It’s the myth that matters, not the facts. But such as they are, the broad strokes are as follows: Billy the Kid was born in New York City in 1859. By the time he was 15, he was in New Mexico and his parents were dead. Then he rustled some cattle, stole some horses and killed an indeterminate quantity of people.
He was charismatic and a good gunman. During the Lincoln County War, he was in a posse called the Regulators, and was complicit in the death of a sheriff. He was tried and convicted for it. A bounty was pinned on him. Then Pat Garrett tracked him down, killed him, and wrote a terrible book about it. An American myth was born in there somewhere.
The Lincoln County War is one of the great western stories and Billy the Kid, the reckless outlaw, the desperado, is one of its great archetypes. The two loomed large, if only in narrative template, in the youthful imaginations of generations of kids weaned on western stories.
Stories like Billy the Kid’s require some image management to function. They require lurid press coverage at the time, sensationalist books like Garrett’s, the careful editing of sad and complicated lives into strong narrative throughlines.
For as long as Billy the Kid has been a building block of the American myth — that is to say, a celebrity who’s been dead awhile and stayed popular — there has only been one known photograph of him. It’s a tintype. He’s standing a little bit crooked, with a dented hat and ragged frontier clothing, leaning on his rifle with his right hand. The look on his face is inscrutable. Suggestive without saying anything. The perfect visual representation of his corner of the mythic frontier. It puts a face to the name but lets your imagination go to work, and that’s the job it has to do.
In 2011, the photo’s historical import was quantified when it was purchased at auction for 2.3 million dollars by an asshole, William Koch. A fair price for the only known photo of a person who’s almost fictional.
Luckily, however, Koch can no longer claim ownership of Billy the Kid’s only visual document, because five years ago, a second photo was found purely by chance in Fresno, California. And it’s finally been authenticated and insured for five million dollars.
I saw a headline reading “THE HOLY GRAIL OF WESTERN AMERICANA” in a font size decent editors used to save for declarations of war, and decided to find the guy who took some of the novelty away from Koch’s purchase. It didn’t take long, merely a few phone calls to a few antique shops.
Old Town Clovis, if you haven’t been there, and you haven’t been there, is an alternate reality, a nice touristy place where antique stores seem like a viable investment strategy. It’s the sort of place where you look for the signs pointing to the free parking, and you can probably get an alright cup of coffee served to you on a metal chair outside, then get a John Wayne plate, some chicken-fried steak, ’90s Simpsons memorabilia for the kid in college, and what the hell, probably some taffy, all within a half an hour. I was standing outside a sports card shop, waiting for Randy Guijarro, 54, who could finally say he got an original Billy the Kid photo for $2,299,998 less than William Koch.
After a few minutes, he showed up with his makeshift band of researchers and authenticators, and we went inside. There I was shown an enlarged version of the photo, and its impact on the legend of Billy the Kid became obvious. Billy the Kid’s life, the stories tell us, was the cool ruggedness of frontier individuality. But in this photo, he’s playing croquet. That’s not cool. It’s lame. I know that because I’ve played croquet. You jab some metal wire into the dirt. Then you use tiny mallets get these slow-moving balls through the wire. By comparison, golf is a game of white-knuckle intensity.
This photo doesn’t just change Billy the Kid’s myth. It completely upends the damn thing. This photo shows him having something in common with all those girls who were mean to everybody in Heathers. It deserves every bit of the attention it’s getting. But it was a massive struggle to get anyone to give it any heed at all, and it took a lot of people a lot of time to do it.
That morning in Clovis, Jeff Aiello, producer of a National Geographic documentary about the photo was still pissed off about the long road to authentication. Virtually every expert thought it was bullshit, and the burden was on Randy to prove them wrong. “Ever since Bill Koch bought the original Billy the Kid photograph, everybody jumped up on the table going ‘I got a Billy the Kid picture!’ and Randy was no different.”
The problem was provenance, which is regarded as sacrosanct in antique collecting. Collectors want to see where the item originated, whose hands it went through, and how it got to 2015. A chain of custody, if you will. This photo didn’t have it. “So people automatically shoot it down because it’s not documented, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. It just means it was lost and found again.”
“So I told Randy, ‘let me have the picture for a couple months, I’ll take it to my wife Jill, and we’ll investigate. […] So Jill found a crucial piece of information pertaining to one of the women in the picture, Sallie Chisum. Jill found her lost diary [at New Mexico State University] and it fixes everybody in Randy’s photograph in one place at one time, mid-August of 1878 through September 1st, 1878.”
This led them to figure out the event where it was taken: when Charlie Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard, members of Billy the Kid’s posse, left Fort Sumner, New Mexico and returned to Ruidoso to move their families somewhere less tumultuous. It was a farewell get-together.
Eventually, the photo went to “contract guys from the NSA,” who ran facial recognition software on everyone in the photo. “They all matched to known photographs, including Billy.” But this wasn’t enough for authentication. The consensus from experts was “you find the place on the ground that picture was taken, and then we’ll believe you.”
Then Jeff was gone. It was a big news day for everybody, since the story had just gone national two days prior, and there are always other appointments on big news days. So I hunted down Randy. He was in a pretty good mood. He was going viral.
“That’s… such a strange thing for me because I’ve heard the term, and now I’m it.”
But going viral overnight took a long time. It began five years ago at a little one-story antique mall that’s closed down now. “I stopped there on my way home from work, and a parking spot literally opened up where you could just drive in and stop, so I did. One of the dealers there, he says, ‘hey Randy, you know, these guys came in with a couple boxes of photographs, stuff I remembered you like. We just sent them around the corner.’ So I literally caught them around the corner.
“They had an old storage unit, is what they told me. […] They couldn’t afford to keep this unit, so they took these boxes [around] to see what they could get for these old photos.”
I asked if the photo just appeared in the box in 2010, if that was the first known location.
“Yes, it appeared in the box. You could call it a Twilight Zone segment. I think Rod Serling’s standing behind laughing. I looked through them, and that was the one that caught my eye because it was a tin, and I like the old tintypes. […] It’s a wonderful posed, staged scene, people on horses, everybody playing croquet, and so you’re trying to figure out what’s going on here. That was the magnetic attraction. I grabbed the stuff and went on down the road, not knowing it was Billy.”
His suspicions began about a week later. After leaving the picture in his truck for awhile, he got out his magnifying glass and started investigating the photo, which he knew only as a country scene. “The guy in the very middle pointing, his face is as clear as you and me. It’s very clear. The lady next to him, she had a real clear face. Then I zoomed in on this guy and he’s wearing a top hat and a funny sweater and leaning cocked against a croquet mallet and I thought, dude, that looks just like Billy the Kid.”
So Randy searched known photographs of Billy the Kid’s associates, and Tom O’Folliard was a perfect match. Then Charlie Bowdre matched too. There was no doubt in his mind anymore. “We were off to the races.”
But there was no provenance, and there wasn’t about to be. This was from storage unit purgatory, not a series of owners or old money families who knew what it was. “You had the core group, this old west guard that we like to call the ‘Dead Bandit Society,’ a lot of them just can’t be convinced, and so we actually asked [naysayers] what it would take.” This dictated the rules of authentication. “Their biggest thing was, ‘you gotta find the actual spot, that’s a needle in a haystack.’ […] We went down every rabbit hole and trail we could get.”
Then after finding the diary, they soon got the location. It was a school house. So they recruited Don Kagin, of Kagin’s Inc., a leading numismatic firm. “Don finally sent his personal investigator and they went down there and double and triple-checked the location, which verified that the schoolhouse is still there.” And that did it.
Only then was the deal sealed, and it went from a photo where Billy the Kid was probably playing croquet in his capacity as a fugitive, to a photo where Billy the Kid was almost inarguably playing croquet in his capacity as a fugitive. I asked Randy what he thought that would do to the legend.
“It absolutely blows up. This is a window you thought you’d never find. This is a dark piece of that little history. We know a lot about [these people], but they were in and out. They disappeared for days and weeks sometimes, because they were on the run, they had a big war. He’s still wounded in the photograph.”
But where lameness might be read in the situation by lazy casual observers, Randy reads poignancy. Billy had three years to live. Bowdre and O’Folliard had two. It was all ending. “This group is getting ready to disband. They’ve had a marriage, they’re gonna go down the road. They’re all getting ready to pack it up and go away. And when you think about the canyon, and the hills, and what they’re looking at, and what they’re worried about…
“People say, you know, ‘the holy grail of western’… absolutely. […] This was almost set up as an artistic piece, so it is high art.”
High art that’s worth an exorbitant amount of money. The documentary will air, and in all likelihood Randy Guijarro will graduate from a latent millionaire to an actual millionaire.
So what do you do? What if this is you? What if you go to a storage unit auction in Oregon and find a picture of D.B. Cooper holding a wad of hundred dollar bills, a tattered parachute, and his driver’s license? What if you win the lottery of American myth? You have some satisfaction, some knowledge nobody gets to have, but you’ve also got years of work ahead of you. It’s a full time job to cash in.
And as for Billy the Kid, the market for being surprised by this information is drying up. Old west folklore and iconography lacks the power it had when westerns dominated popular entertainment. That element of American myth is a relic. There are no frontiers to tame. The west is dead. The people who made westerns are dead. John Ford is a test question in a History of Film elective unless you’re Quentin Tarantino. Louis L’Amour books mostly line the book shelves of dimly lit thrift stores and pad cardboard boxes at estate sales. We’re not captivated by dead lawless gunslingers. But through this photo another element of the American myth is reaffirmed: You can still win the lottery.