By Massad Ayoob
A victorious survivor of more than one shootout with notorious gunmen makes a mistake that will be his last.
Don’t turn your back on people who think they have a reason to kill you.
The tall man stood in a desolate space in rural New Mexico. He had been having a difficult, argumentative day, and being in his late fifties, the aggravation of a full bladder wasn’t helping things. At the side of the road, he undid his fly to relieve himself.
We do not know exactly what was going through the tall man’s mind, but we certainly know what suddenly went through his brain: a large caliber bullet. It entered near the base of his skull, and exited through his forehead. For all practical purposes, he was dead even before his corpse sprawled supine in the dirt. He could not have seen or heard, moments later, when someone stood at his feet and fired again, driving a bullet into his abdomen and upward through his thorax, because he was already gone.
The year was 1908. Pat Garrett, the New Mexico lawman who had become famous as the slayer of Billy the Kid, had come to the end of his trail. Exactly who killed him is a matter of debate to this day.
A Ragged Path
Born in the Deep South in 1850, Pat Garrett left home in his late teens to work variously as a buffalo hunter, cowboy, ranch owner, and law enforcement officer. Though the shooting of one of the West’s most infamous outlaws made him famous, the incident also drew criticism. Some accused Garrett of having killed Billy the Kid in a less-than-fair fashion. Others seemed to feel Garrett had been made sheriff to clean out the bad guys, and having pretty much done so, they didn’t need him anymore. In any case, he lost the next election and was out of his job as High Sheriff.
Time went on. In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt — an admirer of men like Garrett — appointed him customs collector in El Paso, Texas. Garrett blew the deal when he showed up at an important gathering with Tom Powell, a punkish gambler who had once beaten his own father into a coma, and arranged for the President to be photographed with him. When he found out who Powers was, the angry Roosevelt refused to renew Garrett’s appointment, and dropped him like the proverbial hot potato.
By 1908, Garrett’s career was on a severe downslide. He was in debt. One of his major creditors was W.W. Cox, who agreed to allow Garrett to pay off the debt by allowing a Cox associate to graze his animals on Garrett’s ranch. The ex-sheriff, apparently one of the old breed who loved cattle and despised sheep critters, was outraged to find the associate, Jesse Wayne Brazel, was grazing a huge herd of goats there.
A Gunfighting Career
It was his skill with a gun against dangerous men that earned Pat Garrett his place in history. Popular gun writer Bart Skelton apparently inherited his father Charles “Skeeter” Skelton’s penchant for meticulously researched Western history, and in the August 2012 issue of Shooting Times wrote a column titled “Pat Garrett: the Rest of the Story.” He commented, “It is said Garrett found himself in an argument with another buffalo hunter who allegedly tried to draw a gun on him, at which time he outdrew and killed the man.”
Garrett’s career was inextricably intertwined with his bete noire Billy the Kid. In 1880, Sheriff Garrett was leading a posse after the Kid and his gang, the Regulators. Writes Skelton, “Eventually, they caught the Kid at Fort Sumner, and a gunfight ensued during which Garrett shot and killed Tom O’Folliard.” O’Folliard was thought to be the Kid’s best friend. Billy escaped Garrett that night, but Garrett took him into custody later at Stinking Springs, and transported him back to jail in Lincoln, NM. Charlie Bowdre, another of the Kid’s companions, was killed at Stinking Springs by a fusillade of rifle fire from Garrett’s posse, though it is unclear whether or not Garrett himself launched any of those particular bullets.
There, William “Billy the Kid” Bonney paid Garrett back in kind for the death of his best friend. Somehow getting his hands on a revolver, he murdered Garrett’s jailer J.W. Bell, stole a shotgun from the sheriff’s office, and used it to kill another of Garrett’s deputies, Robert Olinger. Then, nonchalantly, the young gunman stole a horse and escaped from town.
It was Garrett’s turn. Months later, on July 14, 1881, Garrett caught up with the Kid in Fort Sumner, N.M. at Pete Maxwell’s ranch. The lawman was in a darkened bedroom at the ranch house when Bonney came to the door, with a Colt revolver in one hand and a large knife in the other, and asked, “Quien es? Quien es?” Here’s how Pat Garrett himself later described what happened next, in the moment that would make him notorious for the rest of his life, as told to Emerson Hough:
“There flashed over my mind at once one thought, and it was I had to shoot and shoot at once, and my shot must go to the mark the first time. I knew the Kid would kill me in a flash if I did not kill him. Just as he spoke and motioned toward me, I dropped over to the left and rather down, going after my gun with my right hand as I did so. As I fired, the Kid dropped back. I had caught him just about the heart … As I sprang back up, I fired once more, but did not hit him, and did not need to, for he was dead.”
Billy the Kid was apparently not the last man to die in front of Pat Garrett’s gun. Historian Mark Boardman has written, “(Sheriff Garrett) had tracked a wanted killer — and friend of the Cox/Rhode clan — to the Cox ranch in 1899 and killed the suspect while trying to arrest him.”
Who Killed Pat Garrett?
On the day of his death, Garrett was in the horse-drawn wagon with Carl Adamson, who Garrett hoped would buy Brazel’s troublesome sheep. Wayne Brazel was there, riding sometimes alongside and sometimes behind them on horseback. They had stopped for a roadside bladder-emptying when the gunfire erupted.
Different historians have different theories as to who ended the life of Pat Garrett. From C. F. Eckhardt in his December 9, 2008 column Charley Eckhardt’s Texas: “Garrett and two other men were in a wagon at a particularly desolate spot in Doña Ana County, either on the way to look over some sheep or on the way back from looking over some sheep Garrett was trying to buy. The stories differ. The wagon stopped and Garrett got down to relieve himself by the back wheel. As he stood, someone fired a single rifle shot. It struck Pat Garrett in the back of his head, just at the base of his skull. He was dead when he hit the ground.”
Eckhardt continues, “Wayne Brazeal (sic), who was along on the journey but was no friend of Garrett’s, rolled the dead man over and fired a single round from his pistol into Garrett’s chest. He then mounted a horse, rode into Las Cruces, confessed to murdering Garrett, and was arrested. However, he was acquitted of the crime since the third man testified Brazeal shot a corpse — Garrett was already dead from the rifle shot to his head when Brazeal shot him.”
Some believe Garrett’s death was the result of a wide-ranging conspiracy. From C. J. McElhinney, attorney and history researcher, at https://cjmlawyer.wordpress.com/2010/03/02/the-death-of-pat-garrett-self-defense-or-cold-blooded-murder-2/: “Here’s where things get interesting and, in my opinion, shows the fix he was in. Cox quickly secured Brazel’s release on bail. Albert Bacon Fall, the most notorious defense attorney in the territory and close friend of Cox, was retained to represent Brazel.
Adamson testified at the preliminary inquiry, but not at the subsequent trial, though he was available as a witness. The trial lasted one day. The prosecuting attorney did not seem to zealously present his case. He put physician William Field on the stand.”
McElhinney adds, “According to Dr. Field, who reached the site a few hours after the killing, Garrett was found lying on his back, arms outstretched to his sides and one knee drawn up, with a blanket or robe partially covering his corpse. The fly in his trousers was unbuttoned and he was wearing one riding glove, the right one, and his left hand was bare. Garrett’s Burgess shotgun was lying on the ground, disassembled and incapable of being fired, still in its leather holster a few feet from his body. Dr. Field noted no disturbance to the sand around the holster, as one might think would occur if someone suddenly dropped the weapon onto the ground. That is, unless it was placed there, which is what Dr. Field believed had really happened.”
It should be noted the Burgess was an early six-shot pump shotgun made from 1894 to 1899, which could be “folded” with a loaded magazine and carried in a huge holster. One would draw, snap it shut, and fire. It was “racked” by pulling back on its sliding trigger assembly instead of a forward pump handle. It is not made clear in the various accounts whether Garrett’s folded Burgess had a loaded magazine, but if it did, it could have been brought into action much more quickly than a conventional unloaded and “disassembled” shotgun.
It is critical to know, again from Attorney McElhinney, “Dr. Field also performed the autopsy on Garrett. Garrett had two gunshot wounds. The first and fatal shot was a bullet that had entered at the bottom rear of Garrett’s head and exited above Garrett’s right eye. The second bullet entered the front of his abdomen and was found by Dr. Field lodged in one of Garrett’s shoulders, meaning the bullet had traveled upward after entering through Garrett’s body. Interestingly enough, Field was never asked by the prosecutor to explain Garrett’s wounds or his other observations at trial. Adamson did not testify at the trial. Brazel testified he feared for his life and shot Garrett down while Garrett was going for his own weapon. The jury deliberated for about 15 minutes before pronouncing Brazel not guilty, apparently believing the self-defense claim. Cox would later purchase Garrett’s ranch from his widow, further consolidating his New Mexico land and ranch empire.”
From Mark Boardman, True West Magazine, 1/6/14: “It was a conspiracy. A contract murder. An organized crime hit … Bottom line: a number of men — powerful and successful men involved in organized criminal activities — were behind the assassination of Garrett. He had made too many enemies, and he posed too much of a threat to their lives and livelihood. All were guilty, even if they never faced a judge and jury. The crime syndicate led by Fall got its way.”
Finally, there is a contingent that believes Garrett was assassinated by James Miller, perhaps the most prolific “hit man” in the Old West. Known variously as “Killer Miller,” “Killin’ Jim Miller,” and “Deacon Jim” (the latter for his knowledge of the Bible and refusal to indulge in alcohol or tobacco), Miller claimed to have killed 51 men. His price to commit murder varied from $150 to $2,000, the latter a small fortune in turn of the 20th century money. Some speculate Garrett’s enemies put $1,500 on his head when they hired Miller to murder him. Miller was loosely related to Adamson, the man who drove the wagon and, some believe, set Garrett up for death on the lonely road.
Brazel said he himself killed Garrett, in self-defense when Garrett appeared to go for a gun. This is not consistent with the wounds reported by the doctor who did the autopsy. Garrett would have had to have been standing above him in the driver’s seat of a damn stagecoach to account for the angle of the wound track in his torso. The wounds are much more consistent with someone shot from behind while standing and looking downward when sustaining the head wound, and shot again in the abdomen while lying on his back by a man standing at his feet.
“Killer Miller”? It is said shortly before he was hanged, he confessed to pushing 51 people off the mortal coil, and conspicuously did not mention the man who would have been his most famous victim, the centerpiece of his trophy collection as it were. I’m not convinced Miller, however much of a stone killer he may have been, was the man who dropped the hammer on Garrett.
Many who knew Garrett, particularly toward the end of his life, seem to have found him abrasive. He was said to have a quick temper. This and his gunfighter image made a lot of people afraid of him. He had accumulated many enemies. Remember the 1899 case where he had killed a homicide suspect on the Cox ranch? According to researcher Boardman, at the shooting, “Print (Rhode’s sister) was present and subsequently miscarried a baby; Print blamed Garrett. To make matters worse, Garrett arrested Rhode the next year in connection with a holdup. Rhode was acquitted, but he wanted vengeance — and he figured when it came to Garrett, it was kill or be killed.” Garrett owed a great deal of money to Print Rhode’s brother-in-law W.W. Cox, and Cox is said to have wanted both the money and the property.
Historian Boardman notes there were a great many men in the area, some of whom had been investigated by Garrett and others who perhaps feared he might investigate them, who would have been happy to see him gone. Boardman also points out, “All that brought a Democratic crime ring into direct conflict with a Democrat-turned-Republican lawman named Garrett — and set the stage for his ultimate assassination.”
The collected theories of what happened that day in 1908 could form a book. The tangled skein of people with reasons to wish Pat Garrett dead, most of them intertwined in some way, would require a large chart to lay out. For these reasons, and considering all who could have answered key questions have long been gone, the death of Pat Garrett is likely to remain an unsolved mystery.
That said, there are lessons we can learn from it.
One is, if you carry a gun, carry it all the time if possible, particularly if you know there are people who would like to see you dead, and most particularly if any of those people are in your presence.
While at least one account has Garrett on the day of his death carrying the very Colt he had used decades before to kill Billy the Kid, this is contradicted by the majority of accounts, in which Garrett’s only gun was the Burgess shotgun in its case on the wagon. Even if he had “seen it coming,” it’s unlikely Garrett could have accessed the Burgess and gotten it up and running in time to save his life.
Another lesson is, of course, the most obvious: don’t turn your back on people you know (or should know) have what they think is good reason to wish you harm. Even among rough-hewn outdoor men, it’s common courtesy to turn away from others when you urinate at the side of a lonely road. In doing so, however, Garrett turned his back on a man with whom he had just been arguing, and it turned out to be his last mistake. All he had to do was position himself with the wagon between himself and Brazel, with the wagon at least belt-high and probably chest high, and left a puddle on the ground by a wheel while keeping the other man in plain sight. He did not, and we know the result.
Within the second lesson above, we find a third. Consider the fate, before Garrett’s, of two other famous Western gunmen. On August 2, 1876 in a saloon in Deadwood, S.D., Wild Bill Hickok sat down at a poker table with his back to the door because his customary back-to-the-wall seat was occupied by someone else. Very shortly, a whacked-out loner named Jack McCall walked in, unlimbered a single action Colt, and shot Hickok in the back of the head, killing him instantly.
On April 3, 1882 in St. Joseph, Mo., the notorious Jesse James took off the gun belt holding his holstered revolvers, a Colt and a Smith & Wesson, and stood on a chair to adjust a picture on the wall. Behind him was his cousin and gang member Bob Ford, who shot Jesse James in the back of the head, killing him instantly.
Pat Garrett had to have known about those two assassinations of gunmen as or more famous than himself. He ignored history, and discovered, as George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.”