Wanted! Billionaire pays big for outlaw’s portrait
In life, he was a Wild West killer, but more than a century after his death he's a hero. The only photograph of Billy the Kid just fetched $2.3m at auction. Why this fascination with outlaws?
The image is blurry and grey, creased and torn, but the figure still cuts a dash: a black hat sitting at a rakish angle and a youthful figure leaning casually on his rifle with a definite swagger.
This tintype, an early sort of photographic reproduction, is the only authenticated picture of Billy the Kid, the famous teenage outlaw said to have killed up to 27 people. It was taken in New Mexico around 1880, just a year before he was gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett. He was probably only 21 when he died, although his date of birth is uncertain.
An American billionaire and Wild West enthusiast called William Koch paid $2.3million (£1.4million) for it at an auction in Denver, Colorado, promising to let some museums display the portrait as well as wanting to enjoy the picture for himself. It was expected to fetch only $400,000.
Part of the interest in Billy the Kid comes from a dispute that is still continuing about whether he should have received a posthumous pardon: a campaigner argued last year that the young outlaw had surrendered before he was shot, agreeing to be a witness in a murder trial. But the Governor of New Mexico decided against granting a pardon, in spite of public support for the move.
During his life, Billy maintained that his crimes had been misreported: 'I don't blame you for writing of me as you have' he told a Las Vegas Gazette journalist. 'You had to believe other stories, but then I don't know if any one would believe anything good of me anyway.'
If the reality was sensationalised by reporters – and by the Sheriff, who wrote it all up in book form – then it was in a long tradition of crime stories closely bound up with the origins of popular fiction. Early novels, by writers like Daniel Defoe, were fictionalised picaresque adventures, published as if factual, of roguish characters both male and female. Gradually these became acknowledged inventions, with novelists named on the flyleaf.
The Americans have Billy the Kid and other Wild West heroes, but the British have Robin Hood, and the Australians Ned Kelly: even now, Aussie cricket fans sometimes attend matches wearing helmets shaped like Kelly's famous homemade armour, but made out of beer cans.
It seems many cultures have their own villains turned folk-heroes. Some of them were probably no more than thugs. Do we love them because they escaped not only the law but also the humdrum and the everyday?
- Do you enjoy Robin Hood's adventures or tales of Wild West gunslinger heroes? What's the appeal?
- Does it change how you feel about a book or film if you know that it's about real life, or history, rather than a work of pure imagination?
- Choose an outlaw hero from this story or the links and write a dramatic episode in their life as a story or a play – or make a picture. It could be a crime, capture or killing, or a moment of repentance or imprisonment.
- Research the origins of crime fiction using the links, and think about why it's so popular. Make a short presentation to the class.
Some People Say...
“No criminal should be treated as a hero.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So Billy the Kid was a real figure in history?
- Yes, but with all these outlaws, the history gets romanticised as it is retold and embellished. And errors are made: because this tintype is a reverse image, it led to the mistaken belief that Billy the Kid used his left hand. A film starring Paul Newman was even called The Left Handed Gun.
- I know. But it's a thin line between fact and fiction with these stories. The earliest crime stories were pamphlets describing the exploits of felons supposedly from their own eve-of-execution 'confessions,' but probably by reporters eager to cash in on public fascination with rogues and outsiders.
- So we've always loved an outlaw?
- Well, these figures seem to have become heroes partly because they came from the underclass, yet made a glamorous, swashbuckling career out of crime. Or, like Robin Hood, lived among the poor. And they spawned a whole literary and cinematicgenre.
- Books or films in which a main character, often a criminal, has strings of adventures, often in unrelated episodes. From the Spanish 'picaro' or rogue – the first of these stories were Spanish.
- Literally, someone who has been placed beyond the protection of the law, so anyone is free to kill or persecute them. From the medieval era in Britain, criminal acts or debt could result in men over 14 being named as outlaws.
- Adjective to describe something that happens after someone is dead.
- A category of book or film, for example thriller, romance or comedy.