How funny that the most famous New Mexican who ever lived just happened to be a ruthless killer. If we lived in a sane universe, you might think this would be bad for tourism. Luckily, we don't live in a sane universe. Most people might not realize New Mexico is part of the United States, but once they learn how William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, got embroiled in a Shakespearean revenge plot in Lincoln County in the 1870s, they're eager to visit our fine state, buy Billy the Kid T-shirts by the dozen, and revel in every detail of the outlaw’s bloody exploits and youthful demise.
A new exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum capitalizes on this enduring fascination. The ticket-taker told me the museum hasn't had such a huge turnout since it hosted the monster trio of Spanish art exhibits the city sponsored as part of its Tricentennial celebration. “We had about 2,000 people show up,” he said, “which is 1,500 more than we're used to having.” And so it goes. One-hundred-and-twenty years later, the Kid's story is still irresistible, even for the natives.
Billy was a teenager living in Silver City in the mid-1870s when his mom died of tuberculosis. After his step-father abandoned him, Billy quickly turned to crime.
He soon got arrested for plotting to kill a Chinese launderer, then escaped and fled to Arizona where he started stealing horses. He was arrested. Again he escaped.
In Arizona, he fatally shot Windy Cahill in a bar brawl. He again escaped.
On the run, Billy made his way to Lincoln County, N.M., where he began rustling cattle and eventually went to work for an English businessman named John Tunstall. When Tunstall was murdered by local business competitors, backed by corrupt politicians in Santa Fe, the conflict escalated into the infamous Lincoln County Wars. Billy and other Tunstall partisans vowed to get revenge. They murdered of a local sheriff who was believed to be partly responsible for Tunstall's murder.
Gov. Lee Wallace (of Ben Hur fame) then got in on the action, offering Billy clemency in exchange for his testimony. Wallace quickly went back on his offer, however, issuing a warrant for Billy's arrest.
Enter Pat Garrett, who had just been elected sheriff of Lincoln County. With the Kid as priority No. 1, he tracked his prey to Fort Sumner and arrested him. Billy was convicted of murder in a trial in Mesilla and was imprisoned in the Lincoln County Courthouse while awaiting execution. With shackles on his hands and legs, he killed off one of his guards and made yet another miraculous escape. (Jails must've really sucked back then.)
Garrett once again tracked him down at Fort Sumner. Startled in the dark by one of the sheriff's deputies, Billy muttered “¿Quien es?” into the shadows. Garrett answered by firing a bullet into the outlaw's chest directly above his heart. The Kid dies. He was only 21 years old.
Dreamscape Desperado covers every aspect of this gripping story with a series of panels, photographs and maps supplemented by half a dozen monitors showing snippets from a History Channel documentary. Yet the exhibit does much more than just retell the Kid's famous story.
For one thing, you'll find a stunning array of artifacts here, from Billy's knife and rifle to the carpenter's bench on which his corpse—according to legend, at least—lay after Garrett plugged him.
Scattered throughout the show is also an impressive sampling of paintings, sculptures and other artwork inspired by the mythology of the Kid. Even more telling perhaps are the various pop culture and other commercial items that exploit this legend for fun and profit—the coffee mugs, the ash trays, the golf balls, the trading cards, the hot sauce, the beer. Hell, they even included a Twinkie the Kid doll.
The exhibit also includes samples of the hundreds of dime novels and comic books written about the Kid over the last century, as well as numerous movie posters. (More than 60 films have been made about Billy the Kid, more than any other historical figure.)
As the exhibit indicates, the Kid didn't commit his violent crimes for gold or glory. He simply did it because he was a violent thug with a lucky streak. Somehow that makes his story more appealing than that of your run-of-the-mill outlaw. Almost makes you want to load up your pistols and head for the hills.
All events are free with museum admission.
Saturday, June 30, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dreamscape Desperado Symposium
Authors and historians discuss why Billy the Kid's legend continues to captivate people.
Sunday, July 8, 1 p.m.
Me and Billy
A Chautauqua performance by Ralph Estes.
Thursday, June 14, 6:30 p.m.
Left Handed Gun (1958)
Paul Newman as the Kid.
Thursday, June 28, 6:30 p.m.
John Wayne as the Kid's buddy.
Thursday, July 12, 6:30 p.m.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Bob Dylan as Alias, a minor character who has hardly anything to do with the Kid.