Six-Gun Saint or Sociopathic Thug?

Is the hunger for tourism income and destination-theming making us historically insane?

From the New York Times September 7, 2010

Not-So-Charming Billy

By HAMPTON SIDES

Santa Fe, N.M.

BILL RICHARDSON, New Mexico’s departing governor, is known for his studied sense of theater. But when he recently declared that he would hold a hearing to consider a posthumous pardon for the state’s most notorious resident — William Bonney, a k a Henry McCarty, a k a Billy the Kid — a lot of us wondered if he had lost his mind.What’s to be gained by dredging up stories from a tired old shoot’em-up? Why should we care about a trigger-happy sociopath who’s been moldering in his grave for almost 130 years? New Mexico has a rich history, but some episodes from the past are best left there.

 At issue is a deal made in 1879 by one of Mr. Richardson’s predecessors, Lew Wallace (later the author of “Ben-Hur”). Wallace promised to grant Billy the Kid amnesty for murders he committed during the so-called Lincoln County War if he would testify about a killing he had witnessed; the Kid testified, but Wallace’s men reneged on the deal. Two years later Pat Garrett, the sheriff of Lincoln County, shot and killed the outlaw.

Billy the Kid is something of a phantom figure. There is only one known photograph of him. His real name and date of birth are disputed. As a result, people interpret him in their own ways. He’s often portrayed as a folk hero, like Rob Roy or Robin Hood. It is said that more films have been made about him than any other figure in American history. He is our state’s most bankable tourist commodity and his name is plastered on everything from casinos to no-tell motels.

But regardless of whether he got a raw deal, the Kid was a thug. He murdered one of Garrett’s predecessors and as many as eight other people. He rustled horses and cattle. Far from heroic, the Lincoln County War was just a feud over beef contracts, and it marked one of the bleakest episodes in the history of the West.

True, for some the story evokes a certain romanticism of gun smoke and leather, and the governor is banking on Western buffs to bring new attention, and tourist dollars, to our state.

The pardon hearing, which will likely convene in November in the town of Lincoln, will be complete with period costumes and Wild West facial hair. Mr. Richardson himself will preside, playing a role somewhere between Judge Judy and Judge Roy Bean.

Mr. Richardson has a good sense of humor, but governors who play with history often get burned — witness Gov. Robert McDonnell of Virginia and his ill-advised Confederate History Month proclamation. Governor Richardson has already drawn public criticism: descendants of Pat Garrett and Lew Wallace have implored him not to follow through with his plans; Billy the Kid, they and others note, was a cop killer.

Under Governor Richardson, New Mexico has taken significant steps forward, with investments in solar and wind power, film production and light rail. He even got rid of cock-fighting. The state has begun to slowly pull away from the poverty, crime and backwardness that defined much of its past. Billy the Kid is a symbol of that era. Why does Mr. Richardson, as one of his last acts in office, want to revisit it?

Hampton Sides is the author, most recently, of “Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin.”

 
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