No era in history has inspired as much in the world’s collective imagination as the Old West. It was a time of cowboys and Indians, of outlaws and desperados, where a man was only as good as his word and the six-shooter strapped to his belt. One of the most famous outlaws of the Old West was Billy the Kid. During his only 21 years on this Earth, Billy the Kid killed eight men, participated in the fearsome Lincoln County War, and slipped the hangman’s noose in a harrowing prison escape. Although fate and the law seemingly caught up to Billy the Kid, legends persist that he survived his supposed death in 1881 and lived to be an old man. One of the several men who came forward claiming to be Billy the Kid was Ollie “Brushy Bill” Roberts.
Before looking into Roberts’ claims, it is important to examine the life of Billy the Kid in greater detail. Billy the Kid was born as Henry McCarty in 1859 and eventually adopted the name William Bonney. Orphaned at 15, the Kid turned to a life of a crime, committing his first murder at only 17 years old. Bonney later joined the New Mexico-based posse known as the Regulators and ruthlessly squashed any attempt at bringing him to justice. The Kid could only outrun justice for so long, however. On July 14, 1882, Sheriff Pat Garrett caught up to Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Waiting in ambush in the Kid’s darkened bedroom, Sheriff Garrett fired twice, hitting Bonney in the chest and putting an end to the outlaw’s life.
After his death, Billy the Kid became an American legend, his story inspiring countless books and films. Despite Garrett’s account, many men nevertheless came forward claiming to be Billy the Kid and that they had survived the 1881 shooting. One such man was Brushy Bill Roberts. Roberts entered into the Kid’s legend in 1948, when attorney William Morrison heard reports of the elderly man claiming to be the Kid. Morrison became intrigued by Roberts’ claims when known associates of Billy the Kid came forward and alleged that Roberts was the genuine outlaw and gunslinger of legend.
To verify Roberts’ claim, Morrison visited the aging cowboy at his ranch in Hico, Texas. Upon meeting Morrison, the older gentleman confessed to being Billy the Kid. Roberts regaled Morrison with tales of his exploits as an outlaw. Roberts also showed Morrison some of the scars he had from his life of crime, scars that Morrison believed matched those of Billy the Kid. After convincing Morrison that he was the genuine Billy the Kid, Roberts asked the legal expert for help in obtaining a pardon for his past life of crime. Roberts specifically referenced an 1878 proclamation by New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace promising a pardon for those who had participated in the Lincoln County War.
Morrison readily agreed to represent Roberts in his quest for a pardon. After several months of trying to get a meeting with Thomas J. Marby, who was the current governor of New Mexico, Morrison and Roberts finally got a chance to make their case before the state’s chief executive. According to Morrison’s own account, Governor Marby did not take Roberts’ claims seriously. Morrison recalled how Marby rolled his eyes after hearing Roberts’ claims and the meeting ended with the governor refusing to issue the pardon. In his reasoning, Marby cited his belief that Roberts was not the real Billy the Kid. Roberts died just a few weeks after his meeting with Governor Marby on December 27, 1950.
In examining Roberts’ claims, modern historians and investigators remain divided over whether he was the true Billy the Kid. On the one hand, friends and associates of Billy the Kid contend that Roberts was the genuine gunfighter of legend. However, experts on the Old West point out that while Roberts was illiterate, Billy the Kid had a reputation for excellent penmanship. Facial scans of Roberts and Billy the Kid are also inconclusive, and no DNA evidence has thus far been presented to prove that Roberts was Billy the Kid.