No, the croquet photo does not depict Billy the Kid
Although it's perfectly understandable that you thought it did
In 2010 Randy Guijarro bought a 4 x 5 inch tintype in Fresno, California junk shop for just $2. It’s now possibly worth at least 5 million.
Or is it?
The photo in question shows a group of people playing croquet, with a young man in a striped sweater whom Guijarro believes is the notorious Old West outlaw Billy the Kid. After years of research and analysis, this claim made headlines in 2015 as the subject of the Nat Geo documentary Billy the Kid: New Evidence.
I’ve never given the photo much consideration until recently when — upon mentioning on The Wild West Extravaganza that there is only one authenticated and verified photo of Billy the Kid — I had several listeners write in asking about the infamous croquet tintype.
Right off the bat let me just say that I have no dog in this fight. It’s not something I’m super passionate about and should there be future evidence proving that the croquet photo really does depict The Kid, great. History is the study of past events. If something happened, it happened and far be it for me to dispute reality.
The thing is, when it comes to authenticating these old pictures, you must have provenance or, in other words, a history of ownership.
The verified tintype of the Kid above, the one that everybody agrees is really Billy with the goofy look on his face and the rifle in his hand, has a clear line of provenance.
Thanks to Paulita Maxwell we know that the photo was taken at Fort Sumner and the only copy that still exists to this day is known as the Dedrick tintype on account of Billy gifting it to his pal, Dan Dedrick.
Dan and his brother Sam — and Billy Bonney by proxy — were involved in a counterfeiting operation back in the day. Dan also owned a ranch on the Bosque Grande that The Kid would use as a hide out on occasion. It’s a historical proven fact that Billy the Kid and Dan Dedrick were friends.
At some point before his death in 1938, Dan gave the tintype to his nephew Frank Upham and the photo remained in the Upham family until the 1980’s when they loaned it to the Lincoln County Heritage Trust. In 1998 the tintype was returned to the family, they put it up for auction, and in 2011 it sold for 2.6 million.
As you can see, this tintype has only had a few owners since it belonged to Billy the Kid himself. We have a straight line from where it now is, all the way back to when Henry McCarty alias William H. Bonney held it in his slightly smaller than average hands.
Provenance, provenance, provenance.
The croquet photo, on the other hand, doesn’t have such a clear lineage.
According to Randy Guijarro, it depicts Billy the Kid and several of his friends during a wedding at John Tunstall’s ranch in the summer of 1878, very shortly after the Battle of Lincoln.
By the way, when I google “Billy the Kid Croquet photo”, there are a ton of articles — from very credible news outlets — all of ’em with very catchy titles.
For example, in October of 2015 the Guardian posted an article titled Multi-Million Dollar Photo of Billy the Kid playing croquet was $2 junk shop find. Upon reading the article, however, I could find no information of the picture actually being sold for millions of dollars, just insinuations that it could be worth that much.
Likewise Fox News, October of 2015, published the headline New Image Shows Billy the Kid Playing Croquet. They at least clarify in the very first sentence that it could possibly be worth 5 million. You know, if only we can prove it’s really Billy the Kid.
CNN, same thing. October 2015. Billy the Kid photo could be worth 5 million. Once more, repeating what the other articles stated, that the owner of the photo is poised to make as much as 5 million. Not that he made it, just that he was poised to do so in lieu of proof.
NPR, NBC News, Daily Mail, Business Insider, they all pretty much released the same write ups in October of 2015 with clickbaity titles making it sound as if the photo was already verified to be Billy the Kid and that it had already sold for millions. But If you read the articles, it’s more of what I’ve already mentioned. The photo was found in a box of old pictures, and it could be worth a lot of money if only we can prove it’s Billy the Kid.
It was no coincidence all of these outlets published the same article in October of 2015. This was a media blitz in order to drum up anticipation for the Nat Geo documentary — narrated by Kevin Costner — titled Billy the Kid: New Evidence, in which they present what many consider strong evidence proving it’s authenticity.
By the way, not only do they claim Billy’s in the photo, but Paulita Maxwell, Tom O’Folliard, Sally Chisum, Big Jim French, Charlie Bowdre and his new bride Manuela. The main theory seems to be that this was Charlie Bowdre’s wedding, held at the late John Tunstall’s ranch, in front of a building identified as the Felix school house.
Forensics expert Kent Gibson is featured conducting a facial recognition test that — surprise surprise — proves that the little Alfalfa looking feller in the striped sweater is the one and only Billy the Kid.
If that’s not enough for you, they have Will Dunniway, a wet plate photography expert, verifying that the tintype appears to have been taken in 1878 and Darren Raspa of the Western History Association says in part “the odds of probability that this photograph is a reliable source and is indeed of Billy the Kid and the Regulators is about a close as you can get to certain.”
What’s more, they are now claiming to have provenance, stating that the last person to own the photo was a descendant Regulator Charlie Bowdre, who — like I said — is also allegedly in the picture.
Speaking of the evidence laid out, the show’s executive producer Jeff Aiello wrote “we are at the point now, with this amount of evidence, that it is more outrageous to suggest this isn’t Billy and The Regulators.”
Sounds pretty convincing right? I could totally understand why someone would watch that documentary and walk away thinking that the croquet picture is definitely an authenticated and verified photo of Billy the Kid. Especially when you have a trusted and very well-liked guy like Kevin Costner narrating it coupled with a true blue forensics expert.
Hell, you wouldn’t even have to watch the documentary. If you just perused the many headlines from October of 2015 you’d like assume the photo is the real deal. After all, the news isn’t supposed to lie, right?
That being the case, why does nearly every single old west expert disagree?
First up to bat is Robert Utley, a man who’s work I cite often in the ongoing Billy the Kid series, a person who is considered to be one of the foremost authorities on The Kid. Of the croquet photo Mr. Utley states “this is simply another of the long chain of want-it-to-be-the-Kid pictures. This one poses even less credibility than its predecessors. We so-called experts have been showered with a flood of Billy pictures that their owners were sure were Billy because they looked like Billy.”
And then you noted author have Fredrick Nolan, saying of the documentary “regardless of what is said by paid ‘experts,’ their conclusions are conjecture, not fact. No matter how sophisticated the hype that accompanies them, it’s still hype and nothing else. The ‘proof’ they offer is nothing more than wishful thinking, and the historical value of the image is zero.”
Here’s historian and author John Boessenecker, who I’ve also cited many times on my podcast, stating “Bob McCubbin and I told the owner two years ago it is not a photo of Billy the Kid. He refused to believe us and kept dragging it around to various auctioneers, trying to convince them it was real. Finally, he got Don Kagin to accept it. Bob and I have explained in detail to everyone involved why the image has no value. This photo has no more provenance than any of the scores of alleged Billy the Kid images which have appeared on eBay the past 15 years. And don’t talk to me about facial recognition software. When it comes to two-dimensional historic images, it just doesn’t work.”
And of course, the great Dan Buck, who writes “instead of researching the tintype’s origins, Guijarro and the television team reverse-engineered the tintype, first concluding that it depicted Billy the Kid and colleagues, and then moving backwards looking for ways that would be so. Not only was the cart before the horse, the horse was nowhere to be seen. Only after the show had aired last October, and the proponents had suffered a great deal of criticism, did they find some useful information, that the tintype might have come from the personal effects of Thomas Wyatt Newbern, the great-grandson of Benjamin Bowdre, who was one of Charles Bowdre’s several brothers. Newbern had lived in Fresno and died there in 1994, and some of his belongings from his storage unit had later been sold. Excellent. The last owner in the Bowdre chain was the great-great-nephew of Charlie Bowdre, who is supposedly one of the men in the tintype. But wait, the provenance presumably leads back to Benjamin, who lived and died in Mississippi and never knew Billy the Kid. Without any link to New Mexico, the only provenance the Croquet Kid tintype has is that it might once have belonged to the great-nephew of the brother of a friend of Billy the Kid’s. Certainly better provenance than a Fresno storage unit, but not in my view sufficient, given the reservations historians have about who is in the tintype, and especially given the $5 million dollar asking price.”
Finally you have Brian Lebel, the auctioneer who sold the one and only authenticated Billy the Kid tintype back in 2011. “I wish Randy and Linda only the best and am pleased with the exposure our event in Fort Worth, Texas, received in the film. However, I do not believe that the program should be called a documentary. It is masterfully edited reality television, produced to entertain, not inform. For example, the film is edited to give the impression that the first time I saw Randy’s photo was in Fort Worth in June 2015, when he had shown it to me several years prior at a show in California. That the Croquet Kid photo had been known to many of us in the industry for a number of years is never mentioned, but rather creative editing gives the viewer the impression that Randy’s quest happens over a whirlwind four-month period (the time between the Fort Worth show and the airing of the program). This is simply not true.”
As you can see, most of the so-called experts are fed up with fake Billy the Kid photos. They really do get this all the time and sadly it’s big business.
Be that as it may, I could see how it might appear as if these old curmudgeons are just doing some good ole fashioned gate keeping. Maybe they don’t want to get with the times and accept the photo comparison technology, maybe they don’t like having their preconceived notions rocked or maybe they just don’t want “outsiders” acting like they know more than them.
I do think it’s fair to question the motives of the experts. However, I do not believe there’s much to question motive wise when it comes to the croquet photo. In a way, this reminds me of Brushy Bill Roberts. Taken at face value, when you hear a lot of persuasive evidence all at once, when they have the trust factor of Nat Geo behind them, when titles like forensic expert are tossed around - it can all be very convincing.
Nonetheless, when it comes to both Brushy Bill and the croquet photo you don’t have to dig too far to find some serious holes.
First off, there’s the premise that the photo was taken at Charlie Bowdre’s wedding which, per the Nat Geo documentary, took place at John Tunstall’s ranch in August of 1878. I, personally, have serious issues with this claim.
I don’t believe Bowdre was married at Tunstall’s place. It’s my understanding that, while there is no marriage certificate for Charlie and Manuela, there are probate records listing the marriage as taking place in September of 1878 at Fort Sumner, but I could be wrong. So benefit of the doubt, let’s pretend the wedding did take place at Tunstall’s spread, which — by the way — there is no historical proof of.
Or let’s just pretend it wasn’t Charlie Bowdre’s wedding at all. Let’s say it was an entirely different social gathering that just happened to occur at the Tunstall spread in August of 1878.
Remember, the battle of Lincoln just went down a few weeks prior. On July 19th, 1878, The Kid and several others ran out of Alex McSween’s burning home under a hail of gunfire and barely escaped with their lives. Hell, some of them didn’t make it out of town alive.
Two and a half weeks later, on August 5th, Billy and the Regulators hit the Mescalero Indian Agency, killing a clerk named Morris Bernstein and making off with a passel of stolen horses. They then rode over to the Roswell area where Billy met up with one of his many gal pals, Sally Chisum, niece of rancher John Chisum. The 16-year-old Sally wrote in her diary on August 13th “the Regulators — Bonney and friends — came to the Bosque Grande”.
From there they traveled to Fort Sumner, following a Chisum herd, where Sallie wrote again in her diary about Billy buying her candy. “Two candy hearts given me by William Bonney on the 22nd of August”.
Following this little romance, the bandits made their way on up to Puerto de Luna and then to Anton Chico. This is all documented and at this point we’re talking like 200 miles north of Tunstall’s ranch. I just don’t see at what point they would have ridden back down to Lincoln and had some sort of fancy formal social gathering. It doesn’t make sense, especially considering what had recently occurred — a pitched battle where two small armies took over a town and tried to annihilate each other — and it doesn’t make sense that Sally Chisum or Paulita Maxwell would be in the photo. Especially Paulita, who would have only been like 14 years old. Something tells me ole Pete Maxwell wouldn’t be happy about his barely 14-year-old little sister traveling so far away to hang out with a bunch of grown ass outlaws.
By the end of July, following the battle of Lincoln, these guys were running ragged just trying to replace their horses. That said, credit where credit’s due, they did hang around the Lincoln vicinity threatening people for a bit, including the Mescalero Indian Agent Godfroy, before making the raid on his agency. But, like I said, I just don’t envision a scenario where they would have been like “you know what, let’s stop and play croquet”.
But what’s that line from Hamlet? There are more things in heaven and earth, Josh, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Fair enough.
The photo’s entire credibility does kinda hinge on it being taken at John Tunstall’s ranch. Here’s the thing, though. The building in the background, the Felix school, the one the alleged Kid is standing in front of, wasn’t built until 1898, 20 years after the picture was supposedly taken. Furthermore survey records from 1883 — just five years after the photo was taken — show that on that particular plot of land no schoolhouse or any other buildings were present.
Many folks have issues with the lack of leaves on the the tree or the fact that everyone’s wearing jackets and sweaters considering it’s august in New Mexico — I don’t know about all that; I’ve never been to the area. What I do know is that the family that sold the property to Tunstall — the Casey family — did note that the land had “few trees” and that they were in a “country where lumber was…scarce.” Yet in the photo you can see what appears to be quite a bit of disposable lumber just a mere three years later.
I also agree with what John Boessnecker said about facial recognition software. Once more, this is like Brushy Bill Roberts all over again. I do truly believe we’ll be able to compare these old photos one of these days, likely within the next decade, but as of right now the technology just isn’t there. And don’t just take my word for it. Hat tip to Dan the Man Buck for the following:
A 2006 study by Homeland Security admitted to a wide variety of results when it comes to facial recognition systems with some achieving near random results. Likewise the FBI said in a 2013 memorandum “the performance of facial matching systems is highly dependent upon the quality of the images enrolled in the system”. Or to paraphrase Dan Buck, “they work much better with artificially illuminated front posing passport photos than they do with small, corroded tintypes of old cowboys”.
If you want to read more about the issues of facial recognition in regards to old west photos, Mr. Buck wrote an excellent article titled Adventures in Wonderland: Identifying Old West Photos.
Now, all of that notwithstanding, the biggest issue is a lack of provenance. Just because a lot of people think the guy in the photo looks like Billy the Kid means nothing if we don’t have some sort of history of proof linking the Kid to the tintype in question.
Now as I alluded to earlier, Jeff Aiello, the producer for the Nat Geo documentary, has made claims that the croquet photo was, as recently as 1994, in possession of Thomas Newbern, who just so happens to be the great great nephew of Charlie Bowdre.
Ok, cool. If this is true, if this can be proven, then this may show provenance.
I can forget everything else — the lack of leaves on the trees, the building in the background, the improbability of the gathering having occurred at that time and place, etc — if we can really prove that the photo was once owned by a member of Charlie Bowdre’s family. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Billy the Kid’s in the picture, but we at least have a connection, right? And a very compelling connection, at that.
But have they really proven this? Or is it just that someone distantly related to Charlie Bowdre happened to once live in Fresno, where the photo was discovered as I’ve been told? I’m genuinely curious because if that’s the case then all we’re doing at this point is playing Seven Degrees of Billy the Kid.
In all fairness, Jeff Aiello has responded to many of these claims and his full rebuttal can be found in the True West Magazine article titled Billy the Kid Experts Weigh in on the Croquet Photo.
It’s a little long to post here, but Mr. Aiello does push back and more thoroughly explain the photo comparison analysis, the provenance issue, the trees, the circumstances surrounding Billy and his friends to be gathered at that particular place at that particular time, and more. He ends by stating “we welcome naysayers to bring forward specific, empirical proof or evidence that refutes our findings. Snarky statements from historians and “world-famous” photo-collectors aren’t good enough anymore. We and those who love the history of the Wild West, expect and demand more. We’ve done our work to prove this photo is real. If you disagree, stand up and show us the proof why it isn’t.”
Me personally, I still side with the so-called experts. If the croquet photo really does depict Billy the Kid, fine — that’s awesome. I just don’t think we have enough proof just yet. In my opinion the entire scenario is unbelievable, I have zero faith in the photo comparison studies, and I don’t think there truly is provenance.
The biggest tell though, as far as I’m concerned, is the fact that the photo still hasn’t been sold. It was discovered in 2010 and then, 8 years later, made famous by every news outlet on earth. Everyone the headlines that bombarded legitimate news sites back in 2015. That, coupled with the Nat Geo documentary, has cemented the photo in our collective minds as being legitimate.
And yet, they still have not been able to find a buyer. Why is that?
A wise man once told me that a thing is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. And in the case of the croquet photo, it appears that the market has spoken.
In other words, money talks and bullshit walks.
That said, if you’d like to purchase this newsletter for $5,000,000 let me know.
Thanks for reading! If you find value in what I do then you can always give me a tip via buy me a coffee! Also don’t forget to check out The Wild West Extravangza podcast!
Extremely logical and concise. I would rather hear you speak it than me reading it. Never the less a wonderful synopsis of the facts. I listen to your show at work and don't have much time to read. I couldnt get the "Listen" option to work. Ever get any information on the articles of Billy's possesions? The Winchester, his side arm, anything like that? Have you ever thrown a few back with Bob Bose Bell?
Good article Josh , just yesterday I was thinking about Union Cavalry in the Civil War which somehow took me to Fort Stanton , Col . Dudley and the fight in Lincoln . I then wondered if there was any new updates on the Croquet photo and here it is . Thanks for the upload !