A Pardon For The Wild West's Most Infamous Outlaw?

Billy the Kid may be New Mexico's most famous — or infamous — resident. Governor Bill Richardson is considering pardoning the long-deceased bandit. But author Hampton Sides says , Wild West romance aside, granting amnesty to a figure who made his name with murder and mayhem sends the wrong message.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, the Opinion Page.

He may be the most famous New Mexican of all time, Billy the Kid. Governor Bill Richardson wants to reconsider the case against the legendary outlaw who's best known as one of Hollywood's favorite Western characters. In many movies, he's portrayed as a kind of Wild West Robin Hood.

In an op-ed in The New York Times, writer and New Mexican Hampton Sides saw a very different character.

What do you know about Billy the Kid? Does he deserve a posthumous pardon for his crimes? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Hampton Sides joins us from a studio in Santa Fe. His most recent book is "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin." And, Hampton, nice to have you on the program.

Mr. HAMPTON SIDES (Author, "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin"): It's good to be back with you. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you. Now take us back to this character, Billy the Kid. I think I remember him most vividly as, well, Paul Newman in "The Left Handed Gun."

Mr. SIDES: Yeah. He's been in so many films that he may actually be the subject of more films than any other American historical figure. Of course, many of those portrayals are exaggerated or play around with the facts. But the real Billy the Kid, I argue in the piece, was a thug, basically, who doesn't deserve a pardon. He killed eight or nine people, depending on who you're talking to. He was a cattle rustler. He was a cattle thief. And he was, you know, someone who basically was involved in a mercantile feud over beef contracts.

CONAN: Well, that's the Lincoln County War, which is sometimes portrayed...

Mr. SIDES: Right.

CONAN: ...as a class struggle.

Mr. SIDES: And as a New Mexican, I - you know, I've just - I guess I - I'm amused by it, but I'm also a little resentful that this episode of our history is the most famous and most bankable sort of tourist commodity in the state, a state that has a rich and fascinating history.

This is the guy. People can't get enough of him. They just - the romance of gun smoke and leather, you know? So...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SIDES: I'm - I argue that maybe Richardson, as his final act as governor -and I've spoken with the governor about this - you know, maybe he shouldn't be dredging up tired, old stories from a shoot-them-up. And, you know, and what promises to be a fairly cheesy affair, they're going to have, you know, lights and cameras and Wild West costumes and...

CONAN: Oh, a moot court kind of a deal?

Mr. SIDES: Right, exactly. Exactly, with Wild West facial hair and outfit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIDES: And Governor Richardson will preside over it. And, you know, I got to get - I'll hand it to him, he does have a sense of humor. He is somewhat tongue-in-cheek about this. But he is very interested in the case for pardoning Billy the Kid because he was the governor of the - at the time in the 1880s, Lew Wallace did offer Billy the Kid amnesty from prosecution. And he kind of fulfilled his side of the bargain but Lew Wallace didn't fulfill his. And in the end...

CONAN: While Lew Wallace was busy writing his novel.

Mr. SIDES: Yeah, he was working on "Ben-Hur" and really trying to get out of New Mexico, because it was so violent and crazy. He realized, you know, this was not the place for him.

And so I think Governor Richardson thinks, you know, his predecessor may have wronged Billy the Kid, and it's well worth looking at - you know, well what could Richardson do to right the course of history?

CONAN: Well, he's not doing it for naked political opportunism. He's term-limited. He's not running for reelection, so...

Mr. SIDES: I think he's doing it for publicity too. I mean, he's got a very studied sense of theater. He understands what gets headlines. You know, it's been in papers now, all over the world already and my op-ed piece, and now here we are talking about it on TALK OF THE NATION. So it's clearly - it works. People are interested in this saga. And, you know, he knows what he's doing. Of course, publicity does play a role in it.

CONAN: That never hurts any political figure no matter what point in his career. But all right, then-Governor Lew Wallace offers Billy the Kid a, you know, an amnesty if certain conditions are met and Billy the Kid meets those conditions. After the governor apparently went back on his deal, did - after that, did Billy the Kid go on and continue his nefarious ways?

Mr. SIDES: Yeah, I mean, that's my understanding, is the reason Wallace didn't fulfill his end of the bargain is during the intervening months, Billy the Kid went on to kill a number of other people, including a sheriff. He may have robbed - you know, he certainly stole more cattle and sheep, and he may have robbed a bank. So, you know, in other words, the circumstances changed. The goal posts moved.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SIDES: And it became really hard for Governor Wallace, as the territorial governor, to essentially pardon a cop killer.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is writer Hampton Sides. His op-ed in The New York Times takes Governor Bill Richardson to task for his effort to possibly pardon posthumously Billy the Kid. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's start with Susan(ph). Susan with us from Laramie in Wyoming.

SUSAN (Caller): Hello. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

SUSAN: I think Governor Richardson has so many other more important things to be worrying about. Theatrics aside, I was listening to your program about education. Let's worry about that. Billy the Kid will go down in history. No one will ever really know what happened to him. And there's no time like the present.

CONAN: Well...

Mr. SIDES: Right.

CONAN: She has a point, Hampton. Among the other things that Governor Richardson could pay attention to is his popularity ratings, which are not very good.

Mr. SIDES: That's true. And, you know, there has been some investigations and questions about propriety. But, you know, Governor Richardson has a very forward-looking set off policies. And his legacy is very positive in many ways, of serious investments in solar power, wind power, high-tech industries, light rail, film industry. And for him to sort of go back and look - and sort of dredge up these old stories as one of his last acts as governor, it just seems a little backwards and possibly a little cheesy. But...

CONAN: Well, you mentioned - tourism is an important industry in New Mexico as well, and presumably a lot of people come to, well, hear about the Billy the Kid.

Mr. SIDES: It is. It is. And that's what the party's banking on. I mean, you know, he knows what he's doing. And I supposed, you know, this is the hypocrisy of it for me is that, you know, I'll be the very first to tuned in if they do do this hearing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIDES: I may go down there and cover it as a reporter. It is fascinating. And anything that can get history back on the front pages of the papers, it ain't all bad.

CONAN: Thanks, Susan, for the phone call. Appreciate it.

SUSAN: Yeah. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Barbara(ph), and Barbara is calling us from Lamoni in Iowa.

BARBARA (Caller): Yes, yes. I wish people would leave him alone. That is I am actually his great, great, great granddaughter.

CONAN: Really? Of Billy the Kid?

BARBARA: Yes. Yes. And I wish they would just leave him alone and let him rest in peace. I am so sick of people dredging up the past, okay. And about him killing the sheriff, he did not. He did not kill anybody. The governor - when they gave him his pardon, he went straight according to my grandfather, okay? I know all about my great grandfather's history. I know all about him. He went straight. He did not kill anybody. He did not rob any more banks. As a matter of fact, he settled down and he married. That's how I got here.

CONAN: And then brutally shot down by Pat Garrett?

BARBARA: Yes.

CONAN: All right. Hampton Sides, how does history accord with Barbara's grandfather's account of her great grandfather?

Mr. SIDES: Well, that's - that may be a new one to me. I know that there have been a number of people who have claimed to be descendants of Billy the Kid. There was a guy in Texas who - his name is Brushy Bill, who claimed that he wasn't killed by Pat Garrett, and lived a long and happy life.

BARBARA: Yes, he was...

Mr. SIDES: So is that - are you a descendant of Brushy Bill?

BARBARA: No.

Mr. SIDES: Okay.

BARBARA: No, I...

Mr. SIDES: That's - okay.

BARBARA: I knew who Brushy Bill is. I have all - I've got all my family tree. I've got all that stuff. He was killed by Pat Garrett. Yes, he was.

Mr. SIDES: Okay.

BARBARA: He was shot in the back by Pat Garrett.

Mr. SIDES: So if he had descendants, it would've been during this - he would've had to have met and married someone during the brief period between when he broke out of jail and when he was killed by Pat Garrett.

BARBARA: Yes.

Mr. SIDES: Okay.

BARBARA: As a matter of fact, he was. My great, great, great grandmother was pregnant with my great, great grandfather at that time...

CONAN: Well...

BARBARA: ...he got killed. Yes. So he never got...

Mr. SIDES: Well, I haven't...

BARBARA: He never got to see his son.

Mr. SIDES: I hadn't heard this. But you should definitely go down to the hearing and make your - you know, get your story in there because it's an interesting - I mean, there are a lot of other folks as well who claimed to be descendant of Billy the Kid.

BARBARA: Right. Oh, I understand that. Yes, I know. I know that. And, you know - I mean, I have all my history. You know, I've kept up with it. You know - and I'm sitting here listening to the radio and they said Billy the Kid, and I said, oh, no, I got to get my input on it because...

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. SIDES: Okay.

BARBARA: I am just - people have just been - some people, you know, talk, you know. He actually - from what I understand from my family history, he - after the governor gave him the pardon and he went straight, he married - he got married. He would - you know, his wife was fixing to having a baby, you know, and he went straight. He did. And then turned around and Pat Garret shot him.

CONAN: Barbara, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

BARBARA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go...

Mr. SIDES: And this is the reason right here, I think, why the saga is so endlessly fascinating to people, is that people come out of the woodwork who claim all sorts of things like this. And I'm not disputing her story one way or the other. I just think it's an interesting part of this - it's an interesting dimension to it is that, you know, the story lives on.

CONAN: Well, in fact, you say in your piece, we're not exactly sure what his name was.

Mr. SIDES: Yeah. I mean, there's disputed - there's all sorts of things in dispute: his name, his birth date, so many facts about his life. All of which allows people to kind of superimpose their own interpretations on him. And so, yeah, he was a Robin Hood or he was Rob Roy figure or he was a folk hero or he was a thug who killed - you know, some people say he killed 21 people, one for every year of his life. But most likely, killed somewhere between eight and nine people.

CONAN: And he got the reputation as the left-handed gun. I mentioned the Paul Newman movie earlier, because the one picture of him was flipped around accidentally.

Mr. SIDES: Right. Right. Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIDES: You know, it's sort of a little bit like Robert Johnson, the bluesman from the Mississippi Delta, who had one photograph that we know of...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SIDES: ...and who, you know, there's so many facts missing. Some - instead of making it less interesting, it actually makes it more interesting because we don't know those - we don't know the true story. So the mystery is more interesting sometimes than the fact.

CONAN: We may not know William Bonney's true name, but we do know that Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads. Anyway...

Mr. SIDES: Of course.

CONAN: ...you're - we're talking with Hampton Sides about his op-ed in The New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Marcus(ph), Marcus with us from Rockford, Illinois.

MARCUS (Caller): Yes, although I'm a big fan of Billy The Kid mythos - you know, I grew up watching "Young Guns" movies. But honestly that I think to try and give him a pardon - posthumously, I think, one, it's irrelevant. It's not going to do any good. And, you know, when you hear so many criticisms, people callously getting, you know, getting on the case of video game makers, of gangster rappers, well, here's a guy who wasn't portraying violence, who was actually committing it. And I don't think we need to be glorifying that. I think that he's dead. Let him rest. But to go and try and pardon him and all that, to me it just seems ridiculous, it seems like a waste of taxpayer's money.

CONAN: And he's - that's another point there, Hampton, whether he was maligned or not, Billy the Kid is dead. What's the point? There's very few instances in American history where executives go back and pardon dead people.

Mr. SIDES: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, like, it's sort of a joke, like a lot of governors seem to go out in a blaze of glory, you know, pardoning all these criminals for - maybe for, you know, kickback reasons or something.

And I do think that Governor Richardson is sort of playing off of that by pardoning a dead guy. Obviously, it's not going to do him any good unless there's some way to bring him back to life.

CONAN: If he could do that, he could run for more than governor next time.

Mr. SIDES: Yes, he could. Yes, he could. But, you know, and I also wonder, just from a legal point of view, whether he actually has the authority to pardon a dead person. You know, I don't know, maybe this could go all the way to the Supreme Court and we could decide whether governors have this sort of authority retroactively, you know?

CONAN: Let's go to Carlos(ph), Carlos with us from San Antonio.

CARLOS (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

CARLOS: My great grandfather was a gentleman named Paco Anaya(ph). And he was a Lincoln County constable...

Mr. SIDES: Uh-huh.

CARLOS: ...and knew Billy the Kid. As a matter of fact, Paco was one of the gentlemen who buried Billy the Kid after Pat Garrett shot him. And I have all his old journals. And based on some of the entries in the journals and some of the stories that have come down through the family, Billy the Kid only became a criminal after he witnessed the murder of his employer. And...

Mr. SIDES: Right.

CARLOS: And he decided to take the issue into his own hands, which was pretty common in those days. And...

Mr. SIDES: Yeah.

CARLOS: ...in my great grandfather's journals, he refers to him as William Antrim. And all in all, his opinion of Billy the Kid wasn't all that bad, and thinks that he got cheated by the governor, by other local officials who - Pat Garrett was instrumental in taking him down and was paid off by the cattle growers association.

Mr. SIDES: Mm-hmm.

CARLOS: So...

Mr. SIDES: Santa Fe ring, yeah.

CONAN: And Hampton, it sounds like you've got a book coming out here, you know? You've got some historical records.

Mr. SIDES: Well, I mean, you know, there have been great histories...

CARLOS: (Unintelligible) is also available. A lot of the information about Billy the Kid from books and movies is mostly garbage. It - there are some factual parts of it, but the actual story of what transpired and his involvement was all together different, you know, it was fictionalized in these movies and stories. And...

CONAN: I think...

CARLOS: ...much different than anybody else in those days, he - the law was very few and far between. And when you were wrong, you usually took matters in your own hands, and that's what he did.

CONAN: Well...

Mr. SIDES: Yeah. And it's been said also that, you know, the outlaws were sometimes - you know, the guys who wore the badges were not necessarily any better than the outlaws.

CONAN: So in this case, the effort to restore the situation to Billy the Kid -is there going to be prosecution? Is there going to be a defense?

Mr. SIDES: Well, Governor Richardson told me that he was hoping to have, you know, historians. And I'm a historian of New Mexico history, but I'm not an expert on - you know, I've never written a book on Billy the Kid. There are some great new books that have come out on Billy the Kid. I think the idea is get these historians up there, get some lawyers, get a prosecutor, and have Bill Richardson preside over it sort of like Judge Roy Bean or something. And have...

CONAN: The only law west of the Pecos. Sorry, I remember that, yes.

Mr. SIDES: Exactly. And, you know, I, you know, it's a spectacle. It'll be fun. It's pretty silly. And, you know, my op-ed piece is meant to be taken as a little bit tongue-in-cheek here. I mean, you know, it's an interesting idea, and Governor Richardson is nothing but, you know, he's never been accused of being dull, let's put it that way.

CONAN: Hampton Sides, we could say the same of you. Thank you very much for your contributions today. Hampton Sides is the author of "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin." You can find a link to his op-ed titled "Not-So-Charming Billy" at our website, npr.org.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: