Croquet in the Old West

About three years ago came news that a new photo of Billy the Kid might have been unearthed. Experts hired by National Geographic purported that the tintype showed Billy and a number of his associates on John Tunstall’s ranch in Lincoln County, New Mexico playing croquet. You can see the full photo and learn more at National Geographic’s site. The detail below supposedly shows Billy on the left with Tom O’Folliard in the center pointing at him. On the right may be Sallie Chisum.

I love this photo on many levels. If this is Billy the Kid, we now have an image of him wearing a cardigan and a bow tie, playing croquet with his gang. Tom O’Folliard was Billy’s best friend. Like Billy, O’Folliard was shot and killed by Pat Garrett. Sallie Chisum was the niece of prominent rancher John Chisum, who in turn was a business partner of Billy and Tom’s boss John Tunstall. Sallie Chisum lived in Lincoln County until her death in 1934. To put that date in perspective, my mom, the daughter of New Mexico homesteaders, would have been seven years old. Sallie Chisum is important to historians because her diary contains stories about both Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett.

Historians have been debating whether or not this photo actually shows Billy the Kid, the Regulators, and their associates. Whether or not Billy the Kid is in this photo, we do see a scene of people in the Old West playing croquet. We know croquet sets were sold in New Mexico because Gazette of Las Vegas, New Mexico ran an ad featuring croquet sets in 1878.

In my Clockwork Legion novels, I have a character named Billy McCarty. When pressed, I tell people Billy may or may not be Billy the Kid. In many ways, he’s like the person in the photo, who also may or may not be Billy the Kid. I’m not a historian, but a fiction writer. As a fiction writer, I’m allowed to ask, what if this photo really depicts the Billy of my stories. What if his boss, Englishman John Tunstall, introduced him and his friends to croquet? What if he was an aficionado of the game?

I play with this idea in my latest novel, Owl Riders. In the novel, Ramon Morales first encounters Billy teaching the men who work at Onofre Cisneros’s warehouse in Nogales how to play croquet. As the novel progresses, we find that Billy has skills with a croquet ball and mallet that rival his skills with a six-gun.

You can learn more about Owl Riders and read the first chapter at

On Saturday, I mentioned that I’ll be signing my vampire books at Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans. This will also be the formal debut event for Owl Riders. You might wonder if that means that there are vampires in my new steampunk novel, especially in light of my Billy encountering vampires in last year’s Straight Outta Tombstone. In fact, there are no vampires in the new novel, but Boutique du Vampyre is in the same block of the French Quarter where Ramon and Fatemeh Morales live in the novel.

Saddle up and take flight with the Owl Riders!

4 comments on “Croquet in the Old West

  1. Jack "Blimprider" Tyler says:

    Sort of lost for a meaningful comment here. I, too, am using a historical figure in one of my works in progress, not for atmosphere, but as a minor character. It’s tricky business, and its handling has the potential to define a writer’s reputation. I enjoyed your handling of Mr. McCarty, and never doubted who he was. Now you raise doubt? Shame on you! If Stingaree ever sees the light of publication, I’ll explain to you and everyone the historical basis for why my historical character, one of the fire-breathing legends of the old west, behaves the way he does toward the babe in the woods that is my protagonist. At the risk of repeating myself, coming soon…

    • Maybe another way to put it is that my Billy is definitely not Billy the Kid but he could have been. My Billy’s life changed course before he became “the Kid” of myth and legend. Make no mistake, my Billy is still a dangerous character, but he’s been shaped by fighting in a war that never happened in the Kid’s reality plus he learned discipline from an exiled samurai he respected. By the time I got to Owl Riders, my Billy is a very different person than the Kid of history. To me, that’s part of the fun of historical fiction, changing events and then seeing what impact it has on people. Some people are well defined and may not change a lot. But for a guy like Billy who was still a teen at the time of Owl Dance, it might change the whole course of his life.

      I also say he “may or may not be the Billy the Kid” of history with my tongue firmly in my cheek. Part of that is because so many people are very passionate about who the Kid was, even though very little is known definitively about him, including his real name. My Billy is William Henry McCarty and some sources will say that’s likely the Kid’s real name, but there are historians of various stripes who will disagree. My Billy is William Henry McCarty. If the real Kid wasn’t William Henry McCarty, then my Billy ain’t him — but rather an alternate universe version who had a different name and followed very closely in the Kid’s footsteps until the paths diverged.

      Thanks for dropping by, Jack, and giving me a chance to elaborate on my comment. Also looking forward to the day when Stingaree sees the light of day!

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