Americans have a very particular image in mind when they think of Billy the Kid: a ruffian and outlaw, rough around the edges and tough as nails. That image probably doesn’t include a teen who likes to play croquet, but it should. A groundbreaking photo, purchased for only $2 in a memorabilia shop, shows the famous gangster engaging in the lawn sport with his friends.
And that $2 investment could soon turn into $5 million for the lucky pair who found it.
When Randy and Linda Guijarro came forward with the $2 tintype to declare that it featured Billy the Kid, no one believed them, and it’s taken years to authenticate. Everyone was so skeptical because there is only one known likeness of him in existence. That another could suddenly appear out of nowhere seemed too good to be true.
And every time you turn around, someone is declaring that they’ve found a rare snapshot of Billy the Kid. David McCarthy of Kagin’s – “Western Americana and Rare Coin experts,” authenticators of the $2 tintype and negotiators of its private sale – described the Guijarro’s as a “Holy Grail” of photography, he told San Francisco Gate.
“It is the rarest photograph in the world and it was found in a Fresno junk shop.”
It all began in 2010, when Randy and Linda were browsing through the shop and found two cardboard boxes of old photos. Randy picked three he liked and handed over $2. The pic, nicknamed “Croquet Billy,” is about 5 inches in size, has nothing to identify where or when it was taken, and features five men, six women, and seven children photographed from a distance, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported. They are all standing in front of a wooden building.
When Guijarro looked closer at the image, a face popped out. One of the men holding a mallet looked remarkably like William H. Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid. Also making an appearance are his famous companions — his girlfriend and members of his posse the Regulators, who were deputized to avenge the murder of cattleman John Tunstall.
The photo is believed to have been taken on the Tunstall ranch, and the croquet set may have belonged to Tunstall himself; he was English. Billy the Kid worked for him, Fox News added.
When Guijarro started to tell people he had found the rare photo, he was met with skepticism. That’s when Jeff Aiello, founder and executive producer of 18THIRTY Entertainment got involved; his company is putting out a National Geographic special on the find. The documentary airs Sunday.
“We had to be certain that we could answer and verify where, when, how and why this photograph was taken. Simple resemblance is not enough in a case like this – a team of experts had to be assembled to address each and every detail in the photo to insure that nothing was out of place. After more than a year of methodical study, including my own inspection of the site, there is now overwhelming evidence of the image’s authenticity.”
Aiello consulted tintype experts and used facial recognition software to confirm Billy the Kid’s companions. Their identities were confirmed. They also read the diary of friend Sally Chisum, in which she wrote about a cattle drive in August to September of 1878; all the people in the $2 photo were there. She also wrote about a wedding around that time between Charlie Bowdre — who is in the photo, seated on a horse — and his wife Manuella. It’s believed the croquet match took place after the ceremony.
The cattle drive helped researches pinpoint the setting for the $2 photo to Tunstall’s ranch. McCarthy flew to the site, near Roswell in New Mexico, and took a look at the building that was built around the one Billy the Kid stood in front of that day. The schoolhouse is still standing.
“I was standing at an angle from the building and I could see the texture of the stucco on the front of the building. You could see the vertical wooden supports through the stucco, and I looked at the picture, and they were in the exactly the same place. I was amazed. That clinched it.”
The last picture of Billy the Kid sold for $2.3 million, and it’s the one that has informed that indelible image of the famous outlaw: taken in Fort Sumner in 1880, he’s holding a Colt revolver and an 1873 Winchester carbine rifle. In the $2 snapshot, he’s a mere 17 years old. Three years later, he was shot dead by a sheriff.
[Photo Courtesy “Billykid” by Ben Wittick (1845–1903) Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]