When Billy the Kid Met Ben-Hur

The movie “Ben-Hur” set a record for the most Academy Awards won that stood for nearly 40 years until it was tied by “Titanic.” The novel upon which the movie was based was written by Lew Wallace and in one of those intriguing little bits of historical trivia that makes life so interesting, during the period in which Wallace was writing his story about the chariot racer who would be played by Charlton Heston, he was also playing a vital part in the real life story of Billy the Kid.

The year was 1878 and the place was the territory of New Mexico. A retired general who had served nobly in the Civil War was installed as the new governor of the western territory that seemed to be the center of outlaw behavior in the Wild West. One of the first things that Governor Wallace set his mind to was amnesty to unindicted participants in the Lincoln County War. That war was actually about government contracts to sell beef to Army outposts and Indian reservations. The two factions that represented opposing sides in the war each had in their employ certain muscle men who were well acquainted with the operation of a Colt revolver. The newcomers who posed a threat to the establishment called their muscle the Regulators and Billy the Kid was one of the most vicious of this group.

As it so happened, Billy the Kid, also known by a variety of other names but generally considered to be born as William Henry McCarty although more often known as William Bonney, was one of the Regulators who was under indictment, thus making him ineligible for Wallace’s brand of amnesty. A letter arrived from Billy that immediately made Lew put aside work on his novel “Ben-Hur” as it captured his imagination immediately. Signed “Your Obedient Servant W.H. Bonney,” the letter essentially asserted that Billy recognized his position relative to indictments, but also recognized that he faced mortal danger should he give himself up. The solution was simple: Gov. Wallace could choose to annul the indictments and in return Billy promised he would uphold his bargain not to fight anymore.

The letter from Billy the Kid to the future author of “Ben-Hur” resulted in a secret meeting taking place in March 1979. Wallace’s fist made the knocking sound while on the other side of the door stood Billy the Kid holding a Winchester rifle and his Colt revolver in his hands. No bullets were fired, however, as the two men sat down to engage in negotiations. The result was an agreement that Billy would lay down his arms in exchange for ratting out his accomplices. Everything appeared ready to go smoothly as Billy the Kid prepared to turn himself in for a phony arrest that would actually cover up his turning over state’s evidence.

What neither Billy nor Lew Wallace foresaw was the determination of the District Attorney to hold Billy accountable for all outstanding indictments still in place against Billy. The handcuffs were slapped around Billy’s wrists, but he was then informed that he would be spending time in jail until he faced his own trial. Funny thing about one of the most notorious killers in the history of America: he was quite small and fragile. So frail was Billy the Kid that he had no trouble slipping his thin wrists right out of the bracelets. Rather than giving up his violent ways and doing his part to bring other hired killers involved in the Lincoln County War to justice, Billy took it on the lam and returned heartily to his outlaw ways.

The rest of his story is much better known than his relationship with the author of “Ben-Hur.” Billy became acquainted with a fella named Pat Garrett. Some versions hold that Billy and Pat were close friends while others insist they merely stood each other’s company. As has been detailed in a number of movies, the relationship took a definite turn for the worst for Billy. An arrest, conviction, sentenced to death, escape from prison and, ultimately, a strange interlude inside a dark bedroom that left Billy the Kid dead at the age at the same age as the number of men he allegedly claimed to have killed: 21.