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Rare Photograph of Billy the Kid Found at a Flea Market

The tintype image was purchased for $10 but might be worth millions

The image depicts the outlaw Billy the Kid, posing alongside the sheriff who later killed him. (Frank Abrams)
smithsonian.com

Back in 2011, a North Carolina defense attorney named Frank Abrams bought a 19th century tintype photograph for $10 at a flea market. He assumed that the photo, which shows five cowboys mugging it for the camera, was little more than a nifty relic from the Wild West. But as Jacey Fortin reports for the New York Times, experts now believe that one of the men in the image is famed outlaw Billy the Kid, who appears to be posing with the lawman who ultimately killed him.

Abrams began to suspect that he had unknowingly acquired a historical treasure after he saw a 2015 television program about the discovery of a photo of Billy playing croquet. A Google search led Abrams to images of Pat Garrett, the sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, who is said to have shot Billy in a darkened room. “Oh my gosh,” Abrams recalled saying in an interview with the Times. “That is Pat Garrett in my picture.” And he wondered if a thin man in the back of the photo might be Billy the Kid.

As the story goes, Garrett and Billy were friends before the former became a lawman—they often gambled together at a local saloon. But when Garrett was appointed sheriff, he was obliged to hunt down the outlaw, who had been on the run after killing a previous sheriff during the bitter Lincoln County War. Garrett arrested Billy, who was sentenced to hang. But before he was sent to the gallows, Billy escaped from prison, killing two deputies in the process.

The dramatic chase came to an end when Garrett was checking in on a friend of the Kid’s in Fort Sumner and, unexpectedly, the outlaw himself showed up. The house was dark, and the two men could not see one another properly. But Garrett recognized Billy’s voice and killed him with two swift shots, the first of which struck him in the heart. 

Believing that his tintype photo might show the foes in happier times, Abrams spent months consulting with forensic analysts and professors, who confirmed that the photo likely depicts Billy the Kid and Garrett, according to Kim Vallez of Albuquerque’s KQRE News. A handwriting expert in Texas also matched a signature on the image to ten known samples of Garrett’s handwriting, reports Terry Tang of the Associated Press.

Experts say that the photo was likely taken at some point between 1875 and 1880. It is not clear how the image ended up at a North Carolina flea market, but Abrams tells the Times that he believes the photo once belonged to Marshall Ashmun Upson, a journalist who helped Garrett write a posthumous biography of Billy the Kid.

The other recently discovered photo of Billy, the one that shows him playing croquet, has been valued at $5 million. Abrams’ tintype could fetch an even bigger sum, but the attorney has said that he has no plans to sell it.

“I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world,” he tells KQRE News. “To find this is a privilege,” 

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer is based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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