By Jason Strykowski
Long before he painted an official presidential portrait, Peter Hurd portrayed a notorious perpetrator. The Roswell-born artist was the first actor to take the title role in the inaugural Last Escape of Billy the Kid pageant staged in 1940. The event was held on the very spot where the actual Billy the Kid engineered his getaway fifty-nine years earlier.
The pageant demanded a star who could ride a horse, brandish a firearm, and hold himself with a little bit of panache. Hurd fit the bill. He was raised in wide-open country near Roswell and was trained at the New Mexico Military Institute and at West Point. He boxed and played water polo. Hurd also had a penchant for riding naked in the middle of night. His lifelong friend, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Horgan, proclaimed that “Hurd’s horsemanship deserves a word to itself, for it is extraordinary in its physical expertness and grace.”
Hurd would go on to distinguish himself as one of the preeminent painters of the Southwest. Taught by the illustrator N. C. Wyeth, Hurd painted dynamic scenes of regional life. During World War II, he entered the fray as an artistic war reporter for Time Life. Later, he painted the official portrait of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Hurd transformed himself into one of the best known Southern New Mexicans, so it’s not a coincidence that he earned the right to play the region’s most famous one.
Billy the Kid, alias Henry McCarty, alias Kid Antrim, alias William H. Bonney, transcended his life as a cattle rustler, cow puncher, and murderer to become a household name and the subject of an opera, stage play, novels, comic books, and even ballet. Perhaps no other historical American has inspired and featured in so many films and television shows. In a 1966 film, Billy the Kid even faced down Dracula.
Not surprising that the people of Lincoln wanted to get in on the Billy the Kid phenomenon. In 1940, as part of an event to commemorate the quatercentenary of the Coronado entrada, the townsfolk in Lincoln staged a recreation of the expedition. They also used the opportunity to reenact their local history. The events, of course, included an homage to Billy the Kid, the town’s best known alumnus.
That first year, and for several after, the people of Lincoln staged Billy the Kid’s Last Escape all throughout the Lincoln Historic Site, reenacting history exactly where it had once occurred, shutting down the single road through town so actors and tourists could freely wander around town and follow the action. The event proved so successful that it has run every summer since, excepting a brief pause for World War II. During the first full weekend of August the Lincoln Historic Site is transported back in time to the moment that made it famous.
The greater weekend, called Old Lincoln Days, included a parade, Mescalero Apache dances, a fiddling contest and even a Pony Express race. The riders carried real mail during the race and then postmarked and circulated those parcels.
Today, the event is an all-hands-on-deck community celebration that involves the Friends of Historic Lincoln, the Lincoln Pageant and Festivals, Inc., and Lincoln Historic Site itself. The site currently organizes living history demonstrations and a market inside the Dr. Woods home, one of the nine buildings that it administers.
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The real Billy the Kid died at the ripe age of 21 and spent almost all of his adult years traversing Southern New Mexico. The Kid was born around 1859, possibly with the given name of Henry McCarty. Despite years of research by historians and scholars, details on the Kid’s early life remain nebulous. In all likelihood, the Kid and his mother and brother migrated from New York when the Kid was just a few years old. The family then made a stop or two in the Midwest before arriving in Santa Fe, where the Kid’s mother married William Antrim.
From Santa Fe, the new family moved south to Silver City. The boomtown was filled with opportunity for work and opportunity for trouble. The Kid’s mother ran a boarding house and the Kid managed to stay on the right side of the law. Later, fellow residents of the town would describe young Billy as affable and well-behaved. Only after his mother’s death did the Kid fall in with the wrong crowd.
The Kid and a local hooligan called Sombrero Jack stole a bundle of clothes from a laundry and got caught. Although the local sheriff didn’t take the charges against the Kid too seriously—it was merely a handful of clothes—they locked the Kid up in jail all the same. The Kid shimmied up a chimney, escaped, and then disappeared.
Some myths claimed that Billy the Kid killed twenty-one people over the course of his life. The claim was mostly a poetic one that matched his killing to his age at death. In reality, Bonney dispatched perhaps a dozen people, beginning with Francis P. “Windy” Cahill in 1877. Cahill was a blacksmith by trade, but a bully and a braggart by nature. He talked incessantly and was not much liked in Camp Grant, Arizona, where he met the Kid. He and Cahill got into a dustup at a bar and the Kid shot him. Until that point, the Kid’s largest transgression had been horse theft.
Not eager to await the consequences, the Kid took off back to New Mexico and stayed with friends near Silver City. From there, he sought opportunity in Lincoln County. Even in the wilds of New Mexico Territory, Lincoln distinguished itself as a harsh frontier ruled by violence. It was an ideal destination for someone with the Kid’s experience.
Lincoln County stretched over the Capitan Mountains and into the high plains. Even with limited water availability, the county attracted a diverse population. Cattle barons like John Chisum owned expansive swaths of land in the region. Some farming families could trace their roots to Spanish settlers. The United States Army was stationed near Lincoln at Fort Stanton, where they campaigned against the Mescalero Apaches.
Once in Lincoln, the Kid took on a new alias, possibly to escape charges from Arizona. He called himself William H. Bonney, but most knew him as “Kid Antrim” or “the Kid.” The moniker fit the teenager with a boyish affect, lean physique, and only the faintest signs of a beard. By some reports, his prominent and protruding two front teeth only added to his youthfulness.
The Kid also had a new boss. Through connections with friends, the Kid fell in with John Henry Tunstall. A recent migrant from the United Kingdom, Tunstall hoped to hone in on the mercantile monopoly of James Dolan. Along with his partners, Dolan provided goods to Fort Stanton and the Indian Agency. Through building local alliances, Tunstall believed he could wrest some of that business from Dolan.
The conflict between the two groups remained a commercial one until Sheriff William Brady issued a writ of attachment for horse and cattle owned by Tunstall. The stock was meant to recompense Dolan for a life policy that Alexander McSween, Tunstall’s partner, had handled. Sheriff Brady organized a posse to retrieve the stock. After an unsuccessful initial attempt, the posse reorganized and caught up to the Tunstall group, which was on its way to Ruidoso. The posse opened fire and shot Tunstall to death. The Lincoln County War was officially underway.
Tunstall’s surviving partner, McSween, attempted to use the law to settle matters. Ultimately, though, he succeeded only in receiving legal permission to capture Tunstall’s killers. The Kid and his cohort dubbed themselves “The Regulators” and set out for justice. With little funding, but a need for righteous revenge, their numbers swelled. Within a matter of weeks, they gunned down three people associated with Tunstall’s death. Soon after, the Kid and company shot Sheriff William Brady to death while trying to retrieve a warrant.
The Dolan faction reorganized, strengthened their numbers and attacked, turning little Lincoln into an active war zone. The Army stepped in to try and calm things down, but the fighting continued in the form of skirmishes throughout the countryside.
Then, in July of 1878, these occasional bouts gave way to a pitched battle. Both the Regulators and the Dolan clan held positions in Lincoln. Although the Regulators had better numbers, the Army arrived and drove some of the Regulators into the hills. The remaining Regulators crowded into the McSween house and soon found themselves surrounded. One of the Dolan men set fire to the house. Five of the men trapped were able to slip into the night and escape, but McSween was killed.
News of the desperate standoff and attendant killings spread across the nation and into the White House, where President Rutherford B. Hayes called the road through Lincoln “the most dangerous street in America.” He replaced Territorial Governor Samuel Axtell with the author and Civil War veteran General Lew Wallace.
Wallace had a quick fix for the troubles in Lincoln: He issued all involved persons a pardon in the hopes of resetting the board.
The Kid saw the pardon as an opportunity to make amends with his rivals. He went to Lincoln to drink with Dolan lieutenants. The peace celebrations turned violent when one of the Dolanites shot attorney Huston Chapman to death in the middle of the street. The Kid, who had gone to Lincoln to get out of trouble, found himself witness to a murder.
Still hoping to clear his name, the Kid wrote a letter to Wallace. The governor and the outlaw reached an agreement: The Kid would testify in court, and in exchange, Wallace would grant him a pardon. (Wallace’s previous blanket pardon did not apply to the Kid because the Kid was under indictment for the killing of Sheriff Brady.) The two even met in person under the cover of night to discuss terms.
For his part, the Kid made good on the deal. He turned himself in after a staged arrest. Wallace watched and later commented on the Kid’s time in jail: “A precious specimen named ‘The Kid,’ whom the sheriff is holding here in the Plaza, as it is called, is the object of tender regard. I heard singing and music the other night; going to the door I found the minstrels of the village actually serenading the fellow in his prison,” he wrote.
Later, the Kid testified in court to what he had seen. His duty complete, the Kid skinned out to rustle cattle, steal horses, attend bailes, and deal monte.
The fun, though, couldn’t last forever; in December of 1880, the Kid was captured at Stinking Springs by Sheriff Pat Garrett and his posse. For the next few months, the Kid travelled around New Mexico under incarceration until a judge ordered his execution in April of 1881.
While on the run and in jail, the Kid wrote letters to Wallace, hoping to receive his promised pardon. His pleas fell on silent ears as the hangman’s noose loomed.
Robert W. Bell and Bob Ollinger kept watch over the Kid at the Lincoln County Courthouse. They knew the Kid could be dangerous and shifty, but Ollinger didn’t take the possibility of escape seriously. He should have. After a walk to the bathroom, the Kid wrestled Bell to the floor, grabbed his gun and then shot him to death. Still shackled, the Kid grabbed a shotgun out of Ollinger’s office and targeted Ollinger on the road below. The Kid killed him on the spot. Not in a rush, the Kid took some time to speak with folks in town, then mounted a horse and rode out of Lincoln.
Instead of fleeing to Mexico, or disappearing into the vast West, the Kid chose to stay close to home and his friends and lovers. Garrett and company received enough tips to track the Kid to the Maxwell Ranch near Fort Sumner. There, they spotted the Kid and waited.
In the middle of the night, the Kid sauntered outside to find something to eat. Suddenly aware that he was not alone, the Kid asked: “Quien es?”
In the darkness, Garrett fumbled with his pistol before he could get a shot off. He fired three times and hit the Kid in the chest. Billy the Kid died instantly.
Upon his death in 1881, brief
obituaries ran across the world, most decrying him a vicious killer. That same
year, the Kid appeared as the hero of multiple dime novels. These yarns were
often exaggerated, confused, or simply fabricated from whole cloth. They
drummed up enough interest that Garrett himself made an attempt to set the
record straight. He wrote The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid with Ash
Upson. The book, though, didn’t exactly break sales records. A few years later, the success of Charlie Siringo’s A Texas Cow Boy: Or, Fifteen Years On the Hurricane Deck of A Spanish Pony solidified the Kid’s legend. The bestselling memoir had a chapter on the Kid.
Forty years later, author Walter Noble Burns transformed the Kid legend. The Saga of Billy the Kid was a book of the month club selection and a hit. It recast the Kid as a romantic hero—a sort of Robin Hood of the plains. Burns set the precedent for the Kid to become a phenomenon. He transcended books and dime novels to become a star of stage and screen. Over the years, actors like Roy Rogers, Johnny Mack Brown, Paul Newman, Kris Kristofferson, and Emilio Estevez have played the Kid.
His growing fame spurred interest in Lincoln, which, by the 1940s, had changed little since the Kid’s death in 1881. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration stabilized some of the landmarks, and the State of New Mexico took possession of the courthouse, the site of the Kid’s infamous escape. Billy the Kid fans arrived in droves.
In 1952, the pageant moved to a stage built just
feet away from the courthouse, which is part of the Lincoln Historic Site. The stage is a kind of Lincoln in miniature,
and supports facsimiles of the courthouse, torreón, and other nearby landmarks. The facility, complete with
bleacher seating for
hundreds, is big enough for the cast to bring in sixteen horses and a long-horn steer.
Wilbur Coe, whose father rode with Billy the Kid, donated the land for the stage and helped write the script for the pageant. That script, still in use today, tells the story of Lincoln’s history and crescendos with the Kid’s death-defying and murderous escape from jail. A true country-style pageant, voice actors speak from a booth while the large cast mouths the dialog.
Kent McInnes, president of the Lincoln Pageant and Festivals, Inc., calls the annual event a family reunion. “We practice two times a week, three weeks before the actual show date. What’s neat about the cast is that many of them have been doing it as long as I have,” said McInnes, who has been involved for forty-five years.
The pageant runs for three performances every year on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of the first full weekend in August. “It’s really something that you don’t see anymore. It’s got the horses and the guns, and Friday and Saturday nights, it’s done with footlights and spotlights,” said McInnes.
In the 1940s, Peter Hurd contemplated reprising his role as Billy the Kid after the war. He even attended a rehearsal, but noticed that the bullets fired by reenactors ricocheted off walls. Hurd reasoned that blanks wouldn’t behave like that, and so begged off further involvement with the pageant, afraid of getting hit by a live round.
Instead, Hurd applied his interest in Billy the Kid to a painting. His son, Michael Hurd, also a successful artist, calls The Last Escape of Billy the Kid one of Peter’s best works. The horse and the Kid in the foreground are both lively and true to life, the New Mexico landscape behind them sublime. The Kid looks both determined and familiar.
Hurd felt camaraderie with the Kid. “The romantic side of his rebellious nature and his willingness to buck the system,” said Michael. “I think my father identified with him.”
After all, he says, “if you were an artist when my dad was an artist, you were a rebel.”
Tatum, Stephen. Inventing Billy the Kid: Visions of the Outlaw in America, 1881-1981. Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1982.
Tuska, Jon. Billy the Kid: A Handbook. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
Utley, Robert. Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Jason Strykowski is a freelance writer and historian. Next year, UNM Press will publish his book on New Mexico film locations.