john poe
Deputy John W. Poe, who reconnoitered Fort Sumner, hoping to confirm the presence of Billy the Kid on the grounds.

The Death of Billy the Kid

By John W. Poe

A Deputy of Pat Garrett who was there when it happened

‘I have been in many close places and through many trying experiences both before and after this occurrence, but never in one where I was so forcibly impressed with the idea that a Higher Power controls and rules the destinies of men.’

Written in 1919, Deputy John W. Poe's account of Billy the Kid's death was published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1933, complete with a comprehensive introduction by Maurice Garland Fulton, who resided in Lincoln County and became one the foremost experts on the controversial Kid. It was never easy to draw out Mr. Poe about the death of the Kid, but at Mrs. Poe's urging, he finally wrote out the account and turned it over to her to keep against whatever time might be suitable for its publication. In the early part of 1919, Mr. Edward Seymour, of New York, a gentleman interested in the history of the West, feeling skeptical about certain information regarding the death of the Kid which had come to him, inquired of the late Charles Goodnight as to a reliable source of information. Mr. Goodnight referred him to Mr. Poe, making the comment that, "Whatever John Poe would furnish would be true." As the easiest way of giving Mr. Seymour the facts, Mr. Poe sent him a copy of the account Mrs. Poe was treasuring. This eventually reached Mr. E.A. Brininstool of Los Angeles who, perceiving its value, secured its publication in an English magazine, The Wide World, for December, 1919. Afterward, Mr. Brininstool published the account as a privately printed brochure, which in the course of time passed into the limbo of "out of print." It was published again in True West magazine in June 1962.

In every detail, Deputy Poe's account of the circumstances leading up to and concluding with Sheriff Pat Garrett's shooting of Billy the Kid conform to the story Walter Noble Burns tells in his 1926 book, The Saga of Billy the Kid. This portion of Deputy Poe's account begins on the fateful night, after Deputy Poe visits the home of Garrett's friend Charlie Rudolph, in whose veracity Garrett had complete trust. Presenting a letter of introduction from Garrett, Deputy Poe proceeded to question an increasingly anxious Rudolph as to the Kid's whereabouts. Here we pick up Deputy Poe's account:

Billy the Kid (painting by Don Prechtel)

By this time I was pretty well convinced that Mr. Rudolph was naturally well-intentioned but, like so many others, was afraid of the Kid and, on account of this fear, was very reluctant to say anything whatever about him. I then told him plainly the object of our errand-that I had come to him with the express purpose of learning, if possible, where the Kid could be found. I told him we believed he was hiding in or near Fort Sumner and that Garrett expected that he (Rudolph) would be able to put us on the right trail. Upon my making this statement, Mr. Rudolph became more nervous and excited than ever, and reiterated his reasons for believing that the Kid was not in that part of the country. He showed plainly, so it seemed to me, that he was not only embarrassed but alarmed. The truth was, we afterward learned, he knew the Kid was hiding around Fort Sumner, but his dread of the Kid caused him to make misleading statements while withholding facts.

Darkness was now approaching. I told Mr. Rudolph that having had a rest and a good feed, I had changed my mind. Instead of stopping overnight with him, I would saddle up and ride during the cool of the evening to meet my companions. This I did much, I thought, to the relief of Rudolph. I rode directly to the point where I had agreed to meet my companions and strange to say, as I approached the point from one direction they came into view from the other, so we did not have to wait for each other. This proved to be a night of strange happenings with us, however, all the way through. We held a consultation as to what further course we should pursue. I had spent the day endeavoring to learn something definite of the whereabouts of the man we wanted, but without success. However, from the actions of the people I had met at Fort Sumner, together with Mr. Rudolph's nervous and excited manner, I was more firmly convinced than ever that our man was in the vicinity.

Garrett seemed to have little confidence in our being able to accomplish the object of our trip but said he knew a certain house occupied by a woman at Fort Sumner, which the Kid had formerly frequented. If the Kid were in or about Fort Sumner, he would most likely be found entering or leaving that house some time during the night. Garrett proposed that we go into a grove of trees near the town, conceal our horses, then station ourselves in the peach orchard at the rear of the house and keep watch on who might come or go. This course was agreed upon and we entered the peach orchard about nine o'clock that night, stationing ourselves in the shadows of the peach trees, for the moon was shining very brightly. We kept watch until some time after eleven o'clock, when Garrett stated that he believed we were on a cold trail. He had very little faith in our being able to accomplish anything when we started on the trip. He proposed that we leave the town without letting anyone know that we had been there in search of the Kid.

Historical Marker at the actual site of the Maxwell house and Billy's death site as it appears today. (Photo courtesy of Frederick Nolan)

I then proposed that, before leaving, we should go to the residence of Peter Maxwell, a man I had never seen but who, by reason of his being a leading citizen and having large property interests, should, according to my reasoning, be glad to furnish such information as he might have to aid us in ridding the country of a man who was looked on as a scourge and curse by all law-abiding people. Garrett agreed to this and led us from the orchard by circuitous bypaths to Maxwell's residence, a building used as officer's quarters during the days when a garrison of troops had been maintained at the fort. The house was very long, one story adobe, standing flush with the street, with a porch on the south side - the direction from which we approached. The premises were all enclosed by a paling fence, one side of which ran parallel to and along the edge of the street up to and across the end of the porch to the corner of the building. When we arrived at the house, Garrett said to me, "This is Maxwell's room in this corner. You fellows wait here while I go in and talk to him." He stepped onto the porch and entered Maxwell's room through the open door (left open on account of the extremely warm weather), while McKinney and I stopped outside. McKinney squatted on the outside of the fence, and I sat on the edge of the porch in the small open gateway leading from the street to the porch.

It should be mentioned here that up to this moment I had never seen Billy the Kid nor Maxwell, which fact, in view of the events transpiring immediately afterward, placed me at an extreme disadvantage. Probably not more than thirty seconds after Garrett had entered Maxwell's room, my attention was attracted, from where I sat in the little gateway, to a man approaching me on the inside of the fence, some forty or fifty steps away. I observed that he was only partially dressed and was both bareheaded and barefooted (or, rather, had only socks on his feet) and it seemed to me that he was fastening his trousers as he came toward me at a very brisk walk. As Maxwell's was the one place in Fort Sumner that I considered above suspicion; I was entirely off my guard. I thought the man approaching was either Maxwell or some guest of his. He came on until he was almost within arm's-length of where I sat before he saw me, as I was partially concealed from his view by the post of the gate.

Upon seeing me, he covered me with his six-shooter as quick as lightening, sprang onto the porch, calling out in Spanish, "Quien es?" At the same time he backed away from me toward the door which Garrett only a few seconds before had passed, repeating his query, "Who is it?" in Spanish several times. At this I stood up and advanced toward him, telling him not to be alarmed, that he should not be hurt, still without the least suspicion that his was the very man we were looking for. As I moved toward him trying to reassure him, he backed up into the doorway of Maxwell's room, where he halted for a moment, his body concealed by the thick adobe wall at the side of the doorway. He put out his head and asked in Spanish for the fourth or fifth time who I was. I was within a few feet of him when he disappeared into the room.

Quien es? Quien es?

Sketch of the area where the shooting took place

After this, and until after the shooting, I was unable to see what took place on account of the darkness of the room, but plainly heard what was said. An instant after the man had left the door, I heard a voice inquire in a sharp tone, "Pete, who are those fellows on the outside?" An instant later a shot was fired in the room, followed immediately by what everyone within hearing distance thought were two other shots. However, there were only two shots fired, the third report, as we learned afterward, being caused by the rebound of the second bullet, which had struck the adobe wall and rebounded against the headboard of the wooden bedstead. I heard a groan and one or two gasps from where I stood in the doorway, as if someone were dying in the room. An instant later, Garrett came out, brushing against me as he passed. He stood by me close to the wall at the side of the door and said to me, "That was the Kid that came in there onto me, and I think I have got him." I said "Pat, the Kid would not come to this place; you shot the wrong man."

Upon my saying this, Garrett seemed to be in doubt himself, but quickly spoke up and said, "I am sure that was him, for I know his voice too well to be mistaken." This remark of Garrett's relieved me of considerable apprehension, as I had felt almost certain that someone else had been killed. A moment after Garrett came out of the door, Pete Maxwell rushed squarely onto me in a frantic effort to get out of the room, and I certainly would have shot him but for Garrett's striking my gun down, saying, "Don't shoot Maxwell." By this time I had begun to realize that we were in a place which was not above suspicion and as Garrett was so positive that the Kid was inside, I came to the conclusion that we were up against a case of "kill or be killed," such as we had from the beginning realized would be the case whenever we came upon the Kid.

I have ever since felt grateful that I did not shoot Maxwell for, I learned afterward, he was at heart a well-meaning, inoffensive man, but very timid. We afterward discovered that the Kid had frequently been at this house after his escape from Lincoln, but Maxwell stood in such terror of him that he did not dare inform against him. By this time all was quiet in the room. The darkness was such that we were unable to see what the conditions were on the inside or what the result of the shooting had been. After some rather forceful persuasion, indeed, we induced Maxwell to procure a light. He finally brought an old-fashioned tallow candle from his mother's room at the far end of the building. He placed the candle on the window sill from the outside.

garrett gun
This 7 1/2 inch .44 Colt single action (Serial #55093) is the actual gun that Garrett used to kill Billy the Kid. Garrett obtained this gun from Billy Wilson after he was captured at Stinking Springs with the Kid. Jim Earle of College Station, TX, now owns this gun as well as Bob Ollinger's shotgun.

This enabled us to get a view of the inside, where we saw a man lying stretched upon his back, dead, in the middle of the room, with a six-shooter lying at this right hand and a butcher knife at his left. Upon examining the body we found it to be that of Billy the Kid. Garrett's first shot had penetrated his breast just above the heart, thus ending the career of a desperado who, while only about twenty-three years of age at the time of his death, had killed a greater number of men than any of the many desperadoes and "killers" I have known or heard of during the forty-five years I have been in the Southwest. Within a very short time after the shooting quite a number of the native people gathered around, some of them bewailing the death of their friend. Several women pleaded for permission to take charge of the body, which we allowed them to do. They carried it across the yard to a carpenter shop, where it was laid out on a workbench. The women placed lighted candles around it according to their ideas of properly conducting a "wake" for the dead.

All that occurred after the Kid came into view in the yard, up to the time be was killed, happened in much less time than it takes to tell it. Not more than thirty seconds intervened between the time I first saw him and the time he was shot. From Garrett's statement of what took place in the room after he entered, it appears that he left his Winchester rifle standing by the side of the door, and approached the bed where Maxwell was sleeping, arousing him and sitting down on the edge of the bed near the head. A moment after he had taken this position for a talk with Maxwell, he heard voices on the porch and sat quietly listening, when a man appeared in the doorway and a moment later ran up to Maxwell's bed, saying, "Pete, who are those fellows outside?" It being dark in the room, he had not seen Garrett sitting at the head of the bed. When he spoke to Maxwell, Garrett recognized his voice and made a move to draw his six-shooter. This movement attracted the Kid's attention. Seeing that a man was sitting there, he instantly covered him with his gun, backed away, and demanded several times in Spanish to know who it was. Garrett make no reply and, without rising from his seat, fired, killing the desperado. This occurred about midnight on July 14, 1881. We spent the remainder of the night on the Maxwell premises, keeping constantly on our guard, as we expected attack by the friends of the dead man. Nothing of the kind occurred, however. The next morning we sent for a justice of the peace, who held a inquest over the body, the verdict of the jury being such as to justify the killing. Later on the same day, the body was buried in the old military burying ground at Fort Sumner.


The killing of the Kid created a great sensation throughout the Southwest and many of the law-abiding citizens of New Mexico and the Panhandle contributed substantially and liberally toward a reward for the officers whose work had finally rid the country of a man who was nothing less than a scourge. The death of the Kid had a very salutary effect in New Mexico and the Panhandle. Most of his followers left the country, for the time being at least, and a great many persons who had sympathized with him or been terrorized by him completely changed their attitude toward the enforcement of law. The events which occurred at Maxwell's ranch on the night of that fourteenth of July to this day seem to me strange and mysterious, and the Kid was certainly a "killer" and was absolutely desperate. He had the drop first on me and then Garrett. Why did he not use it? Possibly because he thought he was in the house of his friends and had no suspicion that the officers of the law would ever come to that place searching for him.

From what we learned afterward, there was some reason for believing that we had been seen leaving the peach orchard by on of his friends, who ran to the house where he was stopping for the night, warning him of our presence. He had run half-dressed to Maxwell's thinking that, by reason of the standing of the Maxwell family, he would not be sought there. However, this may be, it is still, in view of his character and the condition he was in, a mystery. I have been in many close places and through many trying experiences both before and after this occurrence, but never in one where I was so forcibly impressed with the idea that a Higher Power controls and rules the destinies of men. To me it seemed foreordained.

The foregoing sketch or narrative was written at odd moments, taken from a very busy business life, upon the urgent request of oft-repeated solicitations of friends, and it is the first--and probably the last--attempt of the writer to record any of the facts related.

John William Poe’s The Death of Billy the Kid is available in paperback at www.amazon.com



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