October 31, 2017

Graduation Speech to the Class of 2008

In 2008, I was asked to give the graduation speech at Mayfield High School in Las Cruces, NM, the high school where I had taught thirty years. In the faces of that year's graduating class, my last as a high school teacher, I saw every student I had ever taught. To all the students who ever sat in my class I would like to say, "I loved you all and it was an honor to be your teacher."
Here's the text of the graduation speech I gave in May 2008.

Thank you for inviting me to speak at your graduation. I can’t tell you how much of an honor and a privilege it is for me to stand in front of you.

For what it’s worth, I think you went to an excellent high school. I was there thirty years and have a lot of inside information about the teachers, counselors, and principals that work there. I’ll let you in on a little secret — without exception, they believed in every one of you. They knew education was your big chance, and they believed in your future. For me, this high school was always a place with a lot of heart and soul, and I will miss it. I hope the same is true for you.

All of you have become experts at surviving high school. I’m not quite sure what that expertise is going to buy you. In the real world you’ll probably never again hear the words “tardy” or “mandatory,” and you’ll never again need written permission to go to the bathroom. As one of the main characters in the movie ET says, “How do you explain school to a higher intelligence?”

I know at times that high school may have seemed absurd and surreal. However, you made it. You are graduating. Your parents and teachers are proud of you, and all of us congratulate you on your achievement.

I’d like to refer to another movie to illustrate a point I want to make about your graduation. I hope it’s a movie that all of you have seen: The Wizard of Oz.

When you watch that film and follow Dorothy’s story as she leaves Kansas and meets some odd friends on her way to the Emerald City, you learn something about childhood. You learn that someday you too will have to leave home and face the challenges of life on your own. You learn, like Dorothy, that the adults you always depended on — the Great Wizards — are only human and have problems of their own. You also learn, like Dorothy, that when you are traveling toward your destination, it’s okay to ask others for help.

This graduation not only marks the day you leave high school — in a lot of ways it marks the end of your childhood.

In the grand tradition of any graduation speech, I’m supposed to offer you some words of wisdom, to tell you something like “follow your dreams” or “reach for the stars.” I could tell all 435 of you sitting there in identical caps and gowns that “individuality” is the key to success.

However, I think it’s a little silly for me to offer you advice because the most import things you will learn to guide you through your life, you will learn on your own, not from a graduation speech.

If we lived in a world that made any sense, I would now simply congratulate you and sit down. But it’s not a sensible world and this is a graduation speech. So, let me take it a little further and give you some food for thought.

Laugh often.

Appreciate beauty in all its forms.

Find something you enjoy doing and then do it with enthusiasm.

Nourish your spirit with the love you feel for others and hold on to those who love you.

Treat every end as a beginning.

And never forget how much these things really matter.

I have one more thing to add to all this, something I hope you will take to heart. The degree to which you live a good life depends on the health of the community in which you live, and if you think about it, you actually live in several communities. Your family is a community. Your circle of friends. Your workplace. Your city, state, and nation.

All of those communities count you as a member, and it should give you joy when those communities are strong and at peace with themselves.

If you took one of my classes, you learned that the word in ancient Greece for someone not interested in the community was “idiot.” It’s good to know the origin of that word, because it tells you something about the importance of community.

Again, the health of a community to which you belong has a lot to do with your own happiness, and you should do what you can to nourish all of your communities to good health.

You don’t have to be the President of the United States or Bill Gates to do something worthwhile. You only have to be yourself and use the talents you have at this time — whatever they are. Do the best you can to shine a light on the corner of the world where you are standing.

It doesn’t take much to shine that light. Simply be kind and true to your family. Choose your friends well and be supportive of those friends. Make your city stronger by finding a job and doing it well and doing it with good humor. Vote. Play a role in improving your state and nation. If you feel the calling, run for office or lead a movement. Do something that contributes in a positive way to the communities to which you belong. Do what you can to make this world more humane.

If you agree with all that, I’d like you to think about something you might do today for what is — for most of you I’m sure — the most important community in your life: your family. As I said earlier, in a lot of ways this graduation marks the end of your childhood. That can be quite an emotional experience for the people who raised you and who love you the most. Take time today to tell them how much you appreciate the sacrifices they made for you. Hug them, and tell them you love them.

The last thing I want to give you today comes from two quotes, both of them from the same person. He’s one of my heroes. He sings and plays the guitar. They call him the Boss.

Referring to the importance of community Bruce Springsteen tells us, “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.”

He also tells us, “It’s no sin to be glad that you’re alive.”

Thank you and I wish you the very best.

© 2008 James L. Smith

October 28, 2017

George Washington

"I am sure the mass of citizens in these United States mean well, and I firmly believe they will always act well, whenever they can obtain a right understanding of matters.” – George Washington, 1796 

At 6’3” and 210 pounds, George Washington was a muscular and athletic man who dominated every room he entered. He was a natural leader, and for the last 45 years of his life he found himself at the center of almost every significant event leading to the creation of a new nation — a nation proclaiming a belief in the rights and happiness of its people. As a man of the Enlightenment, Washington led a revolution against the Old World and its appalling superstitions, religious bigotry, and intolerance. 

My presentation for AP U.S. history teachers, titled “George Washington, the Enlightenment, and the Creation of a New Nation,” demonstrates how teachers can frame historical events from 1754-1799 around the life of George Washington. In my opinion, it’s difficult (and almost impossible) to understand the creation of our nation without examining Washington’s remarkable life, a life that ended with a final revolutionary act — the emancipation of his own slaves in his Last Will and Testament. 

This bust of Washington was created from a life mask made in 1785 by the sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. It’s an image of Washington in his early fifties that has been described as one of the most accurate depictions of him in any work of art.  

October 25, 2017

American Time Capsule

Here's an oldie, but goodie — a film telling the story of United States history from the American Revolution through the election of Richard Nixon. The story is told with over 1300 images shown in less than three minutes.

The film was created by Chuck Braverman and first shown on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968. It became so popular that the Smothers Brothers showed it a second time and helped make it the best-selling educational film of the time.

I recommend showing the film several times to students. The more they watch it, the more they will see, and the more students know about the chronology of U.S. history, the more they will know what to expect during the film. The image of Truman holding up a newspaper stating "Dewey Defeats Truman" runs by so quickly we shouldn't be able to see it. However, if we know what happens chronologically and have seen the image before, we are more likely to catch it.

If you teach U.S. history, give this film a try. It can be great fun for students.

October 22, 2017

The Empathic Civilization

In 2009, I attended a presentation at Rice University on nanotechnology. During a fascinating discussion about the most recent research on that subject, a Rice professor identified what he thought were the top ten problems facing humanity in the next fifty years.
  1. Energy
  2. Water
  3. Food
  4. Environment
  5. Poverty
  6. Terrorism and War
  7. Disease
  8. Education
  9. Democracy
  10. Population 
He then explained that the solutions to most of those problems could be traced directly or indirectly to energy. He also explained that many of the solutions to the energy problem would come from nanotechnology. Addressing the young people in the audience he said, “Be a scientist and save the world.”

I have spent my professional life in the humanities — music, art, and history are my forte. I don’t know enough about science to comment on what I learned that day about nanotechnology. However, I liked the tone of the presentation. I liked hearing someone encouraging young people to get into science, into any field for that matter, with the goal of trying to make a difference. I see no harm in spreading a little idealism and asking young people to do something to “save the world.”

In any case, I hope the people who promote science never forget the humanities. The humanities, after all, add a little empathy to scientific pursuits. 

And I am not alone in thinking this. The merging of empathy and science has its proponents, as can be seen in the video I have embedded below, a video that features Jeremy Rifkin speaking about the “The Empathic Civilization.” (Rifkin is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and has written books about the impact of scientific and technological changes on the economy, the workforce, society and the environment.)

According to Rifkin, “[Our brains] are soft-wired to experience another’s plight as if we our experiencing it ourselves.”

That quote from Rifkin describes what teachers in the humanities are trying to achieve every day in the classroom. Teaching students to appreciate great art, music, or literature is nothing less than trying to help them see the world through someone else’s eyes. 

By teaching students to avoid “presentism,” to understand the past by divorcing themselves from the world in which they live, humanities teachers help students get inside the minds of people from 2000 years ago, 200 years ago, or 20 years ago. Students who do this well can learn to understand people today who are different from them — people living on the other side of town or the other side of the world. In other words, the humanities help students leave the world in which the live and learn to understand others, promoting Rifkin’s idea of an “empathic civilization.”

"For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together. … They're touching on the key lesson of childhood, which is that someday the child will not be a child, that home will no longer exist, that adults will be no help because now the child is an adult and must face the challenges of life alone. But that you can ask friends to help you. And that even the Wizard of Oz is only human, and has problems of his own."
– Roger Ebert, writing about The Wizard of Oz

October 19, 2017

Skipper Hall: SMU Student Body President, 1925-26

As manager of the Sacramento Methodist Assembly, Bryan Hall (1896-1989) was said to skip with enthusiasm from one project to another. The nickname “Skipper” was therefore used to describe the pastor who brought an abundance of energy and passion to his work. In 1980, I conducted an interview with Skipper Hall and began gathering information about a man who holds a special place in the hearts of the people who knew him and gained inspiration from his work as minister. What I learned has been used to publish a book titled Skipper Hall: The Life and Religious Philosophy of a Methodist Minister in New Mexico. In this blog I want to tell what I learned about the education Hall acquired during the 1920s at Southern Methodist University. In the process, I hope to introduce followers of this blog to a unique man and explain how SMU shaped him throughout his career as a minister.

Bryan Hall at SMU, 1925
Hall graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1926 after serving as the school’s student body president during the 1925-26 school year. After leaving SMU, he served the Methodist Church for almost fifty years and was shaped throughout his career by the education he received at SMU. 

Hall had joined the Methodist Church at age seven and received the calling to become a minister when he was twenty and working at a laundry in Corpus Christi, Texas. He decided to join the ministry after listening to evangelical preachers in local churches and finding fault in what he described as their “unreasonable” and “goofy” descriptions of God. He especially disliked what he called their “negative” view of God. As he described it, “They made a big to-do about hunting for sinners, and there were no shades of grey. Everything was black or white."

One day, a man who worked with Hall at the laundry asked, “Are you going to work here all your life? The Church could use a man like you.” When Hall explained that he didn’t have an education, the co-worker said, “Well, you can get one!” That conversation prompted Hall's decision to return to school.

Bryan Hall in 1900 (age 4)
In 1919, at the age of twenty-two, Hall moved to Dallas to finish his high school education at Powell Prep School. He then entered SMU, and in 1925 received an A.B. degree in history. Although he never had any doubts about becoming a Methodist minister, he majored in history due to his conviction that history demonstrated how humanity was gradually moving forward and improving. “Studying history and getting a historical perspective was, for me, more inspiring than studying the Bible,” he explained.

Hall remained at SMU after earning his A.B. degree so that he could get an advanced degree in theology. After one year as a theology student, however, he had run out of enough money to continue and was advised by a professor to abandon the last two years he would need for the degree and leave SMU. Although Hall later felt the professor was accurate in his assessment that he had already learned everything he needed to know to work as a pastor, he also believed the professor had given him bad advice. “I might have gone further in the hierarchy of the church if I had stayed in school,” he said.

Before he left SMU, Hall had learned enough to form a foundation that would hold his insatiable search for knowledge throughout his life. He particularly enjoyed the classes at SMU that taught him about the ancient world, classes about the Hebrew search for God and the Greek search for truth. He learned how the Gospels brought the Hebrew and Greek traditions together, creating a new religious philosophy stemming from the teachings of Jesus. What he learned at SMU stayed with him the rest of his life, and he was particularly grateful for professors named Giese, Goodlow, Kern, Rice, and Workman.

During the 1920s, when Hall was a student at SMU, Christians in the United States were divided between “fundamentalists,” who accepted stories from the Bible as literally true, and “modernists,” who employed science and rational thought to explain what they read in the Bible. To this day, high school history students study the John T. Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, a trial that embodied the fundamentalist and modernist arguments of the 1920s. Although I never talked with Hall about the Scopes trial specifically, I have no doubts about which side he would have taken in the philosophical arguments presented at the trial. Scopes, a substitute high school teacher, was accused of breaking the law by teaching evolution, and Hall would have certainly supported the defense arguments of Scopes' attorney, Clarence Darrow. By Hall's own admission, he was a modernist. 

During his time at SMU, he became deeply involved in the struggle against fundamentalism after the school dismissed two professors — John Rice and Thornburgh Workman — for their modernist views. Hall, who was student body president at the time, led protests and petition drives to bring the professors back. Although he was outraged by the dismissal of Rice and Workman, he seemed to have tempered his outrage by the time I interviewed him over sixty years later:

"[Rice and Workman] were simply bringing the scholarship of the last 150 years down to the level of lay people. They were training preachers to understand the scholarship so they could bring it to the level of the common people. However, the men running the school faced the fact that they couldn’t finance the school without firing the liberal thinkers. When the men running the school went to places like Lubbock or Amarillo — which were hotbeds of ultraconservative Church of Christ people — they would face controversy from fundamentalists and would not be able to raise money…. I didn’t know it then, but had they not fired our Bible teachers they could not have raised money, and SMU might not be here now. I couldn’t see that, and I was part of the protests. As I see it now, the president was forced into firing those teachers."

After Hall left SMU in 1926, he sought an appointment as a Methodist minister in New Mexico and faced opposition due to the protests he had led as a student. Fundamentalists in New Mexico suspected the protests were evidence of his modernist beliefs, and they did not want a modernist working as a pastor in their state.

Bryan and Gladys Hall, 1926
In front of a committee organized to determine whether he should be accepted into the ministry, Hall confronted the same questions that had bedeviled the professors who were fired at SMU. Did he believe in the doctrine of original sin? Did he believe in the virgin birth of Jesus? Did he believe in the immortality of the flesh? Did he believe in the preexistence of Jesus?

He was spared from answering these questions by the committee's chair, a man named C.S. Walker. Walker was well-versed in religious philosophy and sympathetic to Hall's situation. During the committee's interview, Walker cut Hall's answers short before he had time to elaborate on his modernist viewpoints. If Hall had answered the committee's questions without interruption, he would have told them about the ideas he had developed as a student at SMU.

On the issue of original sin, he would have explained that his position was halfway between the theology of Augustine and Pelagius. (As he explained it to me, “Augustine was a man who believed in original sin. Pelagius was a heretic who got expelled from the church.”)

On the issue of the virgin birth, Hall would have pointed out that the Bible traced Jesus’ lineage back to Joseph, and he believed there was no point in tracing the lineage to Joseph if Joseph had not parented the child. Hall also believed the virgin birth made no rational sense.

On the question of immortality he would have told the committee that his ideas did not involve the restoration of the physical body or the resuscitation of the flesh.

In regard to the preexistence of Jesus, he would have explained that he did not believe Jesus existed before he was born or “wherever you want to draw the line in the womb.”

Hall had dealt with the scholarship surrounding these issues when he was a student at SMU. He had also learned as a student about the controversies that would await him after he left school. Hall knew a graduate of SMU who had tried to join the Northwest Texas Conference of the Methodist Church as a pastor, only to be turned down when he said he did not believe in the virgin birth. According to Hall, his friend cried after he was turned down and proclaimed, “I feel the call of God, and [they] won’t let me join the conference.”

Bryan "Skipper" Hall, 1972
The fundamentalist-modernist controversy had touched Hall directly at SMU when Paul Kern, the Dean of the School of Theology, called Hall and six other students into his office. Dr. Kern told the students, “Now, you boys are sincere and you want to answer things honestly. If you go to a [conference committee] meeting and they ask you if you believe in the virgin birth and you say no, the newspapers are going to play it up and you’ll hurt Southern Methodist University. So I suggest that you not appear before any committee.”

Hall said that he was the only one of the seven students called into Dr. Kern’s office that day who stayed with the Church as a minister. In explaining his reasons for remaining, Hall said, “I stayed with the church believing my experience with God was just as good as any one else’s. No one had the right to tell me my experience with God was wrong.”

Once, while passionately debating an issue of philosophy with an SMU professor, a student sitting across from Hall said, “Why don’t you shut up? Go make ‘em cry and get your money.” Hall could never have been that type of pastor. He had learned too much from his professors at SMU to view his obligation to the ministry so cynically.

The interest in religious scholarship that Hall gained from SMU stayed with him throughout his life. When I interviewed him in 1980, he explained his religious philosophy with references to religious thinkers such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, James Breasted, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Paul Tillich, and Leslie Weatherhead. He easily quoted passages from the Bible taken from different translations. He was also well-versed in the Biblical apocrypha, as well as the philosophy of John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist Church. Hall had not studied all of these religious thinkers at SMU. Like all college graduates, he still had much to learn after he left school. However, what he did learn at SMU provided him with an unquenchable desire to continue studying religious and historical scholarship. No school could hope for more than to inspire its students to a lifelong passion for learning. To that extent, SMU served Hall well.

Hall left SMU with the dream of someday preaching in a town that contained a university. He thought he could make religion understandable to a congregation of well-educated people. Although he served numerous communities in New Mexico throughout his long and distinguished career, he never had the chance to preach in a university town. Nevertheless, he served the small-town congregations of New Mexico with the dedication and commitment that helped improve the lives of everyone he met.

The following quote from Hall provides insight into the intellectual life sparked by his experiences at SMU:

John Wesley believed that we grow toward perfection even as our Heavenly Father is perfect…. I interpret that to mean that we forever move toward a richer maturity. We never reach the place where we are satisfied. I am continually growing, and I never reach the place where I say I am saved. Methodists do not believe that once a person has had an experience of salvation, that person is then saved. We believe that a person must continue to grow and develop as long as they live. There are some who grow senile and quit developing in the last years of their existence. However, the idea that we inherited from John Wesley is that we must continue to mature spiritually.

Hall spoke those words to me in March 1980 when he was eighty-three years old. His mind was sharp, and he was still as intellectually curious as ever, reading works of religious scholarship and philosophy. When I interviewed him, he referred to the works of John Locke and George Hegel, which he had recently been reading. As he told me, “I have spent my entire life learning and searching.”

For me, Skipper Hall serves as a prime example of a person committed to a life of learning, a person who is open to new ideas and prepared to abandoned outdated ideas of the past. He was a “modernist” in the truest sent of the word, someone who used his ever-expanding knowledge to make our world better. 

© 2012 James L. Smith

October 16, 2017

Skipper Hall: Methodist Minister

I first met Bryan Hall in 1974 when he was seventy-seven years old, and I was eighteen. He had already finished his career as Methodist minister, and I was just beginning my stretch as a college student. I had not yet even decided to become a teacher. I certainly had no thoughts of someday publishing a book about the bald-headed man everyone called “Skipper.”

Bryan "Skipper" Hall, 1972
Skipper Hall acquired his nickname from the young people who worked with him at the Sacramento Methodist Assembly. Those who watched him move quickly from one task to another described him as “skipping” between jobs and events. No other moniker could have described his personality as well. He was a cheerful man who enjoyed all types of work, especially physical labor. He loved life, and he loved people. He rarely spoke ill of others and expressed few complaints about any aspect of his life.

Skipper spent almost fifty years as a Methodist minister, confronting a culture of dogmatic religious beliefs that many of his colleagues would not dare question. Even so, he was never afraid to think for himself and challenge others to adopt social and economic justice as a cornerstone of Christian belief. He always ran a good church and provided the members of his congregation the spiritual guidance they needed to live better lives.

Nine years before Skipper died I asked him whether I could interview him and put his story on audio tape. At the time, he was eighty-three and seemed pleased that I wanted to hear his story. When I arrived for the interview I discovered he had filled several legal pads with notes about what he wanted to tell me. By the time I left he had given me ten hours of his personal history and philosophy recorded for posterity.

A transcript of that interview has been floating around his family for over thirty years. In 2011, I finally took the transcript and began editing it, cutting out the sections that were redundant, trying to make the spoken narrative more readable. My editing work has been published under the aegis of Suncrest Publications as Skipper Hall: The Life and Religious Philosophy of a Methodist Minister in New Mexico.

The book provides a first-person account of Skipper's life, a life that began in 1896, seven years before the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane and twelve years before Henry Ford introduced the Model T. The book also provides an account of Skipper's sometimes stormy relationship with the hierarchy of the Methodist Church. In the last section of the book Skipper explains his religious philosophy, a philosophy that served as a source of conflict with the church he served. All told, the book should satisfy a variety of interests — history, biography, church politics, and philosophy.

To this day, I have met few people who impressed me as much Skipper Hall. After he died in March 1989, the words spoken at his funeral became a testament to the great number of lives he touched. Numerous people have lived better lives because they knew him, and if the book I have published contributes anything to keeping his spirit alive, I will consider it a success.

© 2012 James L. Smith

October 13, 2017

Why Billy the Kid?

One of the reasons I enjoy studying history is that it gives me an opportunity to learn about extraordinary people  — people as varied in their achievements as Joan of Arc, George Washington, Ludwig van Beethoven, Vincent Van Gogh, Albert Einstein, and Nadia Boulanger. 

Billy the Kid
 It might sound odd, but my interest in Billy the Kid is on par with the people listed above. I’m not saying the Kid was an admirable character or that he necessarily achieved anything good in this world. All I'm saying is that I find his story is endlessly fascinating.

In many ways, the Kid seems an unlikely character to catch my attention. In all likelihood, he was nothing more than a punk, a young man who settled his problems through violence. For someone like me — someone who abhors violence — the Kid is, to say the least, an unusual obsession.

But, oh, what a great story the Kid gave us!

Without providing all the details, let me outline the traditional tale told about the Kid. Keep in mind that I’m not providing the real story of the Kid's life, just the traditional story that surrounds the myth.
  • The Kid was born in New York in 1859, and after the Civil War his widowed mother took him west. His mother then raised him and his brother on her own while running her own businesses in Indiana, Kansas, and New Mexico.
  • The Kid was orphaned at the age of fourteen in Silver City, New Mexico Territory, and then forced to survive in a lawless society populated by the often-violent migrants of the frontier. He got into trouble in Silver City, escaped from jail, and went to Arizona.
  • The Kid became a horse thief and cattle rustler in Arizona. After killing a man — most likely in self defense — he joined a gang of ruthless outlaws in New Mexico. 
  • After moving to Lincoln County in eastern New Mexico Territory, the Kid was given an opportunity to make an honest living when an Englishman named John Tunstall gave him a job as a ranch hand.
  • The Kid worked for Tunstall only a few months before Tunstall was assassinated by men working for The House, a business organization that had monopolized Lincoln County. The Kid was then thrust into a war against The House, as well as a group of ruthless businessmen and politicians running the entire New Mexico Territory, a group known as the Santa Fe Ring.
  • After the Lincoln County war ended, the Kid kept fighting against The House and those who were in cahoots with the Santa Fe Ring. He chose not to leave New Mexico Territory and made himself a nuisance by rustling livestock from his enemies.
  • In an attempt to put his life on the right side of the law, the Kid made a deal with the Governor of New Mexico. He agreed to testify in open court against allies of The House. In return, the governor offered him a pardon for crimes he had committed during the Lincoln County War. Although the Kid kept his part of the bargain and testified, the governor never gave him his pardon. The Kid also tried to get on the right side of the law when he played a leading role in calling a truce between the opposing sides in the Lincoln County War. The truce didn't last long when it was violated by men who worked for The House.
  • The Santa Fe Ring, probably trying to turn attention away from their own crimes, began using newspapers to portray the Kid as the worst of the worst in the New Mexico Territory. After being made a scapegoat for the violence in Lincoln County, the Kid became a symbol for the lawlessness of the American West.
  • Captured and sentenced to hang, the Kid became the only person convicted of a crime for actions committed during the Lincoln County War.
  • In a daring and bloody escape in which he killed two guards, the Kid fled his Lincoln County jail only a few days before his execution. Unwilling to leave New Mexico Territory, the Kid found refuge among those who supported him near Fort Sumner.
  • After walking into a dark room at midnight, the Kid was ambushed and shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett.
What a story! The arc of the Kid's life has the makings of a timeless myth. I suspect historians, novelists, and filmmakers will be reshaping the Kid’s legend for generations to come.

And why the Kid? Why do so many people, me included, find his story so compelling?

First, I would point out that although the Kid may have been an outlaw, he was an uncommon one. He loved music and dancing. He liked to sing, and by many accounts he liked to read. In the heat of battle, he was said to be daring, brave, and loyal. He was intelligent and charismatic. In short, he was the type of historical character who makes a good story.

Second, his life provides us with a mythic tale that can be told in a variety of ways to meet a variety of needs. So little is known for certain about the Kid's life that it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction when hearing his story. From questions about the date and place of his birth to the controversies surrounding his death, people can take his story almost anywhere they want it to go. He can be portrayed as a black-hearted villain or the American Robin Hood. His story works both ways.

Finally, the Kid’s story is timeless because he will remain forever young. Dead at age twenty-one, the Kid never had a chance to grow old and look back on the recklessness of his youth. We must also think about how an untimely death can place an exclamation point at the end of someone's life and make that person a legend. Just think about how premature deaths helped turn the following people into icons: Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Huey Long, James Dean, John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Harvey Milk, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, and Tupac Shakur. Billy the Kid can certainly be placed on that list.

I am often asked about the reasons I am so interested in Billy the Kid. My answer, in part, stems from the fact that I have lived my entire life in southern New Mexico, and Billy the Kid is part of my cultural DNA. I also spent thirty years as a high school teacher and taught many students who reminded me of the Kid. I taught students who were intelligent and charismatic but nevertheless headed the wrong way in life. Something traumatic may have happened to them at a vulnerable age that changed them forever. Their stories, as well as the Kid’s, are timeless.

All told, I really have only one answer to the question about what got me so interested in the Kid: Who wouldn’t be interested in Billy the Kid?



© 2013 Billy the Kid

October 10, 2017

Garrett Killed the Kid

Studying history begins with the process of asking questions. How did people prepare their food in medieval Europe? Who was Beethoven's “Immortal Beloved”? What caused the American Civil War?

Once a historian is armed with a question, the research begins, and the historian examines diaries, letters, official documents, newspaper reports, artifacts, works of art, interviews — anything that might lead to enough evidence that the historical puzzle can be assembled into a satisfactory answer for the question at hand.

Easy enough. A child can understand the process.

What takes a little more maturity for history students is understanding how the questions that historians ask reflect the times in which they live. Quite simply, we don’t wonder what we don’t wonder about, and we most likely only wonder about the things that relate to our own lives and the world in which we live.

In 2006, C.A. Tripp published The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, a book that makes the argument that Lincoln was gay. The book obviously set off much historical debate.

However, the book — and the debate it started — probably teaches us less about Lincoln than the times in which we live. I doubt few, if any, books written in 1926 or 1966 addressed Lincoln’s sexuality. Today, however, people are more openly dealing with that issue.

Decades from now, people will look at books and articles that our generation has written about Lincoln’s sexuality and learn more about us than about Lincoln.

Before the 1960s, U.S. history books rarely included issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. Since the 1960s, however, history students have been inundated with issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. The civil rights movement prompted historians to begin asking questions they hadn’t asked before the 1960s, and the history books changed.

If we read a history book from the 1920s about the Civil War, we are likely to learn more about the 1920s than the Civil War. In the same way, a history book written today probably reveals as much about modern times than the topic of the book. As a sign of our times, for example, many textbooks today include information about environmental history.

Pat Garrett
The 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica includes an entry for “negro” that states, “Mentally the negro is inferior to the white … the arrest or even deterioration of mental development [after adolescence] is no doubt very largely due to the fact that after puberty sexual matters take the first place in the negro's life and thoughts.”

That entry obviously speaks volumes about the world of 1911.

To further illuminate my point, take an innocuous historical statement such as “Pat Garrett killed Billy the Kid” and examine how responses to that statement might have changed over the last 120 years.

If I had made that statement in the 1890s, I probably would have received responses that were variations on one theme: “The Kid got what he deserved.”

During the 1890s, people had been exposed to numerous newspaper reports, dime novels, and books that generally portrayed the Kid as a cold-hearted killer. The Kid represented the old ways of settling problems in the American west. Many Americans at the turn of the century were looking forward to an end of the Code of the West and the “civilization” of a modern urban society. 

If I had said, “Garrett killed the Kid,” in the 1920s or 1930s, I would have received a much different response. During those decades, the Kid was portrayed as much more of a hero. On the jacket of a bestselling book about the Kid published by Walter Noble Burns in 1926, the Kid was described as the “Robin Hood of the Mesa.” In 1930, a King Vidor film titled Billy the Kid was shown to test audiences who were so disturbed by the Kid’s death that the producers were forced to change the ending. In the version released to the public, Pat Garrett fakes the Kid’s death and lets him escape to Mexico with the girl he loves.

Billy the Kid
Again, the way the story was told in the 1920s and 1930s tells us more about that time in history than it does about Billy the Kid. At a time of gangsterism, financial corruption, and economic depression, the Kid was portrayed as a romantic hero fighting against the corrupt business forces of his time. In short, he was a heroic figure.

And what if I said, “Garrett killed the Kid” in modern times. I have made several presentations and taught classes on Billy the Kid, and the reaction is often the same. “Did Garret really kill the Kid?” “Didn’t Garrett kill someone else and cover it up.” “Didn’t the real Billy the Kid die in Hico, Texas, in the 1950s?

Today, an innocuous historical statement such as “Garrett killed the Kid” leads to questions of conspiracy and coverup that reflect much uncertainty and cynicism about official stories. I believe that reaction says more about us than it does about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

What it says, I’m not sure, but wouldn’t all this be fun to talk about in a history class?

© 2013 James L. Smith

October 8, 2017

The Myth of Billy the Kid

At midnight on July 14, 1881, Sheriff Pat Garrett ambushed Billy the Kid and ended his life. The Kid had stepped onto a porch at a home near Fort Sumner in New Mexico Territory and spotted two men he didn’t know (both were Garrett’s deputies). The Kid asked, “¿Quien Es?” (“Who is it?”), and when the men didn’t answer, the Kid backed into an unlit room. Pat Garrett was sitting in that room, and when the Kid sensed someone present, he asked again, “¿Quien Es?” At that moment, Pat Garrett shot the Kid in the chest, killing him instantly. The Kid was twenty-one years old.

Billy the Kid’s death became international news and pushed the assassination of President Garfield off the front pages of American newspapers. The Kid has not left the national and international consciousness since. On the night he died, his myth became large enough to survive more than a century and has shown no signs of diminishing. He is still making news and will probably continue to do so into the foreseeable future. His myth is timeless.

The traditional story told about Billy the Kid—a story full of many questions regarding its accuracy—is enough to keep myth makers busy for generations. Read my summary of his life story below and think about the countless books and films that have been, and might still be, inspired by the Kid's fascinating biography.

William Henry McCarty was born in New York in 1859 to Catherine McCarty, an Irish immigrant. (Nothing is known about Billy’s father.) After the Civil War, Billy moved to Indiana for a few years with his mother and younger brother Joseph. Billy’s family then moved to Wichita, Kansas, where his mother operated a profitable laundry and even became involved in Wichita politics. His mother, however, was eventually forced to leave Wichita due to illness. Tuberculosis was getting the best of her and forcing her to move to a drier climate. Billy’s family therefore left Kansas for Santa Fe where his mother married Bill Antrim, a long-time companion. The family then moved to Silver City, a three-year-old mining camp in southwestern New Mexico.

Billy, who was about thirteen years old when he moved to Silver City, was described by those who knew him as a well-behaved boy, someone who loved music and reading. His teacher described him as “a scrawny little fellow with delicate hands and an artistic nature … always quite willing to help with the chores around the schoolhouse.” His teacher also said, “He was no more of a problem than any other boy.” By all accounts, young Billy was on his way to becoming a good man.

His path in life changed dramatically after the death of his mother, a victim of the tuberculosis that had plagued her for years. After his mother’s death, Billy’s stepfather abandoned him, and Billy was forced to survive on his own as a young orphan living in an often lawless and violent territory. Within a few months he began stealing from Silver City’s residents, and the sheriff eventually arrested him for stealing clothes from a Chinese laundry. After only three days in jail he escaped by climbing out a chimney. 

Billy left Silver City after his escape from jail and headed for the Arizona Territory where he spent two years riding with outlaws as a cattle rustler and horse thief. In 1877, he killed his first man in a bar fight. He then left Arizona, deciding not to wait for a legal decision about whether he would be indicted for murder or declared innocent on the grounds of self-defense. As a seventeen-year-old boy with no money, no home, and a possible indictment for murder hanging over him, he returned to New Mexico and changed his name to William H. Bonney. (Historians don’t really know why he chose the name Bonney. It  may have been his mother’s maiden name.)

After spending a short time with a notoriously violent gang of rustlers, Billy took a job as a ranch hand in Lincoln County. As an employee of John Tunstall, a young businessman and rancher from England, Billy felt he had finally found honest work for a man he respected. Tunstall, however, was soon assassinated by men working for corrupt political forces who had monopolized business activity in Lincoln County. Tunstall’s killing prompted Billy and other ranch hands, known as “regulators,” to seek revenge, triggering a full-scale war between rival economic and political factions in Lincoln County. In fighting against the most powerful forces in the New Mexico Territory, the regulators found themselves in a battle they could not win.

After the war ended, most of the regulators were either dead or had fled the territory. Billy, on the other hand, remained in New Mexico unwilling to give up the fight. New Mexico’s power elite needed a scapegoat to blame for the seemingly endless violence in Lincoln County. Newspapers and politicians therefore turned to William H. Bonney, labeling him “Billy the Kid” and turning him into a symbol of the lawlessness in New Mexico.

Billy attempted to redeem himself, seeking a pardon for the crimes he may have committed, only to be betrayed by the territorial governor who had promised him a pardon if he would testify in court against powerful and corrupt men. Billy fulfilled his side of the deal but never received a pardon. Instead, he was chased down and captured by Sheriff Pat Garrett, prosecuted for murder, and sentenced to hang. After killing two men during an escape from the Lincoln County jail, Billy was hunted and eventually shot dead by Sheriff Garrett.

For a large number of New Mexicans, especially the Spanish-speaking people of the territory, Billy the Kid was a young man who was loved and admired, a sympathetic champion of the oppressed. For his supporters, his death represented a disheartening victory for the powerful and corrupt forces controlling the New Mexico Territory. 

For many others, Billy the Kid was hated and feared. According to one newspaper, he was a “a low down vulgar cut-throat with probably not one redeeming quality.” Some newspapers reported his death as an event that would mark the end of lawlessness in the Wild West. 

Controversy about the Kid continues to this day.

Many falsehoods and questionable facts have been used to embellish the Kid’s story. Although the embellishments number too many to list here, I have listed five of the most well-known below. I should note that I don’t mind any of these five added to good works of fiction, whether in books or movies. In fact, sometimes they even make the story better. However, I would protest if they were added to works of nonfiction.
  1. The Kid killed his first man in Silver City after the man insulted his mother. (Not true.)
  2. The Kid killed twenty-one men, not counting "Mexicans and Indians." (He actually killed four to nine men.)
  3. John Tunstall was a father figure to the Kid. (Tunstall was only twenty-four when he died.)
  4. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid were friends before Garrett became sheriff. (Although they knew each other, it's a stretch to call them friends.)
  5. Pat Garrett did not kill the Kid at Fort Sumner, and the Kid went on to live a long life under a different identity. (Probably not true.)
I have described the traditional story told about Billy the Kid above and supplied a few of the more common falsehoods. Keep in mind, however, that the traditional story is so full of holes that the historical record allows us to create several versions of Billy the Kid. He can either be a murderous thief or a young boy with the courage to take on corrupt politicians and businessmen. As historian Frederick Nolan wrote in his wonderful book The West of Billy the Kid.

“Few American lives have more successfully resisted research than that of Billy the Kid. It is almost as if he decided at birth to leave behind as little documentary trace as he could of his entry into, and passage through, the world.”

In spite of the sketchiness of the historical record, the Kid’s story has long been fun to tell, and I am certain we will find a way to keep telling it long into the future.


© 2013 James L. Smith