He was a feared gunslinger and a conniving outlaw who was steeped in the blood of many men, yet the paradox is that he remains a favourite folk hero of the American West.
Now, 129 years after his death, Billy the Kid may be about to receive a pardon from none other than the Governor of New Mexico, the territory where his final exploits were played out.
Generations raised on westerns have shared a fascination for the Kid, who was – possibly – gunned down by sheriff Pat Garrett in July 1881 after he had shot his way out of a local jail, killing two deputies.
But no one is more gripped than New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson who first suggested the pardon seven years ago.
Newspaper reports this week claimed Richardson is on the brink of delivering the long-dangled pardon, but that was disputed by members of his staff. Nevertheless the suggestion has been enough to stir the anger of those who are opposed to any such move, notably the descendants of Garrett, who himself was shot in a land dispute in 1908. Governor Richardson is even expected to meet a delegation of the Garrett family in Albuquerque next week.
"The history of New Mexico has been permanently disfigured by the element of doubt alone," the Garrett family said in a letter sent to the Governor. Among those who signed it was Susan Floyd Garrett, a granddaughter of the sheriff. A pardon for the Kid would represent a "defamation of character" for her grandfather, she told Associated Press. "Everybody wants to mythologise Billy the Kid," she added. Of course, tourist dollars may be the main motivation to supporters of a pardon. However, there is some basis for it in history.
The then territorial governor, Lew Wallace, had seemingly promised a pardon to the outlaw for his part in the killing of Garrett's predecessor as county sheriff, in return for his promise to give evidence in another murder case. But Wallace apparently reneged on the deal and left the Kid to fester in jail. Furthermore, while Billy was long said to have killed 21 men, the more reliable number is four.
Also clouding the story of the Kid – whose real name was William Bonney – are versions of history that have Garrett shooting someone else entirely – an innocent man - and the Kid getting away. With someone else buried in his grave, he allegedly vanished to Texas were he lived as "Brushy Bill" Roberts before passing away in 1950.
No one has been able to prove the story and most experts on the lore of the American West are unimpressed with the notion of a pardon.
"There is no point in restoring the civil rights of a dead man," historian Drew Gomber told the El Paso Times. "It's a publicity stunt by the Governor."
As for Garrett, he just had the misfortune of being the man who had to hunt the Kid down after the jailbreak.
"Pat Garrett had a dirty job to do and he did it in an honourable way," Gomber added. "I think he has gotten a raw deal over the years by people who wanted to glorify the Kid.
"Pat Garrett was a hero. He was not a villain in any shape or form."
In any case, the Governor's office continues to dampen expectations that a pardon might be imminent.
"The Governor has said since 2003 that he would consider a pardon," spokesperson Alarie Ray-Garcia said. "He has had many conversations with different people, but right now we have nothing planned."
According to Albuquerque historian Gale Cooper, nothing of the story of Billy the Kid – that inspired so many film directors and authors – would have been disturbed had it not been for the rumours that it wasn't he who was gunned down by Garrett.
Mr Cooper said a pardon for the Kid now would just be the "culmination of the hoax that contended Pat Garrett was a nefarious killer and Billy was not buried in his grave".Reuse content