Last Days



The day after being sentenced the Kid was loaded into a coach for the five-day journey to Lincoln, and again was told if there were a rescue attempt or a lynch mob, his guards would kill him first. There were seven heavily armed men in the escort, including Bill Mathews, John “King of the Rustlers” Kinney, and the burly Bob Olinger. All three fought on the Dolan side and were prejudiced against the Kid -Olinger in particular. The Kid and Olinger had a mutual hatred because Olinger shot John Jones, a friend of the Kid’s, in cold-blood. Afterwards, Olinger learned the Kid wanted to kill him in revenge. Their resentment for each other sparked the bitter animosity. During the long trip to Lincoln, Olinger took advantage of the Kid’s helpless situation by taunting and provoking him to escape. The Kid kept his sense of humor and ignored him. It was a tense trip. If the Kid so much as made a wrong move, his guards would have shot him, but sources say he remained in good spirits.

James Dolan (seated)  & Bob Olinger (1879)
Photo from R.G. McCubbin Collection

Finally on April 21st, the Kid arrived in Lincoln. There was no suitable jail, so the Kid was confined in a backroom adjoined to Garrett’s office in the old two-story Murphy store, which was now a courthouse. He was to remain handcuffed and shackled at all times and was either chained to the floor or a line was drawn across the room, which he was forbidden to cross or he would be shot. To eliminate any chance of escape, Garrett had two of his deputies remain with the Kid in the room as a 24-hour gurad; the two guards were Olinger and James Bell.


The Courthouse in Lincoln (late 1880s-90s)
Photo from R.N. Mullin Collection

The staircase from the balcony was not added until much later after the Kid's escape.
Billy the Kid was confined on the second story, front left corner room. The side window you see is where the Kid shot Olinger.


Lincoln courthouse as it looks today.
Webmaster's photo (2000)

Not much as changed, other than the roof and another staircase added to the balcony.
The once hard to see scrawny tree, as seen in the first photo, has now grown so large it blocks out
the view of Billy the Kid's room.

Any other prisoner would have given up hope and come to grips with his fate, but not the Kid! His mind was still at work on escaping, but time was running out. The Kid had to act fast on the first opportunity, but he had to wait patiently for the right moment. If he made the slightest wrong move or even looked as if he was thinking of escape, Olinger would split him in two with his shotgun, which he teased the Kid with everyday.

About a week after the Kid's arrival, Garrett had left Lincoln to collect taxes, leaving his two guards in charge. On April 28th, at noon, with only two lawmen in the whole town, the Kid saw his golden opportunity. He knew it was Olinger’s turn to take the other prisoners, who were also confined at the courthouse, across the street for lunch at the Wortley Hotel (the Kid ate his meals in his room), which meant only Bell would be at the courthouse to guard him. The Kid knew, out of his two guards, it would be best to make his move on Bell who was easy-going and not on a power trip as Olinger was. As soon as Olinger was long gone with the other prisoners and eating his meal, the Kid then made his move. The only time the Kid was allowed to leave the room was for visits to the privy (outhouse), so he asked Bell to take him outside.

What happened next is a subject for debate; one version, which seems the more popular, is that the Kid retrieved a gun that was hidden in the privy by a friend.  As he entered the courthouse and climbed the stairs and reached the top, he turned around with the gun drawn and told Bell to surrender. Bell panicked and spun around to run down the stairs leaving the Kid with no choice but to shoot him.

The next version, which I find the most logical, comes from the Kid himself. After his escape, the Kid told his friend, John Meadows, whom he visited right after he left town a free man, that he slipped his small hand out of one of the cuffs, whacked Bell over the head and jerked Bell’s revolver out of the holster and told him to throw up his hands. But instead, Bell turned and ran down the stairs and the Kid shot him. This then explains the two gashes found on Bell’s head, the scuffling sound which was heard from the groundskeeper, Gottfried Gauss, who was standing outside by the door and caught the dying Bell as he rushed into his arms, and lastly, it explains why Bell just ran instead of pulling out his own gun and shooting as he fled. After all, Bell was a veteran lawman, and couldn’t have been that timid (or stupid).

At the restaurant, Olinger heard the shots fired and darted outside. As he rounded the gate into the yard of the courthouse, he heard a familiar voice, “Hello Bob.” he looked up and saw the Kid at the window with his own shotgun pointing right at him. At that moment the startled groundskeeper came running from behind the building, saw Olinger and yelled out, “The Kid killed Bell!” Olinger then replied, “Yes, and he’s killed me too.” The Kid then let Olinger have it with both barrels and his tormentor and killer of his friend John Jones, fell dead.

Next, the Kid had Gauss toss him up a small pick that was lying on the ground and told him to saddle a horse. The townspeople made no move to interfere as the Kid took his sweet time in leaving. After using the pick to free only one leg from the shackles, the Kid went out on the balcony and saw that a small crowd had gathered and was watching from from across the street; a witness’s statement of what the Kid said would verify how he killed Bell:

“He stood on the upper porch in front of the building and talked with the people who were in Wortley’s, but he would not let anyone come towards him. He told the people that he did not want to kill Bell, but as he ran, he had to. He said he grabbed Bell’s revolver and told him to hold up his hands and surrender and that Bell decided to run and he had to kill him. He declared he was ‘standing pat’ against the world and while he did not wish to kill anybody, if anybody interfered with his attempt to escape, he would kill him.”

After arming himself with revolvers and a rifle, he went down the stairs and out the back door. As he passed the body of Bell, Gauss heard him say, “I’m sorry I had to kill you, but couldn’t help it.” As the Kid went around the building to the gate, with Gauss probably following behind leading a saddled horse, the Kid came to the blood-soaked body of Olinger. Showing no remorse as he had shown for Bell, he kicked the corpse and said “You’re not going to round me up again!” The Kid mounted the horse with some difficulty on account of his leg irons that were dangling from one leg and rode off. The townsmen made no move to stop him, though they could have easily mobbed or shot him to death, but instead they stood back and allowed him to escape. It wasn't because they were “paralyzed with fear” as Garrett claimed, but more likely, it was out of sympathy and understanding of Billy the Kid's predicament.


Instead of making a run for the border, the Kid hung around in the county, dropping by on friends and telling them about his daring escape from jail as if he had just come back from vacation. His friends advised him to leave the territory, but the Kid was confident he wouldn’t get caught and he told them he would first go to Fort Sumner to get some money.

For the next two months the Kid hid out at different locations in San Miguel County, but mostly in Fort Sumner. There was a number of Billy the Kid sightings, but how many of them were legitimate is up for debate. One thing was for certain, the Kid had returned to his old haunts and was making no immediate plans of leaving New Mexico.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Garrett was doing a low profile search for the Kid. Unlike before, he wouldn’t form a large posse, nor would he even try to catch him alive. His plan was to sneak up on the Kid and kill him. By early July, Garrett received word that the Kid was in or near Fort Sumner and he may have gotten this tip from Pete Maxwell, the older brother of Paulita Maxwell, one the Kid’s girlfriends. Maxwell didn’t like the Kid around his sister, who was going to marry a prominent and wealthy figure in New Mexico. So with information on the Kid’s whereabouts, Garrett took John Poe and Kip McKinney with him; men he could trust to keep their mouths shut and not question his actions, and he headed to Fort Sumner quietly.

It was July 14, 1881. The Kid was warned that the law was looking for him in the area, so he hid out at a sheepherder’s camp. But by the afternoon or evening, he decided to ride into Fort Sumner. Garrett had searched the area and even sent Poe in town to look around; becoming frustrated, Garrett was thinking about leaving (or he knew the Kid was at the Fort and was just waiting for the right moment).  The Kid, in the meantime, was hiding in town unaware that Garrett was in the vicinity; he visited with his friends and sweethearts, going from one house to the other, but where exactly and with who he planned to stay with for the night is questionable.

Pete Maxwell's house (1882)
Photo from R.G. McCubbin Collection

Billy the Kid was shot and killed in Pete Maxwell's bedroom.
It's a bedroom that is entered from the side of the house (not in),
the first  left corner room just beyond the gate and behind the pillar.

It was getting late and the residents were bedding down for the night, Garrett slipped out of the shadows and went to Pete Maxwell’s house to ask him about the Kid. While Poe and McKinney waited outside, Garrett entered Maxwell’s room and woke the sleeping man. At that moment, the Kid, who was staying at a friend’s house, was getting  hungry. His host or hostess told him that Maxwell had butchered a yearling and for him to help himself to it, and then bring the meat back and they would cook it for him. The Kid grabbed a butcher knife and stepped outside and walked across the plaza to Maxwell's house. As he approached the porch, he almost stepped over the two men who were sitting down outside Maxwell’s room. The men rose and told the intruder not to be startled. The Kid didn’t recognize the men and backed into Maxwell’s dark bedroom. Once inside he walked over to the bed and in a low voice he said “Pete…Who are those fellows outside?” Garrett was sitting at the foot of the bed and Maxwell lay still and whispered, “That’s him.” The Kid walked closer to the bed and again asked “Pete?” then he saw the silhouette of a figure sitting in front of him. The Kid moved back slowly, and said “Quien es?” Garrett recalled in The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, “He must have recognized me, for he went backwards in a cat-like movement, and I jerked my gun and fired.” Garrett fired twice, the Kid fell to the floor, and then both Garrett and Maxwell bolted out the door. The Kid was shot through the heart and gasped for a minute or two and died. The men outside huddled outside the door and heard the Kid’s death rattle. Certain the Kid was dead, Maxwell got a candle and the men entered the room. They found the Kid lying on his back in the middle of the room with a gun in one hand and a knife in the other.

This is the story that Garrett told and has been accepted, but did it really happen this way? Was the Kid really armed or had his gun drawn? Since he didn’t die right away, how come he didn’t shoot back or if the gun was in his hand, surely the reaction of getting hit in the chest by a bullet would have caused the gun to go off, but yet Garrett stated the Kid did not fire. Was it really coincidental that the Kid walked in on Garrett and surprised him or was Garrett waiting for him? According to McKinney, Garrett tied up and gagged one of the Kid’s girlfriends and hid in the room and waited for him to walk in. I don’t know about you, but something smells fishy. Considering Garrett’s earlier methods of dealing with outlaws, which was by ambush, this incident probably wasn’t as “Kosher” -if you will- as Garrett would want us to believe.

The residents were awakened by the gunfire and walked out into the plaza towards Maxwell’s house. Upon learning that the Kid was dead, men were shaking their fists at Garrett and women were weeping. Garrett allowed the Kid’s friends to take his body across the plaza to the carpenter’s shop to give him a wake. The next morning, Justice of the Peace, Milnor Rudulph, viewed the body and made out the death certificate, but Garrett rejected the first one and demanded another one be written more in his favor. The Kid’s body was then prepared for burial, and at noon he was laid to rest next to his two friends: Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre.

New Mexico’s famous outlaw Billy the Kid, about nineteen or twenty years old, was dead, but his legend was born.

The gravesite of Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner
Webmaster's photo (2000)

                          The epitaph on the smaller gray stone reads:                         
    Born Nov 23 1860 Killed Jul 14, 1881


After the Kid’s death, Garrett was viewed with suspicion, though there were many who were grateful for Garrett riding the territory of the famous outlaw, just as many felt it was foul play. To win public opinion, Garrett, with the help of Ash Upson, wrote a biography on Billy the Kid, and if one reads it closely, you can sense Garrett’s remorse. Maybe he hoped writing the book would lift the dark cloud that hung over him, which may be why Garrett portrayed the Kid as half Satan to make him a threat to society to gain reader’s support for his actions, and then half Saint, to show his admiration for the Kid and how he was only doing his duty in hunting the young outlaw. In the end, the book made a Judas out of Garrett for going after his old friend and killing him. The biography ended up turning Billy the Kid into a legend and Pat Garrett as the villain. For the rest of his life, Garrett was haunted by a guilt conscious, he would become uncomfortable when people asked him about the killing, and he would later hint to friends that he wished he never took the job to hunt down the Kid. This regretful behavior by Garrett furthers my assumption that he planned out and ambushed the Kid in the dark with Pete Maxwell's help.

History has been very unfair to Billy the Kid. I don’t think any other western historical figure has had his name dragged through the mud and represented so inaccurately and negatively.  He never robbed banks or trains like Jesse James. He never killed without a probable cause like men such as John Wesley Hardin and Clay Allison. He never was a large-scale rustler, raiding ranches and terrorizing the inhabitants like John Selman or Jesse Evans. He never hurt, raped or insulted women, nor harm children or the elderly.

But I’ll tell you who Billy the Kid was: he was an orphan who unintentionally fell into outlawry, a lifestyle he couldn’t get out of. He tried to make peace with the law and his enemies, and both times it backfired on him, making things worse. He was never the captain of the Regulators, but just another fighter. The Lincoln County War itself would have turned out the same way, if he had never taken part in it. He killed only in self-defense and during the war. The men he killed weren’t angels, but were either bullies or outlaws, like the case of  Morton and Baker, who were both members of “the Boys.” The lawmen he killed were not honest men trying to “protect and serve,” but crooked and corrupt. The Kid did steal livestock, but in some cases he either paid for or returned what he had taken. He even recovered stolen livestock for small ranchers and judging by the poverty state he was always in, it seems he didn't steal enough.

I’m not saying Billy the Kid was an angel who rode around with a halo over his head. He did do some wrong, but he was not a Charles Manson of the 19th century. There were other outlaws of his time who fit that bill, and that’s why no one today has really heard of them, because they really were bad and not worth remembering.

In closing, I hope I have changed someone’s perspective on Billy the Kid, from a dark villainous outlaw to a misunderstood youth, an underdog, a rebel, a scapegoat and a good badman.


If you have read this whole biography from beginning to end, I congratulate and thank you for your time and patience, and most of all your interest to learn more about Billy the Kid. Thank you for visiting my website and I hope you found it informative.


Bell, Boze Bob   The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid  Second Edition,    
                           Tri-Star-Boze Production, Inc.  1996                            

Nolan, Frederick   The West of Billy the Kid University of Oklahoma Press,             
                              Norman  1998

Nolan, Frederick   Pat Garrett’s The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, An            
                             annotated edition with notes and commentary by
                            Frederick Nolan
, University of Oklahoma Press,  Norman 2000

Tatum, Stephen  Inventing Billy the Kid: Visions of the Outlaw in America, 1881-
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque  1982

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