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.