By David Glenn Cox
I’m convinced that Brushy Bill Roberts was Billy the Kid. He was either Billy the Kid or he knew more about Billy than any historian who ever lived. The details and minutia Brushy Bill knew are just too astounding to believe otherwise. I’ve always been fascinated by the Kid because he was so opposite of what we perceive an old West outlaw to be.
Billy wasn’t brash he was calm. He didn’t boast or demand to be the leader. Many times, he wasn’t the leader. But the Kid was charismatic and popular. He was quick with a joke and neither smoked nor drank. He like to play cards and loved to dance. (Polkas) He was popular with the ladies. Brushy Bill was asked who his girlfriends were in Lincoln County and quickly reeled off three names without hesitation. Who else would know that?
So much around Billy the Kid is unknown and record keeping was sparse. He was born as Henry McCarty in 1859 in New York City. After the death of his father, the family moved to Indiana and his mother attached herself to a man named Antrim. After his mother died, Antrim abandoned the children and Billy sometimes went by the name Henry Antrim. Billy was arrested at 15 for stealing food. Ten days later, Billy and another boy were accused of robbing a Chinese Laundry. Brushy Bill maintained it was only a prank.
Arrested and jailed, Billy made his first escape. As a fugitive he hooked up with his stepfather who quickly threw him out but not before Billy had stolen his guns. The kid traveled to Arizona with another man and began to steal horses, where Billy became known as Kid Antrim.
Billy’s first killing was a blacksmith named Cahill who had reportedly bullied the kid. There was a fight and as the two scuffled on the floor over Cahill’s pistol Billy shot and killed him. Being a 16-year-old kid Billy feared he’d be hung and lit out of town. Cahill’s death was later ruled self-defense, but Billy never knew that.
It is our first brush with old West justice. Which was whatever they said it was. So, it was better to take off and be a fugitive then to hang around and maybe get hung. Billy returned a few days later, and was arrested and held in the guard house at the army fort. Billy escaped (number two) and fled to the New Mexico territory.
The New Mexico territory had approximately one lawman for every 150 square miles. Cattle rustling was the name of the game. The cattle could be driven to the army post for cash sale or to the Indian Agency or even to Mexico. Cows were currency and for a young man you could either be a cowboy, or a cow thief and Billy was both.
Lincoln County had one store run by Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan. They held a monopoly on selling supplies to the army. They were backstopped by political connections later known as the Santa Fe Ring. It’s important to remember that everything here was crooked. Business was crooked, the law was crooked, and the government was crooked.
Billy worked for a time with John Chisum the largest rancher in the area but soon became disillusioned with Chisum. He went to work with John Henry Tunstall. Tunstall had opened a competing store and a bank and was threat to the Murphy/Dolan monopoly.
A posse was sent to get Tunstall; Brushy Bill related details that only someone who was there could know. Brushy Bill explained where each man was located. He explained he was 500 yards behind Tunstall. Many historians said they were moving cattle, but Brushy Bill said it was horses. Documentation at the coroner’s inquest also said it was horses. This was the start of the Lincoln County war.
At this point, the 18-year-old took the name Willian H. Bonney. Aka, William H. McCarty. Aka, Henry Antrim. Historians said Tunstall was shot with his own gun. Brushy Bill said that Tunstall didn’t run because he was unarmed and didn’t think they would kill him. Now ask yourself, which story makes more sense? Tunstall didn’t try and escape because? The sheriff was in the pocket of who? Whose story would most likely be believed?
Tunstall’s business partner and lawyer was Alexander McSween. In February, Dolan claimed McSween owed $8,000 and had Sheriff William Brady attach more than $40,000 dollars in Tunstall-McSween property. And the Lincoln County war was on.
Billy joined the Lincoln County Regulators with Dick Brewer and obtained warrants to arrest Sheriff Brady and his Posse. Brushy Bill said that Sheriff Brady had previously arrested him and had taken a .44 pistol with pearl handles away from him. Upon his release Brady gave Billy a .44 with wooden handles. Brushy Bill said he’d paid $25.00 for the gun, almost two months in wages.
The Regulators ambushed and killed Sheriff Brady and Deputy George Hindman. Billy was accused of killing the Sheriff, but Brushy Bill claims he shot Hindman because Hindman had killed a friend of his. Billy was wounded in the hip and nicked in the ankle that day. Guess who had scars on his hip and ankle? Brushy Bill claimed he was wounded while trying to retrieve his pearl handled pistol from Sheriff Brady’s body.
What are the chances that someone could have matching scars and logical explanation for the wounds. There were more than fifty men involved in the shooting and yet Billy was accused of killing Brady. Sheriff Brady’s body had eight separate gunshot wounds.
The new Sheriff sent Army sharpshooters to kill the Regulators at the saloon in Lincoln. You see how the law worked? The Regulators retreated from the saloon to the McSween residence. In 1949, Brushy Bill drew a diagram of the long disappeared McSween residence. In 1969, a plot diagram was found misplaced in a box in the courthouse and it matched Brushy Bill’s diagram exactly. Correctly locating gates in the fence and windows in the house.
Brushy Bill said the Army had sent a squad of Black soldiers to help the new Sheriff. This was a little known detail that few historians had ever picked up on. But Brushy Bill knew all about it. He knew when and how each of the regulators had been killed. Billy escaped again and was shot in the calf. Brushy Bill still had a slug in his calf.
Billy was arrested and charged with Brady’s murder. In a very sweet trial Billy had been found guilty and had been sentenced to be hanged. Billy was imprisoned in the Lincoln County Courthouse awaiting his execution. In 1949, Brushy Bill toured the courthouse and correctly identified all the rooms and all the changes made.
History says that Billy had retrieved a gun from the latrine and killed Deputy James Bell. Brushy Bill said, he liked Bell and didn’t want to kill him. Brushy Bill said he got his hand free from the shackles and hit Bell twice in the head by swinging the free shackle. These were 19th Century shackles bulky and made of iron.
Billy had wanted to lock Bell in the armory, but Bell broke and ran and Billy shot him running down the stairs. The coroner’s inquest said Bell had two large cuts on his head. How could Brushy Bill have known that? Pat Garrett later testified that he found a gun in the latrine wrapped in newspaper. A 20th Century forensics’ team found blood residue in between the floor boards at the top of the stairs, again verifying Brushy Bill’s story.
When Billy made his famous escape from the Lincoln County courthouse, two boys were playing marbles in the shade. Billy was well known and well liked in Lincoln. Billy asked a man to use an axe and cut his legs shackles but when he climbed on the horse, it bucked him off. Billy asked one of the boys to fetch him a piece of rope to tie himself on the horse.
As an old man, that little boy swore he could identify Billy because of his blue eyes with brown specks. The old man met with Brushy Bill and identified him as Billy the Kid. The pair spoke in Spanish and the old man said Brushy Bill looked like the Kid walked like the Kid, talked like the Kid and laughed like the Kid.
Pat Garrett could best be described as a social climber. His role as Sheriff opened many doors otherwise unavailable. And the man who killed Billy the Kid would certainly become a celebrity. The $500 bounty on the Kid was almost a year’s salary. This was the wild west. No one would question Garrett’s claim of killing the Kid. Many would be happy to see the kid dead. And Garrett had the Kid buried the next day before others could identify the body. This was the era of celebrity photographs of dead outlaws laid out on a board, but there were none. It defies period logic.
But Garrett knew that the Kid would most likely take the opportunity freed from a death sentence to disappear and he did so. Facial recognition software compared the one known Billy the Kid tin type and a photo of Brushy Bill and determined with a 93% certainty; they were the same man. Not 50/50 or 75% but 93%. Billy the Kid had traded a copy of his famous tin type with a Mexican woman in trade for a head scarf. Three guesses who had that scarf in the bottom of his trunk? Yep, Brushy Bill.
Letters sent to the Governor by Billy seeking a pardon were buried in the archives, but Brushy Bill knew how many letters and what was in them.
Either Brushy Bill Roberts was Billy the Kid, or he knew more about Billy the Kid than anyone else on planet earth. I’m convinced, but it can’t ever be confirmed, but I’m convinced. It’s the most amazing story ever told. Too many details that Brushy Bill knew that were hidden historical details. No one else on earth could have possibly known all the things Brushy Bill knew about Billy the Kid, except for Billy the Kid.