I tire of reading that from day one there was considerable doubt as to whether the man Lincoln County Sheriff Patrick F. Garrett killed in Peter Maxwell’s bedroom just before 12:30 a.m. on Friday July 15, 1881 was actually William H. ‘Billy the Kid’ Bonney. The reasons given by these doubters range from Garrett’s purportedly not allowing anyone to see the body, to his shooting the dead man in the face so no one would recognize that it was not Bonney but another man, to his threatening everyone in Fort Sumner with some sort of dastardly fate if they ever said he didn’t kill the real Billy the Kid. These and more absurd reasons continue to be used by supporters of the various Billy–the–Kid–shooter–imposters, such as Jim Miller and Brushy Bill Roberts, to justify that their man was the actual Billy the Kid.
From minutes after the Kid fell to the time they closed the coffin in Beaver Smith’s saloon, where Billy’s remains had been on display for several hours, there were dozens who saw the authentic Kid dead. No effort was made to hide the remains from public view. In fact, the opposite was true. Garrett, his deputies, John W. Poe and ‘Kip’ McKinney, and the Maxwells were in agreement that the more who saw Billy the better. They had varying personal reasons to make sure this happened, one of which was to allow his friends to mourn their loss and celebrate their times with him. Garrett wanted no one to question that he had killed Bonney. To collect the $500 reward, he needed as many credible eyewitnesses as was possible.
There was no itinerant photographer available to take photos, no physician to declare him dead and no funeral home to embalm the body and prepare the remains for burial. The nearest location of any of these was 125 miles away. All that was necessary was done on the spot by volunteers who knew how to prepare the body for burial in the traditional Mexican and Roman Catholic way. This was a community affair engaged in by people who, for one reason or another, liked the good side of the Kid and that he accepted and so successfully blended in with them and their Hispanic culture. Billy had respected them. It was their time to show their respect for him.
Those Who Saw the Billy the Kid Bonney in Death
To counter the view that few people saw his remains, these folks are known to have seen Billy the Kid Bonney in death.
Milnor Rudulph, 54 years old of Sunnyside, rancher and merchant and former member of the Territory of New Mexico legislature. He served as President of the coroner’s jury that investigated Billy’s death. The Kid was known to have visited Rudulph’s store on several occasions, so Rudulph knew the Kid. Within a week, his published letter to the editor of the Las Vegas [New Mexico] Daily Optic stated in no uncertain terms that he saw the Kid dead.
Charles Frederick Rudulph, 20, of Sunnyside, worked on his father’s ranch and at the family store. Charles was a member of the December 1880 posse that arrested Billy and his ‘pals’ Dave Rudabaugh, Billy Wilson, and Tom Pickett at Stinking Springs.
Alejandro Segura, 31–year–old rancher–farmer of Cabra Arenoso outside Fort Sumner, who as the nearest Justice of the Peace appointed the coroner’s jury that investigated Billy’s death, oversaw their activities including inspecting the Kid’s body, and completed the final Spanish–language original of the jury’s verdict.
Paco Anaya, 21, of Fort Sumner, knew Billy from about the time of his first appearance in there in August 1878. Along with Jesus Silva, Vincente Otero, and George Miller, Paco helped dig the grave and bury the Kid.
Jesus Silva (the younger,) about 36 years old of Fort Sumner, also knew Billy from about the time he arrived there. Silva played a major role in moving Billy from the floor in Peter Maxwell’s bedroom to a bench in the nearby carpenter shed and in building the coffin. Along with Anaya, Vincente Otero and George Miller, Jesus helped dig the grave and bury the Kid.
Jose Silva (the older,) 59, Antonio Savedra, Lorenzo Jaramillo, 37 and Pedro Antonio Lucero, all of Fort Sumner, knew Billy from about the time of his first appearance in Fort Sumner. They each served on the coroner’s jury and signed the jury’s official report.
Saval [also Sabal]Gutierrez], 31, of Fort Sumner, also knew Billy, served on the coroner’s jury and signed the jury’s official report. Billy with pistol and butcher knife in hand had left Sabol’s house minutes before the shooting on his way to the Maxwell house to get a slice of beef for his dinner that night. (1) According to Jesus Silva, Saval was also a pallbearer at Billy’s burial.
Celsa Gutierrez, 25, of Fort Sumner, wife of Saval Gutierrez, a well–liked citizen of the community and sister–in–law of Garrett, knew Billy from shortly after his arrival in Fort Sumner. The couple quickly became good friends of the Kid. She was at the Maxwell’s home shortly after Garrett’s first shot, as Billy had just moments before borrowed Celsa’s butcher knife to cut his slice of beef from a roast hanging on the Maxwell’s porch. Deputy Poe later said that he personally gave the knife back to Celsa.
Marie Lobato, of Fort Sumner. Her eyewitness account as retold by her son, Frank Lobato, to reporter/Editor Jack Hull in an early 1930s interview, was later published in the Clovis [New Mexico] News Journal, 1937.
Iginio Garcia, 26–year–old farm laborer of nearby Cedar Springs, was, according to Jesus Silva, among those who dressed Billy’s remains and helped carry the remains to Beaver Smith’s saloon.
Mike Cosgrove, 50, was Superintendent of the U.S. Mail contract for Las Vegas, New Mexico, and related mail routes. He was in Fort Sumner on business the morning Billy was killed. Interviewed by Las Vegas newspaper reporters on Monday, July 18th, he confirmed that Billy was dead and was buried in Fort Sumner the previous Friday.
Ursula Pacheco Y. Baca, 9–year–old daughter of Juan Pacheco of Fort Sumner, knew Billy. As an adult she signed an affidavit stating that she saw Billy’s body and attended the funeral.
Vincente Otero, 36, knew Billy from about the time he came to Fort Sumner. Otero was originally a resident of Fort Sumner but had moved to Valencia, New Mexico, to work as a sheep herder. But he was back in Fort Sumner the day Billy was killed. Along with Jesus Silva, Paco Anaya, and George Miller, Otero helped dig the grave and bury the Kid. According to Silva, Otero was a pallbearer at Billy’s burial, and as such, he was among the last to see Billy’s remains when the coffin was closed.
Don Peter Maxwell, 33, of Fort Sumner, knew Billy from about the time of his first appearance there. Peter testified to the coroner’s jury that Billy was shot dead in his bedroom by Garrett.
Dona Luz B. Maxwell, 49, of Fort Sumner and widow of Lucien B. Maxwell of land–grant fame, also knew Billy. It was in her house—her son, Peter’s bedroom—that Billy was shot dead. She and all her household were awakened by the shots and were in Peter’s bedroom mere minutes afterwards. Indeed, Paco Anaya reported that Dona Luz saw Billy’s remains in Peter’s room shortly after Garrett shot him.
Paula Maxwell, 17, knew Billy and stated to numerous others that she was among the first to see Billy lying dead on the floor. Likewise, Paula’s brother Odila Maxwell, 11, was, according to Paco Anaya, seen viewing Billy’s remains in Peter’s room.
Deluvina Maxwell, 23, of Fort Sumner and long–time Navajo servant in the Maxwell household, knew Billy since his first appearance in 1878. By her own statements to numerous others and by eyewitness reports, she was also among the first to see Billy lying dead on the floor. She spoke angrily at Garrett for killing Billy and helped to wash and dress the body.
Don Manuel Pedro Abreu, 19, Don Pablo Beaubien, 33, and Dona Rebecca Beaubien, 26, all of Fort Sumner, knew Billy and according to Paco Anaya, viewed Billy’s remains in the room shortly after he was shot. (2)
‘Ranchero,’ of Sunnyside, upon hearing the news of the Kid’s death, rode to Fort Sumner to confirm the accuracy of the news. His letter testifying to his eyewitness account of the body and events in Fort Sumner that day was published in the Las Vegas Daily Optic on July 18, 1881.
Nasaria Yerby, 19–year–old boarder was house keeper and nursemaid in the household of big–time rancher Tomas Yerby. (3) Her appearance, probably accompanied by her boss, suggests that news of the Kid’s death reached at least 7 miles to the east of Fort Sumner within hours of the shooting.
Abrana Garcia, 23–year–old resident of Cabra Arenoso, a suburb of Fort Sumner, was the wife of 34–year–old Martin Garcia. (3) Her appearance, likely accompanied by her husband, suggests that the news reached at least a couple of miles south of Fort Sumner within hours.
M. Frank Lloyd, 31, a miner from Santa Fe, happened to be in Fort Sumner on this day. He told his eyewitness story to Billy’s close friend, John Meadows. (4)
Francisco Medina, 58–year–old resident of Anton Chico, also happened to be in Fort Sumner at the time. His story was retold by Billy’s close friend, George Coe. (5)
Juan Giddings, a 23–year–old, who lived at the time not far from Fort Sumner, reportedly was in the immediate area and had talked to Billy just hours before the Kid’s death. His story was believed and reported by his nephew. (6)
H. A. ‘Beaver’ Smith, 59, grocer, saloon keeper, and Fort Sumner postmaster, knew Billy from the time he came to Fort Sumner. Billy often dealt Monte and otherwise gambled in Beaver’s saloon. His body was on display in an open wooden coffin in Beaver’s saloon from early morning until the procession to the cemetery began.
Thomas ‘Kip’ McKinney, 25, was a Lincoln County Deputy Sheriff from Roswell. Because he stood near the porch leading to Pete Maxwell’s bedroom when Garrett fired the shots, Kip was among the first to see the body. Over the next three decades he told his story of seeing the Kid dead.
Patrick F. Garrett, 30, from Roswell was both Lincoln County Sheriff and U.S. Deputy Marshal. Garrett had known Billy since he came to Fort Sumner in 1878. Ironically, they had been very good and close friends up to the time of Garrett’s November 1880 election as Sheriff. After shooting the Kid, he immediately called for someone to bring the local Justice of the Peace to Fort Sumner to oversee an official coroner’s inquiry into the Kid’s death.
The following witnesses claim to have seen Billy’s body although they had not seen Billy at any time while he was alive. Their assertions came after they were told by numerous people who knew the Kid that the body was none other’s than Billy the Kid Bonney’s.
Pvt. George Miller, 32, of Fort Stanton, New Mexico, was on his way to Santa Fe and happened to spend the night in Fort Sumner when Billy was shot. He was awakened by Garrett’s gunfire and saw the Kid’s body after running over to the Maxwell home to see what the commotion was. According to an interview printed the following Monday afternoon in the Las Vegas Daily Optic, George helped dig the Kid’s grave and attended the funeral later that same afternoon.
John W. Poe, 29, of White Oaks, New Mexico was a Lincoln County Deputy Sheriff. Poe was within twenty feet of Billy when Garrett pulled the trigger that ended the Kid’s life. He always attested that he saw the Kid in death and some thirty years later wrote several accounts of the search for and killing of Billy.
The above thirty–one individuals, ranging in ages from nine to fifty–nine, are known to have seen William H. ‘Billy the Kid’ Bonney’s dead body one or more times during the approximately fourteen hours between his death and burial. Not to be overlooked is Charles Rudulph’s report that during the morning he heard the ‘alert’ bells toll for some time. As was the practice in rural areas at this time, the bells signaled that something important had happened or that there was an emergency such as a fire, and that all should drop everything and report as fast as possible to Main Street. The fact that the body was on public display in Beaver Smith’s very popular establishment suggests that many of the approximately 175 people living in and near Fort Sumner saw the remains.
In addition to the above named, Jesus Silva and Paco Anaya reported that several other people, whom they did not identify, saw Billy dead, helped with dressing the body, helped dig the grave and attended the funeral. Several eyewitnesses reported that women of the community, many of whose names are unknown, stepped forward to help with washing and preparing the body for burial and overseeing the wake that followed before noon. Paula Maxwell Jaramillo and Deluvina Maxwell said in separate 1920 interviews that most of the people in Fort Sumner saw the body and many later joined in the procession to the cemetery.
While no one mentioned the following by name, it is highly probable, for the reasons given, that they too viewed Billy’s body.
John Holland, 71, of Fort Sumner, was a live–in carpenter in the Luz Maxwell household. He undoubtedly heard the gunshots and went to the scene, where he likely saw the Kid’s remains. Furthermore, since his carpenter’s work shed was within a few feet of the back of the Maxwell house, he may well have helped build the Kid’s wooden coffin. H. William Cosgrove, 38, was Fort Sumner’s mail contractor. Given that his brother Mike, also a mail contractor, was visiting Fort Sumner on official postal business the day Billy was killed, William likely was with Mike when the latter saw the Kid’s body (cf. Michael Cosgrove, above.) Manuela Herrera Bowdre was the 26–year–old widow of Charles Bowdre, one of the Kid’s best friends. Living less than sixty yards from the Maxwell house, she certainly heard the shots and would have rushed to the scene as word–of–mouth quickly told the story of the Kid’s death. By day’s end, Billy would be buried not many yards from her husband.
There are others who, by their known connection to individuals named above, such as spouses, adult children, or business man, 33–year–old W. R. ‘Bob’ Hargrave, for example, in whose saloon Billy had shot and killed Joe Grant, also saw Billy’s remains at least once. No one who was in Fort Sumner that day has ever denied that they saw Billy the Kid Bonney’s body.
Fort Sumner’s distance of 125 miles from the nearest newspaper office and telegraph and telephone service, meant that, as with all the bloody events during the infamous ‘Lincoln County War’ and Billy’s escape from the Lincoln County jail that left two deputy sheriffs dead, no reporter came immediately to interview witnesses and no photographer came to take photographs of the grave or scene of the shooting. Such “breaking news” reporting was rarely done in old west New Mexico. Nonetheless, many find it remarkable that, while there were over 175 people in the immediate vicinity of Fort Sumner, there are so few who are documented in one way or another as having been there and seen Bonney dead. But there was never a public or private school in this community. Only a few families could afford to send one or more of their children over 175 miles away to private boarding schools. Thus, the vast majority of those who saw the Kid dead were illiterate Mexican–Americans. Most of those Anglos and Mexicans who were literate were self– or family–taught. They rarely spent their meager income on writing instruments and paper, much less stamps or bound blank diaries. No one who lived in this area during the 1870s and ‘80s is known to have kept a diary or journal or to have sent letters that were saved. In small rural communities such as Fort Sumner, the details of life and death were passed on almost exclusively by word of mouth.
Contrary to conspiracy theorists, Billy the Kid imposters and their supporters, Billy Bonney’s death was not followed by Sheriff Garrett hiding the body from outsiders. Garrett’s intention was to let people see whom he had shot and to let those who desired pay their final respects to this much–liked young man. The fact that Garrett, Poe and McKinney remained the rest of the night in the Maxwell house for fear that a few of the Kid’s close friends might harm them should not be overlooked, as there would have been no concern if his friends knew the body was someone other than Billy Bonney. That Peter Maxwell, Mike Cosgrove, and unnamed others accompanied Garrett 125 miles to the county seat, Las Vegas, to tell the world that the Kid was dead and that Garrett had done the deed is further evidence Billy the Kid Bonney (7) and no one else was shot dead in Peter Maxwell’s bedroom just after midnight on July 15, 1881.
(1) According to descendants, the correct spelling of his name was ‘Saval,’ although ‘Sabol’ and ‘Sabal’ are other known phonetic spellings of his name.
(2) The 1880 U.S. Census Report for San Miguel County in immediate vicinity does not record a ‘Pedro Abreau,’ but does a ‘Manuel Abreau,’ age 23 years old, who was a close friend of the Maxwell family and lived but a short distance from the Maxwell house. Perhaps Anaya meant ‘Manuel’ rather than ‘Pedro.’ – RJStahl 11–11–16.
(3) Louis Leon Branch. “Los Bilitos”: The Story of “Billy the Kid” and His Gang As Told by Charles Frederick Rudulph—A Member of Garrett’s Historical Posse. New York, A Hearthstone Book by the Carlton Press, 1980. p. 252.
(4) “John Meadows Knows Something about Billy the Kid,” The Alamogordo News [Alamogordo, NM, Weekly], Thursday Afternoon, August 5, 1926, p. 1, col. 5.
(5) George Coe. Frontier Fighter: The Autobiography of George W. Coe Who Fought and Rode with Billy the Kid as Related to Nan Hillary Harrison. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934, p. 160.
(6) Notes from an interview of Rayitos Ortega De Geoffrion regarding stories passed on by the family and his uncle, Juan Giddings, in Andres S. Hernandez, This They Said, typewritten manuscript in the Las Vegas Carnegie Library, undated. The manuscript says only that Giddings had talked to Billy just hours before the Kid’s death and was an “eyewitness to the burial of Bonney.” Notes from this manuscript were provided by the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe, NM.
(7) It should not go unmentioned that Billy the Kid Bonney’s birth name was Henry McCarty (possible McCarthy,) which became Henry Antrim when his mother, Catherine, married William Henry Harrison Antrim in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1873.