He Only Killed Four Men – Interview With Billy the Kid Expert, Fred Nolan
“He came directly towards me. Before he reached the bed, I whispered: ‘Who is it, Pete?’ but received no reply for a moment. It struck me that it might be Pete’s brother-in-law, Manuel Abreu, who had seen Poe and McKinney, and wanted to know their business. The intruder came close to me, leaned both hands on the bed, his right hand almost touching my knee, and asked, in a low tone: -‘Who are they Pete?’ -at the same instant Maxwell whispered to me. ‘That’s him!’ Simultaneously the Kid must have seen, or felt, the presence of a third person at the head of the bed. He raised quickly his pistol, a self-cocker, within a foot of my breast. Retreating rapidly across the room he cried: ‘Quien es? Quien es?’ ‘Who’s that? Who’s that?’) All this occurred in a moment. Quickly as possible I drew my revolver and fired, threw my body aside, and fired again. The second shot was useless; the Kid fell dead. He never spoke. A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasped for breath, and the Kid was with his many victims.”
Pat Garrett’s testimony.
IN CONVERSATION WITH FRED NOLAN.
Fred Nolan is considered one of the world’s foremost Billy the Kid experts. His book The West of Billy The Kid is conisdered one of the best studies of the legend ever published.As a novelist he has penned many westerns, as well as working successfully in other genres. He added five instalments to the Sudden series, a western character originally created by Oliver Strange. Among his thrillers is The Oshawa Project which was filmed by MGM and starring Sophia Loren and Robert Vaughn. In all the author is responsible for over 70 books.
However when The Archive cornered the writer it was with the legend of Billy The Kid that we were concerned.
What is the continuing fascination with Billy the KID?
“The answer would depend upon how deeply you want to get into the mechanics of wishful thinking, the place of our hero in history and reality, the implicit challenge and simultaneous impossibility of solving an insoluble historical riddle, of ever properly establishing who he was, where he was born, who his father was, where he spent the first ten years or so of his life … but I think there are also wider issues, which have to do with our need for heroes and myth (and strangely enough, hope), with preconceptions shaped by where we grew up and who we did it with, what we read and what we saw on TV or at the movies when we were at an impressionable age. Billy truly is a young man for all seasons; that short and violent life, that transformation from homeless kid to deathless myth reshaping itself anew for every succeeding generation”
In your opinion have any of the film versions of The Kid come close to reality?
“The short answer is no. I think perhaps if Jack Beutel, who played the Kid in The Outlaw, could have played the Kris Kristofferson part in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, we might-we might-have had the definitive image.”
Was Billy psychoctic?
“I am fairly confident that he was not “suffering from a mental disorder in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality”(OED). But he knew how to stay alive in a world and a time that you and I might find ourselves unable to cope with. If you want a taste of it, read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.”
There is only one authenticated picture of Billy the Kid but many others claiming to be the outlaw. Do you think any of these other photographs are genuine?
“More wishful thinking-surely there must be another photo of him out there somewhere, something that doesn’t make him look like (as Burton Rascoe put it) “a nondescript, adenoidal, weasel-eyed, narrow-chested, stoop-shouldered repulsive-looking creature with all the outward appearance of a cretin”? Of course, I’ve seen quite a few photos that could very well be the Kid, but they all lack that one vital factor – a provenance, proof that they’re the real thing. “
The nickname “THE KID” was a generic term in the Old West and often given to any young man who fell into trouble with the law. Obviously there were many killings attributed to Billy that he did now, could not, in fact have done. How many men, in your opinion, did he kill?
“As far as we know he one-to-one killed only four men: Frank Cahill, James Bell, Bob Olinger and Red Grant. He was involved, to what exact extent we cannot be sure, in a number of others, essentially gang killings: Morton, Baker, McCloskey, Brady, Hindman, Roberts, Bernstein etc. It is unlikely at this late juncture that evidence will ever surface linking him with others we know not of. And there is, after all, quite a lot of irony in the phrase “he killed only four men” … only????”
What is your opinion on Brushy Bill who claimed to be Billy the Kid and still causes much debate over his true identity?
“Oliver P. “Brushy Bill” Roberts was just a sad, simple old man who got involved in something whose ramifications were way beyond his mental capacity; and the strain of doing it probably killed him. His family’s Bible shows he was born in 1879, which means he would have been two when Billy the Kid was killed. He had previously claimed to be a member of the Jesse James gang. He was just a nobody who wanted so badly to be a somebody, but that hasn’t stopped the wishful thinkers from wishful thinking.”
Why then are the authorities loathe to allow Billy’s grave to be dug up for DNA testing to solve the mystery once and for all?
“The authorities (and a lot of historians, me among them) were not so much against the idea of DNA samples being taken, as for the proposition that since (a) accurately locating the precise spot where the Kid is buried is not possible and (b) there is no way of being certain sure that even if the gravesite were excavated, the remains-if there were any there-would be the Kid, or Bowdre, or Folliard, or just someone else who had been buried there before they were. And (c) what was the DNA to be compared with? The Kid’s mother in her Silver City grave? But precisely the same problems exist there-no certainty about the siting of the grave, or that she is in it or only nearby. So (d) what would be the point?”
Hypothetical – Garrett didn’t kill the Kid – what happened next?
“Okay, let’s unfetter our imaginations and pursue your hypothesis. Garrett kills someone in Pete Maxwell’s bedroom. He/they claim it was the Kid and hurriedly put him into a coffin which is sealed so no one can see the body and then hastily buried next day. Now everyone has to take Garrett’s and Maxwell’s word that it was the Kid, and none of the families living in Fort Sumner, or any of their descendants in the next hundred and twenty-odd years, will ever question it or ever tell anyone that this was what they were told/agreed to do. Hard to believe, right? (We’re disregarding for a moment that none of this is what Garrett and Poe said happened, or that a coroner’s jury viewed the body and certified it was the Kid). The same has got to be true of the proposition that someone else–a “Billy Barlow,” say– was buried and Billy the Kid got away. In 1881 Fort Sumner was a pretty small community, say maximum a hundred people. Even so, there is no way known to man that you could silence all of them and all their kin (then and in the future) so completely that no one, not a single one, ever told or even hinted at the secret. I once made a list of the families who were on the record as having known Billy and whose kin and descendants would have had to maintain this vow of silence and it would by now have involved well over a thousand people. You know the rule: two people can keep a secret as long as one of them is dead.”
Legend states that when Garrett killed The Kid he was only 21 but the general opinion these days seems to think he was around 26. What is your opinion?
“I’d always thought Billy was younger, not older than 21, basing that proposition on our inability to find a record of his birth-or even his existence-in census and other records. Latterly, I have been wondering whether that theory should be abandoned. The Kid was in Fort Sumner in 1881 when the census was taken and at that time he said he was 22 and born in Missouri. Why should that not be true – because we don’t like it? There are Bonney families in Missouri records he might have fitted into, and there is at least one McCarty family there that might have been his mother’s. But like everything else connected to Billy, it cannot be proven and it’s hardly likely it ever will.”
Will the mystery of The Kid ever be cleared up?
“Which mystery did you have in mind? The mystery of his birth? The mystery of his father’s identity? The mystery of where he grew up? The mystery of what he really looked like? The mystery of why he was killed? (Hypothetical question: Garrett had two armed deputies standing behind Billy and he had the drop – why didn’t he just arrest him?). The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind …”
FRED NOLAN SELECTED WORKS:
* The Oshawa Project (published in the US as The Algonquin Project, a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic, later filmed as Brass Target)
* The Mittenwald Syndicate – another bestselling thriller about the Reichsbank robbery in Germany at the end of World War Two.
* Carver’s Kingdom – An historical novel about the building of the American Transcontinental railroad
* White Nights, Red Dawn – An historical novel set amid the turmoil of the Russian Revolution.
* A Promise of Glory – An historical novel about an American family during the Revolution
* Blind Duty – An historical novel about the same family during the Civil War.
* Field of Honor – An historical novel about a family during the Spanish-American War
Wolf Trap – A thriller about the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague.
* Red Centre – A hi-tech espionage thriller.
* Sweet Sister Death – A prescient thriller featuring a terrorist strike in New York
* Alert State Black – Charles Garrett fights terrorism in Germany.
* Designated Assassin – This time the terrorists are Irish.
* Rat Run – Garrett combats a group planning the biggest ecological disaster ever.
As Christine McGuire:
* Until Proven Guilty
* Until Justice is Done
* Until Death Do Us Part
As Frederick H. Christian:
* Sudden Strikes Back
* Sudden at Bay
* Sudden, Apache Fighter
* Sudden – Troubleshooter
* Sudden, Dead or Alive!
As Daniel Rockfern:
* Standoff at Liberty
* Ride Out to Vengeance
* Ambush in Purgatory
* Long Ride Into Hell
* Ride Clear of Daranga
* Bad Day at Agua Caliente
* Massacre in Madison
* Showdown at Trinidad
* Shootout at Fischer’s Crossing
* Manhunt in Quemado
* Duel at Cheyenne
* The Life and Death of John Henry Tunstall
* Rodgers & Hammerstein: The Sound of Their Music
* The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History
* Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway
* The West of Billy the Kid
* The Wild West: History, Myth and the Making of America
* Tascosa, Its Life and Gaudy Times
* The Billy the Kid Reader