Old photo of people playing croquet

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Think of Billy the Kid and you probably picture a bloodthirsty, cold-blooded, murderous American Old West gunfighter. Wikipedia lists his occupations as ‘horse rustler, cowboy, gambler and outlaw’. Born in 1859, his first known encounter with the law was at the age of 16 when he was arrested for stealing food, clothing and firearms. He escaped from jail two days later. The Law did not catch up with him for another five years during which time he terrorised much of New Mexico and Arizona as a feared outlaw committing numerous crimes including at least eight murders.

Billy with a croquet mallet

Detail from the photo above. Is this Billy the Kid? Compare this guy with the one in the image below right.

But what have we here? A photo of Billy playing croquet?

When a felon's not engaged in his employment
Or maturing his felonious little plan,
His capacity for innocent enjoyment
Is just as great as any honest man.

When the enterprising burglar's not a-burgling,
When the cut-throat isn't occupied in crime,
He loves to hear the little brook a-gurgling
And listen to the merry village chime.

Lyrics from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance

In 2010 Randy Guijarro, a Californian collector, bought an antique photograph from a junk shop. He paid less than a dollar for it. He bought it because he liked it as a novelty: a group of people playing croquet apparently in the days of the Wild West. But when he looked at it more closely, he spotted the remarkable resemblance of one of the players to the only known existing photograph of the infamous outlaw, Billy the Kid.

Authentic photo of Billy the Kid
The only previously-known
photograph of Billy the Kid

It has taken five years, but the photograph has now been authenticated. The character leaning nonchalantly on his croquet mallet is indeed Billy the Kid. The photo is believed to have been taken in 1878 at the wedding of Charlie Bowdre, one of Billy’s gang known as The Regulators, at the ranch of their boss John Tunstall. The bride and groom are on horses on the right of the picture. Other members of the gang have also been identified amongst the players.

Billy was finally killed at the age of 21 in 1881, shot by the sheriff Pat Garrett.

The photograph has now been insured for 5 million dollars.

But the most interesting thing for us is that Billy the Kid actually chilled by playing croquet.

Or, as W.S. Gilbert might have written:

When a gambler’s not a counting of his rake-off
Of winnings from a crafty crooked deal,
He likes to show he’s master of the take-off,
The rush, split roll, good leave and triple peel.

When the strangler’s not a-blocking someone’s airway,
When the cut-throat's not about to slit a throat,
He likes to play a gentile round of croquet
And show his taste in leisure’s really ‘haute’.

At least it shows that croquet isn't only played by toffs.
Mike Kirby 2015