Billy the Kid grave replica.
Replica grave lets visitors know that Billy isn't actually buried here.

Billy the Kid Museum and Replica Grave

Field review by the editors.

Fort Sumner, New Mexico

Unless you're driving the shortest route between Santa Fe and Roswell, New Mexico, there's no reason you'd pass through Fort Sumner. The town is miles from anywhere else, which made it a great hideout for a 19th century outlaw like Billy the Kid. Today, it makes the drive to Fort Sumner's Billy the Kid Museum seem like a real adventure. There are no casual visitors. You have to want to be here -- just like Billy, whose serenity was shattered when he was shot dead just south of town in 1881.

Billy the Kid grave replica.
Old West relics and a sign that says it all.

Ed Sweet (1904-1974) opened the Fort Sumner Museum in October 1952. Only three months later, he dumped that name and re-christened his attraction the Billy the Kid Museum. Ed knew the magic power of Billy's name; he'd collected relics of the Kid and other local oddities since he was ten years old.

Ed's original one-room museum gradually grew into a warren of buildings and courtyards. Today it displays over 60,000 items, including animal skulls and heads, old furniture, cars, bicycles, saddles, tools, household gadgets, gas station signs, a wooden airplane propeller, hundreds of guns, a fire truck, old wagons and buggies, farm equipment, Indian cradle boards, Fort Sumner's original tiny post office, cattle baron John Chisum's cavalry sword, and town namesake General Sumner's army blanket. The Wounded Knee Massacre display features one of the U.S. Army's cannon shells, "found on the site."

Billy the Kid Museum.
Hand-painted murals chronicle the Kid's short life.

Billy the Kid display.
Billy's rifle: the museum's most popular artifact.

The museum has an exhibit about New Mexico's infamous invader, Pancho Villa, an old horse-drawn hearse (not Pancho's or Billy's), and a stuffed, 8-legged calf born on a nearby ranch in the 1950s. "Kids would pick at the ears and nose, so we took it off display," said Tim Sweet, the third generation of Sweets to run the museum. "Then every day someone would come in and say, 'Where's the 8-legged calf?' So we had to bring it back."

As you may have guessed, most of the items in the Billy the Kid Museum were not owned by Billy the Kid. When visitors ask why, Tim explains that Billy died young and spent most of his short life in the saddle, on the run from the law. "How much can a guy have who lived on his horse?" Tim said. "He didn't have a home."

Despite the Kid's lack of possessions, there are still more of them here than you'll see anywhere else. Floor-to-ceiling cases of mementoes in the Billy the Kid Room display his Winchester rifle, one of his original Wanted posters, and the angora chaps and silver-tipped spurs that Billy took off of a man he shot. Their exhibit card explains, "He wore these to dances."

Photo op cutout.
Stick your face here.

Visitors can see the pots that cooked the Kid's food out on the range, and a large rock from his Stinking Springs hideout, carved -- like a public picnic table -- with the names of Billy and other ne'er-do-wells. There's the bullet-blasted door of the room where the Kid was killed, and the room's curtains as well, pressed behind glass inside a large decorative frame. Most surprising of all are the hunks of Billy the Kid's hair, saved by a New Mexico barber. "They had the barber chair and wanted to sell it to us," said Tim, "but we didn't want to pay $16,000 for it." We suggested that the museum could use the hair to clone a new Billy the Kid, but the idea was dismissed by Tim, who had obviously heard it many times before. "You gotta have the root follicle to get the DNA."

Along one wall of the museum are a series of ten colorful murals chronicling the Kid's brief and bloody career. Painted in the style of pulp fiction paperback covers, the murals are peppered with lurid headlines such as, "Teen-Age Killer Plies His Trade," and "Power, Guile, and Killings Abound!" They were created by artist Bill Rakocy for the now-closed Old Fort Sumner Museum (not to be confused with Ed Sweet's original Fort Sumner Museum). The Billy the Kid Museum bought the murals, moved them here in 2017, and painted out the other museum's name.

The most talked-about exhibit in the Billy the Kid Museum is its full-size, accurate replica of Billy the Kid's grave. Tim said that his grandfather built it around 1960, back when Billy's original tombstone had been stolen and was missing. "He decided to build the replica so people could have an idea what it looked like," said Tim. "It created more controversy than anything he ever did" -- especially when the original was returned and Fort Sumner suddenly found itself with two Billy the Kid graves. Billboards sprouted around town, urging visitors to see the "real" grave, leaving tourists to wonder what an unreal grave would look like.

Old jail cell.
Tourist-tempting jail cell in the museum courtyard.

Turns out, the unreal grave looks pretty good. Careful scrutiny of the two tombstones reveals that the replica has better engraving than the original, and it can be viewed up close unlike the real grave, which is trapped inside a steel cage. A large "Replica" sign at the museum grave distinguishes it from the one in the cemetery (and lets visitors know that Billy isn't actually buried here), and the back of its tombstone is inscribed with the names of the first six winners of Fort Sumner's annual Tombstone Race -- where contestants run around with a tombstone like the thieves who stole Billy the Kid's.

The two graves give tourists twice as much to look at, and we recommend visits to both. They're only six miles apart, and you've already driven all the way out here....

"I'll guarantee you," said Tim, "that 99 out of 100 people who come to Fort Sumner come because of Billy the Kid." We asked him what Billy would think of that. "I think he would laugh his butt off."

Also see: Billy the Kid: Baddest Punk in the West

Billy the Kid Museum and Replica Grave

Billy the Kid Museum

Address:
1435 E. Sumner Ave., Fort Sumner, NM
Directions:
Billy the Kid Museum. I-40 exit 277. Drive south on US-84 for 42 miles, into town. Turn left at the stop sign onto US-60/Sumner Ave. Drive one mile. You'll see the museum on the right.
Hours:
Summer daily 8:30-5; off-season M-Sa. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
575-355-2380
Admission:
Adults $5.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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Billy the Kid's GraveBilly the Kid's Grave, Fort Sumner, NM - 5 mi.
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In the region:
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