Sold, yesterday, for $2,300,000, the most famous authentic portrait of one William Henry McCarty, alias William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, at Brian Lebel's 22nd Annual Old West Show and Auction in the Denver Merchandise Mart in Denver, Colorado.
Long one of the most celebrated outlaws of the American frontier, McCarty was chiefly famous because he managed a spectacular and bloody escape (killing one of his guards with the guard's own shotgun) after being captured and sentenced to hang. As with most Wild West archetypes, his story has been told and re-told again and again with varying levels of historical fidelity (and, it must be said, varying levels of attempts at historical fidelity) in popular media from pulps to movies. (The movie I recommend—from the era of my youth, like most peoples' favorite movies—would be Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, with country singer Kris Kristofferson as the Kid and James Coburn as the Lincoln County Sheriff who finally did him in. The film features a twitchy performance by Bob Dylan, who also wrote the memorable if somewhat overemphasized soundtrack. Dylan's famous "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" was written for this film. The movie also plays up the supposed friendship between McCarty and Garrett, which is traditional but is without much historical foundation.)
The picture that sold yesterday is a tintype, a misnomer because "tintypes" were usually printed on enameled iron sheet. It's tiny—the image above, on your monitor, might be somewhat larger than life size. Tintypes—somewhat ironically, given the price reached at yesterday's auction—were originally a cheap, downmarket image medium popular with people who couldn't afford Daguerreotypes. You can still make them today, if you have a 4x5.
For a long time, Billy the Kid was believed to be left-handed because of this picture, but that's because people seeing the picture didn't realize that tintype is a direct-positive medium and the image is laterally reversed, as in a mirror—in the picture above, he's actually holding the carbine in his left hand and has his (barely visible) pistol at his right side.
Tintypes are dearly beloved of Western theme attractions all over the West. Somewhere, I have a tintype of myself, aged 13, dressed in a frock coat, flat-crowned hat, and holding a six-gun, taken at Virginia City, Montana.
The wildest and most warlike
In other Western news...just out in paperback is S.C. Gwynne's wonderful book Empire of the Summer Moon. The actual history of the west is almost fugitive at this point, because the myths and the legends are just so strong and so alluring to so many, and the truth has been so thoroughly eclipsed by the myths and mannerisms beloved of pop culture. And pop culture just gets so much of the actual history wrong. For instance, the Apache are conventionally considered the quintessential southwestern desert tribe, the wildest and most warlike, mainly because Geronimo was one of the last Indian holdouts to be brought to heel (and because he survived to go on tour back East—he rode in Teddy Roosevelt's inaugural parade, for instance). But that's not even close. By far the most powerful tribe of the West—the best horsemen (and women) and the most vicious fighters—were the Comanche, who stopped Spanish expansion northward and, for many years, American expansion into Texas and the Southern Plains.
In the eighteenth century, 20,000 Comanche controlled an area the size of France. The Apache were terrified of them, and were at one point virtually enslaved by the more powerful tribe.
Empire of the Summer Moon covers the known history of the Comanche from Indian military tactics to frontier weapons technology (the six-gun wasn't important because of street duels, but because it was the first firearm for Indian fighters on horseback that was superior to the bow and arrow) to the reason why the Texas Rangers were founded (it was a paramilitary organization which would trap and slaughter small bands of Comanche in retribution for attacks on white settlers). Gwynne's gripping account of the incredible and tragic story of Cynthia Ann Parker, a white girl kidnapped by the Comanche at age nine, is alone worth the price of the book.
It's the best book about the West I've ever read, at least*. It's also probably the most entertaining book I've read in the past year. If you have any predilection at all for reading history or for stories about the Wild West, this will be the best nine dollars you'll spend on paper and ink this month, I guarantee it. Highly recommended.
*Whoops, sorry, misspoke. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is nonpareil in my opinion, a category of one. (The link is to the illustrated edtion; there's an inexpensive paperback as well.) But Empire of the Summer Moon is at the top of the rest.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is not a book from my youth, despite the fact that it was published in 1970; I first read it in 1998 after I'd turned 40. I'm sure my personal reaction to it was informed in part by a bad loss I had recently suffered when I read it—it's an epic story of tragedy, loss, betrayal, disinheritance, and genocide, and for me it tied into personal emotions which amplified my reactions. Still and all, for whatever reason, it's the single most emotional experience I've ever had reading a book.
For the record, I find the standard criticisms of it nonsensical. Dee Brown set out to write the history of the American West from the perspective of the Native Americans...and his book gets criticized (by white American critics, mostly) for being too sympathetic to Indians, too critical of European-Americans, and not balanced enough. Well, it's not intended to be balanced—it's intended to be counterbalancing. It doesn't make sense to me to criticize an author for succeeding at what he deliberately set out to do.
"Open Mike," which appears on TOP on Sundays, is having a hard time staying off-topic these days. Sorry about that.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Chad Thompson: "Rather apropos. I just returned from a wet plate workshop hosted by Will Dunniway. Today's news was quite the topic of discussion. So in the spirit of the day we spent it creating tintypes. Well, these were on aluminum but hey—japanning iron plates is still beyond me for the moment. Since Will knows my dad has a thing for flintlocks he suggested I brandish one and gift the photo to him. Here's the result (half frame by the way). For the record I am left handed. But it's a right-handed gun."
Featured Comment by DC Wells: "Empire of the Summer Moon inspired my cousin and me to make a camping trip to Palo Duro Canyon in the panhandle of Texas earlier this summer. The Canyon was a stronghold of the Comanches until Quanah struck his deal for peace. Stumbling into the Palo Duro must have been a great surprise for those traveling across the Staked Plain without a map to tip them off. Its cool stream (Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River) and shade trees would have offered relief and sanctuary from the unrelenting plain. Of course, the Comanches might have offered yet a bigger surprise to European travelers.
"In a book of remarkable stories, one of the most remarkable is the transition Quanah Parker made from Commanche leader to business leader and social advisor."