Local historian provides insight into the life of famed outlaw Billy the Kid

New Mexico News

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Professor Paul Hutton always loved the Old West. It’s a passion that has fueled quite the career, including teaching, writing and consulting.

“I had done a lot of work on the military in the West, and Indians in the West,” said Hutton.

Ask him about famed past figures like Davy Crockett and George Custer and you can quickly learn things you never knew about them. However, there was one man who stayed off his radar.

“I had avoided Billy the Kid because I knew down that road, lies madness,” said Hutton.

That changed when he moved to Albuquerque and started teaching at the University of New Mexico. “Billy the Kid, for better or worst, is the most famous New Mexican who ever lived,” said Hutton. “Billy is just shrouded in mystery.”

He says as he learned about Billy, he only wanted to know more. Hutton dug deeper, finding out everything he could about the famous outlaw and the period he lived in.

“Billy has a real symbolic power. He was, in a way, the last fighter against the coming of the machine into the garden. The West was wide and it was open and it was free and sort of man’s dirty footprint, at least modern man with his machinery, hadn’t been here until the time of Billy the Kid,” said Hutton. “Railroads were coming, corporations were coming, big business was coming, and Billy and his sort of folk were in the way. And he was a fighter for an old way of life, which is funny, he’s 18 or 19 years old, but he made a sort of last stand against this on-rush of modernity.”

Billy the Kid was born Henry McCarty, but also went by William H. Bonney. Although known for his life of crime, Hutton says there’s a lot people don’t know about ‘the Kid,’ including his involvement in the Lincoln County War of the late 1800s.

“Billy fought on the losing side of that war, but he fought on the side of the poor ranchers, the Hispanic sheepherders,” said Hutton. “He was fluent in Spanish, he loved to dance, the ladies all loved him.”

However, it’s his spirit, his dark side that Billy the Kid is remembered for.

“Everyone said he was a handsome, kind of carefree character,” said Hutton. “But, he was a sociopath. He could turn on a dime and he was a deadly, deadly young man.”

Hutton says unlike other Old West outlaws like Jesse James, Billy the Kid didn’t make his living as a bandit. The young gunslinger never once held up a bank or even a train. However, he was involved in quite a few murders and died at just 21 years old.

“Billy wasn’t a conventional criminal like Jesse James or John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde. He didn’t rob banks. He did steal cattle sometimes,” said Hutton. “But what Billy did was he killed people. He killed quite a few people and of course, many of them were lawmen.”

Still, plenty of mystery surrounds the outlaw. Hutton says years ago as conspiracies remained on whether Billy was actually shot all those years ago by Sheriff Pat Garrett, an effort to exhume his grave gathered steam.

“Years ago, there was, in fact, an effort to dig him up. I worked with Gov. Bill Richardson on that, I was his historian on that project,” said Hutton. “We ran into a buzz saw. People in Fort Sumner did not want that grave disturbed. What would happen if Billy wasn’t there?”

Professor Hutton says that hasn’t stopped fans all over the world from celebrating the notorious outlaw, including here in the Land of Enchantment.

He’s sort of become a tourist bonanza for New Mexico,” said Hutton. “We celebrate him in all sorts of ways. We’ve got a casino named for him, a highway named for him, a couple of museums dedicated to him.”

In addition to his work as a historian and professor, Hutton is an author, most recently publishing The Apache Wars. He has also appeared in hundreds of television shows on the History Channel, NBC, CBS and other networks, and has served as historical consultant on a number of movies including The Missing, Cowboys and Aliens and Jane Got a Gun.

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