Brushy Bill

Brushy Bill Roberts 001

Brushy Bill Roberts

Some people called him William Henry Roberts, but he was also known as Ollie Partridge William Roberts, Ollie N. Roberts, Ollie L. Roberts, and Brushy Bill Roberts.  It seems as if some of the western old timers changed their names as often as they did their socks.  Bill Roberts said that he was born in 1859.  He attracted attention in 1950 when he admitted that his real name was William H. Bonney (whom we all remember as the outlaw Billy the Kid).

This story begins with an attorney and probate investigator named William V. Morrison[1].  In 1948, Joe Hines laid claim to a property titled to his deceased brother.  It was Morrison’s task to investigate the claim.  During his inquiry, Joe Hines informed Morrison that he had participated in the Lincoln County (New Mexico) War.  Hines’ story was entirely plausible, of course, but Morrison’s real shock came when Hines stated that William H. Bonney was still alive and living under an assumed name.  According to Hines, Sheriff Pat Garrett did not kill Bonney.  Rather, Garrett killed another fellow by the name of Billy Barlow and claimed that Barlow was Billy the Kid to enhance his reputation as a lawman.

Once more, this contention was plausible because contrary to myth and Hollywood productions, Pat Garrett was not entirely an up-standing lawman[2].  Nevertheless, when Morrison pressed Hines for additional information, Joe refused to reveal Bonney’s assumed name or his location.  A few months later, Morrison located a man who called himself Frank J. Dalton in Lawton, Oklahoma.  Dalton too was a bit odd.  Dalton told Morrison that his real identity was Jesse James, but confirmed that William Bonney was still alive in Hamilton, Texas, where he was known as O. L. Roberts.

Reinvigorated, Morrison initiated correspondence with Mr. Roberts, who, after some time, acknowledged that he was William H. Bonney.  As proof to his real identity, Roberts related many of his exploits during the Lincoln County War, his various associations, and his exploits as an outlaw.  Morrison concluded if that Roberts’ stories were true, it would be interesting to chronicle the life and times of one of America’s more famous outlaws.  To convince Morrison of his veracity, Brushy Bill Roberts demonstrated how to slip out of handcuffs.  Moreover, Brushy Bill reiterated the “fact” that Garrett shot and killed Billy Barlow and passed off Barlow’s body as that of William Bonney.  In any case, Roberts told Morrison that in exchange for a full pardon by the governor of New Mexico[3], Roberts would swear to tell the truth about the Lincoln County War and about the life and times of Billy the Kid.

Understandably, Brushy Bill’s revelation had a profound impact on Pat Garrett’s descendants and when news agencies reported these disclosures, it caused a minor sensation in the United States.  There were no small number of doubters, of course, because some people regarded Brushy Bill as bordering on senile.  How does one believe a man with so many aliases?  In 1987, Mrs. Geneva Pittmon identified herself as Brushy Bill’s niece.  Geneva claimed in a letter that Brushy Bill was Oliver P. Roberts, who, according to a family Bible, was born on 26 August 1879.  Geneva argued that there was no way that Uncle Ollie could be William H. Bonney.  In arguing that Brushy Bill’s birth name was William Henry Roberts (not Oliver P. Roberts)[4], Bill’s supporters defeated their own contention.

The only way Brushy Bill could substantiate his claim was by providing verifiable first-hand information that only Billy the Kid would know, but after Governor Thomas J. Mabry[5] of New Mexico denied the Brushy Bill’s application for a pardon, old Bill died of a heart attack on 27 December 1950.  If he was Billy the Kid, he would have been 90 years old.  If he was really William or Oliver Roberts, he would have been 71 years old.

According to Morrison, a post-mortem examination of Brushy Bill’s body revealed 26 bullet wounds and several scars from a knife-like weapon.  This physical evidence led Morrison to two conclusions: first, that Brushy Bill had led a violent life; second, that his “battle scars” gave some weight to the possibility of Robert’s claim.  Morrison continued his investigation by contacting former members of the Jesse Evans Gang[6], Jim McDaniels, Severo Gallegos, Martle Able, and José Montoya.  All these men signed affidavits stating that they had known William H. Bonney and that they believed Brushy Bill Roberts was the same man.  Additional gang members Sam and Bill Jones (wisely) refused to sign affidavits because there is no statute of limitations on first degree murder.  Bill Jones grandson later argued that Brushy Bill could not be Billy the Kid because Brushy Bill was illiterate, while William H. Bonney was literate in both English and Spanish.

Most of what we know about Billy the Kid came from an 1882 book attributed to Pat Garrett, ghost-written by Roswell, New Mexico’s post-master … a man by the name of Ash Upson.  Upson’s product was little more than fabrication with a few facts tossed in to make the myth of Billy the Kid plausible.  Since publication of Morrison’s book, co-authored by noted western historian C. L. Sonnichsen, titled Alias Billy the Kid, several other noted personalities have chimed in, including President Harry S. Truman and former Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly.  While somewhat lacking in their convictions, both Truman and O’Reilly claimed that evidence that Brushy Bill was William H. Bonney carries greater weight than the generally accepted (Hollywood) version of history.

Billy the Kid 002

William H. Bonney, Age 20

Two separate photographic studies comparing Brushy Bill with Billy the Kid contradict one another.  The first, in 1989, claimed a low probability that Brushy Bill and Billy the Kid were the same person; another in 1990 (employing the same technology used by the FBI and CIA) suggested a significant level of statistical validity (93%) that Brushy Bill was William H. Bonney.  Attempts to evaluate the DNA of the remains of William Bonney and his mother with those of Brushy Bill Roberts were shelved in 2004 because Billy the Kid’s remains could not be located.

At the time of his death, Brushy Bill lived in Hico, Texas.  He was interred in Hamilton, Texas (twenty miles south).  Whether Brushy Bill was Billy the Kid, the Hico Chamber of Commerce nevertheless established a money-making museum that makes such a claim.

This is the stuff that makes history interesting and fun.  The truth of this matter remains unresolved, but I hope Brushy Bill/William H. Bonney rests in peace because with 26 bullet wounds, the lucky fellow deserves a good rest.

Sources:

  1. Walker, D.L.  Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West.  Doherty Associates, 1998.
  2. Jameson, W. C.  Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave.  Taylor Publications, 2005.
  3. Sonnichsen, C. L. and William V. Morrison.  Alias: Billy the Kid.  University of New Mexico Press, 1955.

Endnotes:

[1] Morrison passed away in 1977.

[2] Pat Garrett was a con man wearing a badge, even to the extent of convincing Theodore Roosevelt that he was competent enough to serve as a customs officer in El Paso.  Roosevelt later fired Garrett, and after moving back to New Mexico, Garrett found himself in financial difficulty.  His property was seized and auctioned for back taxes.  Garrett was shot and killed near Las Cruces, New Mexico on 29 February 1908 but the individual responsible for his murder was never identified.  In the matter of the death of William H. Bonney, it was only the testimony of Garrett that could confirm the dead man’s identity, since neither of his two deputies had ever seen Bonney.  The dead person was quickly buried in an unmarked grave and so the only evidence available pointing to the demise of Billy the Kid was Garrett’s statement that the man he killed was Bonney.

[3] Governor Lew Wallace granted Bonney a pardon in 1879, but subsequently withdrew it.  Roberts wanted the pardon and asked Morrison to help him obtain it.

[4] William H. Bonney was born under the name Henry McCarty in either September or November 1859 in New York City.  His aliases included Henry Antrim and Kid Antrim and he was raised in Indiana, Kansas, and New Mexico Territory.

[5] Mabry (1884-1962) was a New Mexico politician, judge, Chief Justice, and 14th governor (1947-51).

[6] Jesse Evans (from Missouri), having been acquitted of murder, subsequently formed a gang of murders and cattle rustlers around 1877.  The gang participated in the Lincoln County War as assassins hired by the Murphy-Dolan faction and according to some historians, Jesse Evans was more feared than his nemesis, Billy the Kid.  Jesse was responsible for the murder of John Tunstall, which ignited the county conflict.  Evans disappeared in 1882 and was never seen again.  He probably changed his name.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
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4 Responses to Brushy Bill

  1. Andy says:

    Bushy Bill’s story has been around Texas for a while. I heard it long ago. Frankly, I think Bushy Bill’s story sounds fishy. But what do I know?

    Like

    • Mustang says:

      If William H. Bonney is an assumed name, then Brushy Bill would have to be either Henry McCarty or full of gumbo. Maybe it was only a matter of Bill having dementia.

      Like

  2. kidme37 says:

    Heck even today, a story told by you to someone else, going through 3 people and coming back to you changes quite a bit by the time it gets back.

    BTW I heard Joe Biden was just at a campaign event in Nothing, Arizona where he claimed to be a rootin tootin cowboy from the wild wild west and that he could solve any problem with his shotgun and the two moldy shells he had in his pocket. He also claimed to be William Bonney a rapper from Detroit. Also a pimp. He’s trying to remember what else.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      William H. Bonney lived at a time when all county records could be loaded into a buckboard wagon and transported to a new location. Without written records, there is no history … only conjecture. Add to this story that Billy the Kid’s body was never located … relying on “no body, no crime,” then you always have a possibility that Brushy Bill might have been McCarty. It is one of those puzzles that will plague us for many years into the future. Still, an interesting story.

      Joe Biden … another puzzle. I’m pretty sure he’s suffering from dementia, which makes him a perfect politician because he’ll always have “absolute plausible deniability.” It just doesn’t get any better than that in the political arena.

      Liked by 1 person

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