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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My review of Robert M. Utley's Wanted: The Outlaw Lives of Billy the Kid & Ned Kelly [Sharon Hollingsworth]

It seems that Robert M. Utley has published  his new book "Wanted: The Outlaw Lives of Billy the Kid & Ned Kelly" at a very opportune and auspicious time. Interest in Billy the Kid is at an all time high due to the recent discovery of a photo of Billy the Kid, along with some of his Regulator compatriots playing croquet.  The "Croquet Billy" photo is yet to go to auction, but it  has been said it may fetch $5 million!

This new book is part of the Lamar Series in Western History in which Mr. Utley has already contributed another title "Geronimo." Mr. Utley is well known and revered in Old West circles for his tireless and thorough research which has led to many prestigious book awards.  His best known work is 1989's "Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life."

 Utley's interest in Ned Kelly began on a trip he and his wife took to Australia. She pointed out a statue of Ned Kelly in Glenrowan and said that he was Australia's Billy the Kid (I have heard others say that he was Australia's Jesse James, too). It was not until a visit to the Old Melbourne Gaol that it all clicked for him and he decided to write a book comparing the two. He made subsequent trips down under to do further research.

The book is divided into three sections. The first is a condensing down of his "Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life" and another work he had previously done concerning Billy called "High Noon in Lincoln." I have yet to read "High Noon in Lincoln" but I completely devoured "Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life" in one evening the first time around. Utley takes the highlights of Billy's life and death from these two books with a smattering of bits from other authors and puts them into this new dual biography.  The same goes for Ned Kelly who is featured in the second part, we get the highlights based mostly on Ian Jones's "Ned Kelly: A Short Life", with some extra info from other authors to flesh it out. Utley speaks glowingly of Ian Jones's work and says he hopes to meet him one day.

 There are a few errors in the Kelly mix, such as Aaron Sherritt being killed on June 24 (it was the 26th) and that it was William (instead of Thomas) Lonigan who was killed at Stringybark Creek, plus a few other things, some of which I wondered where it came from. Then the third part is a chapter comparing and contrasting the two outlaws. Some very interesting points are brought out about each and I think everyone will learn something they didn't know before and will look at either or both of these young men in a different light.

Before my copy of "Wanted..." arrived I went back and read "Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life" again and took notes of what comparisons I saw to Ned and I found some he did not list in "Wanted.." He listed the main characteristics and comparisons about both being outlaws around the same time, about both dying young, losing fathers at young ages, being helped by sympathetic locals after becoming outlaws, both wrote letters to their respective governors, and so forth and so on, but I spotted a few (perhaps insignificant) things like how both men could ride a horse at full speed and pick a handkerchief off the ground, how a 12 pounder howitzer field gun was at the siege of McSween's house during the Lincoln County War (remember a 12 pounder was sent for but turned back as the siege of Glenrowan was over before it could arrive), how McSween's house was set fire to during the siege, as was the Glenrowan Inn, both had deaf mutes nicknamed "Dummy" in the story, both carried Navy Colts, and both Billy and Ned had referred to getting away on "my bay mare" among many other things. What also struck me was that for a while when Billy was a part of a loosely knit gang called the Regulators the ones who were the heart of the gang took an oath - called the iron clad - in which they swore if captured not to testify against the others or to let on to their activities. This inner circle became known as the "iron clads." Of course, Ned and his gang were literally iron clad.

 This book seems to be a good start for folks who might be interested or schooled in one of the outlaws but not the other and also for those interested in Utley's interesting takes on their comparisons and contrasts. In that respect this dual biography reminds of "Matthew Brady & Ned Kelly: Kindred Spirits, Kindred Lives" by Paul Williams, my review of which you read at

 If anyone wants the full on experience after reading "Wanted..." then they can pick up the aforementioned "Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life" (with around 75 pages of notes and sources) and  "Ned Kelly: A Short Life" (with around 50 pages of notes and sources) for further in depth study as "Wanted: The Outlaw Lives of Billy the Kid and Ned Kelly" does not contain any of these. Another small thing to note, if you are looking for this book in shops, take note that the front has the full title but the spine only has "Robert M. Utley WANTED" on it, with no mention of Billy or Ned. So if you see it on the shelf and not facing forward you will know to still reach for it. Heck, with Utley's name on it I would grab it in a second, no matter what the title was.

I am happy to have all three of these books in my collection, and if you are a completest like me, you will want to have them on your shelf, too. Now I am off to order a copy of "High Noon at Lincoln."

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