The Trial of Billy the Kid named 2021 Best Book Award Finalist in the United States History category.
The Trial of Billy the Kid, by David G. Thomas
On April 8, 1881, Billy the Kid stood trial for the murder of Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory Sheriff William Brady. The legal proceedings lasted just a few days, but set in motion a series of infamous events over the next three months.
In The Trial of Billy the KId, David G. Thomas argues that the legal proceeding was the most important event in the Kid’s young life. That’s debatable, but Thomas does an admirable job of laying out his argument.
The research is impeccable, with practically every sentence footnoted. Excerpts from newspaper accounts are included throughout the book. When I first picked it up, I thought, “Can somebody do an entire book on an event that took just a few days?” Thomas answers “yes” in this one — and you’ll definitely agree. — Mark Boardman, True West Magazine.
The Trial of Billy the Kid, by David G. Thomas
This latest offering in a well-researched and much-recommended series written by Las Cruces–based David Thomas centers on New Mexico’s unofficial state outlaw, Billy the Kid—hardly an untapped subject. But as the author notes in the introduction, “Billy’s trial is the least written about and, until this book, the least known event of Billy’s adult life.” The best-known periods of the Kid’s life are probably his coming of age in Silver City, N.M. (including his mother’s death, his first arrest, his jailing and his escape); his fighting years in the Lincoln County War (in support of the John Tunstall/Alexander McSween faction); his April 28, 1881, escape from the courthouse in Lincoln (during which he killed two of Sheriff Pat Garrett’s deputies); and his July 14, 1881, shooting death by Garrett in Fort Sumner. Yet Thomas contends that Billy’s murder trial in Mesilla, which ended in a “hanging sentence,” was the pivotal event in the Kid’s life, as it doomed him to an early death.
There were actually two Billy trials in Mesilla. The first, for the killing of Andrew L. “Buckshot” Roberts, was thrown out on April 6, 1881, as the federal government lacked jurisdiction. The second, for the killing of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady, began on April 8 with the selection of jurors. A day later those jurors found Billy guilty of first-degree murder, which meant a death sentence. Why the brief trial has received so little coverage (usually just time, place, names and result) is explainable in part by the fact there was no transcript. “The rule of the court,” Thomas explains, “was that if a case was not appealed, then the court did not pay the clerk to make a formal transcript for the case file. That was an unnecessary expense for an unappealed case.”
On April 13 Judge Warren Bristol sentenced Billy to hang a month later in Lincoln. During the trail the Kid did not testify in his own defense; in fact, his attorney, Colonel Albert Fountain, called no witnesses. “Billy’s defense,” Thomas writes, “consisted only of what Colonel Fountain could tell the jury on his behalf. It appears that Colonel Fountain provided Billy with something less than the most vigorous defense.” Further, the author adds, “Billy had several grounds for the appeal he never received.” Much of the trial information Thomas presents comes from Las Cruces–based Newman’s Semi-Weekly, a short-lived newspaper published between March and July 1881.
Despite the book’s title, Thomas covers far more here than just the trail (which would have made for an extremely short book). The first seven chapters mostly detail the actions that led to the murder charges against Billy. Much of this material will be familiar to fans of the Kid, though Thomas presents it well, especially the way he demonstrates how New Mexico Territorial Governor Lew Wallace was guilty of a “pardon betrayal.” Wallace issued a blanket amnesty to men who committed crimes and misdemeanors during the Lincoln War, with the exception of Billy, with whom he later reneged on a pardon agreement. The trial action in Mesilla is limited to Chapter 8. The last two chapters of the 280-page book relate the post-trial story. Thomas includes three appendices, including a helpful cast of characters mentioned in the book. – Wild West Magazine
A Gem of Old West History Revealed in “The Trial of Billy the Kid”
by Jim Alkon
Students of the Wild West not long ago were treated to a fascinating work of research and storytelling in “Killing Pat Garrett,” a blow-by-blow account of the period’s most famous lawman, so precise that you felt author David G. Thomas was huddled behind a bush hearing every word firsthand.
While Garrett lived a notable life, his infamy as the Wild West’s most famous lawman was based on one singular achievement — the killing of Billy the Kid. So wouldn’t it stand to reason that Thomas, leaving no stone unturned, would focus his attention on another magnificently researched narrative entitled The Trial of Billy the Kid?
While the book documents the events leading up to the capture of Billy the Kid, whose real name was William Henry McCarty, the focus is on the trial. Strangely, while Thomas points out that the result of the trial sealed his fate, it is also the least written about and least known event of his adult life. This book remedies that oversight by Old West historians.
The book opens with the chain of events that led to Billy’s trial — his capture by Pat Garrett, his incarceration in jail, and flashbacks that produce criminal charges. “An extended flashback is unusual in a history book,” writes Thomas, “but it is the best way to tell the story of Billy’s trial.”
“I consider Billy’s trial the most important event in Billy’s life,” Thomas continues. “If Billy had escaped death on July 14, 1881, and went on to live out more of his life, that escape and not his trial would probably be the most important event of Billy’s life.”
AN IMPORTANT, YET UNDEREXPLORED, CHAPTER IN THE OUTLAW’S LIFE
For some reason, details of Billy’s trial have not been examined in past works. Thomas sheds light on everything from Billy’s defense to witnesses who stood up for him to the makeup of the jury, legal grounds to appeal, and whether the trial was in fact even fair. The book also includes 131 photos, including many never published before.
Regarding Billy’s capture, Garrett was staked outside a ranch house with Billy and others inside. As Garrett describes, “Shivering with cold, we awaited daylight or a movement from the inmates of the house. I had a perfect description of the Kid’s dress, especially his hat. I had told all the posse that, should the Kid make an appearance, it was my intention to kill him, and the rest would surrender. I told my men, when I brought up my gun, to all raise and fire.”
After the actual trial, Thomas recounts a fascinating interview with Billy by a local editor. Hearing him speak and share his insights is pure gold for Western historians.
And for readers thinking the trial marked the end for Billy, well, truth can be stranger than fiction, as the criminal had one disappearing act left.
The Trial of Billy the Kid is a formidable work, a brilliant piece of research molded into a story of one of the West’s most famous outlaws. Anyone from historians, students and readers wondering how such a comprehensive piece of history can be so precisely recounted will want to jump into this narrative.
The Trial of Billy the Kid Named 15th Annual National Indie Excellence Winner for Historical Biography.
The Medallion Award is named in honor of Will Rogers, who was an “American stage and film actor, vaudeville performer, cowboy, humorist, newspaper columnist, and social commentator.” He was born November 4, 1879, in Oklahoma and died in an airplane crash August 15, 1935, near Point Barrow, Alaska. Killed with him was aviation pioneer Wiley Post, who was piloting the plane.
Rogers was a prolific author, writing dozens of articles and books. He was an even more prolific screen actor, appearing in 36 silent films and 21 “talkies” between 1918 and 1935.
At the banquet, “Killing Pat Garrett, the Wild West’s Most Famous Lawman – Murder or Self-Defense?” by David G. Thomas received the Medallion Award for best 2020 Western Biography, Third Place.
This book is about Billy the Kid’s trial for murder, and the events leading to that trial. The result of Billy’s trial sealed his fate. And yet Billy’s trial is the least written about, and until this book, the least known event of Billy’s adult life.
Prior biographies have provided extensive – and fascinating – details on Billy’s life, but they supply only a few paragraphs on Billy’s trial. Just the bare facts: time, place, names, result.
Billy’s trial the most important event in Billy’s life. You may respond that his death is more important – it is in anyone’s life! That is true, in an existential sense, but the events that lead to one’s death at a particular place and time, the cause of one’s death, override the importance of one’s actual death. Those events are determinative. Without those events, one does not die then and there. If Billy had escaped death on July 14, 1881, and went on to live out more of his life, that escape and not his trial would probably be the most important event of Billy’s life.
The information presented here has been unknown until now. This book makes it possible to answer these previously unanswerable questions:
Where was Billy captured?
Where was Billy tried?
What were the governing Territorial laws?
What were the charges against Billy?
Was there a trial transcript and what happened to it?
What kind of defense did Billy present?
Did Billy testify in his own defense?
Did Billy have witnesses standing for him?
Who testified against him for the prosecution?
What was the jury like?
What action by the trial judge virtually guaranteed his conviction?
What legal grounds did he have to appeal his verdict?
Was the trial fair?
Supplementing the text are 132 photos, including many photos never published before.
“The Trial of Billy the Kid,” by David G. Thomas. Available in paperback and hardback.
Will Rogers was a respected writer and cowboy entertainer whose work embodied and demonstrated the traditions and values of the American cowboy. The Will Rogers Medallion Award was originally created to recognize quality works of cowboy poetry that honored the Will Rogers heritage, but has expanded to include other works of Western literature and film.
The awards competition takes place annually, and the awards ceremony is held every fall in Fort Worth, Texas.
“Author David G. Thomas has sought to determine – once and for all time – whether former Lincoln County Sheriff Patrick Floyd Garrett was killed as a result of a vast conspiracy of men seeking to avenge Garrett for various acts and to gain possession of his two ranches, or was killed by assassin “Deacon” Jim Miller’s bullets. Or, was he killed due to a spontaneous act of one man, acting alone, who fired in a self-perceived act of self defense….”
“Thomas did extensive research on each of the first two of these widely-accepted accounts that allegedly brought about the cold-blooded murder of Garrett, starting with a close-range gunshot in the back of the head and then shots to the chest while Garrett lay mortally wounded on the ground. Thomas systematically and convincingly discounts all of the alleged conspiracy theories and points out why each is not credible….”
“On the matter of Jim Miller, Thomas provides evidence that Miller never left his Las Vegas hotel the day countless historians have placed Miller miles away with a rifle in hand supposedly ready to assassinate Garrett.”
“He makes the case why Jesse Brazel, who well knew New Mexico’s self-defense law, knew he could kill Garret by claiming Garrett was about to kill him. This was the argument Brazel’s lawyer used in 1909 to get a not guilty jury decision, the trial of which Thomas covers well….”
“His last chapter summarizes and then effectively debunks every major conspiracy theory pertaining to Garrett’s murder. Anyone who clings to any of these theories after reading this chapter does so in spite of Thomas’s credible facts and documentation to the contrary.”
“Many new documents are examined…. Thomas also drew upon 80 never-before cited letters Garrett wrote to his wife.” – Robert J. Stahl, Wild West History Association Journal