How the West was Weird:
OUTLAWS WHO ARE BURIED
IN TWO PLACES AT ONCE
Some outlaws have a legend so big it takes more than one grave to hold them. They need two graves—one for the historical individual, and another for the legend. Consider the following strange cases. Strange, but true …
The grave on top is in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The one on bottom is in
Hamilton, Texas. As the inscriptions on their tombstones indicate, Billy the Kid is buried in both places.
Now, consider this …
Jesse James, another legendary outlaw, also has two graves—the one on top
in Kearney, Missouri, the one on bottom in Granbury, Texas.
“HOW CAN THIS BE?!?” you ask.
The answer, buckaroo, is that one of the bodies is not Billy the Kid, but an imposter. Same with the two graves of Jesse James.
As for which are the imposters, it all depends on who you ask. Most persons believe the man buried in Fort Sumner is the real Billy the Kid, shot down in 1881 by Sheriff Pat Garrett. Others believe Garrett shot the wrong man, a friend of the Kid’s named Billy Barlow, and that the real Kid escaped to live a long life under many aliases, including Brushy Bill, the man buried in Hamilton.
Which do I believe? I believe Fort Sumner is the real final resting place of Billy the Kid. But Brushy Bill is a fascinating character nonetheless, and who knows, in the Weird West anything is possible. Here are some links to articles about Brushy Bill. Read them and decide for yourself:
Brushy Bill Roberts and Billy the Kid---The Complete Facts
The Truth about the Billy the Kid Investigation
Billy vs. Brushy
Brushy Bill - The Truth?
The Truth about Brushy Bill Roberts
I should mention that Brushy Bill is not the only Billy the Kid claimant. In a grave in Prescott, Arizona, lies the lesser-known John Miller who some believe is the Kid. Information about Miller may be found at the links below:
Wikipedia: John Miller
John Miller: Billy the Kid?
As for Jesse James, there is a compelling story that the man who lies buried in Missouri is not Jesse, but one Charlie Bigelow. The real Jesse, so the story goes, faked his death and took the name J. Frank Dalton. Eventually, he ended up in Granbury, where he is now buried. I have written about Dalton’s claim in the article on this website, The Secret Life of Jesse James. Cited in my article is the book Jesse James Was One of His
Names by Del Scharader & Jesse James III. This book can be read in its entirety here. Below are more links about J. Frank Dalton:
The Outlaws: J. Frank Dalton
FBI File on J. Frank Dalton
Jesse James - The Legend Lives On
Who Was J. Frank Dalton Anyway?
It is possible that the Billy the Kid and Jesse James controversies will never be settled. DNA analysis was performed on the Jesse James in Kearney, but some question the reliability of the results. The Granbury Jesse James’s DNA analysis proved to be even less satisfactory when it was discovered that the wrong body had been exhumed. As for Billy the Kid, permission to exhume Brushy Bill Roberts was recently refused, and the results of a DNA analysis of John Miller have so far not been revealed. (See news story.)
In a way, it would be a shame if these controversies were resolved. With more
than one Billy the Kid, we have more than one Billy the Kid Museum to visit, the one in New Mexico and the one in Texas. And in Missouri, we have the Jesse James Home Museum in St. Joseph and the Jesse James Wax Museum in Stanton that promotes the story of J. Frank
Dalton. Without these extra roadside attractions, without the enigmas of Brushy Bill and J. Frank Dalton, the West would be less Weird, therefore a lot less fun.
Incidentally, as you drive into Fort Sumner, you will see signs for two different
museums—the aforementioned Billy the Kid Museum and the Old Fort Sumner
Museum—both advertising that they have the “real” grave of Billy the Kid. Which raises the total number of Billy the Kid graves to four—a record that no one has been able to top.
Actually, the grave at the Billy the Kid Museum doesn’t have a body in it. It is a replica, called “real” because at the time it was created the real “real” grave was in poor condition, having been vandalized by souvenir hunters. In addition, the cemetery itself had been seriously neglected. I know from personal experience. On my first visit to Fort Sumner in 1964, I found it to be a dusty, dismal, weedgrown place with nothing to recommend it, except for the fact that down in the ground lay the bones of the legendary Billy the Kid.
The Billy the Kid Museum, then, reconstructed the original grave in order to give tourists something to actually see. They also began publicizing the replica as the “real” grave—which is somewhat confusing. (Roadside America: Billy the Kid's Graves) To see the real grave, follow the signs to the Old Fort Sumner Museum. When you get there, you will discover that the cemetery has been beautifully landscaped and Billy the Kid’s grave restored, with a cage added to keep out vandals—very different from what I saw in 1964. Below is a picture of me, Bison Bill, taken on my 2003 visit to Fort Sumner. On this occasion, you’ll notice, I added my own memorial to the Kid’s grave: a copy of my illustration of the Kid that was used on the cover of the Cactus Brothers album.
After you visit Billy the Kid’s grave and tour the Old Fort Sumner Museum, be sure to visit the Billy the Kid Museum. There is a great deal more than a replica of the grave to see. You will find a fascinating collection of Billy the Kid and other Old West artifacts there. Do not miss it.
There is one last curious thing I should mention about Brushy Bill (Billy the
Kid?) and J. Frank Dalton (Jesse James?). It has to do with this photo:
There they are together, the two old outlaws (imposters?). Turns out they were friends who lived near each other. (Hico is only a half-hour’s drive from Granbury.) Which raises an interesting possibility. Suppose these two old rascals were sitting on the porch one day telling tall tales, trying to top each other, when J. Frank Dalton said, “Bill, there’s something I been meaning to tell you.”
“I am the real Jesse James ...” Then he tells his story.
When Dalton finishes, Brushy Bill says, “Thank you for sharing your secret with
me, Frank—I mean Jesse. Now, I will return the favor. You see, I have a secret, too … I am the real Billy the Kid.”
Maybe that’s how the whole thing got started.
And yet, maybe they weren’t telling tall tales. Maybe they really were who they said they were. Naturally, two old outlaws who had changed their identities and managed to live so long would have a great deal in common and would be friends. And maybe their residence in the same vicinity was not a coincidence. Maybe Granbury was part of some outlaw relocation program. Remember, there are stories that Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, too, did not really die in that burning Virginia barn, but made it to Granbury, where for years he worked as a bartender under the name John St. Helens. The book Jesse James Was One of His Names even claims that Wilkes was murdered by James/Dalton. Well, who knows …
All I know is that, for years, a mummy touted as being that of John Wilkes Booth toured the carnival circuit. Below are some links about the Booth theories, also some information about the mummy:
Did John Wilkes Booth Live in Texas?
Was It Booth?
John Wilkes Booth on Tour
Three graves for Billy the Kid, two for Jesse James, and the mummy of John Wilkes Booth in a sideshow. I’m Bison Bill, and that’s how the West was Weird …