Your RDA of Irony

Billy Hur

Old West Showdown Is Revived

SANTA FE, N.M. — Billy the Kid is dead and buried. So is the lawman who shot him. But in this city of adobe homes and historical plaques, the past and present are sometimes as hard to separate as the Kid’s finger was from his trigger.

Gov. Bill Richardson, a history buff, has a special chair in his office, a facsimile of the one that a predecessor, Lew Wallace, used in the late 1800s. Mr. Richardson, his time in office dwindling fast, also has a piece of unfinished business from the Wallace administration on his desk: the proposed pardon of Billy the Kid.

In opening a review of the former territorial governor’s deal to grant clemency to Billy the Kid, Mr. Richardson has revived the classic Old West showdown between the Kid and the sheriff who arrested him — and later shot him — nearly 130 years ago.

The governor sat down with three of Sheriff Pat Garrett’s grandchildren and two great-grandchildren in his office recently and listened to what he described as their “heated” defense of their ancestor.

“This is our history, and it’s important to New Mexico and we can’t arbitrarily alter it,” said Susannah Garrett, 55, a granddaughter of the sheriff.

Historical documents show that Mr. Wallace struck a deal with the Kid that if he would testify before a grand jury about a killing he had witnessed, the governor would grant him a pardon for his many crimes. Billy the Kid did testify but the pardon never came, something the outlaw grumbled about as he managed to escape the law, get caught and then escape again, only to be gunned down in the dark by the frontier lawman in 1881.

Pardons are granted by governors across the country, especially departing chief executives like Mr. Richardson, who has served eight years in office and is prevented by term limits from running again.

The pardon probably slipped Lew Wallace’s mind; he was busy checking the proofs of his 1880 novel about chariots.  He might have confused storylines and pardoned Messala while granting Billy a cure for leprosy.  Wallace’s omission really doesn’t matter, however;  Hollywood pardoned Billy the Kid long ago. 

William Bonney was the hero of westerns as early as 1911.  Occasionally he is the good kid who is misunderstood; more often he is the Robin Hood of New Mexico, defending the small farmer from the evil big ranchers and the rapacious railroad magnates.  In one camp classic, Billy even protected humanity:  “Billy the Kid versus Dracula.”  And yes, there was also a singing Billy, played by Roy Rogers in “The Return of Billy the Kid.”

In “The Left Handed Gun” Billy was portrayed by Paul Newman.  That is better than a gubernatorial pardon; that’s deification.     

p.s.  Let’s not forget the historic significance of this day:

  1. Rothgar says:

    Mr. Wallace did know a bit about war having been a General marching around Shiloh then facing off against Jubal Early in keeping Baltimore and Washington free of Confederate solders. A possible ancestor of mine (George Davis, CMH) played a role in this by holding off Early’s forces at the Monocacy River for long enough the camped in Cleveland Park (outside the Washington Forts) instead of on the Capital Grounds.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      A possible ancestor? Are you impugning the fidelity of Mrs. Davis?

      General Wallace would also have known something about jurisprudence because he served on the military tribunal judging Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville Prison. A definite ancestor of mine was a prisoner there. (Why definite–because no one would have wanted to have an affair with Great Grandma Cohen!)


      • rene says:

        Did your ancestor survive? I found the death of Nathan the most heart-breaking part of that book, barely made up for by the romance later on.

        Do you know who played the role of Dracula in that movie?

        • Eugene Finerman says:

          Dear Rene,

          Thank you for your concern over the fate of Private George Cohen. Since my grandmother was born in 1890, he must have survived.

          And John Carradine played the Count in “Billy the Kid versus Dracula.” Having a large family and a number of ex-wives to support, Mr. Carradine would take any job.


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