Brushy Bill Roberts: The Man Who Claimed to be Billy the Kid (They Both Had the Same Scars)
History tells us that outlaw Billy the Kid (aka Henry McCarty, aka William Bonney) was gunned down —when he was just 21 years old— by Sheriff Pat Garrett on July 14, 1881, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. He was buried, in Fort Sumner Cemetery, with his “associates” Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre, with the epitaph that reads “Pals”—though none of them are likely directly under the tombstone there today. He has since been romanticized in print, and on stage, television, and film as a symbol of the lawless West.
However, people in Hico, Texas tell a slightly different version of his 'death'.
In 1948, a paralegal William V. Morrison was investigating a man named Joe Hines, a survivor of the Lincoln County War, the feud that helped cement Billy the Kid’s name in history. Hines told Morrison a whopper of a tale: Billy the Kid had not been killed in New Mexico. Hines further claimed that Billy the Kid was alive and well and living in a town called Hico in Hamilton County, Texas, as one Ollie “Brushy Bill” Roberts.
Morrison managed to track down Brushy in 1949. When he finally met him, Roberts first denied being Billy the Kid. Roberts’ niece, Geneva Pittmon, showed that her uncle’s (Oliver P. Roberts, not Oliver L.) date of birth had been recorded in the Family Bible.
However, the problem with her statement is that Brushy Bill claimed that Oliver P. had been his distant cousin, and after Oliver P. died, he had assumed his deceased cousin’s identity.
After receiving this information Morrison was convinced that Brushy is, in fact, Billy the Kid. He tried to convince him to admit the fact and Brushy reluctantly did that after some time.
Brushy was going to admit only openly under one condition: as long as Morrison agreed to help him gain his pardon from Governor Thomas J. Mabry.
Billy the Kid has been promised a pardon by New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace in 1879, but the governor didn’t keep his end of the bargain.
In November 1950, Morrison filed a petition on behalf of Brushy Bill. Unfortunately, Roberts died a month later, and neither Billy the Kid nor Brushy Bill Roberts ever received a pardon. Since that time, debates have raged over Roberts’s claims, and whether he was truly one of the West’s most notorious gunmen or just an old man looking for attention.
In researching his book, Edwards analyzed photos of Billy the Kid and Roberts, and dug into the details of Roberts’s account of his life and comparing them with known facts about Billy the Kid. “Before I made the discoveries I made in my book, I did not have an opinion on Brushy Bill,” says Edwards. “I now believe without a doubt that Billy the Kid was not killed by Pat Garrett in Ft. Sumner. I believe he lived, had many more adventures … before he finally died in Hico in 1950.
“When you listen to his real story, he talks about how he wasn’t an outlaw, how he never robbed banks or stagecoaches, how he resented the fact that Governor Lew Wallace reneged on his promise of a pardon in 1879 and left him to die,” Edwards says. “Now these are strange things for someone that is a fraud to focus on. They are personal things, and things that make complete sense for him to be upset about if his story was true.”
The Billy the Kid Museum opened in Hico nearly 40 years after Roberts’s death, and the city actively celebrates the connection. In Hico Billy is everywhere, from a statue downtown, to the standee in the Chamber of Commerce, to the monumental arch over Roberts’s grave. There is no doubt there that Billy the Kid is one of their own, and they’re happy to tell the world.