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A Billy the Kid Mystery Solved

Billy the Kid
American outlaw William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, was born William Henry McCarty Jr. in 1859. Lew Wallace placed a bounty on his head in 1881, contributing to his folk hero status.

IHS owns most of Billy the Kid’s more famous letters – including one in our collections that was previously unidentified. This year, in her book Billy the Kid’s Writings, Words, and Wit, Billy the Kid historian Dr. Gale Cooper specifically authenticated an additional Billy the Kid letter. And it had been here all along.

The letters were preserved for posterity thanks to Indiana’s famous son Gen. Lew Wallace. The letters between William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, and Wallace are about a possible pardon for murders committed during the Lincoln County War in New Mexico Territory. Wallace did not pardon Bonney, but he did save some of their correspondence.

The newly described letter, a two-sided final page surprisingly signed “Billie,” had been loose in our huge collection of Lew Wallace’s papers. Cooper, recognizing Bonney’s Spencerian handwriting, traveled to IHS’s William H. Smith Memorial Library and authenticated it due to its rare stationery with a Lady Liberty embossure, used for two other Bonney-signed letters. That particular stationery was also used by Bonney’s local friends – the jailer in whose home he was held for an arrest arranged by Wallace and the justice of the peace who hosted a meeting between Wallace and Bonney.

Cooper was able to date the new letter to March 24, 1879, and believes it indicates that public officials tried to help the young man by giving him the fine stationery to use in his correspondence to the governor. Her search through the rest of our collection did not yield the first part of the letter, which was apparently not in the original accession received by IHS in the 1940s.

“As the Kid’s revisionist historian, I praise Lew Wallace for keeping this new letter which shows that Billy saw himself as a freedom fighter, not an outlaw,” Cooper says. “Billy lost the pardon, but got the chance to speak directly to us.”