Inside the Capitol

Thursday, August 17, 2006

8-25 Stalking Billy the Kid

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Anyone who has lived in New Mexico for any length of time during the last 40 years has had an opportunity to fall in love with the newspaper articles of Western writer and historian Marc Simmons.
Simmons' work, including more than 40 books, is interesting, well-written and well-researched, mostly from original documents. His subjects range widely through New Mexico and the American Southwest. His specialty is Spanish colonial history.
As Simmons says, having written about New Mexico history for more than 40 years, it was inevitable that a few of those articles would be on Billy the Kid, the one New Mexican whose name is known around the world.
It also was inevitable that after the modest success of a collection of my columns on Billy the Kid, Sunstone Press would convince Simmons to do the same. If a novice can do it, the master is sure to enjoy success.
Simmons' collection of articles is not the life story of Billy the Kid. It is a selection of new and unusual fragments of his story. Often the vignettes are a sketch of another character whose life intersected with Billy's in an interesting way.
And maybe their lives never really did touch Billy's. When we're talking about the world's most famous outlaw, many pretenders would like to become part of the action.
Billy faded from the world's consciousness for many years before he was resurrected by Walter Noble Burns' book and a series of movies beginning in the 1920s. By that time, few people still were around to argue with an old-timer who claimed to have been part of Billy's story.
Simmons tells some of those tales but is careful to note when no corroborating evidence exists to back up the claim. Simmons is a careful enough historian that when he adds new information to Billy's story, he lets the reader know just how believable it might be.
And Simmons knows when he may be adding something new. Although he doesn't claim to be a Billy scholar, it is evident he has the Kid's story straight.
As you might guess, my favorite chapters deal with Billy's pretenders and where Billy is buried. Simmons devotes a final lengthy chapter to the question of where Billy's bones now may lie.
We are taken on a ride through the history of the military cemetery at Fort Sumner from the day Billy was buried to the present. The possibilities are numerous that Billy might not still be there.
The Las Vegas Daily Optic reported soon after the burial that grave robbers already were plundering the Kid's remains. In 1904, the cemetery was flooded to a depth of four feet and some of the land was washed away.
In 1906, all military remains were disinterred and reburied in Santa Fe's National Cemetery. Some evidence exists that 21 civilian bodies also may have been moved.
It is known that Billy's grave markers, and later headstones, disappeared often and were replaced, sometimes years later, from memory. And those memories always differed, depending on the individual.
Nevertheless, Simmons comes to the conclusion that Billy still is buried in his original grave and that it is somewhere in the vicinity of the present caged marker.
And then there are those who say Billy lived a long life somewhere else. A story that has received some support from our neighboring state to the east is that Billy went to Hico, Texas and became known as Brushy Bill Roberts.
Simmons tells the fascinating story of Roberts' trip to New Mexico in 1950 to ask Gov. Tom Mabry for the pardon former Gov. Lew Wallace had promised.
Brushy Bill claimed to be 91, which would have been Billy's age at the time. But Mabry told him he looked more like a man in his 70s and rejected his request.
For more of the action, pick up Simmons' book, "Stalking Billy the Kid."
FRI, 8-25-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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