Historian asks state’s high court to help set record straight on Billy the Kid’s death

This undated ferrotype is believed to depict William H. Bonney, also known as Billy the Kid, circa 1880. Courtesy Lincoln County Heritage Trust Archive

A historian is petitioning the New Mexico Supreme Court to order the state’s medical examiner to create a death certificate for the legendary outlaw known as Billy the Kid.

At least, Robert Stahl hopes the court will order the Office of the Medical Investigator to consider the evidence and determine whether William H. Bonney’s death can be certified under state law. Stahl, a member of the nonprofit Billy the Kid Outlaw Gang — established to protect the “true” history of the Kid — aims to correct the historical record on the time of the Kid’s death and to silence rumors that Bonney didn’t die at the hands of Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett in July 1881.

Stahl has been researching this and other frontier topics since 2003 with help from his wife, Nancy Stahl, and his sister, Marilyn Stahl Fisher. He said their petition for a writ of mandamus would be delivered to the court in Santa Fe on Friday, but the court had not yet received it by close of business.

By most accounts, Garrett shot the Kid in the chest in Fort Sumner. The Kid died minutes later, at about midnight July 14, 1881, according to an English translation of the coroner’s report.

Stahl, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University, believes the Kid actually died at about 12:30 a.m. July 15. He wants the death certificate to correct the historical record.

As evidence, he cites a statement by George Miller, who was staying in Fort Sumner that night on his way to Santa Fe after his discharge from the Army. Miller, in an account that was published in the Las Vegas Optic on July 18, 1881, said the shots woke him, and he immediately checked his watch.

Besides correcting the record on the time of the Kid’s death, Stahl says an official death certificate would end the attention that has been given to impostors claiming they were the Kid.

The most famous of those was Ollie “Brushy Bill” Roberts of Hico, Texas. In 1950, Roberts sought a pardon from New Mexico Gov. Thomas Mabry for crimes the Kid had committed. Mabry denied it, never believing that Roberts and Billy the Kid were the same person.

Stahl says he is convinced that the Kid died at the hands of Garrett. No one in Fort Sumner ever denied it, he says, and six members of the coroner’s jury appointed to investigate the case knew the Kid and saw his body.

The jury unanimously found Garrett’s shooting of the Kid to be “justifiable homicide.”

Also, the territorial legislature unanimously approved a bill to pay Garrett the $500 reward that had been offered for the outlaw. They had “no question whether he had killed Billy the Kid,” Stahl says.

Stahl’s previous efforts to get the Office of the Medical Investigator to create a death certificate have failed. A written request earlier this year was denied by telephone.

The medical investigator is responsible for investigating and certifying deaths in New Mexico, and Stahl says there is no time limit to do so. The medical investigator did not return calls seeking comment on Stahl’s new petition.

Before statehood, official death certificates were rare in rural New Mexico. Stahl says, for example, that no death certificate was issued for Garrett, who was murdered in 1908 outside Las Cruces.

The Kid was born Henry McCarty, then adopted the name of his stepfather and became Henry Antrim. At the time of his death, he was calling himself William H. “Billy” Bonney. His birth year is not known for certain, but he told a reporter in Las Vegas, N.M., that he was 21 in late December 1880. Friends said he was born in New York City to Irish parents. His last known residence before his death was a sheepherder’s camp near Fort Sumner.

The Kid had escaped from the Lincoln County jail April 28, 1881, where he was awaiting hanging for murdering a Lincoln County sheriff.

Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or aconstable@sfnewmexican.com.

(4) comments

Jennifer Bizzarro

Did anyone—either Ms. Constable or the Stahl Family—consult the State Historian or the State Records Center and Archives before asking the OMI or the State Supreme Court to turn backflips over this outlaw? The hero worship given to this murderer and amount of time spent on his “exploits” is astonishing.

As Ms. Constable accurately reports, it was not the custom to issue death certificates in rural areas of the territory, especially for criminals. Why would the NM Supreme Court go back in time and rewrite a common occurrence?

Jimmy Green

Good luck with that in this era of revisionist history and deletion.

Linda Worley

I am also a proud member of the Billy the Kid Outlaw Gang. I think this effort by Robert Stahl and his family is a very good thing.

Prince Michael Jauregui

Thank-you Anne Constable -and the SFNM- for another
excellant read. Ms. Constable, welcome to The List!

The great-grandson of Sheriff Roy Brady, years-ago, shared the
following information with me:
In the 1950's, "Bushy Bill" -accompanied by the press- went to
the Hondo Valley to "seek forgiveness" from The Brady Family.
Wisely, one of the elders began to speak to "Bushy Bill" in
Spanish. The phony was bewildered, and his fraud was
exposed. After all, Billy the Kid spoke perfect Spanish.

Plainly July 15th, is the terminator of all forms of Wickedness.

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