Saturday, November 04, 2017

The Brutal Truth About Most Billy Wannabes

November 4, 2017
   We get a "new" Billy the Kid photo sent to us almost every week. Here is a good example:

A New Billy Wannabe

   Great photo, love the hat and the cocky look on his face. So is it the Kid? Probably not, but hard to prove, either way.

  Some guys bring the photo right into our office:

Frank Abrams and his alleged Billy and Pat Garrett photo

   And here's a typical inquiry that came in this week:

I am a reporter with the Daily Press newspaper in Victorville, California. I recently interviewed two brothers who claim to have a never-before-seen photograph of Billy the Kid posing with his brother/half brother Joseph. I would like to speak with someone from True West about the photograph and its authenticity. Here is the photo:

Alleged Billy and Josie photograph

   The brothers are convinced it's Billy in the photograph for a few reasons. Here are a few: 

1. The gambler's ring on the pinkie finger.
2. The wounds on his other fingers that the brothers say are "consistent with a fistfight matching historical records of the fistfight between Billy and Frank Cahill."
3. A side by side comparison they did of their photo and the authenticated Billy, which they say are similar.

  Okay, here's the deal: we get these Billy wannabes almost every week and they are invariably intriguing and always exasperating because the people who own them want us to sign off on their claims. And when we don't, they get upset and some of them call us names. But some of my friends in the biz have it even worse. One photo expert I know has to wear a bullet proof vest because one of these photo-finders showed up at an Old West auction and pulled a Glock and security had to take him down. He made death threats and now my friend has to wear a bullet proof vest. This is a bit drastic for such a light-hearted hobby, yes? 

   So, back to the above photograph. Is it a great photograph? Absolutely. I love it. The cap on the right is killer. Is there any way to prove it's Billy? No, short of a letter from someone who actually knew the Kid and who specifically mentions this photo, there is no way to prove anything. The pinkie ring is circumstantial, wounds are totally subjective and hard to prove and any facial recognition measuring is about as accurate as a wing ding is for direction. It's kind of close, but so what? That is the brutal truth and I know it will break their hearts but someone has to tell them the truth.

   The only known authenticated photo of Billy the Kid has really strong provenance (a key word in this area of collecting). The Kid had his photo taken and there were four copies, in tin. He gave one to a New Mexico friend of his named Dan Dedrick, who ended up in Oregon in later years and carried the photo with him and his heirs are the ones who came forward in 1986 and gifted it to the Lincoln County Heritage Trust. While it was there, someone—a complete asshole—monkeyed with the photo trying to "wipe off the grime" so he could see the image better and in the process damaged the photo and so the Trust gave it back to the family who, in turn, decided to sell it in 2011. They contacted Brian Lebel who auctioned it off in Denver and it was bought for $2.3 million dollars by William Koch. Since then, every yahoo in the world wants a similar payday.

Daily Whip Out: "His Muddy Visage Has Gone Amuck!"

   In addition to Dan Dedrick the Kid gave other prints of the photo to friends and one of these ended up as a frontice piece in Pat Garrett's book on the Kid which came out in 1881, the year of the Kid's death. It's a drawing, but it's obvious it came from the photo because of the pose (so this is early provenance of the image being connected to the photo). Another copy of the photo, heavily doctored ended up being published in the years after the Kid's death, so you have three sources for the image with very strong provenance, thus the value.

   Everyone since then tries to work backwards, sometimes through fake provenance (a Las Vegas, New Mexico collector claimed he had a photo that came out of his family's photo album. The Kid spent time in Las Vegas so it had a certain location authenticity and believability. When that photo sold for $30,000, the collector quickly found another photo that he purported to be of the Kid but this one didn't look anything like the last one). Also, people use "facial forensics" with computers to try and map the contours of the face to match their new Billy with the face in the only known photo. This is basically a parlor trick masquerading as science. The so-called "croquet photo" project, which was featured on Nat Geo relied on this sexy but suspect technique to great effect. I have seen so many Billy wannabe photos magically match perfectly with the only known photo that it's not even funny.

If you'd like to read the article about the Victorville photo in question here is a link:

Is New Photo Billy the Kid And His Brother?

   After it posted today, the reporter, Mathew Cabe, wanted to know what a "wing ding" is (he said he looked it up and couldn't find it anywhere). Here is my answer:

    I'm an old man who worked as a surveyor as a kid growing up in Kingman, Arizona and sometimes, without setting up a transit, or a measuring instrument, the crew chief would put his arms straight out—like wings—and then slap his palms together, pointing in a 90 degree angle and exclaim, "Let's wing ding this puppy and go." It's a slap dash, sloppy, attempt to locate a direction.

   As an example, my definition is probably a "wing ding."


"Advise persons to avoid killing other photo collectors."
—Billy the Kid Collector


  1. "Doc Holliday" photos show up in my email all the time. When I quote a fee for my analysis and make it clear that I cannot prove but can only fail to disprove their hypothetical identification, they back away.

    1. Emm Sandbom12:30 PM

      Poor John Escapule. Eternally famous for the wrong reasons :)

  2. I am amazed at the number of people who can't tell one face from another. We have the known photo of Billy, and people keep coming up with other photos that look nothing like him! No wonder police lineups are notoriously unreliable. It's really sad that people are so inept at it.

  3. Several different Etta Place photos appeared last month, two of which were accompanied by what the owners said was the very same brooch she wore in the 1901 DeYoung portrait. (Apparently brooches breed spontaneously, like mushrooms.) None of the women in the photos looked anything like Place nor did the photos have any discernible provenance. By the way, one of the co-executive producers of the National Geographic documentary on the croquet Billy tintype has walked back the pivotal claim that the image was taken in front of the Flying H schoolhouse in the Felix River Valley. The claim had been central to a possible link between the tintype and Billy. He still thinks the tintype was taken in the Upper Felix, but doesn't know where. In fact, no one has any idea where in the United States the tintype was taken, which means its provenance is unknown. The tintype remains unsold. Dan

  4. Martin knife Chief10:23 AM

    You know, SOME of the photos must end up being real...there is no way that ONLY the known ones are real. The possibility of uncovering new examples is slim but not unheard of. Tons of tin types abound in junk shops, drawers, photo albums families still hold on to. It can only be said that, now, the hunt is on! Too much money is at stake. Once, a few years ago, a photo of a known western celebrity might bring $100 at best. Now, there are thousands even millions involved! Most people 'wish' their photo's were real...but it's easy to spot one that is NOT a western celebrity just from the era of their clothing, facial shapes, hands, etc. Good luck to those who think they have one!

    1. Yes, true, but the problem is proving it. That is the holy grail of collecting. Now I have seen a collector buy a questionable photograph of Billy the Kid that the collector did not believe was actually him, but he bought the photo (for $1,300) just because he liked the photo and thought "this may not be Billy but this is how I would like to think he looked." So there's THAT.

    2. regarding, Billy, I've heard of a theory that he made a deal with garrett and went south - some say thay have dug upa a list of passengers that drowned when Lusitania was sunk in 1916 and that among those was a certain William Bonney, 55-year old cattle merchant from Noglaes, Mexico; IF (and it's a very, very big IF) he really struck a deal with garret and someone else was buried in his stead, or the coffin was just full of stones, it wouldm'z be strange that he ended up on the bottom of the Atlantic -a s good a guess as any, but like I said, it's a big IF

  5. This is a fascinating subject BBB. Your daily whip out of Billy is really good. When it comes to Billy The Kid photos and artifacts everyone heads to True West Magazine for help. Where else should people go for help? Who is the foremost expert on Billy The Kid and photography? Who is the top expert in facial recognition computer technology in relation to Old West photography? Maybe some more study needs to be done on the Dedrick/Upham ferrotype. I did a reconstruction in 2015. It would be great to see someone new give it a shot. Frank Abrams tintype is authentic. Several others are convincing. It would be a great if Billy The Kid enthusiasts got together and found a way to debunk or authenticate images using science.

  6. I have a photo showing Billy the Kid (age 120), along with Elvis, serving breakfast at a diner in the Ozarks in 1979, if you're interested. :-)

  7. The legendary American outlaws Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett are still box-office stars on the international stage. Irish Central picked up the story on the front page of their blog yesterday:

  8. The story of this photo is now an international phenomenon. Check out this post from Irish Central:

  9. Nicely put and justified. Provenance, real provenance, is the key. Similarity in appearance is just that. Thank you for putting this well reasoned discussion together to try to provide at least some focus the conversation about the never ending trail of look alike images.

  10. It is always more fun when the guy is 50-100 feet away from the camera. I sold a tin on eBay and the guy who purchased it swears it is BTK. He has spent months sending me reasons why trying to convince me. I have told him point blank that I don't care and it isn't him.


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