Billy The Kid: His Photograph

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One day in the summer of 1879, Billy the Kid and several of his compadres rode into Fort Sumner, New Mexico, after several weeks on the trail. In those days he wasn't yet notorious, but he was well-known, as 'Kid' Antrim, a.k.a. Billy Bonney. He was generally involved in rustling, and he, Charlie Bowdre, Tom O'Folliard, Billy Wilson and Tom Pickett would go down to the Texas panhandle, pick off some longhorn cattle or a remuda 1 of horses, and drive them back up to White Oaks, where they would fence the stolen stock at a livery stable run by Sam Dedrick.

Ordinarily, Billy liked to clean up and change into fancy town clothes as soon as he got in, because he would have at least one girlfriend to visit (and he never missed a dance if he could help it), but on this day his interest was caught by a tent out on the street. It was a travelling photographer. To be exact, it was a ferrotypist. Photographic technology had advanced from daguerrotypy, but hadn't evolved to modern processes, and the most accessible form of picture-taking for those outside the cities was popularly known as the tintype. Using mirrors inside the camera's box to reflect the image, the photographer could, with one exposure, create multiple images (up to 16 thumb-sized, but usually 3 or 4 somewhat larger pictures). After developing and fixing the thin metal plate, the photographer would dry it, cut it into singles with tin snips, and present it to the waiting customer. The cost was usually 25 cents.

So Billy impulsively decided to get his picture taken, at 4 images for a quarter. We know that he kept one copy and that he gave another to his friend and inseparable sidekick, Big Foot Tom O'Folliard. Another one seems to have gone to Sam Dedrick, and the whereabouts of the fourth were never traced, although theories abound. When Tom O'Folliard was shot and killed, Pat Garrett is supposed to have taken the picture of Billy from Tom's body before Tom was buried at Fort Sumner. This copy of the tintype has never been found, and indeed, when Pat went on to write The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid in 1882, he sent the tintype to Chicago to be copied by an engraver for the frontispiece of the book: it was probably never returned.

When Billy was captured at Stinking Springs on Christmas Eve 1880, he gave his copy to a Navajo servant woman named Deluvina Maxwell. Deluvina worked for Pete Maxwell, whose daughter Paulita was Billy's main querida.2 Deluvina kept the picture until she died, at which time the image passed into her family's hands, but the tintype was destroyed in a fire in the 1920's. By that time, the tintype had been photographed using modern wet-plate processes, and most of Billy's surviving friends had copies, but they were less distinct than the original.

And that is how matters stood for about 80 years. Dozens and dozens of photographs were put forward by researchers (Kidologists) as possibly being images of Billy, but it was impossible to tell from the poor quality surviving reproductions of the original tintype whether the wannabes were truly of Billy.

Then, in 1986, the Upham family (descendants of Sam Dedrick) discovered one of the four original tintypes in their family "stuff", and gave it, with some other relevant pictures, to the Lincoln County Heritage Trust, who ran the museum in the town of Lincoln, New Mexico. The Lincoln County War is a whole nother story, but suffice it to say that much of Billy's short life centered around violent events in Lincoln between 1877 and 1880.

Of course all sorts of experts were called in to examine and analyze the tintype, and of course it was extensively photographed. Meanwhile, the museum put the tintype out on display, under glass and bright lights. This is something you must never do with old-technology images. Inevitably, the tintype darkened. When the Upham family discovered how the tintype had been allowed to deteriorate, they were furious and took it back, but by then it was too late, and the tintype was toast. Neither the Kodak Institute in Rochester New York nor the FBI forensic center in Chicago could do anything with the remains.

That is all that can be said about that for the time being. The old Trust is gone, and a completely new organization now looks after the museum in Lincoln.

But at least there are a full set of good photographs of the tintype still in existence, including two cibachrome photographs of the top half of the tintype. The cibachromes give the viewer a true idea of what the coloration of the original was, and it is possible to distinguish surface dirt and scratchings from the image under the grime.

And grimy it is. For many years the tintype must have been up on a wall, because it has tack or nail marks at all four corners. The bottom corners are both gone and the surface varnish has been rubbed away in several places. But plenty of detail remains.


One of the things Billy was best at was escaping. Twice he escaped by climbing up chimneys, and of course he escaped two armed jailers (by killing them) after his death sentence. After he was shot and killed by Pat Garrett, he was buried in the cemetery at Fort Sumner (July 1881). About twenty years later the Pecos River flooded the cemetery, taking all the bodies with it, presumably abetting Billy's final escape. Today his tombstone sits in a cage (to debar the ghouls who chip away at the stone), but Billy is long gone.

This topic begins in another article, Billy the Kid: Who Was He, Really?.

1Spanish for a small herd2Spanish for sweetheart. Billy was fluent in Spanish, but the terms that appear in this article are part of English as spoken in the American southwest today.

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