Thursday, May 7, 2020

Story Behind the March 1882 Poster Warning “Billy, the Kid”

Ran across this paper by Robert J. “Bob” Stahl at Arizona State University. Fun Old West trivia. Highlight mine.




Since the 1920s, professional and lay historians as well as supporters of the various Billy, the Kid impostors have differed widely in the purposes or meanings of the March 24, 1882 poster that read:

NOTICE!
TO THIEVES, THUGS, FAKIRS AND BUNKO-STEERERS,
Among Whom Are
J. J. Harlan alias “Off Wheeler;” Saw Dust Charlie, Wm. Hedges, Billy, the Kid, Billy  Mullin,  Little  Jack,  The  Cuter, Pockmarked  Kid  and  about  Twenty  Others:
If Found within the Limits of this City after TEN O’CLOCK P.M. this Night, you will be Invited to attend a GRAND NECKTIE PARTY,
The Expense of which will be borne by
100 Substantial Citizens.
Las Vegas, March 24th, 1882

Those who believe that Billy, the Kid, Bonney was not killed by Pat Garrett at about 12:20 a.m. on Friday, July 15, 1881 in Pete Maxwell’s bedroom use this poster as evidence that Billy Bonney was still alive, lest why would 100 “substantial citizens” of Las Vegas, NM, a town where Billy was well known, want him out of town before 10 p.m. the evening of March 24, 1882. This poster as dated is often one of their primary pieces of ‘hard’ evidence that Billy was alive and known by prominent people to be alive eight months after his reported death in Fort Sumner. Meanwhile, individuals convinced Billy Bonney was killed by Garrett have had difficulty coming up with a convincing reason why this poster would even mention a “Billy, the Kid,” as it made no sense to state that a man, eight months dead and buried 125 miles away, would be ordered to leave the town. Consequently, they searched for a plausible other ‘Billy, the Kid,’ who was or who might have been in and around Las Vegas in March 1882. 

Some contend it was Billy, “the Kid” Wilson, a former member of Bonney’s cow-boy outlaw group. However, this is a stretch because Wilson had been in a Santa Fe jail since late December 1880 ... Others suggest the Billy referred to was “Billy, the Kid,” Claiborne, of Tombstone fame. However, Tombstone and Cochise County newspapers report Claiborne as being in and around the county the entire spring of 1882. So there is no evidence that Claiborne was the “Billy” referred to in the poster. A few have even suggested that the creators of the poster referred to the remains of Billy Bonney that had allegedly been snatched from Billy’s original Fort Sumner grave in late July 1881 and brought to Las Vegas to be assembled as a skeleton in one or more doctors’ offices. The most desperate interpreters of this poster have either printed up a version of the poster with the “1882” replaced by “1881” or argued that the “1882” date on the poster was a misprint, because Billy, the Kid was alive in 1881 but not in 1882. However, this made no sense because Billy Bonney was in a Mesilla jail through March 1881. The one thing that these people have in common is the conviction that a particular “Billy, the Kid” had indeed been in and around Las Vegas for at least a few days or weeks as well as on the day the poster was nailed on street posts and displayed in Las Vegas businesses.

            Actually, none of these explanations is accurate.

In July 1926, James A. Carruth, owner of a printing business in Las Vegas from the mid-1870s on past 1900; owner and editor of the short-lived Las Vegas Free Press; and, after a short time in California, owner of a highly successful printing business in Santa Fe, responded to recent rumors about Billy, the Kid being alive in Texas. He wrote the following undated letter to the Editor printed under the title, “Several Billy The Kids,” in the July 7th issue of the Santa Fe New Mexican:1

Editor New Mexican:
            I notice in an article the other day you state that the date given in the poster printed at Las Vegas and now in the rooms of the First National bank, mentioned “Billy the Kid,” though he had been dead a year or so. I printed that poster, and the Billy the Kid mentioned was an imitation of the genuine one. There were several in different towns in New Mexico, and probably the one mentioned by the El Paso writer was one of these.
            The poster was written by Col. J. A. Lockhart, who had not long previously “presided” at a meeting which disposed of a tough, who died on a telegraph pole, and the parties mentioned in the poster did not care to argue any point with the colonel. A party who was going down-town, along Railroad avenue, that night, was stopped by a couple of men with six-shooters on, who asked what he wanted on that street that night, and told him he had better go back up-town. He did so, and went into a restaurant just as a party came in the back door with a suspicious red line around his neck, and said: “Charlie, give me something to eat quick.” Charlie asked him what was the matter with his neck, and he said a crowd of fellows had put a rope around him and hauled him up on a telegraph pole, let him down, and gave him 10 minutes to get out of town, but “I had nothing to eat since breakfast and cannot go without eating.” So Charlie gave him a lunch to go on.
A SANDY MARSHAL
            Colonel Lockhart was a small, wiry man, and full of grit. A party here tells me that he used to be marshal right after the war at Fort Smith, and one time the judge told him to take a posse of 25 men and go out and bring in a man who had been indicted on a very serious charge. He was an ex-Confederate, and Lockhart had to go right into a big settlement of 1,400 or more Confederates, and he went and got his man.2
            The gentleman who told me this says that he once “aided and abetted” the James brothers in their nefarious work to the extent of $75 and a $200 gold watch. This contribution was not voluntary on his part, but at the request of the James brothers, who had Colt & Co. as attorneys, and Colt & Co. under those conditions were powerful attorneys.
            Speaking of hanging bees, another one took place in Las Vegas after wards when a crowd went and took a party out of the east side lockup and went over and started to hang him on a pole right under the window of the office of the district attorney, who came up and said: “For God’s sake, boys, don’t hang him here. There’s a much better pole in the next block. So the boys very kindly took the “candidate” to the better pole, where he was duly hanged.
J. A. CARRUTH.

Carruth made it clear that (a) Col. Lockhart created the wording for the poster, (b) Carruth and his print shop designed, type-set and printed the poster; (c) Lockhart and Carruth were convinced that the ‘real’ Billy, the Kid, Bonney had been dead for about a year; (d) the poster in no way referred to the Billy Bonney who was dead; and (e) the Billy mentioned referred to any and all of the living Williams and Billys in New Mexico who had picked up or who were thinking of picking up the nickname “the Kid.” His letter comes as close to stating the actual purposes and meanings of the poster as we are likely to get.

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