Wednesday, April 16, 2008


A couple of weeks ago I visited Tombstone for the first time. For a guy who loves the West and Western movies, the town bears the same mythic power as Camelot, Troy or Olympus. I believe the location should be treated with the same respect as Colonial Williamsburg or Gettysburg battlefield. The reality of modern Tombstone, however, falls a little short of the mythology. And that is a real shame.

I had a lot of book-learnin’ about Tombstone, but no experience. A couple of years ago I wrote A&E's BIOGRAPHY episode on Doc Holliday, and I read as much as I could about the town, the Earps and the OK Corral. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to visit the hallowed ground. So when we had a wedding invitation to Tucson, my sweet wife agreed to add a side trip to “The Town Too Tough To Die.” We only had an afternoon, but I felt that would be worth it. Jackleg historians know there is no better way to research history than to just find the place and walk around. You'll discover insights you could never get from reading primary documents and you'll see connections you never could have imagined even from first-person accounts. In the streets of a place like Tombstone, even a multiple-degree-carrying head of a major History Department becomes a Jackleg Historian.

Tombstone today is a strange place -- an uneasy mix of History and Commerce, with Commerce dominating. In fact, Commerce swaggers about the street, bullying bystanders and frightening the curious, like the Cow-Boys of old, and the whole place might benefit if a frontier marshal were to come in to clean up the town.

I have no problem with commercial aspect of historic tourism… but it was hard to find the History between the Commerce. Iconic Allen Street, site of the famous walk-down to the Corral, is a string of nearly identical tourist shops. They all seemed filled with the same cheap junk -- shot glasses and coffee mugs and t-shirts -- all apparently made at the same Authentic Western Curio factory in Guangzhou, China.

There were a couple of stand-out stores that were truly extraordinary, and worth the trip -- the Tombstone Western Bookstore, the antiques at Tombstone Mercantile and Spangenberger's Gun Store (now, oddly enough, called "Larry's Corner Store'). But between these were the ice cream shops and "old-tyme photos" and souvenir stands that all seemed to carry identical gimcrackery. I know that people need to eat – especially after a 90 minute drive from Tucson – and people want to buy stuff, so I don’t want to fault folks just trying to make an honest living.

But it's hard to hear the footsteps of the Earps, or feel the hot wind of a coming apocalyptic showdown when your eyes are ears are assaulted with cheap crap from China.

And apparently, I’m not the only one who is bothered. The National Park Service threatened to yank the town’s National Historic Landmark District designation in 2004 because the domination of Commerce over History was so bad. Some steps have apparently been taken… but at this point, it’s hard to see them. And if you have only an afternoon to see Tombstone, you could easily miss the historic significance of the place.

The high point for me was the "OK Corral Gunfight site" museum. By the time I got there, I wasn’t expecting much, especially since the site of the world’s most famous gun battle was a for-profit enterprise. But the museum has been upgraded fairly recently, and the "life-sized figures" (a little worse for wear) have been placed as closely as possible to the spot that Wyatt himself claimed they stood. A building called "Fly's Boarding House" stands next to the gunfight site (though it's unclear if it was the actual building from 1881), and in it stands a very interesting exhibit of Camillus Fly's photography and a replica of Doc Holliday's room. I was surprised at how un-commercial this section was -- the museum exhibit seemed professional, the descriptions and text (on the walls and in plastic handouts) seemed well-written and well-researched. It was a breath of fresh air – of real history – in a town full of t-shirt shops.

My favorite bit of Tombstone weirdness is the Tombstone Historama. Built in the early 1960s, it's not a movie... not a diorama... but a "Histo-rama." You sit in a small theater and the curtain opens to reveal a room-sized three-dimensional sculpture on a turntable. The first view is of ancient Tomsbtone, and spotlights pick out various details in the diorama. Some of the tiny figures actually move in a jerky, toy-robot fashion. Meanwhile, the inimitable voice of Vincent Price intones the fabled history of the town. Then a screen drops for a brief slide show, and when the screen rises, the Historama has rotated on its turntable to reveal another diorama. There are five scenes, and the entire show lasts about a half-hour.

I'm sure The Historama was a mind-boggling experience when it opened -- not too far off from Disney's "Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" ride. But now 40 years later, the term “multimedia” refers to a million web pages, not herky-jerky robots and miniature dioramas. The literally-creaking scenery, the static displays and the bizarre voice of the long-dead Vincent Price makes the Historama more of an artifact than an exhibit. They've tried to spiff it up with some live action video (while the diorama loudly rumbles to its next scene) but the re-enactments are sub-par. I supposed the exhibit remains where it is because it is too big and ungainly to replace (and besides what would you replace it with?). And if you like kitsch (which I do), this is quite a find.

But The Historama is the default introduction to the town and its history… and it’s not a very grand introduction. My wife and I were the only people in the 50 seat theater. Meanwhile, cheap trinket stores proliferate… and visitors to Tombstone drop precipitously.

So I’m concerned that the American Camelot, the Gettysburg of the Old West, is being overwhelmed by the Cow-Boys of Commerce. Even though the town fathers are trying to beef up its historic draw, I fear that History is getting beaten and battered in Tombstone… and folks are staying away. After all, why drive all the way to Tombstone if all they offer is cheap souvenirs that you can get at the airport giftshop? The only reason to drive to Tombstone is the History. And that seems to be in short supply.

Friday, February 29, 2008


February 29, 2008 -- the 100th anniversary of the death of Pat Garrett.

Among Billy aficionados, Pat Garrett’s name is mud. He’s the guy who shot his best friend, the former pard who sold out, who waited in a dark room and blasted the Boy Bandit into kingdom come for a reward. He got his thirty pieces of silver… or maybe he didn’t – some say Pat Garrett never received the $500 reward for killing Billy the Kid.

Pat was an instant hero for shooting the famous outlaw… with headlines in London and New York trumpeting Garrett’s fame as a lawman. But within months it seemed that popular opinion had turned against him. Billy the Kid was a beloved anti-hero, and without knowing it, Pat had killed a legend. Oscar Wilde put it best a few months later, when talking about the death of that other great outlaw Jesse James: “Americans are certainly great hero worshippers and always take their heroes from the criminal classes.”

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to have a sneaking admiration for the Kid-killer. Pat was a guy with a job, a guy looking to make his name and make his fortune, just like everyone else in the West, just like everyone else in America. He was older than Billy, he had a family to support. He needed the money. Unlike the legend, he may not have been Billy’s best friend – or known him very well at all. But I prefer the poetic justice of the legend – an older guy given an unpleasant task, who does his best at it… and gets shafted by history for it.

Sam Peckinpah told the legend best in PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID. The title really sums it up, because the real hero of the legend is Pat, not Billy. Billy the Kid is a force of nature, a god-like young man with nearly supernatural powers and charm. And just as the Greek legends tell us, when you get involved with a God, you get involved with tragedy. So Peckinpah places Garrett at the center of the tale – he has the biggest goal, he has the greatest challenges, he has the most to lose. And lose he does, with that wonderful image at the end, a twist on SHANE, where a young boy runs after the tall lonesome stranger as he rides out of town… only this boy spits and throws a rock. Pat Garrett is our Judas-goat, taking on the sins of the American West.

Well, that’s the legend anyway.

The legend ends there… Pat’s real story continues for decades. Pat goes on to have a fairly long and successful (though controversial) career as a lawman and public servant.

He’s still a sheriff 15 years after Billy’s death when he’s assigned one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the Old West – the disappearance of Albert Fountain and his young son. Fountain was a crusading lawyer – the defense attorney for Billy the Kid himself – who disappeared after getting indictments against a cattle-rustling ring. It’s a strange twist that the killer of Billy the Kid seeks justice for the defender of Billy the Kid. Garrett tracked down the reputed killers after a long hunt and at least one gunfight – only to see them declared not guilty. The killers were linked to some of the most powerful people in New Mexico. The mystery still has never been solved, but it was Garrett’s last job as a sheriff.

Teddy Roosevelt himself personally appoints Garrett to the post of customs collector in El Paso in 1901, 20 years after Billy’s death. But the appointment is withdrawn five years later, for reasons that are not altogether clear.

And a quarter century after the death of Billy the Kid, something very strange begins to happen to Pat Garrett. So strange, in fact, that historians tend to go to great lengths to say “nothing strange happened!”

It begins with Pat’s money problems. He had no job, he was in debt, and told people he was in serious trouble... though he never said what the trouble was. What is clear is that Pat was involved in a complex land dispute with his neighbors. A young cowboy named Jesse Wayne Brazel was grazing goats on Pat’s land – much to Pat’s dismay. On February 29, 1908, Pat was riding in a buggy with his neighbor Carl Adamson, when they ran into Brazel. Words were exchanged. Guns were fired. A couple of hours later Brazel showed up at the local sheriff’s office and confessed to killing the famous lawman Pat Garrett in self-defense.

The murder was bizarre, and nearly inexplicable. Brazel said that in the argument, Pat went for his gun and Brazel fired. When the sheriff arrived at the scene, Pat was lying face down, one bullet wound in the back of his head, another in his chest, apparently killed while urinating. His shotgun was lying nearby, disassembled, still in its case. Clearly, this was not “self-defense” – though a jury declared Brazel not guilty in his murder trial.

Brazel apparently had no reason to kill Garrett. Various theories and various killers have been suggested as the real murderers. A federal investigator named Fred Fornoff suggested that a ring of illegal alien smugglers were responsible (in fact, the man driving Pat’s buggy was convicted of smuggling Chinese laborers just one year later). Some have suggested that professional assassin “Killin’ Jim” Miller was responsible, or the local powerful rancher W.W. Cox, or the cattle-rustling ring that killed Albert Fountain a decade before.

I think author Bill Brooks has the best theory of all in his novel THE STONE GARDEN… Billy the Kid did it, after surviving Pat’s bullet and living in hiding under the name John Miller.

No one knows who killed Pat Garrett or why. The man who was once the West’s most-lauded lawman died along a lonely stretch of desert road, shot in the back of the head, the killer unknown, the motive unclear.

Is it poetic justice -- or justice denied -- that this mystery of the West has never been solved? Does anyone remember how Judas died? And did Garrett die with the same last words as Billy the Kid: “Quien es?” – “Who is it?”

All I know is that as I’ve gotten older – given up some dreams, made compromises, done what I had to – I see myself reflected less in Billy and more in Pat.

So 100 years to the day, I say Adios, Senor Garrett -- mon semblable -- mon frère.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


I’ve been working on a documentary about the Civil War for the past few months, and I’ve been intrigued by the number of books that use military leaders as models for modern business. A great example is Tom Wheeler’s TAKE COMMAND, LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM THE CIVIL WAR, but there are others that focus on the business styles of Ulysses Grant and the command model of Robert E. Lee. All important lessons, no doubt.

But having spent quite a while on studying a single battle, it’s clear that most military decisions have little to do with Vision and Expected Results, and a lot more to do with just hanging on, keeping your head down and hoping for the best.

And there’s one great leader of the Civil War who has been overlooked, but whom I believe can reveal extraordinary insights into modern business.

His name is Daniel Sickles.

He is almost universally reviled as the worst commander the Union Army ever had. And he has much to teach us.

Sickles was no slouch. He’d served as a State Senator in New York and a US Congressman. When he discovered his young wife was having an affair, he stalked and shot the interloper on the streets of DC, then was acquitted due to “temporary insanity” – the first use of that defense. Though he had no military training whatsoever, Sickles managed to get himself appointed to a generalship in the first months of the war. And by 1863, when all the political appointees in the Union Army had been shot or quit, Sickles was still hanging in there, despite the best efforts of his superiors and his soldiers.

Which brings us to Gettysburg. On July 2, 1863, the second day of America’s largest and bloodiest battle, Sickles was ordered to hold the vital center of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge. And here is where we can learn valuable lessons.

Sickles didn’t like the ground he was ordered to hold. It lay in a shallow valley, with high ground on each side. So on his own recognizance, Sickles moved his troops a mile forward to hold higher ground at a spot now known as the Peach Orchard. Though it might seem to be a better position to the amateur, it was a disastrous move. Sickles’ new position dangerously weakened the Union line… and the bulge in the line made Sickles’ troops vulnerable on two sides. Commanding General George Meade sent multiple couriers to call Sickles back… and he got no reply. Meade called for a meeting of all Union commanders later that morning… Sickles didn’t show. Meade had to personally ride out to Sickles to order him back… but by then the Confederate assault on the Union Center had begun, and Sickles’ Corps was there to stay. Here’s the lesson from the Great Scoundrel – don’t directly disobey orders, just pretend you never got them.

Sickles advance had the exact result Meade had feared – the bulge in the Union line was attacked from two sides, and the Union position was so weakened that the Confederates nearly broke through – which would have meant a Rebel victory and perhaps a very different end of the Civil War. Sickles’ men were being torn apart from two sides. At the height of the Rebel attack, a cannonball slammed into Sickles and nearly tore his right leg off. As a medic hustled him onto a stretcher, arterial blood pumping on to the ground, Sickles hissed to his adjutant: “Take the cigar out of my pocket. Put it in my mouth. Now light it!” As he was carried away through the devastated remnants of his unit, Sickles sat upright and calmly puffed on his cigar with a grin. The lesson could have come straight from Napoleon: “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!”

Sickles leg was amputated that afternoon, and two days later he was in Washington DC, bringing the news of the Union victory at Gettysburg. As one of the first people to report, Sickles could easily control the message and make sure that his actions sounded heroic. But the Great Scoundrel needed more attention… and he got it. Sickles learned that the newly-created Army Medical Museum was looking for “specimens of morbid anatomy.” So he donated his amputated leg to the museum, along with the cannonball that took it off, and for the rest of his life he would bring distinguished guests of the Capital to visit the severed leg. Now, this brash step did two things – it kept Sickles’ “magnificent sacrifice” clear to all and sundry, and the sheer boldness of his display made it seem as if he must be proud of his accomplishments at Gettysburg. Never mind that he unnecessarily sent thousands of young men to their deaths and nearly caused a Confederate victory… Sickles’ leg mutely trumpeted pride that dare not be contradicted.

Sickles amputation kept him off the battlefield, but not out of the war. He proudly proclaimed himself the hero of Gettysburg for his dubious actions, and began a smear campaign against General Meade, suggesting that Meade had secretly planned to retreat from Gettysburg. The best defense is a good offense, and this was as offensive as they came – especially since Sickles had no qualms about writing multiple anonymous letters to the editors promoting this viewpoint. But it put Meade and his supporters on the defensive and the aggressive attack on Meade’s character quite possibly prevented Sickles from facing a court martial.

General Lee died within five years of the end of the war. General Meade died two years after that. General Grant went on to become President and died in 1885, finishing his memoirs just in time. But Dan Sickles outlived them all, dying peacefully at age 94 in 1914. Along the way he managed to get elected to Congress again, serve as Ambassador to Spain (where he had an affair with the deposed Queen Isabella II), and finally getting forced out of public life due to yet another financial scandal. His greatest contribution to America may have been in leading the movement to preserve Gettysburg Battlefield. Sickles introduced the legislation to create the National Military Park, then led the fundraising and monument-building. Perhaps the arrogant bastard felt the whole battlefield was a monument to himself. Perhaps he secretly felt humility for his actions and wished to memorialize the men he had led to their deaths. Whatever his reasons, The Great Scoundrel managed to preserve America’s hallowed ground, and for that we must thank him. And we should thank him for this final lesson. Daniel Sickles was eventually awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg in 1897… 34 years after the fact. Sickles had simply outlived everyone who contradicted his story. If only we all could do the same.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


I was pleased to see the phrase “Jackleg Historian” enter the blogosphere this week, even if it was used negatively. Political commentator Kurt Nimmo’s blog “Another Day In The Empire” refers to neoconservative Jonah Goldberg as a propagandist and a “jackleg historian.”

Now, I can’t weigh in on the opinions of either man, but I’m a little disturbed to see jackleg historian used as a pejorative. I think we need more jackleg historians, not less.

Nimmo’s blog seems to be one of a growing number of sites devoted to a looming collapse of American society. Whether it’s Peak Oil, global warming, financial Armageddon, imminent war or The Rapture, a growing body of evidence points to a horrible Doomsday looming just over the horizon. Even the Comptroller General of the United States recently warned that America may well collapse just like the Roman Empire. When a Washington policy wonk begins talking about the Fall of Rome, it truly means something scary is at hand.

But a jackleg historian knows that this is not the first time America has faced collapse. I just spent a week on a farm in Maryland, re-creating a famous battle for a cable network, and I can tell you that the boys who re-enact the Civil War have done enough research to know what Societal Collapse is all about.

The worst-case scenarios of even the most dire predictions of Peak Oil are no comparison to the reality that our ancestors faced just a few generations ago.

Currency became worthless. The financial markets evaporated. Jobs disappeared. So did entire families. Cities became unsustainable, in some cases leading to rioting that took hundreds of lives. Martial law curtailed individual freedoms, and some of those freedoms were not restored for a decade. Farmlands were laid waste by armies of men who stripped the countryside, then burned it after they passed. It was called the American Civil War, and it was Collapse writ large. Never before had the nation literally turned on itself. Never before had American slaughtered Americans. Never before had Americans burned American towns, destroyed American farms, killed American civilians.

The citizens of America knew that the Civil War was apocalyptic, and some even saw it as the beginning of the Tribulation from the Book of Revelation. Don’t believe me? Just listen carefully to the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the COMING OF THE LORD…” Later verses are even more outwardly apocalyptic, and its chorus could be sung by any desperate fundamentalist who eagerly greets the imminent End of the World with a starry-eyed “Glory, Glory Hallelujah!”

Read about the citizens of Gettysburg as they prepared for a military invasion, for a first-hand account of what “Survival Preparedness” really is all about. Read Gabor Boritt’s THE GETTYSBURG GOSPEL for a look at what “collapse” really means for a small American town – 10,000 dead men in the streets and fields. 40,000 desperately wounded men crowding every building, home and alley. Farmland destroyed for a generation. No doctors. No water. No food. And no help coming from anywhere. It makes Hurricane Katrina look like a Sunday School picnic.

So a jackleg historian can tell you that societal collapse is nothing new… and he doesn’t have to go back to the Fall of the Roman Empire to find comparisons. If we are indeed facing some sort of horrific collapse -- from Peak Oil, international terrorism, financial Armageddon, housing bubbles gone awry, water shortages, global warming, or any one of the many suspects – then a jackleg historian may be exactly what this country needs to see how we got out this kind of mess before.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

In Praise of Re-enactors

Civil War re-enactors are an interesting bunch. In making historical documentaries, I’ve worked with re-enactors from eras that ranged from the Roman Empire to WWII. But the Civil War guys seem to be the most hard-core. For better or for worse.

All re-enactors are sticklers for accuracy, by definition. But it’s only the Civil War re-enactors who will refuse to go on camera or even call “cut” if they notice a historical inaccuracy. It’s the Civil War re-enactors who will come to the director after a shot and earnestly explain why the shot was wrong. It’s the Civil War re-enactors who write impassioned letters to networks when an extra in a re-enactment is wearing a uniform with the wrong insignia.

Now, this can be heaven or this can be hell. Sometimes in the process of making a television show, historical accuracy can take a back seat to visual storytelling. Walking the thin line between making TV and being 100% accurate is one of the toughest jobs of a documentary producer. And the last thing you need is 23-year-old volunteer who insists that you can’t roll the cameras because the rifle in the corner of the frame is the wrong caliber.

Fortunately, the Civil War re-enactors I just worked with were a crack team that not only knew their history, they knew filmmaking.

I just returned from a week in Maryland, shooting a Civil War battle for a cable network. And the team of re-enactors came from Russ Richards, who runs an outfit called “Historical Entertainment.”

It’s a very interesting business model – one-stop shopping for historical documentaries. Russ was a re-enactor who worked on several movies and documentaries. He realized that film companies were desperately in need of historically-accurate extras, but didn’t know where to find them. Russ became the go-between – delivering squads of perfectly costumed extras for shows that wound up on the History Channel Discovery, National Geographic and numerous feature films.

Russ sent us a team of fit, skinny young re-enactors who looked like they could have stepped out of a Matthew Brady photo. And they each had two uniforms – one blue and one gray – so they could play both sides in big battle scenes (oh, the wonders of CGI). Best of all, they were film-savvy as well. They never argued with the director about accuracy – they simply found a way to make his vision work AND make it accurate. Which wasn’t always easy. I suspect this attention to detail may be lost on most viewers. But it was not lost on me or on the crew. And I suspect (and hope) that when the five million or so Civil War re-enactors in America watch this show, they will have nothing to write to the network about.

I guess the real pleasure in this project for me was working with an entire crew of, yes, Jackleg Historians. Russ and his boys are self-taught, but they know more about the Civil War than many tenured professors. And they are passionate about getting it right, even if the details are going to be lost in the deep background of a shot. But the Jackleg Historians in the audience will notice. And the Jackleg Historians behind the camera and in front of it can be proud.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Coot and the Kid

On July 14, 1881, Billy the Kid was gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett in a dark room in New Mexico. There are several versions of the tale (some of which involve Billy surviving) but I’d like to talk about the most overlooked version of the story – the Hispanic account.

I got this version from the horse’s mouth – or nearly the horse’s mouth – Chano Silva.

Chano’s grandfather witnessed the shooting of Billy the Kid. Chano’s grandfather helped bury the Kid. And Chano was there when Billy’s headstone was placed. Chano’s oral account of Billy’s shooting is radically different from the traditional account, and it’s kind of surprising that this angle has never been fully researched until recently.

I met Chano in 2003 when I was filming a television documentary. He was 85 years old and the walking definition of an “old coot.” He wore a straw cowboy hat and stained grey coveralls. His toothless face had a couple of days growth of beard. He was gaunt, his head hung at an odd angle, and he had a lateral lisp that made him hard to understand. He was the walking definition of “bad TV.” But Chano was real.

“I knew Deluvina Maxwell, Billy’s girlfriend,” he said to me. “I would ride my horse by her house on the way home from school and she would give me a snack. She told me about the night Billy died. She said Pat Garret was scared to go into the room where Billy died!”

From there his story went on in a rambling way that combined historical facts, childhood recollections and wildly improbable assertions. Usually without pausing, so that steering him back to the point could only be done with the most incredible act of rudeness. Thus does an old coot hold his audience, like an Ancient Mariner in a cowboy hat.

But Chano’s most important assertion is one that has long been ignored by history books.

“Granddaddy said Pat shot Billy with a shotgun. Waited behind a door. When Billy came in, boom! He shot him.”

Of course, Chano said this while slouched forward, almost out of the camera frame, one eye squinted and one eye popped wide. And with his toothless lateral lisp, it came out as “Gwlandaddy thaid Pat thlot Biddy with a thlotgun.” As a producer, I knew it was bad TV. But as a person, I knew it was amazing reality.

Chano went on: “Granddaddy heard the shots and came running over. Pat came out of the house. He said ‘I shot Billy. Go see if he’s still alive.’ And Granddaddy said ‘You son-of-a-bitch, you shot him, YOU go see if he’s alive!’

That should end all the speculation about the death of Billy the Kid. Chano heard an eyewitness account. It’s a radically different account than the one in most history books but it certainly has as much claim to authenticity as Pat Garrett’s self-aggrandizing autobiography. And Chano’s story is backed up by the account of the third member of Garrett’s posse – Tip McKinney, who later told a traveling writer about Garrett’s ambush of Billy with the same details.

Yet this account of Billy’s death was overlooked for more than a century, and is only now being reconsidered by authors and scholars of the Kid’s story. Possibly the story languished simply because it was the Hispanic account, so it was ignored by an Anglo publishing industry.

Or possibly, it was a tale told by old coots… and who listens to them?

Chano had only a brief appearance in the television documentary. The executives were appalled at the way he looked and the way he spoke. And they only let me put in a brief segment because Chano’s story of Billy’s death matched McKinney’s, providing supporting evidence. Chano’s stories, his caved-in face, his raspy lisp, they all hit the cutting room floor. Chano Silva was not good TV. And he may not actually have been good history.

I spoke to one historian who rolled his eyes when I mentioned Chano, and fondly said “Chano’s stories are different each time he tells them.” And once I was out of the Chano’s personal presence, I admit some of his tales were unlikely.

But Chano was real. Never mind that his stories are suspect. He was real. And hearing his tales, for me, was a real experience of the West, the real West, the true West. His stories, even if untrue, were not lies but Myths. Joseph Campbell describes a myth as a lie that conveys the truth. Chano conveyed the truth. The truth has a lazy eye and unshaven cheeks. The truth has no teeth and doesn’t need ‘em. The truth has a lisp and a hacking cough and stained overalls. The truth is an Old Coot.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Billy the Kid's Escape & The Missing Man

On April 28, 1881, Billy the Kid made his last spectacular escape from jail, just two weeks before he was to be hanged. While chained hand and foot, the Kid somehow managed to get a gun, kill one of his guards, grab a shotgun and kill the other guard, then ride out of town on a borrowed horse. He remained a free man until gunned down by Pat Garrett.

It’s an amazing story, and everyone from dime novelists to screenwriters tends to focus on the shotgun story – in which Billy reportedly grabbed a shotgun loaded with silver dimes and blew away Bob Olinger, the sadistic guard who had been tormenting him. (If you want to see what kind of damage is caused by two shotguns barrels of silver dimes, check out our DVD The Guns of Billy The Kid).

But the more mysterious part of the story is the first gun – where did Billy the Kid manage to get a revolver while shackled and under round-the-clock guard? Some have suggested the gun was left for him in the outhouse, others said Billy simply wrestled it away from his guard. No one has adequately explained the crime scene in 126 years.

But there is one intriguing missing link.

Godfrey Gauss.

The entire story of Billy’s famous escape apparently comes from the eyewitness report of one man. And though it’s rarely commented upon, that one man is a highly suspect source, and may have been more involved in the crime than anyone knew.

Godfrey Gauss was a cook and handyman who lived at worked at the Lincoln County Courthouse where Billy the Kid was jailed. He was an old local character, a guy who did odd jobs around Lincoln, New Mexico. If Billy has been played by Val Kilmer or Paul Newman, then Gauss should be played by Gabby Hayes.

Gauss was the only eyewitness to Billy’s escape. He testified to Pat Garrett and later to reporters. But what Gauss did not say in his story was the most important fact of all -- he had been Billy’s friend, supporter, cook and possibly arms supplier for years.

During the bloody Lincoln County War, William Bonney rode with The Regulators, a badge-carrying semi-vigilante force made up of young cowboys from the Tunstall Ranch. The cook for the ranch was Godfrey Gauss. When the Regulators were declared outlaws, Gauss was still giving the boys food, shelter, supplies and alibis. If anyone can be said to be one of the Kid’s greatest champions, it is Godfrey Gauss.

But by 1881, the Lincoln County War was over and all the participants dead or pardoned (with the notable exception of Billy the Kid – the only man convicted of a crime in the bloody six-months-long “war”). Old Gauss found himself employed as a janitor and handyman at the courthouse – working for the very folks who shot up his boys during the war. So how would he feel when the charismatic leader of the Regulators was chained up in the courthouse, waiting to hang?

Did Gauss actually help Billy escape? It’s hard to prove. All anyone really knows is that a gunshot rang out and Deputy Bell burst through out of the courthouse and died… in Godfrey Gauss’s arms. Then Gauss called out to Deputy Olinger…bringing Olinger directly into range of Billy’s shotgun. Then Gauss broke Billy’s shackles and saddled him up a horse. Then Gauss somehow was able to explain away the whole thing to Sheriff Garrett without incriminating himself.

So was Guass not just an eyewitness but a co-conspirator?

The question will probably never be answered, but I personally like the idea of old, gimpy Godfrey Gauss giving Billy the gun that let him shoot his way to freedom. But maybe I've seen too many Gabby Hayes movies.