewed the body, still lying on the floor of the Maxwell bedroom, and wrote a report completely in Spanish, which read in full: "This 15th day of July, A. D. 1881, I, the undersigned, Justice of the Peace of the Precinct above named, received information that there had been a death in Fort Sumner in said Precinct and immediately on receiving the information I proceeded to the said place and named Milnor Rudolph, Jose Silva, Antonio Saavedra, Pedro Antonio Lucero, Lorenzo Jaramillo, and Sabal Gutierres a jury to investigate the matter, and meeting in the house of Lucien B. Maxwell, the said jury proceeded to a room in said house where they found the body of William H. Bonney alias "Kid" with a bullet wound in the chest, and having examined the body, they examined the evidence of Pedro Maxwell, which evidence is as follows: 'As I was lying on my bed in my room about midnight on the 14th day of July, Patrick F. Garrett entered my room and sat down on the edge of my bed to talk to me. Soon after Garrett had seated himself William Bonney entered and approached my bed with a pistol in his hand and asked me, "Who is it? Who is it?" (NOTE:This one section of the verdict, quoting Billy the Kid, was written in English.)
And then Patrick F. Garrett fired two shots at him, the said William Bonney, and the said Bonney fell upon one side of my fireplace, and I left the room. When I returned three or four minutes after the shots, the said Bonney was dead.'" The final verdict of the jury, also written in Spanish, then read: "We of the jury unanimously find that William Bonney was killed by a shot in the left breast, in the region of the heart, fired from a pistol in the hand of Patrick F. Garrett, and our verdict is that the act of the said Garrett was justifiable homicide, and we are unanimous in the opinion that the gratitude of the whole community is due to the said Garrett for his act and that he deserves to be rewarded." (Signed) Milnor Rudulph, President, Antonio Sabedra, Pedro Anto Lucero, Jose Silba, Sabal Gutierrez, Lorenzo Jaramillo. All of which information I bring to your notice. - Alejandro Segura, Justice of the Peace." The verdict was given to Garrett, who said he would officially file it. For some reason though, the verdict never was filed and was lost to history. Now that the basic claims of each jury has been established, the questions that arise from them must be pointed out.
Inconsistencies with the accounts of the coroner's juries
First off, according to Anaya, the Rudulph jury's verdict was completely fake and written entirely by Pete Maxwell and/or Manuel Abreau, as ordered by Pat Garrett to make up for the original verdict he himself wrote and then lost. To support this, Anaya claims that two of the men named on the verdict did not live at Sumner at the time, those two being Milnor Rudulph and Pedro Anto Lucero.
Although Anaya claims the original verdict Garrett wrote was lost, no contemporary source backs up Anaya's claim of it ever having existed in the first place. Of the other five men Anaya claims were on this first jury, none of them ever came forward and supported Anaya's claim of their involvement. Basically, Anaya's word is the only evidence the first jury and its verdict ever existed.
If the Rudulph jury actually existed and viewed the body of Billy at the Maxwell house on the morning of the 15th, then this directly conflicts with the accounts of John Poe, Jesus Silva, and other Sumner residents, who maintained the body was removed a very short time after the shooting took place and dressed for a wake. It seems unlikely that the body would be taken, dressed and cleaned for a wake, then returned to where it had been laying for the benefit of the jury, only to be reclaimed afterwards for burial.
As stated above, neither verdict was ever officially filed. A search of the records of all the counties in New Mexico proves this assertion.
In the 1930s, historian Maurice G. Fulton discovered a photostatic copy of the Rudulph verdict inside the Capital Building in Santa Fe. How he found this, or how a photostatic copy was made at all, has never been explained. Regardless, after copies of his discovery were made, the hardcopy was again lost.
On the photostatic copy discovered by Fulton, although it is written almost entirely in Spanish, it quotes Billy as asking "Who is it?" in the Maxwell bedroom in English. This conflicts with the accounts of Garrett and Poe, who both claimed Billy asked the questions in Spanish.
The Rudulph verdict concludes with "the gratitude of the whole community is due to the said Garrett for his act and that he deserves to be rewarded." This is very out of place, since it was a well-known fact that Billy was friends with nearly everyone in the small community of Fort Sumner, and was friends with the specific members of the jury. Garrett himself claimed that he felt threatened by the townspeople following the shooting. Therefore, it seems doubtful that Billy's friends would recommend his killer deserving a reward.
Perhaps a minor point, but it should be noted: Justice Segura, who was claimed to have headed both juries, makes no mention at all in his record book regarding the death of Billy the Kid. At the time, Billy was the most famous criminal in New Mexico, and his death definitely would have been an event worthy to be noted by the local Justice of the Peace.
Throughout this whole mess, one persistent question keeps popping up: Did Garrett really kill the Kid that night? There actually is a considerable amount of evidence indicating it's at the very least possible that he did not. Much of this evidence is detailed below:
Evidence Garrett did not kill Billy the Kid
The most basic evidence of Billy's having survived are the numerous claims made by people who knew the Kid and said they saw him after July 14, 1881. For example, Mrs. J. H. Wood, of Seven Rivers, claimed she served Billy a dinner on July 17, 1881. Mrs. Syd Boykin, of Lincoln, also claimed Billy visited her after he was supposedly killed. Manuel Taylor, a boyhood friend of Billy's from Silver City, claimed he ran into Billy at a bullfight in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1914. Ben Harbert, of Taos, New Mexico, who also knew the Kid, claimed he saw him in Taos after July 14, 1881. Jesse Cox, a wagon driver from New Mexico, claimed he had seen and spoken to Billy numerous times after 1881.
Several of Billy's friends, who didn't actually report seeing him, also claimed they didn't believe the story of his death. Yginio Salazar, ex-Regulator and close friend of Billy's, claimed he received a letter written by the Kid, detailing how he escaped from Fort Sumner on the night of July 14. Frank Coe, another former Regulator, claimed he never believed the Kid was dead and spent a great deal of his time researching sightings and reports of the Kid's current whereabouts.
John Graham, alias John Collins, who rode with the Kid in the Rustlers and was a resident of Fort Sumner, claimed he helped dig the grave for the man Garrett killed, and that the corpse was not that of Billy the Kid.
In total, at least 26 different newspaper articles appeared after July 14 claiming the Kid survived.
On July 18, 1881, the Grant County Herald published an article entitled "Exit the Kid," written by S. M. Ashenfelter. In the article, Billy is described as having "allowed his beard to grow and has stained his skin brown to look like a Mexican." If this is true, it directly contradicts the description of Billy that was reported by J. H. Koogler of the Las Vegas Gazette six months earlier, which reported Billy as having "the traditional silky fuzz on his upper lip." If Billy still had "silky fuzz" on his upper lip in late December 1880, it would be a biological impossibility for him to have grown a beard by July 1881, as reported by Dr. J. M. Tanner in his book "Growth at Adolescence."
In 1983, Elizabeth Garrett, last surviving daughter of Pat Garrett, claimed to interviewer Paul Cain that her father did not kill Billy the Kid.
On Dec. 20, 1882, San Miguel County issued an arrest warrant for the Kid. This was again issued on Mar. 5, 1883. However, both times the warrant was returned as "not found in county."
Nevertheless, since history has stood resilient this long on the matter of the Kid's death, and most historians support Garrett's claim, certainly there must be significant evidence supporting their beliefs as well. They are as follows...
Evidence Garrett did kill Billy the Kid
It may sound simple, but it cannot be understated: the greatest piece of evidence that Garrett did in fact kill the Kid is he said he did. Though his record shows he was not the most honorable of citizens, he was a career-driven lawman, and for him to make the unfounded claim of having killed the most notorious outlaw in the territory and have it later turn out to be a lie would be a crippling blow. Not only would it destroy any political aspirations he might hold, it would also imply an innocent man met his death rather than the Kid, implicating Garrett in reckless disregard of duty and an attempted cover-up. For this, he would not only be disgraced as a lawman, but quite probably be charged with his crimes and subject to their corresponding penalties.
Essentially Billy “stayed dead,” in that if he did escape, he never reappeared in a fashion noteworthy enough for the press to get wind and announce it. True, while it was in his best interest to maintain a low profile (as he had been since his escape from Lincoln in April) and put up with the charade of the public believing him dead, a man as well-known and recognized as he would not have had total control over how well his secret was kept, in that if he went near a populated area within the New Mexican borders, word would almost certainly reach the press and his ruse would be revealed. Furthermore, though it’s debatable how vain or reckless Billy truly was, it would seem odd for Billy to see the logistics in allowing Garrett, a mortal enemy and slayer of his two closest friends, to profit off his supposed death when he merely had to announce his being alive to essentially destroy his foe.
For Garrett to have lied when claiming he killed the Kid, some sort of collusion between the two would almost be a necessity. However, by this point in their relationship, the two were bitter enemies, not likely to suggest or agree to a parley with one another. Who would have been the one to propose the idea of the cover-up? Say Garrett sent word to Billy to meet him to discuss a peace of sorts, whereby Billy could go free and Garrett could get his fame and fortune. Why not then, if Billy agreed, would Garrett not use his time-tested ambush tactic and simply gun Billy down at their planned meeting? Or, say Billy came up with the plan, sending word to Garrett of his peace offering. Why would he? Garrett was not hunting him, believing he had already left the area, as he was more-or-less free to do. Furthermore, as Billy was rumored to have sworn vengeance on Garrett, if Garrett actually did consent to the meeting, it would be more likely for Billy to seize the opportunity and kill him. Even if this agreement was somehow struck, if Billy did eventually turn up alive, Garrett’s fate would only be further harmed when his role in such a deliberate cover-up was revealed. On the other hand, if Garrett’s killing of the wrong man was an honest mistake and he knew the Kid survived, Garrett would have to be in near paranoia of when the Kid would reappear, constantly wondering when the hammer was going to fall and his embarrassing error in judgment made public.
Despite their avowed antipathy for Garrett, none of Billy’s friends who were in Sumner that night and were interviewed later in life (Jesus Silva, Deluvina Maxwell, Francisco Lobato, Paco Anaya, etc.) were ever documented as saying Garrett killed the wrong man, meaning they supported the belief of Billy being killed that night. They may have tried to paint Garrett as the villain, but if they truly wanted to wreck the man, they merely had to state he killed the wrong man. Now, it could be said they were in fear of Garrett, a much more prominent citizen than themselves, but many of said interviews were conducted years after Garrett’s own death. By the same token, if Billy had survived, it cannot be dismissed that they weren't lying for Garrett, but to protect Billy.
So, did Pat Garrett really kill Billy the Kid? There is both evidence for and against it. Still, there remains several loose ends and unanswered questions that poke holes in each theory.
Unanswered questions regarding the shooting
If Billy really was killed that night, why did he act so completely out of character? Everyone who knew the Kid remembered him for how cool and calm he was under fire, and for the way he "shot first and asked questions later." A look at the gunfights he participated in throughout his life supports this contention. Yet the man Garrett killed acted far more naive and inexperienced than the quick-thinking gunfighter Billy was. Why did he not recognize deputies Poe and McKinney for what they were? In a tight-knit community such as Sumner, two Anglo lawmen standing on the town patriarch's porch in the middle of the night would be hard to mistake for anything but what they were. Why did he back into a darkened bedroom that could present more danger than what he faced on the porch? If he felt threatened, as pulling his pistol indicates, why not flee back where he came, into the shadows, rather than allow himself to be cornered?
Did Billy really have a gun with him when he went to Maxwell's? Logic could be argued either way to support him having or not having one. He was the most wanted man in the territory and it would be in his character to take his gun everywhere. On the other hand, he was only going to a friend's house a few yards away and had no obvious reason to be fearful. Regardless, if Billy did have a gun, why didn't he use it? Again, this brings up the issue of him being out of character. Also, why was the gun he allegedly had reported at different times to be two different types (one a .41 caliber, the other a .38)? Furthermore, neither of the two reported guns were guns Billy was known to favor. When he was captured at Stinking Springs, a .44 caliber pistol, serial number 0361, was confiscated from him, and he was reported to have taken two .44s with him when he escaped from the Lincoln County courthouse in April 1881.
Why would Billy speak to Poe, McKinney, and Maxwell only in Spanish? It is logical he would address the two strangers on the porch in Spanish first, seeing as how Sumner was a mostly Hispanic community. However, after receiving no answer from them, he would likely address them in English. When it comes to Maxwell, there would really be no logical reason for Billy to address Maxwell in the secondary language of both men, especially in so serious a circumstance.
How exactly did the man Garrett killed manage to get past Poe and McKinney, two well-armed men, on the porch and into the bedroom? How is it that they were not able to prevent him from entering the room? This is very out of character for two experienced lawmen to allow a man they saw coming get behind them. Even if Billy was indeed armed with a pistol, both deputies were doubtless still better armed than he. Although neither Poe nor McKinney had ever seen the Kid before, they had to have had at least a basic description of him. Apparently though, as Poe himself claimed, he did not believe this man was Billy, but possibly an employee of Maxwell's. Why would he think that, when he knew the Kid was in town and knew his description? Could it be that Poe and McKinney did stop the man, talked to him, and realized he wasn't the Kid, so they allowed him to pass by?
Why do Garrett's and Poe's accounts differ as to who tipped them off to the Kid's presence in Sumner? Could it be, as has been theorized, that it was Pete Maxwell himself who notified Garrett? At the time, Billy was allegedly in Sumner only for Pete's younger sister, Paulita, who was possibly carrying Billy's unborn child. Pete strongly disapproved of this relationship, so could it be he notified Garrett in order to put a stop to it? Pete never talked of the shooting publicly; could it be he didn't want to expose his complicity in the matter and his betrayal of the Kid?
Why do the accounts differ on who was first to enter Maxwell's bedroom following the shooting? Paco Anaya claimed Deluvina Maxwell was the first to investigate due to the lawmen's fear of Billy (or whoever) being merely wounded and lying in wait. Garrett claimed he, his deputies, and Maxwell re-entered together, but only after Maxwell held a candle to the window from the outside, providing them a clear view of the prostrate body. Lastly, Jesus Silva claimed it was he who was first in the room.
Why did it take Pat Garrett so long to collect the official reward money that was offered for the Kid? Although he applied for it almost immediately after the alleged killing of the Kid, it was not granted to him until Feb. 18, 1882. Acting Governor W. G. Ritch, who was essential in getting the reward offered in the first place, did virtually everything in his power, trying to find any viable loophole, to get out of paying. Could it be that the officials doubted the Kid was really dead, or was it simply a case of cheap and/or crooked politicians trying to demur from their obligations?
What about the other deputy there that night, Thomas McKinney? He never spoke publicly about the shooting, although various second-hand sources claim that, in private, he did tell the "real" story of what happened. According to miner Frederick Grey, who allegedly knew McKinney, the deputy told him that he, Garrett, and Poe went into the bedroom of Paulita Maxwell, tied and gagged her, and when Billy came by later that night, Garrett shot him from concealment. Although at first listen this does seem more likely than the versions Garrett and Poe told, on closer inspection it loses credibility. Surely, Pete Maxwell would not have permitted his sister to be abused in such manner, and, even if he did, Paulita herself would have been very vocal of her mistreatment. According to some McKinney relatives, he told a different story from the one he reportedly told Grey. In this version, McKinney stated that he killed the man in the Maxwell bedroom. This man was discovered to not be Billy, while the real Kid escaped. Another story that McKinney reportedly told other relatives was that Garrett shot the wrong man on the porch, while the real Kid escaped. Why did McKinney tell all these different versions in secret? Whatever the reason, the differing claims he made tend to destroy his credibility completely.
In Aug. 1882, Garrett encountered Joe Antrim, Billy's brother, at a hotel in Trindad, Colorado. Although there had been earlier reports, perhaps unfounded, that Joe was seeking vengeance on Garrett, the two retired to a private room and talked for nearly two hours. Following their meeting, the two shook hands and parted amicably. What did the two discuss in private? How was Garrett able to get this man, who allegedly wanted revenge for the death of his brother, to part with him on such friendly terms?
Could the real question not be if Garrett killed the Kid, but how? Could the stench of cover-up, rumors, and innuendos surrounding the events of July 14 not stem from the dead man's identity, but from the manner in which he met his death? To read the accepted account (either Garrett's or Poe's), one cannot deny the quirky coincidences abounding, the largest being the wanted man just happening to bumble into Garrett's lap and set himself up for the kill. Could the story McKinney allegedly related to miner Grey have some semblance of truth, in that Garrett and his deputies set some form of a deliberate trap for Billy, something so dastardly as to only constitute as murder and not a lawful killing? Is this the basis for the conspiracy theories, that Garrett's and Poe's versions are indeed rehearsed fabrications, but fabricated for the wrong reasons?
So, there you have it: all the facts surrounding the inconsistencies of the shooting laid out. I've done my best here to represent an unbiased viewpoint, and hopefully, that has been accomplished. The questions presented here will probably remain unanswered forever. And maybe that's a fitting end for the life of Billy the Kid, with both his entrance and exit in history being shrouded in mystery.
To read about Brushy Bill Roberts and John Miller, two old men who claimed they were Billy the Kid still alive in the twentieth century, click here. As always, I welcome any and all e-mail regarding this topic.