THE REAL BILLY THE KID?
Is the young man on the right Henry Antrim, alias Billy the Kid? And is that his brother Joe on the left? Tests are underway to authenticate this recently discovered photo. Read all about it below in an exclusive interview with the Old West scholar who discovered the photo ...
Billy the Kid may very well be the most enigmatic figure in Old West history. Few reliable details are known about his life, with the result that there have been many different interpretations of who and what he was; this makes him an ideal subject for filmmakers and others with no obligation to discover the truth, but a somewhat frustrating subject for historians. Was he a bloodthirsty thug? A victim of circumstance? A tragic hero? These and many other questions continue to be asked, well over a century after his death; the real Billy the Kid, it seems, is as elusive to historians as he was to the authorities in 1880s New Mexico.
Our uncertainty about the real Billy the Kid extends even to his physical appearance. Only one photo of the Kid has ever been verified as genuine by people who knew him, and they say it was an unflattering photo that distorted his features. Therefore, if we rely on this photo to discern something of his character, we might be misled. For instance, we are told by his contemporaries that he was often well dressed, yet in this photo he appears rather shabbily dressed. We are also told that he was handsome and intelligent, yet the bucktoothed face that squints out from the old tintype gives a somewhat different impression. Thus, the real Billy the Kid eludes even the camera lens.
It is, then, a matter of great interest whenever we hear of the discovery of a photo purporting to be a previously unknown photo of the Kid. Many such photos have appeared over the years; most have been discredited, a few remain open to question, but so far none have entirely satisfied us that they are genuine.
But now comes a photo that just may satisfy. What sets this one apart from other purported photos of the Kid is the inclusion of another person in the photo--a person bearing a strong resemblance to the Kid's brother, Joe Antrim.
Needless to say, an additional person in the photo greatly raises the standard that must be met by any authentification process, and if it is met, then we are virtually assured that this is a photo of the real Billy the Kid.
In the following interview, the man who discovered this photo--an Old West scholar with impeccable credentials--discusses the tests that have so far been conducted to establish the authenticity of the photo, as well as the circumstances of its discovery. He also discusses Billy the Kid in general and throws some welcome light on this shadowy figure of the Old West ...
At the present time, the interviewee wishes to remain anonymous. Which prompted my first question ...
Why do you wish to remain anonymous?
In a word, reputation. Unlike most who have come forward with an unverified photo for analysis in the past, I'm not in this to "make a name" or a fast buck. I understand all too greatly the historical significance of the image. If it indeed turns out to be Henry and Joe Antrim, I intend it to find a home where the public can view the artifact, and where it can be cared for properly. I am a seasoned historian of the 19th Century American West, having edited 22 books on the subject (including four on Billy the Kid and Lincoln County War), and an author of hundreds of articles, plus having served on the boards for various historical societies and foundations. So, I approach this with the greatest trepidation and doubt. I absolutely refuse to embarrass the many people involved in this effort to identify the image, by turning it into a circus of ego or irresponsible credit. Once every effort to identify the image, by all means available, have been exhausted, then I will be glad to lend my identity as having discovered the photo. Plus, there is a huge privacy issue involved. Those on the inside of this process know me very well, and have been extremely gracious to keep my identity hushed over the last two years, since the photo was initially discovered, or uncovered, whichever you prefer. I suppose it was never really lost, just hidden from general consumption.
What is the story behind this photo? Is it known when and where it was taken? Also, where has the photo been all these years, and how did you acquire it?
Unfortunately, the historical provenance for the ferrotype is less than desirable, but subsequent research from various public and private sources has filled quite a few holes. By the very process of the tintype in question, a very slim window exists for it's exposure. Approximately 1875-1879. Now, within that window, we know that Henry and Joseph were geographically limited to southwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Arizona. After the death of their mother, Henry migrated to the Globe area (where the image was found in 2003) of Arizona, where he operated as an agent for a stock rustling ring led by former soldier John Mackie. Joseph stayed in the Silver City, New Mexico, area, where he served as an errand runner for a saloon owner, and apprenticed for his future career as a faro dealer and bookie. We have numerous first-person accounts of Henry and Joe seeing each other frequently before Henry finally left the area for Lincoln County, but perhaps the most appealing, in context to the tintype, would be their final documented meeting in Georgetown, New Mexico, in 1876. Now, photo historians are currently trying to nail down the exact photographer of the image, based on the background and process, which will greatly narrow the location of the original sitting. At the time, there were only a handful of tintype photographers in the geographic region, so it's only a matter of time before a background match is made. But, an educated guess would be that the photo was taken in either Silver City or Georgetown, in 1875-76. The physical tintype was acquired from a family in Globe, Arizona, by an antiquities dealer, where both Henry and Joe lived at various times, Henry in the 1870s, and Joe later in the century. I purchased the image from the dealer in Phoenix, although there was never the assumption of the identity of the subjects. I made the connection only after more close scrutiny of the subjects, after noticing the slight protrusion of the teeth on the standing subject, and the identification of the same style clothing and stance later identified in the more common and identified "Diedrick" tintype of Billy the Kid. The one we all know and love, and recognized around the world, reaching almost iconic status.
This photo is different from most purported photos of Billy the Kid, in that there is an additional person in the photo to authenticate Billy's brother Joe. What has been done so far to authenticate these persons as Billy and Joe?
So far, although the identification continues, the two subjects have been identified by forensic artists for the states of New Mexico and Arizona, law enforcement and facial recognition experts from both states and Canada, dental surgeons, historians in the field, and photography experts from two universities. The forensic and dental matches are perhaps the most persuasive and positive, as they rely on tried procedures, by seasoned law enforcement officers. The findings are actually quite explosive, based on measurements of the visible fingers, shoulder width and angle, and Adam's Apple of "Billy" versus Henry; and the chin, neck, and cranium of Joe versus the sitting subject in the "Globe" photo. The probability from three tests indicates a 98% overall match for both subjects. That is a one-in-a-million shot. To find one person that matches at that percentage is probable, but two is almost unbelievable, which is really the fuel that has gotten the image to the stage it is at currently. When the final testing and research is in, hopefully by the end of the year, we may finally have a more realistic face to put on "the Kid." Up until now, we have only the Diedrick tintype, which contemporaries have stated looked nothing like the young Irish boy that they knew as Henry Antrim. But, we all take a bad photo now and then. Unfortunately, Billy the Kid will forever be associated with his. For now, as a historian involved in the identification remarked, the best we may ever get is a positive consensus among experts. Positive identification may never be achieved. Unlike Jesse James or Bill Hickok, or even Wyatt Earp, we simply do not have more than one photo, each, to compare against Henry and Joe Antrim.
Billy the Kid may be the most controversial Old West outlaw in history. Some writers have depicted him as a hero; others as a psychopathic killer. There is also a great divergence of opinion with regard to his actual deeds. For instance, it is written on his tombstone that he killed 21 men; yet many scholars put the figure far lower. What is your opinion of the Kid? Was he good, bad, or something in between? And what are the biggest misconceptions about him? How much is truth, and how much myth?
Putting America's preoccupation with hero-worship aside (Henry Antrim was anything but a hero in the traditional sense), the Kid exhibited some extremely admirable traits; he was legendary in his resilience, and he really was just dealt a terribly shitty hand from the beginning. He played it well, but he also could have played it differently. So many factors came into play during his short lifetime, that it really is hard to say what anyone would have done in his situation.
Consider first, as with anything in history, the exact circumstances. Territorial New Mexico was a vast wilderness of corruption and violence. Money was a huge problem for everyone. You had pockets of organized people, separated by religious beliefs and nationality, grasping for wealth. Politicos, fraternal organizations, eastern mining companies, rogue military officials, cattle barons, organized crime syndicates, and so forth. As a result, law and order really fell to the wayside. Add to that a massive flood of immigration from the overpopulated East, Apaches that weren't happy with the Agency process, and hundreds of unemployed, recently-discharged soldiers. It was just a beautiful mess. Unfortunately, since the advent of film, we have glorified only the romantic vision of the times, which convolutes the whole era.
Henry Antrim was orphaned and essentially abandoned in this world. He participated almost immediately in a myriad of stupid stunts, stealing laundry etc., that led to his first of many jail escapes. "On the run" he is thrust, scared and probably more than a bit confused, into this really foul economic and social boiling pot that was the West at the time. And he really had good intentions in the beginning. He worked as a dishwasher and waiter, he applied for jobs hauling hay and delivering goods. He apprenticed for a small bit with a blacksmith. It was only a matter of time before he fell in with the wrong crowd out of economic necessity, which led to a string of petty crime, common horse theft, and stealing stock from the U.S. Army.
It was at this time that Henry killed his first man after an exchange of barroom insults. There was certainly nothing "gunslinger" about it, no romance whatsoever. A large drunken adult was beating the Kid to the ground and he shot his attacker in the stomach in self defense. It had to be an extremely frightening time for a young man, no more than 16 at best.
As a result of this killing, and as a result of local law enforcement's reluctance to capture the Kid, Henry Antrim developed the misconception that he was untouchable. It plagued him the rest of his days. He repeatedly defied the law and escaped from jail after jail, always staying in the immediate area, whether it be in New Mexico or Arizona, with a false sense of invincibility. Or maybe it was just youthful naivete. Whatever the case, he became renowned especially among older, more seasoned men, for being foolhardy.
It was this distorted trait, mislabeled bravery, that flattered and fueled the Kid's exploits during the Lincoln County Merchant War, and throughout his short outlaw period. If you needed someone to charge the enemy, lead an ambush, or attempt an assassination, the Kid was the obvious choice. And he did very well at all three. Imagine giving a teenager a gun and a license to kill. It was during this time that Antrim participated in the murders of a number of men, but as a tool of a greater conflict that he really had little control over. In essence, he was a soldier for a faction; not all that uncommon in the feudal West, and the genesis for most of the more notable gunmen. History recorded the results, and legend has pretty much filled in the gaps where truth was discarded. (Antrim certainly never killed anywhere near 21 men, with a lifetime total of actually four confirmed single kills [Cahill, Grant, Olinger, and Bell], and half a dozen "assists" [Sheriff William Brady, Buckshot Roberts, Baker, Morton and McCloskey]. The majority of the killing was general in nature, as a result of large group standoffs and ambushes.)
The greatest misconceptions regarding Antrim can be attributed directly to the advent of film and early, seriously flawed biographies by Pat Garrett himself and biographers such as Walter Noble Burns. Just like today, the public craved overblown media creations. "Billy the Kid" became the ultimate manifestation of western development, with little regard to his actual circumstances. Depending on the source, even during his lifetime, he was either Robin Hood, or the Devil himself. In reality, he was a very convenient scapegoat for the territorial government to dump all of their problems, and prove their tenacity in "taming" the lawlessness that they, ultimately, created by turning a blind eye to graft and corruption. They needed a scapegoat.
The really tragic thesis to the story is that the very people who ultimately tracked down and killed "Billy the Kid" were the same who had created this "monster." He had been offered amnesty by the governor in exchange for his testimony, only to have it revoked. He had been offered plea bargains and favors, only to be crafted into a "noted desperado" by the state prosecutor. He was manipulated to the point of almost total confusion, both in and out of the judicial system, until his only conceivable option became an almost animalistic self-preservation. It was at this time, after his final capture by a hastily-appointed Sheriff Pat Garrett, that the Kid desperately murdered his two jailers and escaped, briefly, to Fort Sumner. It was in Fort Sumner, the home of his girlfriend and possible lover, that the Kid was ultimately tracked down and killed by Garrett. And it wasn't celebrated at the time. It was tragic. Garrett knew it was tragic, the Kid's support group of friends knew it was tragic, even the deputies knew it was tragic.
That tragedy exists still today. "Billy the Kid" has become an icon so far removed from Henry Antrim that the two are almost polar opposites. Billy the Kid has become a giant in gunfighter mythology, easily recognized around the world from his one verified image and a slew of films, plays, poems, books, music, video games, etc. The "Kid" sells, and he sells well, from his own lifetime to ours, and probably well into the future. The end result is an absolute removal of the facts and a reluctance to comprehend that the Henry Antrim who first left Silver City at 15 or 16 was a destitute, discarded orphan with the tendency to be easily manipulated. He was extremely brave, extremely resilient, extremely intelligent. He was not unlike thousands of others who ultimately created a civilization out of a wilderness, with the exception that his role in that civilization caught the attention of a willing audience. His ultimate goal was not unlike the vast majority; he wanted to buy a place of his own and make a living. Unfortunately, the civilized world ate him whole, so much so that all we have left is a gross caricature of a person who otherwise would have gone unheralded.
As you described, there are two Billy the Kids--the historical Henry Antrim and the mythical Kid who has a life of his own in popular culture. Film has probably been the single most important medium in keeping the mythical Kid alive; it is even possible that more films have been made about him than any other person in Old West history. Of all these films, which (if any) do you think come closest to depicting Billy the Kid as he really was?
With most films dedicated to one subject, King Arthur, Wyatt Earp, the Kennedys, etc., it is almost impossible to pick one true representation that stands tall, but rather, one must pick the best scenes from certain films, or particular scenes that stand out as truer than not. For Billy, film has played a very large part in his story and legend, since the very early days of movies. Almost immediately, in fact.
From the parade of Billy films, certainly if you were to put scenes together, you would have a comprehensive, almost true-to-life picture. For instance, the death escape scene from Pekinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is right on, as is to a lesser extent, the final death scene. Add to that the death scene from Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid, starring Val Kilmer, and assorted minutes from Young Guns, Dirty Little Billy, etc., and you would have a fine film. To accurately capture the times, the chicken-stealing scene from Bad Company would be in order. Unfortunately, until someone (perhaps Tarantino) makes a literal representation of the times, we may never see the perfect Billy the Kid picture.
The problem with films, forevermore, is that productions like Deadwood have broken the mold. It is now ok to show that the West wasn't all cool hats and gunfights. There were deep, deep political issues, bribery, corruption, senseless violence, really a mirror image of today's environment, that drove life back then. The image of the Western hero has really passed its prime. Virtually everyone in the "Old West" was there to make it rich, by hook or crook. As Manifest Destiny, it both succeeded, and failed miserably. Fortunately for us, the leftover image produced many fantastic personalities, such as the Kid.
Of all the books written about the Kid, the Lincoln County War, etc.,
which ones would you recommend as the most accurate?
Like film, the written works on the Kid are flawed in many ways, mainly because of timing. When one historian finally commits to a biography, it is only a matter or time before another comes along with more relevant or recently-discovered research. There are archives and private letters and documents that are literally discovered everyday. It is an extremely hard task to write a comprehensive biography of any one person, especially one who used a variety of alias, lied to census takers, and left a short paper trail.
If you had to nail one down, Philip Rasch was perhaps the greatest Billy the Kid biographer, extant. His research truly was exhausting, and he followed every trail he came across. Because of him we know so much, most of it still undisputed to this day. Unfortunately, Rasch's writings are very rare, and hard to find outside of collector's circles. If you have the time and resources, his research collection is housed in Lincoln, New Mexico. His notes alone are worth the trip.
The works of Hough, Kelleher, Burns and others certainly rounded out the picture and brought the legend out of the shadows. Of the living historians, Frederick Nolan is the best. His work is fascinating, and with each book he releases more, more and more. His research tactics should be studied by any amateur historian. As far as fictional authors, I believe Elizabeth Fackler did the best rendition of the Kid's saga. her book, The Legend of El Chivato, truly captured the mood of the Lincoln County War, and the absolute desperation of life in territorial New Mexico. It also, would make a fine film.
So ends our exclusive interview with the discoverer of the above photo. We are grateful to him for taking the time to answer our questions and granting his permission to post this fascinating photo. Stay tuned for more developments on this story...
P.S. from Bison Bill: "If you landed on this page by way of a keyword search or external link, you may enjoy visiting the rest of this website. Just click on the link below ..."
BILLY THE KID MOVIES
(about him or inspired by him)
Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid [DVD](1973) DVD
Sam Peckinpah's violent, mystical Western saga focuses on the pursuit of outlaw Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) by lawman Pat Garrett (James Coburn). With Jason Robards, Rita Coolidge and Bob Dylan (who also wrote the music). 4 hrs. total. Widescreen (Enhanced); Soundtracks: English Dolby Digital mono, French Dolby Digital mono; Subtitles: English, French, Spanish; audio commentary; featurettes; theatrical trailers. Two-disc set.
Sam Peckinpah's The Legendary Westerns Collection [DVD] DVD
Six-disc set includes "Ride the High Country," "The Wild Bunch" (Special Edition), "The Ballad of Cable Hogue," and "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (Special Edition).
Young Guns [Blu-ray](1988)
Lean in years, but killers all, a violent range war put them on the wrong end of the biggest manhunt ever in the Wild West. Outlaw mega-hit of Billy the Kid and his band stars Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Dermot Mulroney, Casey Siemaszko; with Jack Palance, Terence Stamp. 102 min. Widescreen; Soundtracks: English Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, DTS HD 5.1; Subtitles: Spanish.
Young Guns II [DVD](1990) DVD
The Old West's meanest, wildest and hippest-looking outlaws are back behind, and under, the gun in the hit sequel. Emilio Estevez, as Billy the Kid, reunites with the surviving members of his band, but is it too late to save the Kid from sheriff Pat Garrett? Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, William Petersen and Christian Slater co-star; authentic frontier music by Bon Jovi. 103 min. Widescreen (Enhanced); Soundtracks: English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital Surround stereo; theatrical trailer.
Young Guns [DVD](1988) DVD
Lean in years, but killers all, a violent range war put them on the wrong end of the biggest manhunt ever in the Wild West. Outlaw mega-hit of Billy the Kid and his band stars Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Dermot Mulroney, Casey Siemaszko; with Jack Palance, Terence Stamp. 102 min. Widescreen; Soundtracks: English Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital Surround; Subtitles: Spanish; audio commentary; theatrical trailer; documentary; trivia.
The Paul Newman Collection [DVD] DVD
In the role that made him a star, Paul Newman is middleweight boxing champ Rocky Graziano in Robert Wise's Oscar-winning biodrama, "Somebody up There Likes Me" (1956). Steve McQueen co-stars. Newman portrays notorious outlaw Billy the Kid in director Arthur Penn's first feature, "The Left-Handed Gun" (1958). An ambitious lawyer's (Newman) dark past comes back to haunt him while defending a war buddy who's been accused of murder, in "The Young Philadelphians" (1959). With Barbara Rush, Robert Vaughn. Newman plays Ross MacDonald's cool private eye in "Harper" (1966) and again in "The Drowning Pool" (1975) which follows the detective to New Orleans where he tries to find out who's been blackmailing an ex-girlfriend (Joanne Woodward). An easy-g
One Eyed Jacks (Letterboxed Version) [VHS](1961) VHS
Marlon Brando directs (after taking over the helm from Stanley Kubrick) and stars as a ruthless outlaw who escapes from a sadistic prison to exact vengeance upon his one-time partner, who is now the sheriff of a small town. Offbeat psychological Western co-stars Karl Malden, Ben Johnson and Katy Jurado. 141 min.
Bad Company [VHS](1972) VHS
Terrifically entertaining tale of two mismatched young drifters (Jeff Bridges, Barry Brown) ducking in and out of trouble as they steal and connive their way across the Civil War-era West. An early gem from director Robert Benton ("Kramer vs. Kramer"). 93 min. NOTE: This Title Is Out Of Print; Limit One Per Customer.
Bad Company [DVD](1972) DVD
Terrifically entertaining tale of two mismatched young drifters (Jeff Bridges, Barry Brown) ducking in and out of trouble as they steal and connive their way across the Civil War-era West. An early gem from director Robert Benton ("Kramer vs. Kramer"). 92 min. Widescreen (Enhanced); Soundtrack: English Dolby mono; Subtitles: English; scene access.
One Eyed Jacks [DVD](1961) DVD
Marlon Brando directs (after taking over the helm from Stanley Kubrick) and stars as a ruthless outlaw who escapes from a sadistic prison to exact vengeance upon his one-time partner, who is now the sheriff of a small town. Offbeat psychological Western co-stars Karl Malden, Ben Johnson and Katy Jurado. 141 min. Widescreen; Soundtrack: English Dolby Digital 5.1.
Legends Of The West, Vol. 2 [DVD] DVD
Twenty-nine classic Westerns are included in this eight-disc set that features eight volumes of "The Great American Western" series. Includes "Kansas Pacific," "Santa Fe Trail," "Vengeance Valley," "One-Eyed Jacks," "The Over-the-Hill Gang," "The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again," "The Deadly Companions," "Against a Crooked Sky," "Battles of Chief Pontiac," "Sitting Bull," "The Sundowners" (1950), "The Gatling Gun," "The Bushwhackers," "The Gun and the Pulpit," "Boot Hill," "My Outlaw Brother," "Little Moon and Jud McGraw," "Jory," "The Brothers O'Toole," "The Jackals," "Seven Alone," "Pioneer Woman," "The Proud Rebel," "Buckskin Frontier," "Fighting Caravans," "The Woman of the Town," "The Proud and the Damned," "Savage Guns," and "The Outl