Billy the Kid Unearthed
How buried flea market finds turned into photographic gold mines!
It is a paradox that, for one of the most famous legends of the American West, there existed no authenticated physical photographs of Billy the Kid. It is perhaps an indication of the enigma that Billy was—a young criminal who had killed at least eleven men by the time he was 21, but who was amiable and wanted people to love him. Maybe the reason no photographs existed of him was because he gave away all his tintypes—mostly to fellow criminals —and they were then lost to oblivion for more than 130 years after his death.
The complete lack of any physical photographs of Billy the Kid only added to the mystique of his legend and fed a nearly manic demand for any collectible that might promise Billy the Kid provenance.
So when the first authenticated photograph of Billy the Kid was found and identified, it was no wonder that, when it went up for auction in June 2011 at the Annual Old West Show & Auction in Denver, Colorado, it was sold for $2.3 million!
BILLY POSING OUTSIDE A FORT SUMNER SALOON, 1879
The metallic “ferrotype” photo, taken outside a Fort Sumner, New Mexico, saloon probably in late 1879 depicts the outlaw gripping the upright barrel of a Winchester carbine, with a Colt 45 pistol strapped to his hip. He was wearing a waistcoat and bulky cardigan and a top hat rakishly tipped back on his head in his famous style.
The photograph was owned by the descendants of Dan Dedrick, who was given the photo by his cattle rustling partner, Billy the Kid himself.The image was only once publicly displayed at a museum in Lincoln County, New Mexico, where Billy began his career as a gunman in the 1870s. He was later shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881 and buried in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where the photograph was taken.
The provenance of the tintype is assured because Billy had given the same photograph to Pat Garrett, who later shot The Kid dead. After Billy’s death, Garrett was accused of having killed Billy in cold blood. In an effort to redeem himself and promote his side of the story, he wrote a biography about Billy the Kid. That same image was featured in Garrett’s book.
The record-breaking sale of the first known Billy the Kid photograph caused a craze to find more Billy photographs. Everyone who had vintage photographs took a closer look at them, hoping to discover Billy’s visage with his impish smile. People who’d never gone antiquing before started poring over junk stores, second-hand shops and antique businesses. And other photographs began to show up.
BILLY PLAYING CROQUET, 1878
In 2010—a year before the record sale of Billy’s first photograph—Californian Randy Guijarro was digging through items in a junk shop in Fresno, California. In a dusty cardboard box he found an interesting 4x5 inch tintype picture of two young men and a woman in the mid-1800s playing croquet. He purchased the tintype for $2. The following year, when the Billy the Kid image was sold for $2.3 million, Guijarro noticed the uncanny similarity in that image and the young man standing in the middle of his croquet photograph. He was sure he had something!
Guijarro began an exhaustive effort to authenticate his photograph. Along the way, National Geographic got wind of his find and attempt to authenticate his image and voice an interest in producing a documentary about his journey. The documentary would be narrated by Kevin Costner. The documentary followed Guijarro and experts as he discovered the photograph was taken at the wedding of fellow Regulator, Charlie Bowdre (seated on the horse on the right) and his bride Manuella. Then Guijarro contacted a facial recognition expert who scored the image very highly.
Then he discovered that the building in the photograph was a building on cattleman John Tunstall’s ranch where Billy had worked. He traveled to the location, where he found the exact building but with new siding. Removing the siding, the original lumber beneath matched the photograph. The image was finally authenticated. Experts in Old West memorabilia have estimated its worth at more than $5 million.
BILLY PLAYING CARDS, 1877
Another photograph soon emerged in Texas. The photo, which has been kept in the same family for over a century, was originally handed over to the seller’s grandfather by the widow of David Anderson, aka Billy Wilson, Billy's friend.
The picture, believed to have been taken in 1877, shows 18-year-old Billy playing cards, presumably poker, with three other men from his gang: Richard Brewer, Fred Waite, and Henry Brown. At this time, Billy was wanted for murder of a blacksmith in Arizona. The Kid is wearing his distinctive top hat and waist coat and looks more like a boyish teenager than an outlaw.
The image has been offered to Sofe Design Auctions of Richardson, near Dallas, to auction. According to Sofe Auctions: “There is no doubt about the photo’s authenticity. This is historically important, incredibly rare and one of a kind. It also possesses meticulous and irrefutable Anderson family provenance dating back three generations." The photo has been verified by the Eastman Museum in Texas.
THE EARLIEST PHOTO--A TEENAGE BILLY POSING IN A SUIT, 1873-1874?
In 2014, another photograph believed to be Billy the Kid was authenticated by famed Houston forensic artist Lois Gibson. She most famously identified the sailor in the famous World War II image of him kissing a nurse on New York’s Times Square at the end of the war. According to Gibson, the crooked teeth, the hair, shape of his head, even the same pinky ring. The image, she said, was taken earlier than the first known photograph, which shows him much worse for wear and disheveled.
The photograph is the property of New Mexico resident and Billy the Kid memorabilia collector, Ray John de Aragon. Aragon says that his great grandmother knew Billy the Kid. “She was a medicine woman who treated Billy,” he said.
BILLY POSING WITH PAT GARRETT & OTHERS, 1880
The same year that the first Billy photograph sold for $2.3 million, a North Carolina attorney was rummaging around at a flea market and found a colorized tintype of five men from the 1800s. He bought it for $10, just because he thought it was interesting. But when he read about the record auction sale of the Billy photograph, he looked a little closer at this photograph.
He started googling images and realized that the man on the far right with the severe features, looked very much like Pat Garrett. He eventually He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid. They showed the image of other experts: a tintype analyst and a forensics expert. The experts believed they were looking at Billy the Kid and that the image was taken in 1880, a year before Billy would be killed by Pat Garrett.
Reporting on his death in 1881, The New York Times described Billy the Kid as slim, good-looking and mild-mannered. “His soft blue eyes were so attractive that those who saw him for the first time looked upon him as a victim of circumstances,” it reported. “In spite of his innocent appearance, however, Billy the Kid was really one of the most dangerous characters which this country has produced.”
In one sentence the New York Times captured the mystique of Billy the Kid and why the world has such a fascination with him: his innocent, devil-may-care youthful personality—even though he was a killer and outlaw. Partly, he embodies the romance and lawlessness of the Old West. And partly Americans’ love of underdogs and anti-heroes: an Irish immigrant son and orphan boy is forced to fend for himself slides into a life of crime. He lives outside the law, leaves a trail of murders behind him, and it takes another legend to bring him down—at age 21.
And, as Americans begin to uncover more and more clues about Billy the Kid, more than 140 years after his death, the legend only grows....
Read these related posts:
-The Greatest Gunfighter-It May Surprise You
-Wild West Mystery Photographs
© 2020 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER