Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

8-21 Billy the Kid Letters Found

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- The originals of two Billy the Kid's letters to Gov. Lew Wallace have been located and now are on display at the state History Library in Santa Fe.
The Kid wrote the first letter, probably in 1879, proposing to trade testimony for freedom and the second asking the governor to uphold his end of the bargain, as Billy lay manacled in a Santa Fe jail cell three blocks from the Palace of the Governors.
The letters are highly important to New Mexico history. Billy the Kid is the most famous New Mexican ever. More books and movies have been inspired by him than by any other person in our nation's history.
Not much survives from The Kid's era 130 years ago. These letters reveal more about the real Billy than anything else we have. They reveal that he was not a homicidal moron as he is often envisioned.
The letters are polite, literate and well reasoned. The penmanship was the flowing and formal Spenserian style of that era. So how did Billy manage to get so well educated?
It was those Silver City schools, from which I graduated and from which Billy dropped out in order to escape the law in ninth grade. But when still a teenager, Billy wrote a heck of a lot better letter than I did at the same age.
The two letters were purchased by the Lincoln County Heritage Trust from the Wallace family many years ago. Other letters are in the Lew Wallace Library in Indiana. Incidentally, Indiana chose Lew Wallace for one of its two figures in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall.
The letters were displayed in the Trust's museum in Lincoln until the Trust went out of business in 1999 and R.D. Hubbard, of Ruidoso Downs, took over the property, including the two letters. Evidently they were put in a safe and not were displayed after that.
By the time Hubbard turned all the Lincoln property over to the state, in 2006, the letters had been forgotten. A chance conversation between noted Western collector Bob McCubbin, of Santa Fe, and head librarian Tomas Juehn indicated the new History Museum was trying to get a Billy letter from Indiana to display.
McCubbin suggested the state use its own letters that should still be in Lincoln. A search was made and the letters were found, still in good condition. By the way, McCubbin's impressive collection includes the kitchen knife Billy was carrying when Sheriff Pat Garrett shot him.
So the letters are still safely in the hands of the state and reside in the Fray Angelico Chavez History Library where they can have adequate security and care. Public viewing is available only from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday through Friday. That's not much but who really has to see the original. If you are one who does, you can visit that library.
For all others, copies of those letters should be available everywhere Billy is featured because visitors need to see that side of Billy the Kid.
It is almost inconceivable Billy the Kid would have entered our folklore the way he has if he had been no more than a juvenile delinquent. These letters are part of the evidence that he was more than that.
Obviously the one authenticated picture of Billy does not make him appear intelligent -- or a ladies' man as he undisputedly was. Some theorize he was less than sober at the time although Billy was not reputed to have a drinking problem. Let's just say he was having a bad day.
And let's dispel a coupe of other myths while we're at it. Billy didn't kill 21 people -- one for each year of his life. First, the date and place of Billy's birth are in doubt, so he may not have been 21. Second, only about six killings can be authenticated and most of them were connected to his role as a hired hand in the Lincoln County War.
FRI, 8-21-09

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



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