Billy the Kid: How 200-year-old blood stain from great escape ‘rewrites legend’s history’

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Henry McCarty, the man better known as ‘Billy the Kid’, was an outlaw of the Old West who reportedly killed eight men before he was gunned down during a stand-off with officers. Orphaned at the age of 15, he committed a number of thefts before he joined a posse who sought to expel Sheriff William Brady from Lincoln County. They killed the officer in a bloody battle but two years later Billy was captured. He was convicted of murder and to be hanged. But during his time on death row, he managed to escape after he obtained a gun and killed his captors. This jailbreak and a book written by Sheriff Pat Garrett, who shot the 21-year-old after two months on the run, cemented his legacy. The officer claimed he was a ruthless gunslinger, obsessed with criminal activity and boasted about his close shaves with the law. But modern-day investigations reveal parts of the memoir, which for decades served as a historical account, were embellished and some claims may be nothing more than myth.

Elise Gomber, the curator of Ruidoso River Museum, disputed Sheriff Garrett’s alleged closeness to Billy the Kid and claimed they likely “knew one another but were not close”.

The officer penned a story about the outlaw’s great escape from the courthouse despite not being present to witness the crime. 

Ms Gomber said: “I think Pat [Garrett] is absolutely twisting the myth to make Billy sound more ruthless than he actually was.”

This belief is supported by Steve Sederwall, a private investigator, who conducted tests at the courthouse to determine whether the account of the escape was accurate. 

According to Sheriff Garrett’s book ‘The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid’, the outlaw requested to go to the bathroom and used it as a chance to break away from his jailer, James Bell. 

He allegedly ran ahead of the officer, raced upstairs to the armoury inside the courthouse where he grabbed a gun and shot his pursuer when he reached the bottom of the steps. 

However, during Mr Sederwall’s investigation he claimed to have discovered blood splatters at the top of the staircase after he sprayed the area with luminol.

The chemical substance is used at crime scenes and when it comes into contact with blood glows blue when placed in darkness.

Mr Sederwall concluded that the 200-year-old stains could prove that there was no premeditation behind Billy the Kid’s decision to kill Bell. 

He told the 2010 Amazon Prime show ‘Mystery Files’ that he believed the jailer instead made it to the top of the stairs where he confronted Billy the Kid and he shot him accidentally.

Mr Sederwall said: “The Kid turned with the gun, he pulled the hammer back and he pointed the gun at Bell. 

“Bell is a few steps down, he lunged forward, he grabbed the gun, which put it inline with his body.

“It startles him (Billy the Kid), he steps back and he falls, when the Kid falls his muscles tighten up, the gun went-off and he shoots a Bell right to left.

“What happened after that was Bell and the Kid are fighting over the gun – Bell has a hold of the cylinder so he can’t cock it – they are fighting over this gun, two kids fighting face to face.

“The Kid then hits Bell over the head with his handcuffs – hits him twice – now he has a head wound, he’s [been] shot, he’s bleeding out all over the floor right here.”

Mr Sederwall argued that the killing was done in self-defence and not out of malice intent – his theory is supported by Ms Granger.

She added: “I think Billy and Bell struggled. I think Billy had to kill Bell because Bell would have killed Billy.

“I think Billy was trying to escape with his life, I mean he was facing a hanging and I would have done exactly the same.”

Ms Granger claimed that other accounts opposed the suggestion the outlaw’s killings were premeditated – and he reportedly “felt bad about” the shootings and explained: “It was a case of had to, not want to.”

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Despite this, the second jailer Billy killed, Bob Ollinger, was fatally shot with a shotgun as he raced over to apprehend the soon-to-be escapee.

Ms Granger added: “I think Ollinger would have killed Billy absolutely if he had the opportunity and I think it was an absolutely necessary killing.”

Sheriff Garrett’s book also alleged that Billy the Kid spent an hour causing mayhem in the town before he fled away into the night – something which Ms Granger also contests.

She said: “When Billy escaped from the courthouse in Lincoln nobody lifted a finger to stop him.

“Pat Garrett said it was because the town was held in terror of Billy the Kid and I just think that’s true and I think that’s because he had so many friends.”

Others claimed it was unlikely that he could have spent “an hour” causing chaos when so many people were armed and instead argued he was “saying goodbye to everybody”.

Two months after Billy’s escape, he was tracked down by Sheriff Garrett and other officers, and was fatally shot at the age of 21.

Later Sheriff Garrett went on to write a memoir about the outlaw’s supposed reign of terror, which was adapted into cartoons, books, TV shows and films – and according to some, promoted this mythical view of the man we know today.

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