September 15, 2021
If you missed today's Facebook Live broadcast, here is basically what we talked about:
What the hell is the back story on the $6 million dollar gun that killed Billy the Kid? And who do I think has the ponies to pay that price tag? And what does Pancho Villa and a Teddy Bear have to do with anything?
In the fall of 1880, Sheriff-elect Pat Garrett was given his marching orders by the cattle king of New Mexico, John Chisum: "Clean out that squad east of Sumner." By mid-December, Garrett and a motley crew of Texas cowboys had surrounded a rock house at Stinking Springs, New Mexico in the freezing dark and as the sun came up they coldly shot down the first person who walked out the door. It turned out to be Charlie Bowdre and not the Kid. Garrett's posse had already shot and killed another of Billy's pards, Tom Folliard, back in Fort Sumner and with the death of Bowdre, two of the Kid's gang were toast. After a long standoff, everyone inside eventually surrendered and, gave up their arms. They included, Billy the Kid, Dirty Dave Rudabaugh, Tom Pickett and Billy Wilson. At some point Pat Garrett took a liking to Billy Wilson's Winchester and pistol and like lawmen have been doing for a long time, he purloined these two guns for his own use.
Beaver Smith ended up with the Kid's Winchester, Frank Stewart was gifted the Kid's horse by Billy himself and the young outlaw is reported to have given his pistol to the mail carrier's brother Mike Cosgrove.
As a side note, after a stand off in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Garrett delivers his prisoners to the Santa Fe jail, where the Kid spends three months before being tried in Mesilla and sentenced to hang. While in the jail, a reporter asks him what he thinks about getting as famous as Buffalo Bill and the Kid replies, "There's no money in it."
Nineteen months later, Garrett dispatched Billy the Kid with Wilson's Seven-and-a-half inch, .44 single action Colt.
• So, how do we know, 141 years later that the gun that recently sold for over $6 million is actually this same gun? And, more importantly, what do Pancho Villa and a Teddy Bear have to do with this whole story? And, finally, who would pay that kind of money for a gun even if it turns out it is the actual gun that killed the Kid?
Well, let's examine the evidence.
• In the early eighties—that would be the 1980s, I was in a small cafe-saloon in Goldfield Nevada, and behind the bar on the wall was a non-descript pistol and under it was a sign that said, "This is the ONLY gun in the West that did not kill Billy the Kid."
• Sometimes it seems like there are enough Billy the Kid guns to arm a junior high school. They show up everywhere and often. During a debate about all this in the 1930s the newspaper reported there were at least 50 guns that claimed to be the killer of the Kid.
• Pat Garrett rode the fame of killing the Kid all the way to the White House. In 1901 he was called to Washington and gets the job as Customs Inspector in El Paso, Texas. It is the top of the roller coaster for the old lawman. But the Rough Riders Reunion in San Antonio, in 1905, did him in when Garrett introduced his friend Tom Powers as a "cattleman," when in actuality Powers was a "saloon man," an occupation Garrett didn't want the president to know about because there were suspicions about Pat's drinking issues. Of course, when the Texas newspapers ran this item then corrected Garrett and the president felt like a "chump," and Garrett wasn't reinstated.
Tom Powers, second from right, at the event
where Garrett lost his gig.
• Pat Garrett drinks more, loses money and asks for a loan from the same Tom Powers who owns The Coney Island Saloon in El Paso. Powers is then loaned the gun for display, or he took it as collateral, or he flat out bought it. Powers had a signed agreement with Pat's signature and the serial number on the pistol.
• In 1908, Pat Garrett is assassinated while urinating along the road to Las Cruces, which prompted his biographer, Leon Metz, to dryly note, "It's the only time in history a man has been assassinated while urinating that the defendant claimed self-defense."
• And then the story went dark. The Kid was forgotten and nobody cared about the pistol or what it meant. Then a strange set of circumstances changed everything. In 1915, the United States supported Vestuciano Carranza and a crime reporter from Chicago covered the attack on Columbus, New Mexico by Pancho Villa and later, went to El Paso and went into the Coney Island Saloon for a beer and asked the bartender what was the significance of the pistol behind the bar, which resulted in 1924's "The Saga of Billy the Kid," by Walter Noble Burns and the Kid is back on the map.
• Rich, despondant and riddled with cancer, in October of 1930 Tom Powers shoots himself in the heart at his house on Wyoming Street in El Paso, Texas. Incredibly, Powers lives for three months and dies in January of 1931.
• Widowed and poor in the middle of a national Depression, Mrs. Pat Garrett sues the Powers's estate to return the gun. The Power's estate claims the gun was payment for bad debt and not a loan and they have the paperwork to prove it. The case goes all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. The court sides with a lower appelate court that stated Pat couldn't have signed over the gun without his wife's consent and on October 7, 1934, Apolinario Garrett stands on the front porch of her modest Las Cruces home holding the returned Colt. She is comforted by the fact that someone told her it could be worth as much as $500.
Mrs. Pat Garrett with the gun.
• Two weeks later, after riding in the Roswell parade as the grand marshall, Mrs. Pat Garrett dies and the valuable pistol is kept in the family until 1983, when Jarvis Garrett sells it to a collector, who then sells it to Jim and Theresa Earle of College Station, Texas. Jim also bought the Wilson Winchester as well. It is believed that Jim paid in the ballpark of $45,000 to $150,000 for the gun. With the passing of Jim Earle, the daughters are the one who put it up for auction at Bonham's where it sold for over $6 million dollars. I would say it has very solid provenance as being the actual pistol that killed the Kid.
Now, as for the question, who would have paid that price? It is a bit of a mystery because during the Bonham auction the buyer was on the phone and he requested his name not be used. Now everyone in our history world has one suspect in mind, the one who we think has the ponys and the motive to pull this off and I think if you watch our video of an event at the Denver Merchandise Mart from 2010 you might recognize who that would be.
And, by the way, we HOPE he did buy the pistol because then both the only known photo AND the pistol belong to the same person. Someone we know cares about preserving the history of the Wild West.
• And, so, finally how does a Teddy Bear come into this story? Well, after the dustup with President Teddy Roosevelt at San Antonio in 1905 that lost Pat Garrett his job, Tom Powers remained friendly with the president and later gifted the president a bear cub from a hunting trip which he nick-named "Teddy" as in "Teddy Bear." And, so now you know the entire story behind the the $6 million dollar gun that killed the Kid.
• I want to thank Samuel K. Dolan for the fabulous newspaper clippings from El Paso and Mark Lee Gardner for his research on this piece and also James B. Mills.
• And The final word goes to the guy who started it all and bought low, but didn't get to sell high.
"There's no money in it."
—Billy the Kid