As happened with Jesse James, Billy’s contemporary, the legend began immediately. The press hysteria over Bonney was quickly taken up by the writers of lurid dime novels, then at the height of their popularity, and the very month after Billy’s death, the Five-Cent Wide Awake Library of August 1881 gave its readers a thrilling tale of the boy outlaw. You might like a sample:
“Oh, Billy, Billy,” cried the terrified wretch, “for God’s sake don’t shoot me!”
“Hold your head still, George, so I will not disfigure your face much, and give you but very little pain.”
The words were spoken in that cool, determined, blood-thirsty manner, as only the Kid could speak.
For in these sensational stories Billy the Kid was an out-and-out bad guy. Within less than a year five ‘biographies’ (they were of course nothing of the kind) had appeared. In all of them Billy the Kid was a cold-blooded killer who shot men down before breakfast just for the pleasure of it.
Probably, though, these ephemeral booklets would soon have disappeared and Billy been replaced by other supposed heroes and villains of the West – had it not been for Ash Upson.
I mentioned Upson in our post on Pat Garrett (click the link for that). A classical education and decades as a printer and journalist gave Upson a love of writing romantic tales in flowery prose. He knew Billy the Kid, having been the postmaster/storekeeper at Roswell for a time, and made the most of his knowledge, though much of what he wrote, especially about the Kid’s early life, wasn’t so much embroidered as invented from his own imagination.
The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid (we’ll abbreviate the title to that) is clearly the product of two pens; the first part is in Upson’s ornate style while the second part is clearly Garrett’s writing – simple, direct and factual. The book came out in the spring of 1882 and was very influential. Later writers, of whom there were very many, used the book as a basis for their works, and much of what Upson and Garrett wrote passed into ‘fact’. The Upson/Garrett Kid was a happy-go-lucky scapegrace with charm and flair, and the early all-evil Kid began to give way to a more nuanced one, a young outlaw capable of wicked crimes (recounted with glee, of course) but at the same time a winning and likeable youth.
This was the character taken up by Walter Noble Burns. We came across Chicago journalist Burns recently when talking about Wyatt Earp because his Tombstone: an Iliad of the Southwest of 1927 was hugely influential in that myth, but he had made his name the year before with The Saga of Billy the Kid. I have it on Kindle and it makes an amusing read – though it gets a bit tiresome after a while. It was Burns who fixed the saintly Robin Hood-style Billy in the public imagination. Years before ‘social bandits’ became a thing, Burns was already doing it. His Billy may have committed the odd crime, regrettably, but he only did it in the service of righteous causes. He was as loved and admired by the Hispanic community of the Southwest as was Robin of Sherwood by the English peasants. The Saga was a huge best-seller, for years, rather as Stuart Lake’s 1931 Frontier Marshal, idolizing Wyatt Earp, was, and both books fixed their lead characters in the American psyche as heroes without peer.
Books about Billy have come out ever since. Some, like John Vernon’s Lucky Billy, gained in credibility by being authentic and sticking scrupulously to the known facts about the life of William Bonney, while others, such as Anything for Billy by Larry McMurtry, are lyrical and dreamlike in a free-association way, like the Billy tale told by someone on peyote.
But of course it was motion pictures that took this up and really fixed the notion of the dashing, debonair youth in ‘fact’. People ‘knew’ by now that Billy was like that.
The films started early. Even before Burns’s Saga, in 1911, a one-reel short was released with the title Billy the Kid. Rather bizarrely, the Billy in this one was one of the more realistic William Bonneys, physically, because he was played by the nineteen-year-old Edith Storey. And as a boyhood friend said of Billy, “He was very slender. He was undersized and was really girlish looking.” In fact one early dime novel, The Life of Billy the Kid, a Juvenile Outlaw, did have him escaping authorities dressed as a girl. In the 1911 story, the sheriff (played by Ralph Ince, Thomas H’s brother) wants a male heir and the Spanish servants hide the fact that new baby ‘Billy’ is in fact a girl. So the youth grows up as a boy, until one fateful day ‘he’ is captured by bandits and finally the truth will out. So the plot seems to have had little to do with the real, or even the mythical Billy the Kid.
In 1916 the public was treated to Billy the Bandit, another one-reeler, distibuted by Universal. Once again, though, this story wasn’t based on the real New Mexico Billy, but can be traced to an 1881 article in the National Police Gazette, about a certain Colorado outlaw named Billy LeRoy. This Billy was probably played by popular comic Billy Mason, then 28. So we have to discard this picture as a proper Billy the Kid movie too.
In 1925, in other words a year before Burns’s Saga, Independent Pictures released a bigger (50-minute) picture, also with the title Billy the Kid. It was directed and written by JP McGowan and starred Franklyn Farnum, who didn’t even start movies till he was over 40 and was 47 at the time of this picture, just a tad geriatric, one might have thought, to play the ‘Kid’. McGowan also had an acting part in it, as did Slim Whitaker, but we do not know what roles they played. However, we do know that Farnum was cast as ‘Billy Bonney’, so we assume it was about ‘our’ Billy the Kid. It’s such a pity we don’t know more.
Tragically, all of these films are now lost.
So the first Billy the Kid motion picture we can really talk about is the one MGM released in 1930, and that will be our next review.
So hold on to your hats!