For years, it was considered a clear-cut end to a violent career. In 1881, Billy the Kid, by then convicted for murder in the chaos surrounding the Lincoln County War, was killed in a night-time shootout by Sheriff Pat Garrett, a one-time Texas Ranger. A coroner’s jury confirmed the body was that of 21-year-old Billy the Kid, also known as William H. Bonney or Henry McCarty, and the body was buried. However, decades later, a Texas man stepped forward and claimed to be Billy the Kid.
In 1948, William Morrison happened across a man claiming to be outlaw Jesse Evans who further claimed that Billy the Kid was still alive and living in Hamilton County. This man, Ollie P. “Brushy Bill” Roberts, claimed to be Billy the Kid. Roberts claimed that Garrett had killed another outlaw, Billy Barlow, while he escaped. Afterward, he alleged that he took a series of ranching jobs and traveled under the Ollie P. Roberts alias.
Most stories claimed Billy the Kid was born in New York City in 1859 as Henry McCarty. His father died while he was young, and his mother, Catherine Antrim, moved west, later remarrying. By 1873, they had made their way to the New Mexico Territory, where his mother died of tuberculosis in 1874. Afterward, he descended into a series of petty thefts. In 1877, he shot and killed a man after getting into a fight over a card game. After taking the alias of William H. Bonney, he eventually found work as a ranch hand for John Tunstall in Lincoln County. Tunstall’s disputes with other cattle barons in the county escalated into a series of shooting deaths from which Billy the Kid became famous.
Roberts claimed to have been born William Henry Roberts in Buffalo Gap, near Abilene, in 1859. He claimed that Catherine Antrim was not his mother but his aunt. After 1881, he began going by the name Ollie L. Roberts, supposedly a deceased cousin, to protect his identity. Some family members, however, disputed his claims.
Allegedly, Morrison was able to secure signed affidavits from several men who knew Billy the Kid and confirmed that Roberts was Billy the Kid. Roberts also seemed to have several scars that conformed to known scars and injuries of the famous outlaw. In 1950, Morrison convinced Roberts to approach New Mexico Gov. Thomas Mabry to collect the pardon that Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace had supposedly promised Billy the Kid in 1879. According to witnesses, Roberts was overwhelmed and confused by the crush of people in the governor’s office and the rapid-fire questions which he had difficulty answering. Afterward, Mabry dismissed his claims.
By the time Roberts met with Mabry, his health was declining rapidly. Roberts died of a heart attack at his home in Hico in December 1950, just a month after his meeting with the governor.
In 1990, the story was brought back into the popular imagination with the movie Young Guns II, with Emilio Estevez as Billy the Kid and an aged Brushy Bill Roberts telling of how he escaped. The story was further fueled by a 1990 digital analysis of a picture of Roberts in 1950 and the famous picture of Billy the Kid that showed a 93% match. However, similarity of appearance is not conclusive proof as many people have similar features. Modern DNA tests could solve the question of identity, but even the supposed resting places of Billy the Kid and his mother are both in dispute. As a result, no definitive sources of DNA exist.
Many historians and investigators dismiss the Roberts claim and are satisfied with the original story that Billy the Kid died at the hands of Pat Garrett in 1881. If Brushy Bill Roberts was indeed Billy the Kid, he may have covered his tracks so well that no one believed him even if he told the truth. Regardless, the story has only added to the mystique of the Billy the Kid legend and the glamour of the Old West. The debate may well continue for years. In spite of the controversy, a Billy the Kid museum opened in Hico some years after the death of Roberts and is still a popular attraction.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.