Wild West outlaw Billy the Kid died in 1881 — or did he escape, vanish, and live on under the name Brushy Bill Roberts in Texas all the way until 1950?
In the late 1800s, the American Wild West was home to outlaws and bandits, many fearsome enough to be known across several territories. And among the most widely-known of all those bandits was Billy the Kid.
Billy the Kid (a nickname for a man born Henry McCarty and later known as William H. Bonney) was an outlaw who lived a short but tumultuous life. As a mere teenager, Billy the Kid fought a war over control of the New Mexico Territory during which he killed three people, then fled to the Arizona Territory as a fugitive and claimed responsibility for a further five murders.
His final hurrah came in 1881 when he escaped from a New Mexico prison and spent two days on the run after killing two sheriff’s deputies. Sheriff Pat Garrett would become famous for ending the manhunt with the killing of Billy the Kid.
But then began the legends claiming that Billy the Kid was never killed. For years, stories claimed that he could have survived the shootout and escaped into the night to live out the rest of his days in secrecy.
But if he had, indeed, escaped, where did he go, and what became of him? Some say the answer lies with Brushy Bill Roberts.
The Emergence Of Brushy Bill Roberts
Almost 70 years after Billy the Kid’s death (or alleged death, according to some), a man named Joe Hines made an interesting confession to his lawyer, William Morrison. In the midst of attempting to claim land belonging to his deceased brother, Hines told his lawyer that he was, in fact, Jesse Evans, a famous Wild West outlaw who had disappeared after being released from prison in 1882 and had been living in secret all that time.
Then Hines said that he knew another outlaw who’d also been living in secret. As Morrison listened intently, Hines revealed that his friend, Ollie Roberts, also known as Brushy Bill Roberts, of Hico, Texas was none other than Billy the Kid.
Morrison immediately reached out to Roberts, and over the course of their correspondence got him to confess to being Billy the Kid. Over time, and in exchange for a full pardon, Roberts revealed how he’d escaped and what he’d been up to for more than half a century.
Brushy Bill Roberts claimed he’d been born William Henry Roberts, in Buffalo Gap, Texas. Early in life, he adopted the nickname Billy the Kid. After he escaped from prison in 1881, he’d adopted the name Oliver P. Roberts, which he lived under for the rest of his life until his death in 1950.
And on the night that Pat Garrett supposedly shot Billy the Kid, Roberts claimed that Garrett had actually shot another outlaw named Billy Barlow and told everyone that Barlow’s body belonged to the Kid. Meanwhile, the real Billy the Kid, Roberts claimed, slipped into the night and vanished.
In addition to claiming he was Billy the Kid, Brushy Bill Roberts claimed he’d been a member of outlaw Jesse James’ gang. Roberts even went so far as to identify Jesse James as a man named J. Frank Dalton, claiming to know him well.
Was Brushy Bill Roberts Actually Billy The Kid?
While there were doubts about Brushy Bill Roberts’ credibility – a Roberts family Bible listed Oliver Roberts’ birth date as sometime in 1879, an impossibility if he was truly Billy the Kid, who died in 1881 – many believed his story. Supporters claimed that if Oliver Roberts was an identity he had simply adopted, he wouldn’t have cared about the birth date. Furthermore, an examination of Roberts’ body showed scars consistent with injuries known to have been sustained by Billy the Kid.
Believing Brushy Bill Roberts to be Billy the Kid, William Morrison wrote a book on the subject. Morrison claimed that other outlaws (whose identities were known) agreed that Roberts was the Kid. Jose Montoya, for example, even signed an affidavit attesting to the fact.
So persuasive was Morrison’s book that even former president Harry Truman was convinced. In a letter to Morrison, Truman expressed his support and lamented that Roberts died before he could go in front of the governor in hopes of getting that pardon he wanted.
The Debate Rages On
The debate over the validity of Brushy Bill Roberts’ claim has persisted into this century. In 2015, television personality Bill O’Reilly mentioned Brushy Bill Roberts in a book of his own and claimed that the amount of evidence supporting Roberts’ claim outweighed the amount that didn’t.
Though numerous attempts have been made, the most recent in 2004, to definitively prove that Brushy Bill Roberts was Billy the Kid, none have been successful.
DNA testing has gotten off the ground and sophisticated facial match testing between photographs of Roberts and the Kid have proven tantalizing to believers, though ultimately the results have been mixed and inconclusive.
When he died in 1950, Brushy Bill Roberts was buried in Hico, Texas under a headstone claiming he was Billy the Kid. Another headstone sits in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, claiming the real Billy the Kid lies under it (in reality, that’s likely an educated guess about the actual burial site because the original cemetery was washed away in a flood).
So we’re left with two graves for one man — and the world may never know the truth.