Sunday, April 28, 2013

Billy the Kid's Escape: 132 Years Later

April 28th, 2013.  It was on a Thursday, 132 years ago today that the outlaw, Billy the Kid, gunned down two Lincoln County deputies and escaped from his quarters in the Lincoln County Courthouse.  One-hundred and thirty-two years ago, and still Billy's legend lives on -- six times as long as Billy's own life span.

I have a special interest in Billy's last days.  It was on a 150-mile trail ride, just a few years ago, that I met my future husband.  It was he, a new acquaintance at the time, who gave me my first tour of that very Lincoln County Courthouse, and walked me through the stairway in which Billy killed Deputy Sheriff John W. Bell.  We had ridden from Fort Sumner to Lincoln, New Mexico, across the same ranch lands that Billy had ridden and fled through, and watched the same sunrises on horseback that Billy had watched.  For the record, we did the ride in sort of reverse:  Billy murdered Deputy Bell and Deputy Bob Olinger in Lincoln, and was himself killed in Fort Sumner, not quite three months later.  Our ride was but a week long, and didn't end in gunfire.

Accounts of Billy's initial escape vary, as "first-hand" accounts often do.  I know from two decades of police work that if you ask five eyewitnesses to recount an incident, you get seven different accounts.  Emotion, involvement, lighting, stress, and the usual human motives influence the accounts; none of us truly see factually, truth be told.  Frederick Nolan's excellent work, "The West of Billy the Kid," gives several versions within the same work:  he cites Billy's own side of the story as told to J.P. Meadows, as well as a contemporary account from the Las Vegas Gazette (Las Vegas, New Mexico, that is) of May 10, 1881, and additional theories advanced in retrospect.  He correctly points out that no one knows the truth.

The facts as they are known are these:  Billy was being held in anticipation of his scheduled execution date, planned for May 13, 1881.  His guards, Deputy Sheriffs J. W. Bell and Bob Olinger, were responsible for tending him in his room on the courthouse's second floor.  On the evening of April 28th, Bob Olinger took Billy's fellow prisoners across the street for their meal at the Wortley Hotel, and Bell remained behind to guard Billy.

At some point, Billy used a revolver of uncertain origin to kill Bell, who made it outside the courthouse before dying in the company of Godfrey Gauss.  Gauss alerted Olinger, who returned to the scene where Billy waited, armed with Olinger's own shotgun.  Billy shot Olinger with both barrels, and Olinger died immediately.  Billy then left town, and remained at large until July 14, 1881, when he was shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett at Pete Maxwell's house in Fort Sumner.

The details regarding the escape, though, are wiggly.  How Billy managed to get the jump on the experienced officer, Bell; how he obtained the pistol; and his words as he watched Olinger die are all subject to years of debate and interpretation.  Some say that Billy yelled at Olinger, "You won't follow me any more with that gun," as he died, and others say that Billy shouted, "You damned sonofabitch!  You won't corral me with that again!"  No one is ever going to know for sure, but the lines are certain to continue to change with the retelling.

It surprises me to read the various accounts and see the righteous indignation of many of the Billy historians who apply their own interpretations to the events.  Nolan, for example, expresses skepticism that Olinger, upon hearing the shots from the courthouse, would have immediately concluded (as some accounts maintain) that Billy had attempted to escape and Bell had shot him.  Nolan states that it's "hard to understand" such a response.  For my part, it makes perfect sense:  why would Olinger think otherwise?  Why wouldn't he assume that his trusted, experienced colleague, who was armed while Billy was not, had shot the criminal as he tried to escape?

Historians, amateur and otherwise, have dissected the events of Billy's life -- particularly that evening, and the night that Billy was killed -- from their own armchairs for most of 132 years now.  Although the accounts vary widely, one thing seems constant:  they speak with great certainty and confidence that their interpretation is correct.  They take ownership of the events, and are astonished that others don't see them the same way.

It is only natural that we foist our own experiences, personality traits, and values on historical figures.  If we are cowardly, we believe those we are reading about act from a position of fear.  If we are compassionate, we're sure Billy felt badly at killing Bell; and if we've ever been bullied, we're just as sure Billy felt vindicated at murdering Olinger, who had apparently taunted him and treated him with contempt.  It doesn't change the facts, though.  Nolan suggests (by way of a rhetorical question) that Olinger is vexed at not having shot Billy himself.  Those types of innuendo taint our understanding of the actual incident as it played out, just as asking someone, "Are you still beating your wife, Mr. Smith?" immediately implies that Smith has, in fact, beaten his wife.

Be cautious in your reading, and critical in your assessment of historical events.  Writers, like the irascible fellow downing a beer at the local saloon, don't like to let facts get in the way of a good story; and historians, like the typical court-room attorney, are going to confidently and unwaveringly tell the facts as they see them.

The problem is:  who among us has truly seen what occurred, and if we did -- through what filmy vision, influenced by what factors in our own life?