Billy the Kid and Brushy Bill
Wikimedia Commons

Did Billy the Kid Really Die in a Shootout? Or Did He Cheat Death and Live to 90?

Will the real Billy the Kid please stand up?

He went by many names: Henry McCarty, William Henry Bonney (William H. Bonney), Oliver P. Roberts (Ollie) and, most notably, Billy the Kid. The infamous Old West outlaw was first arrested when he was just 16 years old. At the age of 18, he shot and killed a man during an altercation at an army camp in Arizona. And at 21, he was shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett. The man forever known as Billy the Kid was laid to rest in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in 1881. Or was he?

According to the Billy the Kid Museum in Hico, Texas, there's one more name to add to the list of the Kid's aliases: "Brushy" Bill Roberts. Brushy Bill lived out a peaceful life in the central Texas town of Hico until suffering a fatal heart attack at the age of 90 while walking to the post office. Up until his death in 1950, Brushy Bill maintained that he was Billy the Kid.

It's widely accepted that Billy the Kid met his premature end at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett, his foe in the famous Lincoln County range wars that helped cement Billy's outlaw legacy. But little-known accounts from the night of Billy's purported death in 1881 cast a shadow over the accepted story of his demise — and lend credence to the idea that, maybe, America's most famous Wild West outlaw lived out the remainder of his life as one Brushy Bill. The evidence? As one museum director tells us, "I don't know any man that would go out and put five bullet scars on his body so that he would match up with somebody else."

A Tale of Two Bills

Billy the Kid and Brushy Bill

Left: Billy the Kid ca. 1879-80. Right: Brushy Bill. (Wikimedia Commons)

Hico's Billy the Kid Museum speculates that Billy moved to Texas in 1883, two years after his supposed death in New Mexico. He went by the name William Henry Roberts, but most folks just called him Brushy Bill.

Sue Land, Director of the Billy the Kid Museum, says the best piece of evidence that Billy the Kid escaped Fort Sumner unscathed comes from Pat Garrett's own deputy.

"When the Deputy United States Marshal that was with Pat Garrett at the time rolled the body over, he looked up at Pat Garrett. It's recorded in the Marshal's office in New Mexico that he told Pat Garrett, 'You've killed the wrong man,'" Land tells Wide Open Country.

Land says since Garrett fired on Billy when it was dark outside, it's likely that he mistakenly shot another man that night. The man Garrett killed reportedly had a full beard, while Billy only sported peach fuzz. Unwilling to admit his mistake, Garrett identified the young man as Billy the Kid and buried him.

"He was going to bury Billy the Kid and that's what he did," Land says.

As for the evidence that Brushy Bill was the Kid, it all comes down to a man named William Morrison. He was a probate investigator who had been hired by Joe Hines, one of the Kid's former associates. Hines told Morrison that Billy was still alive and well in Texas. Intrigued by the idea that one of history's most notorious criminals had cheated death, Morrison traveled to Texas to meet with Brushy Bill.

"Brushy told him he was Billy the Kid and he wanted him to help prove it so that he could get the pardon that had been promised to him back in the 1800s by the governor of New Mexico," Land says, referring to a pardon Billy claims he was promised by Governor Lew Wallace.

Still in need of convincing, Morrison sought further proof that Brushy was telling the truth.

"The first thing they did was check the wounds and scars on Brushy's body. They matched every known wound that Billy the Kid was to have," Land says. "I don't know any man that would go out and put five bullet scars on his body so that he would match up with somebody else."

Brushy never received his pardon because New Mexico officials didn't believe he was really the Kid. And while Brushy Bill's story has gained support over the years, many remain skeptical. One cause for disbelief is the fact that Brushy's family bible listed his birth year as 1879. If the birth date is accurate, it would make it impossible for him to be Billy the Kid, who was 21 years old at the time of his death in 1881. 

Historian Robert Stahl has made it his mission to disprove Brushy Bill's story.

"Enough is enough about and from the supporters of the Billy the Kid impostors," Stahl wrote in a 29-page petition to New Mexico, asking the state to retroactively issue a death certificate for Billy.

Of Grave Concern

Billy the Kid's grave

One of Billy the Kid's gravestones, erected in the 1930s. (Wikimedia Commons)

The only way to solve the mystery is to perform a DNA test on the remains of Brushy Bill and the body buried in Billy the Kid's New Mexico grave. Then, scientists could match the results with a DNA sample taken from the body of Billy the Kid's mother, Catherine Antrim.

In 2003, Texas and New Mexico officials attempted to do just that. There was just one problem: All the grave markers in the Fort Sumner cemetery were washed away in a 1904 flood. If the real Billy the Kid is buried in New Mexico, no one knows where the body — or the body of his mother — is actually located.

Brushy Bill is buried 20 minutes outside of Hico in Hamilton, Texas. Brushy still gets plenty of visitors, many leaving him coins and bullet casings in honor of his outlaw status.

The Legend Lives On

Billy the Kid playing croquet

A purported photo of Billy the Kid, left, playing croquet in New Mexico in 1878. (Wikimedia Commons)

Though Roberts' claim takes on more twists and turns than a Texas country road and many historians doubt his claims, outlaw Billy the Kid is still one of the most beloved figures of the Old West. Nearly 150 years after his death, he's still keeping people guessing.

Land says the museum receives visitors from all over the world, which is pretty fervent support for a man who is thought to have killed 21 people in his short life.

"He was an outlaw and a killer, according to everything that was written about him," Land says. "[Visitors] say, 'Well, we're not rooting for the killer, we're rooting for the 14-year-old kid to have made it out and had a life.'"




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This article was originally published in 2016.

READ MORE: 8 Notorious Outlaws Who Became Wild West Legends