Saturday, May 24, 2014

Not on Your Tintype

While I work at Enema U, I went to grad school at another fine New Mexico institution, The Urination of New Mexico.  They had a wonderful history department, composed of faculty who were almost equally divided between those who were not yet quite dead and those who should have been.

Still, they were good professors, and I learned a lot from them.  One of the things I learned was not to walk into the middle of the department office and whisper, “Billy the Kid was left-handed.”  That was about all it took to start a fistfight among several of the faculty.
This is amusing for several reasons.  First, most of the faculty were so meek and mild-tempered that the most serious injury you could imagine any member of the herd suffering was a paper cut.  And it is almost impossible to find any other resident of this state who harbors any emotion about young punk Billy outside of a general weariness and profound boredom.  Will people never stop talking about that slack-jawed imbecile?

Evidently not--you're still reading.  Im writing this blog for the ad revenue.  Whats your excuse for reading it?

The last reason, of course, is that Billy the Kid was actually right-handed--probably.  If so, then why do so many people continue to claim otherwise?  It has to do with the only known authentic photo of William Henry Bonney.  (Among the things we dont know for sure are such minor details as his parentsnames, the year he was born, and where he was born.  He was probably born in 1859 in New York and his original name probably was William Henry McCarty, Jr., but--like everything else with Billy--who really knows?)

Billy was a criminal—his first arrest was for stealing cheese.  Unfortunately, he soon climbed the criminal ladder until he was wanted for murder.  Subsequently, he was captured, tried, convicted, escaped, and (eventually) shot dead.  While he should have been forgotten, as yet another Damn Yankee who moved to New Mexico….well, between the politicians who used him for publicity and Hollywood, who magnified his short, ugly life into a heroic drama in order to sell more popcorn, there was no chance that Billy would slip into obscurity.

Now, back to the photograph: the only known authentic photo of the outlaw was a ferrotype, or a tintype, taken of Billy sometime in 1879 or 1880 in Fort Stanton, New Mexico.  The ferrotype clearly shows Billy standing, holding his 1873 Winchester carbine in his right hand, and wearing a holstered Colt revolver on his left hip.  Since he is packing his revolver on his left side, he must be left handed...

At least, this was the commonly held belief for most of the 20th century.  Not surprisingly then, in 1959, when Paul Newman starred in a movie about The Kid, it was titled, “The Left-Handed Gun.”  Presumably, had the movie been made in color, we would all now know that Billy had blue eyes, too.

There are more than a few things wrong with the theory of a left-handed Billy.  First, almost all tintype photos are ‘camera originals, meaning that the chemically-coated thin iron sheet (there is no "tin" in a tintype) was placed in the camera behind the lens.  After exposure, the image was fixed in a bath of potassium cyanide, washed, dried and ready to use.  Unless the camera had a reversing prism lens—an expensive rarity at the time—the image was left/right reversed.  Thats right: the vast majority of the daguerreotypes and tintypes you have seen your whole life are mirror image reverses of the original subject.  So Billy is actually wearing that Colt on his right hip.

Not so fast!” cried thousands of people with nothing else to do.  Billy might be using a cross draw holster.  Or the camera that took this photo might have had a reversing prism.  Or maybe someone reversed the photo recently, knowing that the original was a mirror image.  Or… Or… Or maybe some people need to worry about something important.

There are problems with these objections.  Cross draw revolvers have the pistol reversed, the butt end of the grip forward—not as pictured.  And the original of the photo recently sold at auction, so the whole world knows that the popular image was not reversed.  (After decades of arguing about that ferrotype, the auction price of the famous tintype was an astonishing $2.3 million, the seventh highest price ever paid for a photo!)

Careful examination of the photo closes the argument.  Look inside the red boxes of the photo at the right.  The ejection port on the Winchester 73 is on the right side, Winchester NEVER made one on the left.  And the buttons on a mans vest are on the right side.  So unless Billy was dyslexic, carrying a rifle he whittled out of a pine tree, and was wearing his mothers clothes, he was right-handed.  Case closed!

But I wont say that out loud in a faculty meeting--even here at Enema U.

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