The Kid, Two-Gun, and History

Few American lives have elicited more tales, rumors, and folklores than that of Henry McCarty. I would go so far as to say that of all the famous Americans who have lived such a short life span—two meager decades—McCarty has the most amount of words written about him. He perhaps has also influenced more authors than any other old west figure. And despite all this, he remains one of the most elusive figures of the old west. So who is Henry McCarty? History knows him as one Billy the Kid. The foremost scholar of Billy the Kid, Frederick Nolan, claims that “Few American lives have more successfully resisted research than that of Billy the Kid.” (Nolan 3). Evidence for this lies in the fact that The Kid did not receive serious scholarly attention until nearly 100 years after his death.

Why is that? What makes Billy the Kid so fascinating that for the better part of the 20th century his life has resisted serious research and remained in the mainstream arena of folklore and myth? No scholar of the Kid seems to have a definitive answer to that question. It might simply be that facts are not as exciting as the mysterious. Regardless, from the late 1950s to the present day reliable research, scholarly articles, books, and historical documents have been written and uncovered. Granted, the myths are still there and they make for wonderful movies and exciting novels but we now live in what should be considered a more enlightened era with regard to our understanding of The Kid.

There was a long period of time where scarcely a word was written or spoken about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County Wars. This span occurred between the death of the infamous sheriff (Pat Garrett) who killed Billy the Kid in 1908 until 1925 when Harvey Fergusson raised the question in an American Mercury article, “Who remembers Billy the Kid?” Apparently, the Kid’s reputation had faded and Fergusson wondered why (Nolan 295). All this would soon change in 1926 when Walter Noble Burns published The Saga of Billy the Kid, and the Kid would once again be thrust into the limelight of folklore and myth. This was the very book that sparked interest in the mind of a young boy who would later become the premier scholar of Billy the Kid studies, Frederick Nolan. However, Walter Noble Burns, with his flamboyant style and highly exaggerated account of Billy the Kid, would also influence a series of western writers of the early to mid twentieth century. One in particular was a popular pulp fiction writer from Cross Plains, Texas named Robert E. Howard. Although the focus of Howard’s writing had pretty much been the fantasy and action adventure genres, Burn’s book would ultimately set Howard in a new direction.

It is no secret to Robert E. Howard aficionados that Howard had a serious interest in the Old West. This interest became so predominant toward the latter years of his life he shifted his writing career in the direction of publishing western stories and even proclaimed in correspondence to August Derleth:

I’m seriously contemplating devoting all my time and efforts to western writing, abandoning all other forms of work entirely; the older I get the more my thoughts and interests are drawn back over the trails of the past; so much has been written, but there is so much that should be written. (Howard Letters 2:  372)

In studies regarding Robert E. Howard’s western writing career there is no definitive timeframe or specific cause that pushed Howard in the direction of western tales. Howard had written Westerns in his earlier years and sporadically throughout his fantasy and action adventure years, but what made him tell Derleth that he wanted to devote all his time to western writing? Chances are there is no single factor or date but rather a series of events that hinged upon at least one thing—Walter Noble Burn’s book The Saga of Billy the Kid.

Walter Noble Burns was born October 24th, 1872. As a teenager he became a junior reporter for the Louisville, KY Evening Post. (Nolan 295). This led Burns into a fairly long career as a writer and reporter which eventually led him to Chicago where he would work for both the Chicago Examiner and Chicago Tribune. It was his work with the Tribune that would launch him into his most famous research and work. In 1923 Burns would visit New Mexico to interview  various people who were still alive during the Lincoln County Wars and the days of Billy the Kid. This research would ultimately end up in Burns’ book The Saga of Billy the Kid (from here on known as SBK).

SBK was the definitive book about Billy the Kid’s life until the late 1950s and early 1960s when scholars took pen in hand and began seriously researching the Lincoln County Wars. Today SBK is considered nothing but a novel work on the Lincoln County Wars. It has all but been dismissed as exaggerations, myths, and fun folklore. Regardless, from 1926, the year SBK was published, to the early 1960s, Burns’ work set the tone for movies, western pulp stories, dime novels, and even magazine articles about Billy the Kid.

When SBK was published it quickly became a national best seller, rivaling the sales of other popular books of its day. In just a few short months Nolan explains, “[Burns’] book topped the bestseller list on the newly formed Book of the Month Club, whose judges—among them Dorothy Canfield, Heywood Broun, and William Allen White—proclaimed it to be full of ‘the vivid reality of the moving pictures without the infusion of false sentiment and . . .melodrama. It was, they felt, ‘a chronicle such as the Elizabethans wrote and read.” (Nolan 296).

Regarding the book’s accuracy nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, those whom Burns had interviewed (all close friends of Billy the Kid or spouses of those who rode with him) declared the book to be nothing but exaggerated stories and false facts. George Coe who was so disturbed by the contents of Burns’ book wrote a more accurate account of his time spent with The Kid. But, unlike Burn’s book, Coe’s work drifted into obscurity.

Despite the protests of the Lincoln County War witnesses whom Burns interviewed, and despite their own written accounts attempting to counter Burns’ book, SBK continued to sell widely. Then the film rights for Burns’ book were bought by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and would soon be made into a major motion picture, setting those exaggerations, myths, and folklores into motion for several decades to follow. But as important, Burns’ book would soon be absorbed into the western pulps and dime novels from the 1920s to the late 1950s. Writers such as Max Brand, Luke Short, Zane Grey, Edwin Corle, and Robert E. Howard, would all be influenced by Walter Noble Burns’ book.

Robert E. Howard certainly owned a copy of The Saga of Billy the Kid. Howard mentions the book in a July 1935 letter to H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, Howard quotes from the book in that letter using details about the Lincoln County Wars that correspond with details from SBK. And, even though Burns’ book is not mentioned by Howard until that July 1935 letter to H.P. Lovecraft, there is enough evidence to demonstrate that Howard owned and used Burns’ book quite a few years prior to it being mentioned in that letter. But when, approximately, did Howard purchase Burns’ book and why is it  important to know that approximate time frame?

I think there were three factors in Howard’s life that caused him to slowly gain a serious interest in frontier and old west history. First, the purchase of Burns’ book was one of, if not the strongest factor to shift Howard’s interest toward the old west. Two, around this same time Tevis Clyde Smith, one of Howard’s close friends, began research on local western frontier history. And three, changes in pulp markets and writing trends were occurring. Because of all these factors Howard began an ongoing effort from this approximate timeframe to the end of his life to break into the western pulp fiction market.

Two-Gun Howard and the Western Tale

Robert E. Howard always had a healthy interest in gunfighters and the Old West. At age 15 Howard created a western gunfighter by the name of Steve Allison (Glenn Lord 72). This character would later be revived in 1933, in the middle of Howard’s shifting interests toward western stories and western history. But the fact that Howard had created such a character at such a young age is quite telling. It at least demonstrates his interest in western motif’s and characters all the way back to his teenage years. The first story Robert E. Howard ever submitted for professional publishing was to a magazine called Western Story. The story was titled “Bill Smalley and the Power of the Human Eye” and as Howard scholar Rusty Burke points out:

Although the story is a tale of the North Woods, it is nevertheless interesting that his first professional submission was to a magazine of western fiction.  (Burke introduction xi)

This story was submitted for publication in 1921 and although it was rejected, for a few years afterward Howard spent time not only writing more western style tales but also submitting them to various places for publication. In 1922 “‘Golden Hope’ Christmas” and “West is West” were both submitted to and published by the Brownwood High School newspaper called The Tattler. With these Howard saw moderate success and pay. Then, in 1924 Howard submitted another western story titled “44-40 or Fight” to Western Story magazine. Again, they rejected his story. However, that same year the newly established pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales accepted the work that would essentially launch Howard’s career—“Spear and Fang.” With the promise of publication to his first real national magazine, and Howard’s stories “The Hyena” and “The Lost Race” accepted by that same magazine in December 1924, Howard’s attention fell almost solely on the fantasy and action/adventure market. The market that Howard would use to launch his writing career.

From 1924 to 1928 there is no record in correspondence or otherwise of Howard writing a western story. The closest thing to a western or pioneer/historical work Howard would attempt to write and actually publish during this “quiet” period is his short essay titled “What the Nation Owes the South,” picked up by the Brownwood Bulletin in 1926. And that essay is not actually a western even though it deals with frontier/Civil War type issues.

Then, in 1928 two western stories surfaced: “Spanish Gold on a Devil Horse” submitted to Argosy and Adventure (both rejected the story) and “Drums of Sunset” submitted to The Cross Plains Review (which accepted the story), the local newspaper in Howard’s hometown of Cross Plains, Texas. The former story is interesting because it is actually set in a fictional version of Cross Plains called “Lost Plains,” and deals with actual regional places and issues.  I draw attention to these details because around this time one of Howard’s close friends, Tevis Clyde Smith, began to interview locals, visit Courthouses, and dig up historical documents on local frontier life. By autumn of 1930 Smith began to submit articles to local newspapers (Roehm introduction xxii). On several occasions Howard would join his friend on these outings.

In mid 1929 Howard wrote a story titled “The Extermination of Yellow Donory.” It is the first record we have where Howard mentions Billy the Kid. Howard seems to have used Burns’ description of The Kid to describe his own character, Joey Donory. Even though Billy the Kid is small, Burns’ paints him in such a light that he ends up being larger than life despite his actual stature. In that same vein Howard writes:

Born and bred in an environment where men were large and imposing, his [Joey Donory] lack of size was bad enough, but his handicaps were more than physical.

“An’ it ain’t so much me bein’ thataway. Most of the real bad hombres wasn’t so big. Lookit Billy the Kid; no bigger’n what I be.” (Burke, 38)

In his description of Billy the Kid and other gunfighters Burns’ writes:

He [Billy the Kid] was five feet eight inches tall, slender, and well proportioned. He was unusually strong for his inches, having for a small man quite powerful arms and shoulders.

. . . It may be remarked further, as a matter of incidental interest, that the West’s bad men were never heavy, stolid, lowering brutes. (Burns 59 & 60, emphasis mine)

It’s interesting how Howard compares the size of his main character, Joey Donory, to that of Billy the Kid using similar phrasing as Burns did in his work. Burns goes on to detail how other men, such as Pat Garrett, were tall, large, etc. but Billy due to his size, speed and accuracy with a gun, equaled himself among these larger men. This is just a small example of how Howard used Burns’ book. I will also demonstrate that Howard took details directly out of Burns’ book when he discussed the life of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County Wars in several of his letters to H.P. Lovecraft.

The Purchase of Burns Book and How Howard Used It

There is no definitive date for when Robert E. Howard purchased SBK. In fact, there is no definite place either. The only two bookstores Howard mentions in his letters are Argosy, located in New York City, and Von Blon’s Bookstore in Waco, Texas. It is well known that Howard ordered many of his books through the mail. I think if he bought SBK from Argosy it would have been between late 1928 and early to mid 1929. Howard was certainly ordering books from Argosy at that time because, in a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith from early April 1930 Howard declares,

The Argosy pipple [sic, intentional due to the joking nature of the letter] enrage me highly by their damned discriminating attitude. I haven’t gotten their latest catalogue no more as nothing, They always send their other customers theirs before they send me one. (Howard Letters 1: 30)

The language in this letter, their latest and always, clearly seem to indicate that Howard had been ordering from Argosy for some time.

If Howard bought Burns’ book from Von Blon’s then it is likely that he purchased the book before writing “The Extermination of Yellow “in 1929. As I have demonstrated above, the mention of Billy the Kid and the similar phrasing with SKB would place a date prior to mid-1929.  But it should also be noted that Howard was buying books from Von Blon’s much earlier than 1929. In as letter to Harold Preece dated August 1928, Howard mentions Von Blon’s Bookstore. “Waco’s a Hell of a town, isn’t it? Likely you’ve discovered Von Blon’s bookstore already. The Prussian has some good books sometimes.” Once again the language indicates that Howard had shopped there before.

With the dates of these letters and the clear indication that Howard was shopping from both bookstores for some time, either location is a strong candidate. Even so, the date of “The Extermination of Yellow Donory” and it’s mention of Billy the Kid certainly help provide an approximate time frame of when SKB was purchased, between early 1928 to mid 1929, two to three years after its initial publication. By September 1930 Howard declares to his friend, Tevis Clyde Smith, that he is going to write “a history of the early Texan days sometime, entitled: An Unborn Empire or something like that.” (Howard Letters 2: 68). In that same letter Howard asks Smith if he can use some of his articles for research and reference. This is crucial because just a few months later, January 1931, in a letter to H.P. Lovecraft, Howard writes about the Lincoln County Wars using the same writing style as Burns in SKB, and providing details that he could have only known through Burns’ book. What this indicates is that Smith’s research on the western frontier coupled with SKB are already setting in motion the change that will take place in Howard’s interest and writing direction. And this is all occurring between 1928 and 1931.

In between the two letters mentioned above (one to Smith, the other to HPL) Howard mentions Billy the Kid in another letter to Lovecraft dated October 1930. Howard is discussing James Franklin Norfleet. He details their meeting each other, describes Norfleet’s physical features, and then compares him as a gunman to Billy the Kid, along with other gunmen such as John Wesley Hardin, Sam Bass, and Al Jennings. He then waxes eloquently about gunfighters and their mannerisms and characteristics. And even though the topics during this period of correspondence between Howard and Lovecraft predominantly circle around the Celts, or Romans, or medieval and ancient civilizations, Howard always manages to turn the conversations back to Texas, frontier life, cattlemen, gunfighters, or the old west.

There is no question that from this point, October 1930, Howard is demonstrating a dominant interest in Billy the Kid, the Lincoln County Wars, and the Old West. And by January 1931, Howard is actually using the details from Burns’ book in that particular letter to H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, the names, events, details, and descriptions are used in such a manner that it makes me think that Howard actually had the book in front of him as he wrote the letter. Below is a chart that compares Howard’s letter to Lovecraft and certain details from the burning of McSween’s home during the Lincoln County Wars.

Not only does Howard keep the sequence used by Burns, but the details are, for the most part, the same. And, in subsequent letters to Lovecraft when the Lincoln County Wars are brought up, Howard uses Burns’ book to tell the story. In these same letters more frequent discussions about the west, Texas history, and gunfighters ensue. Examples of this can be seen in his letters dated February 1931 in which Howard discusses John Chisum, the Lincoln County Wars, and The Kid; June 1931 Howard discusses the types of guns that won the old west; August of 1931 Howard discusses Texas frontier history at great length; December 9, 1931 Howard discusses Kit Carson and Bigfoot Wallace; May 24, 1932 Howard discusses Bill Hickok and Billy the Kid; August 9, 1932 Howard discusses Pat Garrett, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, etc. This trend continues in his letters until it culminates in a trip Howard took with his friend Truett Vinson to New Mexico, in the summer of 1935. By then Howard is all but completely focused on writing western stories.

Even though Robert E. Howard had sporadically written and published western stories from his first submission in 1921 to the end of his life, several prominent Howard scholars place Howard’s transitional interest of the old west and western stories at the same time as Tevis Clyde Smith’s publication Frontier’s Generation in March of 1931. Based on the evidence above, I propose a revised transitional date: in the late 20s, around late 1928 to early to mid-1929. And while Smith’s research and publication played an important role in Howard’s transition, I think Burns’ book, The Saga of Billy the Kid is the key factor that caused Howard’s transition. In fact, I think the influence Burns’ book had on Howard cannot be overstated. Especially since Howard seems to adopt Burns’ writing style in several of his western stories. Research and proof of which I’ll reserve for another time and another paper.

Based on the above dates, correspondence, and the progressive build up of western stories written and published from 1928 to Howard’s death in 1936, and a few years beyond, there is a clear trend of Howard shifting his interest toward the Old West and western stories. It’s just a matter of time before Howard will take this interest and apply it to his storytelling, breaking full swing into the western markets.

 Historical Corrections and Burns’ Book

While Walter Noble Burns’ account of Billy the Kid certainly had a interesting impact on writers of the mid-20th Century, it left a false historical wake that would not be corrected until over 30 years after its initial publication. With renewed interest from scholars about Billy the Kid in the late 50s and early 60s, various facts, myths, and folklores would soon be corrected. From the 21st century, we certainly have the advantage of looking back over history and seeing where errors were made, watching how they were corrected, and moving forward with better information.

Of course, Robert E. Howard did not have that luxury. He was informed about Billy the Kid from the various circulated myths, exaggerated tales, and erroneous facts that were merely highlighted by Burns’ book. On the one hand, this had a positive effect on his writing. Howard wrote with this exaggerated tone, used exaggerated facts, and painted his western stories in such a way as to make them far more interesting than merely dry facts and events. On the other hand, a lot of what Howard wrote about Billy the Kid was just erroneous. This being the case, anyone who reads Howard’s letters where he discusses Billy the Kid, should take those letters with several grains of salt. While they are quite interesting to read, and read like a good story, they are wrought with erroneous details that Howard borrowed from Burns.

Even so, were it not for Walter Noble Burn’s book The Saga of Billy the Kid, I do not think Howard would have developed the way he did when it came time for him to settle into regularly writing his western stories. Not that Burns was the sole influence on how and why Howard wrote westerns, but the impact Burns’ book had on Howard’s western writing can certainly be seen. I also think that Burns’ book played the key role in Howard’s interest of the old west and western tales. An interest that ultimately led him to declare to his longtime correspondent, H.P. Lovecraft, in a letter dated May 13, 1936, about a month before Howard’s death, “I find it more and more difficult to write anything but western yarns.” (Howard  Letters 3:  446)

Bibliography

Burke, Rusty. Introduction. The End of the Trail: Western Stories. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 2005. Ix-Xviii. Print.

Burns, Walter Noble. The Saga of Billy the Kid. Garden City, NY: Garden City, 1926. Print.

Coe, George W. Frontier Fighter: The Autobiography of George W. Coe Who Fought and Rode with Billy the Kid. Ed. Doyce B. Nunis. Chicago: Lakeside, 1984. Print.

Derie, Bobby, comp. The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard: Index and Addenda. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2015. Print.

Herron, Don, ed. The Dark Barbarian: The Writings of Robert E. Howard: A Critical Anthology. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1984. Print.

Howard, Robert E. The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard. Ed. Rob Roehm. Vol. 1-3. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2007. Print.

Howard, Robert E. Sentiment: An Olio of Rarer Works. Ed. Rob Roehm. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2009. Print.

Howard, Robert E. Western Tales. Ed. Rob Roehm. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2013. Print.

Lord, Glenn, ed. The Last Celt: A Bio-Bibliography of Robert E. Howard. West Kingston, Rhode Island: Donald M. Grant, 1976. Print.

Nolan, Frederick W. The West of Billy the Kid. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 1998. Print.

Smith, Tevis C. So Far the Poet & Other Writings. Ed. Rob Roehm and Rusty Burke. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2010. Print.

Smith, Tevis Clyde. Frontier’s Generation: The Pioneer History of Brown County, with Sidelights on the Surrounding Territory. New and Enlarged ed. Brownwood, TX: Moore Printing, 1980. Print.

Wallis, Michael. Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. Print.

Be sure and visit Todd’s On an Underwood No. 5 blog. He has recently updated the blog’s look and will be adding a lot of first-rate Howard content there in the coming weeks and months.