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The mystery of Billy the Kid

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Did the wild west myth have Gallup/Ramah ties?

Billy the Kid is a bit of a wild west myth. Something to hold on to, something to remember the olden days by.

But who was he, really? Who is really buried in the ground out at Fort Sumner? Some people don’t think that it’s Billy the Kid – who was born Henry McCarthy – who was buried there on July 14, 1881. Instead, some people believe someone else is buried at the gravesite and that the Kid actually escaped, changed his name, and was able to live somewhere else – perhaps in Ramah.

Billy the Kid was born sometime around between 1859-1861, according to aboutbillythekid.com, although his actual date of birth is unknown. His mother died when he was 15, and after that, McCarthy’s life took a turn for the worst. He began stealing and picking fights.

But it wasn’t until the Lincoln County War in 1878 that McCarthy became a true outlaw. The War started when a man named John Turnstall came to Lincoln County, N.M., and set up a store. Businessman and store owner Lawrence Murphy and his business partners dominated the town and county of Lincoln, and they were not happy when Turnstall arrived.

The conflict came to a head when Turnstall was shot on Feb. 18, 1878. Turnstall’s cowboys, who called themselves “the Regulators,” went out to avenge him, and McCarthy was a part of that group. A battle ensued, lasting five days in Lincoln.

After the battle, McCarthy fled, officially labeled an outlaw.

McCarthy and three other men were eventually accused of murdering a man named Morris Bernstein, who was simply caught up in the gunfire of the war on Aug. 5, 1878.

McCarthy, a.k.a. “Billy the Kid,” was captured in December 1880 by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett and stood trial for Bernstein’s murder. He was sentenced to death by hanging in April 1881 but escaped jail on April 28, 1881, after he killed two deputies.

McCarthy was able to remain on the run until Garrett tracked him down on July 14 at a ranch in Fort Sumner, N.M., and shot him.

Or did he?

Many men have claimed to have been Billy the Kid, but the one with local ties was from Ramah and his name was John Miller.

WHO WAS JOHN MILLER?

In an interview with the Sun, Michael Giudicissi, a man who has a podcast about Billy the Kid, titled All Things Billy the Kid, explained John’s background, and shared some evidence that backs the theory that John was indeed Billy the Kid.

Giudicissi started his podcast on Jan. 2, 2022. He’s been interested in Billy the Kid and the legend behind him ever since he saw the movie Young Guns as a teenager on a date. He said he hadn’t really wanted to see the movie, but the girl he was dating was “in love with Kiefer Sutherland,” who played Josiah Gordon “Doc” Scurlock, a founding member of the Regulators.  However, he said once he saw all the action on screen, he was hooked on the story of Billy the Kid.

“I was fascinated, wondering if what I was seeing on the screen was actually the truth,” Giudicissi said.

The first record of John is his marriage license from Aug. 8, 1881, which was less than a month from when Billy the Kid allegedly died. John married a woman named Isadora in Las Vegas, N.M. During the wedding ceremony, John was allegedly seen with a gunshot wound, Giudiccisi said.

“John Miller has not been proven not to be Billy the Kid. But the reason for that is because there’s essentially zero information, data, facts, or evidence about John Miller’s existence before 1881 or so,” Giudicissi said. “So while you can look circumstantially and say he probably wasn’t [Billy the Kid] for a number of these reasons, we can’t place him anywhere else that would exclude him from being Billy the Kid, and I think that’s the part that fascinates some people, and that’s why the legend of John Miller potentially being the Kid grew.”

Giudicissi listed a few facts that point to the possibility of John being the Kid.

“If you look at pictures of Miller later in life, he’s got the narrow shoulders like Billy did …. You can look at him and ‘okay, that’s a guy who could’ve been Billy,’” Giudicissi said. “The one photo that we have definitively of Billy was taken in 1879, maybe 1880, when he was no more than 20 years old, and could’ve been as young as 17 at that time. So to try and compare that old photo, which is in horrible shape, to a photo of a guy that was taken 60-70 years later, it’s pretty challenging. But there’s no obvious thing that says it couldn’t be him because John Miller had four arms or something like that.”

Another fact that suggests that John may have been Billy the Kid is the lifestyle he and his wife led. Although they did live in Ramah for a time managing cattle, they often moved around.

“The second thing is John Miller and his wife lived a kind of nomadic lifestyle. Almost as if they didn’t want to stay in one place too long,” Giudicissi explained. “So people who believe [John Miller is Billy the Kid] seize upon that and say, ‘well of course if he was Billy he wouldn’t want to hang around and be discovered.’”

Giudicissi said that there were a couple of times John admitted to being Billy the Kid while he was drunk, but once he sobered up the next day, he would deny what he’d previously said.

John died in 1937 in Prescott, Ariz., in a nursing home, according to Giudicissi. Isadora had died years earlier in a fire that consumed their home.

Giudicissi noted that after John died, a probate officer found a trunk in John’s room at the nursing home he was living in. He knew it needed to go to the next of kin, so he went on a mission to the Gallup/Ramah area to find someone related to John.

John and Isadora never had biological children, but they did adopt a Native American boy named Max. Giudicissi said he wasn’t sure if the man was able to find Max Miller  when he traveled to the Ramah/Gallup area.

The trunk supposedly contained information proving that John was Billy the Kid. However, Giudicissi said the contents of the trunk were never disclosed publicly.

“I think the idea that there’s a trunk out there with something in it that could prove John Miller was Billy the Kid still fascinates some people,” Giudicissi said.

JOHN MILLER’S LEGACY

Max may have been adopted, but the family he would go on to have still claim John Miller as their own and believe that he was, in fact, Billy the Kid.

Leeah N. Long-Edwards, Max’s biological great-granddaughter, said she thinks her adopted great-great-grandfather was the famous outlaw.

“I believe what I’ve read and what I’ve heard from family members that John Miller was Billy the Kid,” Long-Edwards said. “My interest was first sparked when my dad had me read Whatever Happened to Billy the Kid? by Helen Airy, and since then I’ve done a lot of research and I’ve been so involved in everything and anything that mentions Billy the Kid. So, for me, it can’t not be true.”

Giudicissi has also read Airy’s book, although he has a bit of a different opinion than Long-Edwards. He said the book was filled with “hearsay” rather than facts and that Airy used recollections from people who reported stories they heard from other people.

As for the trunk, Long-Edwards said her dad, Lloyd Long, heard about it but that her family ultimately believes that the trunk was lost in the fire that killed Isadora. However, the family does believe that the trunk held a pistol and rifle inside it.

In 2008, Stagecoach Café owner John Lewis may have actually found one of the guns that might have belonged to John.

He bought the gun at an estate sale. He brought his new purchase back to the Café, where a group gathered to take a look at it.

Lewis said that’s when a woman approached him and said the gun belonged to her grandfather and that Billy the Kid originally owned it. Lewis never caught the woman’s name, and he said he hasn’t heard from her since.

When Long-Edwards heard Lewis’s story, she immediately reached out to him and set up a meeting so that she and her dad could see the gun. In her interview with the Sun, Long-Edwards said that the meeting was scheduled for the week of Jan. 2, weather permitting.

Long-Edwards said she’s looking forward to talking to Lewis and learning what he knows about John and Billy the Kid in general.

As for Lloyd, he grew up with people telling him that his grandfather Max was Billy the Kid’s kid.

Long-Edwards says her dad wishes he had written down the things that were discussed about John Miller and Billy the Kid when he was younger. It was his mother, Maxine Miller, who knew the stories about Billy the Kid. Her father was Max, and he always told her stories about her grandfather.

Maxine died in July 2008 when she was 74 years old. Long-Edwards said a lot of the Billy the Kid family stories died with her grandmother.

As for John, the family is just as uncertain as the rest of the world of when he was born. But Long-Edwards confirmed he did die in November 1937.

Nowadays, the story of Billy the Kid and their family connection to the myth is something that brings Long-Edwards’s family together. She said that when someone in the family, such as herself, her dad, her husband, or her older sister, finds something new about Billy the Kid, they all gather to discuss it.

“It brings us together because we all share the same interest, and we can all agree about it,” Long-Edwards said. “It’s also a way to keep my grandma Maxine around because when we talk about it, we usually venture out and my dad starts talking about his younger days, or about my grandma.”

THE MYSTERY PERSISTS

So while it is still unknown whether Billy the Kid died on July 14, 1881, or if he escaped and lived his life under another name (perhaps John Miller), Long-Edwards says that’s what makes the Billy the Kid story fun.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Long-Edwards said. “It’s what you believe, and there’s just something really special about not knowing.”

John is buried in Prescott, Ariz. In May 2005, the former sheriff of Lincoln County, Tom Sullivan, and the former mayor of Capitan, N.M., Steve Sederwall, exhumed John’s body. Giudicissi said they were able to find remains of John’s skull, and it did have two “buck teeth” similar to Billy’s.

The two men soon faced legal troubles and lots of backlash.

According to a 2005 Tucson Weekly article, Fredrick Nolan, author of The West of Billy the Kid, declared the dig-up effort ridiculous and the two men “ignorant of history.”

Giudicissi said that at the time, there was nothing to compare John’s DNA to, so people could learn if he was the real Billy the Kid. At the time, there was discussion about exhuming the body of Billy’s mother, Catherine Antrim.

However, almost 20 years later, there is still no clear answer. And Long-Edwards and her family are okay with that. She said they would not want John’s body exhumed again.

“I hope [the myth] is continued,” Long-Edwards said. “I hope it’s questioned for generations.”

By Molly Ann Howell
Sun Correspondent

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