Inside the Capitol

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Piltdown Billy

SANTA FE The three sheriffs, tirelessly pushing the Billy the Kid case for a year, may have accomplished their goal, though not exactly as they intended.
Lacking historical expertise or the advice of an expert historian, they have nevertheless tried to change the history of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Since few doubted the story of Pat killing the Kid, it occurred to me that the sheriffs wanted to make a contribution to New Mexico history. And I think they did.
There hasn’t been a world-class historical hoax since the early 1900’s when a man named Charles Dawson claimed to have found the “missing link” in a gravel pit in England. He called his pieces of braincase and chunk of jawbone Piltdown Man. It took almost 50 years for someone to realize it was an orangutan’s jaw with filed down teeth and 600 year old skull pieces. Why did Dawson do it? Well, he gave Piltdown Man his name: “dawsoni.” And maybe it was his version of “punked” humor.
The Piltdown Hoax probably has not had competition because it takes almost as much work to pull off a great historical hoax as to conduct actual research. I’m not counting the Loch Ness monster. Monsters are easy. You just say you saw one and take a blurry photograph.
Webster’s Dictionary says to hoax is “to trick into accepting as genuine something false and often preposterous.” That brings up the missing link in a hoax: people who believe preposterous things. Seems we hit the magic moment. The sheriffs may have created history’s Frankenstein’s monster, but Gov. Richardson has kept it alive.
In fact, the Governor made his own contribution. Try out the definition of a hoax on his appointment of attorney Bill Robins from Texas to represent the dead Billy the Kid as a client seeking to have himself and his mother dug up from their graves.
The famous Billy the Kid historian Frederick Nolan called the sheriffs’ criminal case filed in the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department a hoax because it looks for all the world like a heavily researched document chock full of footnotes. Except not a single reference has to do with whether Garrett killed Billy. Since many of the sources are rare or on microfilm it is not too far fetched to think that they never dreamed that anyone would check it out. But they were wrong.
The case is also set up as a murder investigation with “evidence.” Part of that evidence is the alleged carpenter’s bench on which dead Billy lay. Dr Henry Lee, a forensic expert, famous for seeking limelight and paid by the History Channel, was brought in to find blood on it. And by golly within hours, he did.
Lee is proceeding to test it for DNA. The problem is that forensic experts around the country said that blood has never been proven to exist much over 50 years. But it was announced in a newspaper that Attorney Bill Robins would again offer his services, this time to take that “DNA” back to Silver City in hopes of getting at Billy’s mother’s bones.
Since the case is a real criminal investigation, courts have to be tricked also. The hardest trick is obviously calling it a criminal investigation when Garrett, the criminal, has been dead for 96 years. And the case was closed in 1881. It also was discovered that Mayor of Capitan Steve Sederwall, who participated in the case as a deputy sheriff, wasn’t one at all.
Motivation is a fascinating part of hoaxing. Fame is tempting. There has been talk of book and film deals. But since these public officials used their time and workplaces for the case, I would throw in the possibility of personal gain at taxpayer expense.
But thanks to the three sheriffs, now New Mexico may not only be home to the Legend of Billy the Kid, but also may be the birthplace of the Lincoln County Hoax: the greatest of them all!


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