Billy the Kid's Two Graves
Fort Sumner, New Mexico
Billy The Kid was killed in Fort Sumner on July 14, 1881, and today it is the only reason anyone makes the trip. The road south from Santa Rosa is unmarred by other towns or highway patrols and, soon enough, the signs for Fort Sumner's main attraction appear.
First, yellow paint-on-plywood says only: SEE BILLY THE KID'S REAL GRAVE. Just ahead, another sign reads BILLY THE KID MUSEUM (though tacked above it is a newer thought: "Featured On ABC Prime Time Live.") We don't know it yet, but the signs are for two different and competing museums. Then we hit a third sign, an official town sign, which, we realize later, is a product of local peacemakers, "We've got the Kid...and so much more." It features a painting of Billy The Kid's Gravestone.
But is it a painting of the Kid's real gravestone, or of the fake? You can see where this is going.
The Billy The Kid Museum has been downtown since the 1950s, with decayed mannequins of Billy and Sheriff Pat Garrett outside, in hothouse-like glass boxes perched on the second floor. The museum has accumulated the sedimentary layers of local junk and curiosity you'd expect. A calf with 8 legs, WWI artillery shells, plows and barber chairs, typewriters and irons, foreign money, a 1962 Barbie and 1965 Ken, a Thermos from 1908. Near the ceiling hang various thrift store Billy The Kid portraits.
In the Billy The Kid Room, cases of memorabilia feature the Kid's rifle, a lock of hair, and a rock from his Stinking Springs hideout. His name is carved among the names and initials of others, like it was an old public picnic table. A curtain is pressed behind a large glass frame. On the glass is painted, "This Curtain Hung Over Door Where 'Kid' Was Killed!"
Outside are the graves of Billy The Kid and two of his friends, surrounded by a chain link fence. At the back, a large gravestone reads "PALS." Just above the big stone, a one word sign is wired to the chain link fence, so that it appears in everyone's snapshots. It says "Replica."
The lady at the museum gift shop said that the museum's original owner, Mr. Sweet, had to built the replica because the real cemetery was decayed. Not eager to upset the balance, we let it go at that. She makes sure we know that the museum with the real grave is not an official state monument, either, though the other museum would have you believe it. Both are several miles south of town, but the only official state monument in the area deals with Indian deprivations.
A few blocks down the road toward the next museum, we see a billboard announcing, "Old Fort Sumner Museum & Real Grave of Billy The Kid." Real Grave is italicized.
The real grave is in a real graveyard behind the Old Fort Sumner Museum ("Since 1932 - De Baca County's Original Museum"). This museum has The Kid's letters to Governor Lew Wallace, press photos from Young Guns I and II, the coroner's report in both English and Spanish, and The Kid's life story told in 14 painted works by "Noted Artist Howard Suttle."
But the first museum has exhausted our desire for detritus, and we quickly make it back to the authentic gravesite. First, biting flies block our path. Then a steel cage does.
Why the big cage, akin to something you'd see in a WWF smackdown? It turns out that the real headstone had been stolen three times, the first time back in 1950. It stayed missing for 26 years, before it was found in Granbury, TX (a town once filled with aging outlaws whose deaths were faked). Then it got swiped in 1981, recovered a week later in Huntington Beach, CA, and vamoosed again more recently.
Coins (almost all quarters when we visited, an authentic tribute) are scattered on the graves. The Kid's Pals are unadorned. The Kid is under reinforced concrete, his footstone restrained by its own iron shackles.
Ironically, after all of this, the exact location of The Kid's grave in the graveyard isn't known. A flood washed away the wooden tombstones not long after Billy's death, and the current grave site is just a guess.
Across the street from the Old Fort Sumner Museum is a billboard for the Billy The Kid Museum. It mentions that it is the most complete privately owned museum in the Southwest, and that it has Billy's Rifle, but does not mention its replica grave. It does, however, advertise Clean Restrooms.
The Billy the Kid Museum has one exhibit showing that in 1962 Lincoln County filed suit to have The Kid's body exhumed and replanted in Lincoln (the other Billy The Kid hotbed in New Mexico). Lincoln lost the case, but the fact that Fort Sumner had lost the gravestone (and its mealticket) a decade earlier couldn't have helped matters. Looking back, the replica grave probably showed the judge that Fort Sumner had just enough dedication that they deserved to keep the body.
Oh, and did we mention that the town has Tombstone Races, where challengers run around with 80-pound replicas during the second week in June? That sounds like something the judge ordered back in '62, as a civic act of penance so that Fort Sumner would be more careful in the future.