The eye-watering sum shouldn’t come as a surprise, mind you. For a person who made such a lasting impact on popular culture, Billy the Kid has remained a somewhat elusive figure over the years. Even the only previous photo of the outlaw – for well over a century after his death – doesn’t tell us all that much about the wanted man.
From his stint on the run to his role in the Lincoln County War, Billy the Kid is the focus of a story that’s been told and retold many times. Yet surprisingly, there are aspects of his life that remain poorly documented. Such as what did he look like? And what sort of world did he inhabit away from the high stakes of the outlaw game?
Up until recently, only one photograph had been proven to show Billy the Kid – a snap that spawned legends in its own right. And although others have been rumored to exist, experts remained unconvinced. Now, though, another image has emerged from a private collection in the south-western United States.
Does this photograph really show Billy the Kid? If experts at the George Eastman Museum in New York are to be believed, it certainly does. In November 2019 the snap went up for auction in Texas with a convincing story of provenance attached – and an eye-watering price tag to match.
The story of history’s most famous outlaw actually began far from the Old West, in New York City’s poverty-stricken slums. It was there, in 1859, that Henry McCarty was born: the boy who would grow up to become Billy the Kid. But he did not stay on the east coast for long. When his father died, his mother relocated with her two sons to Indianapolis in the Midwest.
There, McCarty’s mother met a man named William Antrim, and the family eventually settled in the mining town of Silver City, New Mexico. But in September 1874 she died of tuberculosis. And the now-widowed stepfather was not keen on raising two orphaned boys, so he soon left them to fend for themselves.
So, as it was, McCarty was forced to live off his wits from a young age. And it didn’t take long for him to end up on the wrong side of the law. In September 1875 he was arrested on suspicion of theft – but before he could be punished, he escaped from jail. In other words, he began his life as an outlaw while still a teenager.
McCarty made his way to Arizona, where he began working on ranches and gambling his hard-earned wages away. Around this time he fell in with a group of criminals and earned himself the nickname The Kid. And in March 1877 he was arrested for theft – although once again he managed to escape.
With characteristic bravado, though, McCarty didn’t flee the area. Instead, he visited a saloon where he got into a fight with Francis Cahill, a local blacksmith. In the fray, the outlaw fired a fatal bullet, forcing him to flee across the border to New Mexico. When his victim died the next day, murder was added to his growing list of misdeeds. Oops!
Now operating under the alias William H. Bonney, McCarty continued his criminal career. Towards the end of 1877, though, he was hired as a cowboy by the London-born rancher John Tunstall. But this was to be no sedate position. Instead, the outlaw found himself thrust into the violent conflict that would become known as the Lincoln County War.
At the time, Tunstall was embroiled in a fierce rivalry with James Dolan, Lawrence Murphy and John Riley, a trio who wielded much of the power in Lincoln County, NM. In February 1878 a posse acting on orders from the sheriff attempted to seize cattle belonging to McCarty’s employer. But things went awry, and the rancher was killed.
That death sparked more than a year of violence between McCarty’s gang, known as the Regulators, and the corrupt lawmen responsible for Tunstall’s death. But despite his crimes, the outlaw was eventually allowed to go free in return for testifying against other players in the Lincoln County War. Still, this leopard did not change his spots.
And on January 10, 1880, McCarty killed a man during another drunken saloon fight. It was in the resulting media coverage that he was first referred to as “Billy the Kid.” By this time, there was a $500 bounty on the outlaw’s head, and Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett succeeded in tracking him down. But even as he was whisked off to jail, he had another trick up his sleeve.
While being held behind bars in Lincoln County, McCarty broke out once more, killing two guards and stealing a horse to make his escape. For months he remained on the run, until the law finally caught up with him on July 14, 1881. This time, though, Garrett was taking no chances. In the ensuing gunfight, the famous outlaw was killed. Or so the story goes…
Because that was far from the end of the matter. For years rumors persisted that Garrett had staged the death of the man who had become his friend, allowing his former rival to live out his days in peace. Some even came forward claiming to be Billy the Kid – although none were ever able to prove it.
Plus countless books and movies have emerged over the years, many painting McCarty as the hero in a romanticized Old West. But despite his fame, he left little in the way of physical artifacts behind. And up until recently, there was only one officially authenticated photograph of “the Kid” in existence.
Showing McCarty dressed in a cowboy hat and holding a rifle at his side, the photo was apparently taken in New Mexico some time around 1880. Once owned by Dan Dedrick, a friend of the outlaw, it was passed down through generations of his family before being put up for sale in 2011. Ultimately, it would fetch a staggering $2.3 million.
The lucky buyer was Florida businessman William Koch. But what did he plan on doing with such a remarkable piece of history? Speaking to The Denver Post in 2011, the new owner explained, “I love the Old West. I plan on enjoying [the photograph] and discreetly sharing it. I think I’ll display it in a few small museums.”
So why are images of McCarty rare enough to make this such a valuable possession? Amateur photography had become common in the early 1880s, after all, and the art was no longer the preserve of the rich. Surely, then, somebody else would have captured a picture of the outlaw?
Amazingly, it would seem not. Although a number of photos allegedly showing McCarty have emerged over the years, none of them have been without their issues. And so far, they have yet to receive official validation. Which is what makes this latest image so special – and worthy of such an eye-watering sum.
Take, for example, the photograph found by technician Randy Guijarro in a California antique store in 2010. At the time, he paid just $2 for the small snap, which shows a group of men playing croquet outside a schoolhouse. But when he got it home and took a closer look, he claims, he spotted McCarty’s distinctive face.
According to the British newspaper the Guardian, Guijarro and his wife Linda eventually identified two other members of the Regulators in the image as well. And apparently, experts applying facial recognition techniques confirmed their findings. But in the years since, others have expressed their doubts about who the photograph depicts.
Back in 2015 the press claimed that Guijarro’s antique store find was worth millions. But today there seems to be little evidence that it was ever sold, let alone for such an outlandish amount. And the publicity surrounding the croquet photograph prompted the owner of another image to come forward.
This time it was Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who had stumbled across a photo at a flea market. It’d hung in his home for years before he made the connection between the faded, grainy image and the legend of Billy the Kid. When he did, he consulted experts who, according to The New York Times, confirmed his suspicions. So the snap also had the potential to fetch millions of dollars.
Despite this verification, though, Abrams’ photograph, like Guijarro’s, has yet to receive official recognition. And until November 2019 it was still generally accepted that the image owned by Koch was the only verified portrait of McCarty in existence. But then another contender appeared, this time on the books of a Texas auction house.
At first glance this newly-emerged, black-and-white photograph certainly looks the part. Set in a frame of cream leather, it depicts four men dressed in hats and jackets sitting around a table playing cards. In the middle, a mostly-empty bottle of liquor rests between them as they stare intently at their hands.
Although the photograph itself was likely staged, the rugged-looking men seem to encapsulate the spirit of the Old West. And that’s hardly surprising. According to the vendor, the figure seated second to the left, a top hat balanced above his boyish face, is none other than the infamous Billy the Kid.
But with photographs of McCarty so valuable and rare, where did this one come from? And how did it emerge so suddenly onto the market? According to a description posted on the website of Texas auction house Sofe Design, the historic snap has been in the vendor’s family for generations.
The vendor explained that the photograph had once been owned by David Anderson, a friend of McCarty’s. Under the alias Billy Wilson, he had been a part of the outlaw’s gang. But after escaping from Garrett’s clutches, he made his way to Texas, where he eventually became a sheriff.
McCarty gave the photograph to Wilson to look after at some point before his final, fatal brush with the law. Then, in 1918, the sheriff lost his own life. At the funeral, his widow decided to pass the image on to her deceased husband’s second cousin – the vendor’s own grandfather.
Since then, it seems, the image has remained in the Anderson family, passed down through the generations. According to Tomas Anderson II, the current owner of the photograph, they always knew that the snap depicted McCarty. And that wasn’t all. The other men, apparently, were also members of the Regulators gang.
In the auction house’s description, the three other players are identified as Fred Waite, Richard Brewer and Henry Brown, all men who fought alongside McCarty in the Lincoln County War. But what sets this apart from the other alleged Billy the Kid photographs that have emerged over the years?
Well, apart from the history connecting the photograph with McCarty via Wilson, the snap itself has also convinced a number of experts. According to Sofe Design, the head curator of New York’s George Eastman Museum personally studied the image and confirmed that it was taken between 1870 and 1890. Armed with knowledge of the Regulators, historians have been able to narrow that range down to 1877 or 1878.
But that’s not all. Because the listing goes on to explain that a forensic scientist with experience of facial recognition work also took a look at the photograph. And using their skills, they were able to positively identify both McCarty and Waite as two of the men in the 140-year-old image.
The two remaining men are seated in profile, sadly, meaning that the same forensic approach couldn’t be used to verify them. According to Sofe Design, though, different techniques have supported the idea that the men are Brewer and Brown. Plus the evidence proved strong enough for the George Eastman Museum, which specializes in photography, to give the snap its seal of approval.
In the listing, posted prior to the auction on November 22, the photo’s value was estimated at upwards of $100,000. But by the time that the story appeared in the international press, it was being touted as a treasure worth $1 million. Currently, there are no records available to confirm exactly how much the rare snap fetched when it went under the hammer.
There is, though, a slightly odd twist to the vendor’s story. According to a note on the Sofe Design website, the photograph wasn’t constantly in the Anderson family’s possession from 1918 until the present day. Apparently, the current owner was forced to sell the treasured heirloom when he found himself facing a financial crisis in 2010.
According to the vendor, he was ultimately able to buy back the photograph via an eBay listing in 2018. But what happened to the image during the intervening eight years? Did its temporary owner know that they were in possession of such a rare piece of history? And if so, why did it not make the headlines until 2019?
Whatever the full story behind this photo, it seems destined to join the ranks of artifacts associated with one of America’s most famous outlaws. Perhaps, one day, it might find its way to the Billy Kid Museum in Fort Sumner, NM, to be displayed alongside McCarty’s rifle. Or maybe it will remain locked away in a private collection, seen only by a lucky few. Wherever it ends up, it will no doubt continue to fascinate for years to come.