Billy The Kid
For decades, experts had believed that there was only one extant photo of Old West gunfighter Billy the Kid. Then, in 2015, news of a claimed second authenticated image of the Kid broke.
The tintype, purchased with a group of other unidentified tintypes for just $2, is said to show Billy the Kid and his gang, the Lincoln County Regulators, celebrating a wedding in 1878 and was valued at $5 million. Unquestioning journalists reported the authentication as fact.
The story made international news and a documentary about it aired on the National Geographic Channel. But does the photo really show Billy the Kid and the Regulators?
The claim that it was authenticated came from two sources, both of whom stood to benefit if people believed the photo showed Billy the Kid. One was Kagin’s, the coin dealer handling the sale of the tintype. The other was Jeff Aiello, the producer of the National Geographic documentary about the find.
Kagin (who once handled the sale of what was presented as a valuable California gold nugget that turned out to be a much less valuable Australian nugget), primarily deals in coins, not Old West photographs. And Kagin was not the first auctioneer approached with the tintype, he was just the first who didn’t reject the claim that it showed Billy the Kid.
This is just one example of the expert-shopping done by the photo’s owner, Randy Guijarro. For years, he had been taking the photo from one expert to another hoping to eventually find someone who believed that the photo depicted Billy the Kid. That someone was Aiello, who became convinced that the tintype did indeed show Billy the Kid.
Aiello produced a documentary purporting to show Guijarro’s journey to finally have the photo authenticated. The evidence included a facial analysis by “facial recognition expert” Kent Gibson and the supposed discovery of the location where the photograph was taken.
Following the airing of the documentary, holes were revealed in most of their claims, many of which are documented by True West.
The photo’s alleged location, for example, was debunked, based on the known movements of the Regulators, the fact that the building on the site wasn’t erected until more than 50 years after the Lincoln County War, that a survey showed no buildings on the site as of 1883, and that the leafless trees meant the photo could not have been taken at the time of year it would had to have been for those people to have been together.
But Aiello pointed to facial recognition. As he told True West, “Facial recognition by one of the top forensic scientists in America, Kent Gibson, who provides his expertise to the U.S. Secret Service and FBI, proved the image contains Billy the Kid.”
However, there are two problems with this claim. First, Gibson admitted that the supposed match wasn’t good enough to hold up in a court of law. Secondly, Gibson was the same person who identified Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan in a recently discovered photograph purporting to show the two as prisoners of the Japanese.
That photo was quickly debunked when it was discovered that it had been published two years before Earhart’s disappearance.
Two years after it made international news, the tintype remains unsold.
A similar situation arose in November 2017 when another alleged photograph of Billy the Kid, this time also said to include his killer Pat Garrett, made national news and was declared “authenticated.”
In reality, this photo suffers from many of the same problems as the photo above, most notably a lack of provenance. In the cases of both photos, Kent Gibson was the “facial recognition expert” who made the identifications.
And the misidentifications surrounding Billy the Kid don’t end there. For years, the photograph above has been identified as Catherine McCarty Antrim, mother of Billy the Kid.
The photograph was identified as such in the late 1930s by author Eugene Cunningham, who told collector Noah Rose that it was McCarty in order to obtain another photo from him. Cunningham later confessed that he lied to Rose and that he did not know who was in the photograph.
His admission, however, hasn’t stopped the spread of this image with the Catherine McCarty Antrim misidentification.