The 130 year scandal of Billy the Kid’s grave in Fort Sumner

A grave locked behind bars, for over 130 years...

Billy the Kid only walked this earth for 21 years, but his legend lives on over 130 years after Pat Garrett supposedly shot the Kid down. Like all great legends, controversy about the Kid’s life and death abound, but perhaps the most intriguing mysteries related to Billy the Kid surround his grave… From thieves, to cover-ups of the Kid’s death, to the unknown whereabouts of his actual gravesite, Billy the Kid’s grave has become a legend as big as the Kid himself.


If you visit Fort Sumner, NM, you can visit Billy the Kid’s “grave,” at the Old Fort Sumner Museum and you’ll notice it’s caged and secured more than a tiger in a zoo… And it’s for good reason. You see, Billy the Kid’s headstone has been stolen not once, but twice. (Some accounts mention 3 times, but this has proven difficult to verify. The grave was, however, knocked over and vandalized in the 2000s.)


Billy the Kid’s tombstone was first stolen in 1950 by parties unknown and remained missing until a couple from Texas visited Fort Sumner in 1975 and mentioned when they sold their house in 1969 the new owner found a headstone partially buried on the property. The Branhams, the couple from Texas, and the home’s new owner, Gaylan Wright, gave the stone back to Fort Sumner for re-placement at Billy’s “grave.” (More on why grave is in quotation marks later…) Billy the Kid’s tombstone remained unharmed for 6 years before being stolen once again in 1981, only to be recovered a week later in Huntington Beach, CA.


So with the tombstone back in place and heavily fortified with steel bars, Billy the Kid’s grave and tombstone seem to be safe. The Fort Sumner Museum now boasts all sorts of Billy the Kid memorabilia, and all seems peaceful once again. But is it really where Billy the Kid is buried? Is it even Billy the Kid?

Even if Fort Sumner has the real Billy the Kid buried in its cemetery, they admit they have no clue where within the cemetery he’s actually located. The tombstone and cage are just an approximate location.

Ok, we can live with that. But is the corpse in the ground even Billy the Kid? Here’s where the controversy heats up…


Meet “Brushy Bill” Roberts, the man who claimed to be the real Billy the Kid. His assumed name was Ollie Partridge Roberts, and although generally disregarded by historians, Roberts became the hometown hero of Hico, Texas, and the town has even opened its own Billy the Kid Museum in Hico, TX.


And if 2 dead men with claims to be Billy the Kid wasn’t enough, enter John Miller, buried in Prescott, AZ. This 3rd man claiming to be the Kid was enough for people to start talking about DNA tests…


Alan Boyle gives a great summary of the bizarre mystery that is the identity of Billy the Kid and the folks pushing for DNA testing. Three men, three graves, three claims, but as Boyle discusses, most of the towns have balked at disturbing any of the grave sites, including Billy’s mom’s, Catherine Antrim’s, grave in Silver City, N.M.

And then again, DNA tests might not even solve the mystery… The Fort Sumner Cemetery was washed out in a flood in 1904, exposing the remains and leading to them being reburied without identification, so determining if the DNA is even from the right corpse would be difficult. And then there’s the Silver City cemetery where Billy’s mom is buried… The cemetery was sold in 1882 and the graves relocated outside the city. No one is sure if the tombstone marking her grave actually corresponds with the right dead stiff under it.


As of today the mystery stands, and you’ll have to decide as you visit both Old Fort Sumner Museum and the Billy the Kid Museum in Hico, TX, which one is really the final resting place of the most infamous kid of the wild west.

Roadtrippers visited Billy the Kid’s “real” grave on the 2014 MINI Takes the States. MTTS is a rad 2-week, 5,000+ mile road adventure for MINI owners where you barrel from city to city each day meeting the nicest (seriously, the nicest) people, occasionally getting scared out of sketchy roadside restaurants, getting asked a thousand questions at every gas station, and meeting up with 1,000+ MINI lovers for a big party each night. Read more about MINI Takes the States.

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Places explored in this article:

This was originally written for Roadtrippers, a great resource for anyone interested in travel.
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