Why Billy the Kid's Tombstone Says 'Pals'

Asagan, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Asagan, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 / Asagan, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

On July 14, 1881, 21-year-old William Bonney, better known as the outlaw Billy the Kid, was famously shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. He was quickly buried the next day, his final resting place marked by a simple wooden board with his name crudely carved on it. By 1904, it had been destroyed. It was apparently a popular object for target practice, but flooding in the cemetery may have also played a part.

No one bothered to replace the gravestone until 1932—and, like many of the tales that surround the legend of Billy the Kid, there are different versions to this story. One says that the four men who served as Billy's pallbearers pooled their money together to make sure William Bonney was remembered. Another posits that actor Johnny Mack Brown coughed up some cash after playing Billy in a 1930 movie. The third is that the Fort Sumner Chamber of Commerce erected the stone to take advantage of tourists, which seems especially likely in the wake of a recent movie release.

Whoever paid for the stone figured they would honor two other members of Billy's gang who were also killed by Pat Garrett and his posse: Charlie Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard. Perhaps wishing to explain why the three men were commemorated with one tombstone, the word “Pals” was engraved on the new stone. Tourists looking for complete authenticity may be disappointed, however—it's likely none of the men are actually buried under the tombstone. O'Folliard and Bowdre are buried in separate graves nearby, but their graves are unmarked. And because Billy's grave was unmarked for decades, his exact burial location is now unknown.

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