The Lincoln County War has begun again, but this time it isn’t confined to Lincoln County.
Billy “the Kid” Bonney was controversial when he lived. Long after his death, he is still. People, especially in southeastern New Mexico, continue to take sides 125 years after the Lincoln County War. Some current area residents are descendents of those who took one side or the other in that war, others are descendents of its victims. Feelings still run deep.
Some call Billy a very bad boy and cold-blooded murderer who should have been hung, if he had not been shot. Others think he was a hero or, at least, betrayed by a friend — Patrick Garrett, who shot and killed him while he was unwary and unarmed in Fort Sumner — and also betrayed by New Mexico Territory’s governor — Lew Wallace, who promised him a pardon for services rendered, but then never gave it to him — and that most historians misunderstood the Kid.
His origins have always been a mystery, only guessed at, and published historians don’t know the source, they have no clue of the origin, of the “Bonney” name he adopted late in his short life. He had begun life as Henry McCarty, and after his mother married, he changed his name to William H. Antrim to match his new step-father’s. It was after he lived in New Mexico that he began to give his last name as Bonney, baffling most historians as to its origin.
Now, beginning in 2003 and carried forward into 2004, sheriffs and residents of several New Mexico counties — Lincoln, De Baca and Dona Ana — battle over Billy’s bones. They, their attorneys, the New Mexico governor and the State office of the Medical Examiner, want to dig him up. They and others also battle over the bones of his mama, Catherine Antrim, who died of “consumption” in Silver City when he was a younger kid, before he began his life of notoriety.
On the other side, various people and dignitaries, including the mayors of Fort Sumner and Silver City and their city councils, say the remains of the Kid and his mama will be exhumed over their dead bodies.
One of the problems with Billy is that he refuses to die — not only his legend but, according to some diehards (pun intended), the Kid himself.
Most serious historians have no doubt that the young man known to history as William H. Bonney, alias “The Kid,” was killed the night of July 14, 1881 in Pete Maxwell’s adobe bedroom at Fort Sumner. And they doubt not that Sheriff Patrick Garrett killed him, an unarmed young man, there and then.
However, a few have created a controversy by claims that Billy survived, or was not even involved in, that “one-armed” conflict in Ft. Sumner, and he lived many more years. One of those controversies is the Brushy Bill Roberts version that says he lived to be a very old man in Hico, Texas, and futilely asked the then-New Mexico governor to pardon him not long before he died in 1950 of natural causes. However, the birth date recorded in the family Bible of Oliver “Brushy Bill” Roberts, as well as a 1930 census, indicates he was only two years old when “The Kid” was allegedly shot in Ft. Sumner. The history of the other primary claimant, John Miller from Arizona, is even less convincing than Brushy Bill’s. Over past years, there had been perhaps a couple dozen Billy claimants, but it is Texas and Arizona, on behalf of Roberts and Miller, who are the loudest in claims that Billy is buried on their turf and not New Mexico’s.
Some New Mexicans, including the current governor and other dignitaries and non-dignitaries, think it is now imperative to prove certain bones in Fort Sumner are Billy’s and certain ones in Silver City are his mama’s, that he’s not buried elsewhere, including in Hico, Texas or Arizona. Why does New Mexico have to prove anything? It has documented history on its side. And it seems unlikely the exhumations, if they ever do come to pass, will prove anything. The exhumations are more likely to have negative results, doing more harm to New Mexico’s claim of possessing Billy’s bones than helping it.
But why his mama’s bones, you may ask? Without having any known Billy-DNA available for comparison to dug-up bones that might and might not be Billy’s, they think his mother’s DNA would identify his. You see, mitochondrial DNA is passed down from the mother to her offspring and descendants.
However, the actual locations of the two sets of remains being considered for disinterment are uncertain because each has been moved at least once, Billy’s bones might be mixed with that of his two pals (O’Folliard and Bowdre) if they are in the designated plot at all, and 123 and more years ago, exact burial places weren’t well documented and earlier markers were unendurable. To add further doubt upon the process, there may be little remains left to accurately identify them by DNA, which is the purported reason for the exhumations.
New Mexico’s Gov. Bill Richardson wanted the State Police forensic team to do the exhumations. He wanted a defense counsel assigned to Billy and a prosecutor assigned to represent “the people,” also known as the State of New Mexico. And the governor wants evidence presented at legal hearings in all the places where Billy once hung out, including Lincoln, Silver City, Old Mesilla and Ft. Sumner. A defense attorney, Bill Robins, working pro-bono (without pay), has stepped forward to represent this deceased defendant, and a prosecutor has offered to represent the State in this so-called criminal matter. One of the things that makes this case distinctly odd is the fact that, if homicide is ultimately proved, who can they punish? The suspect, a.k.a. the defendant, cannot be sentenced to death or life in the pen since he has already been dead for 123 years. The crux of this case being, did William H. Bonney, or did he not, willfully kill Lincoln County deputies J.W. Bell and Bob Ollinger in 1880?
And there is another proposed criminal trial, this time with Sheriff Patrick Garrett as the defendant. Did he knowingly kill a different man, a wanderer in lieu of Billy, to enable his Kid pal to escape? If so, that would make the sheriff guilty of heinous murder, as well as a colossal cover-up, which in New Mexico courts is called “tampering with evidence,” another very serious crime. Proponents of the theory that Billy did not die that night in Fort Sumner, and of the cover-up, say that Apolinaria Gutierrez Garrett, the sheriff’s widow, claimed that her husband was involved in just such a shooting and cover-up. But did the widow really say that? If she did, was she aware that made her husband guilty of a much more serious crime? Wives cannot be made to testify against their husbands; it would be especially difficult to get her sworn testimony since she died in 1936. That claim, that she casually made such a statement to someone decades ago, is the only real evidence against Garrett. Further, it is hearsay, which is also not acceptable in court. Not only dead men, but also dead women can tell no tales.
Regardless the reasons for the current movements towards and against exhumation and legal processes — be they political, or to generate tourism, or to learn the truth for history’s sake, or to satisfy curiosity, or just to keep the Kid’s legend (if not his ghost) alive in all of his various old haunts — a New Mexico State Police investigation of the 1880 murders of Bell and Olinger in Lincoln, allegedly by Bonney, has been reopened.
Lincoln County’s current sheriff, Tom Sullivan, and the mayor of the nearby village of Capitan, Steve Sederwall, led the charge. Then sheriff of Dona Ana county and Sheriff Gary Graves of De Baca county got into the act, and it has picked up momentum and world-wide interest.