Billy the Kid
Billy the Kid. He is as much a part of Americana as the Wild West itself. And he was a child of it: unruly, deadly, flamboyant, a free spirit. An orphan boy, the son of poor Irish immigrants, who by age 16 would have a criminal record, and in five years would be dead. According to legend, he killed 21 men, a man for each year of his short life. He most certainly killed at least 11 men. (Eight men during his short but infamous criminal career and another three—including the Lincoln Country Sheriff and his deputy—during the Lincoln County War in New Mexico, in which he participated.)
Billy was arrested many times and escaped from jail—including handcuffs and leg irons—many times. But many accounts, he was cheeky and pugnacious. When a judge in Lincoln, New Mexico, sentenced Billy to hang until he “was dead, dead, dead,” Billy quickly responded, “and you can go to hell, hell, hell.”
Billy was not hanged, however. He escaped when he asked to use the outhouse and, upon returning, slipped out of his handcuffs (he was a small young man with narrow wrists), beat the deputy, then shot him with his own gun. Billy waited at the top of the stairs in the jailhouse (his jail cell was on the top floor of the courthouse) for the other deputy to respond. As Deputy Olinger came up the stairs, Billy yelled out: "Look up, old boy, and see what you get." He shot and instantly killed the deputy. He then used an axe to break his leg irons. By the accounts of some townspeople, he was seen riding out of Lincoln on a stolen horse, singing.
Billy the Kid was born Henry McCarty in New York and baptized in 1859 at St. Peter’s Church in lower Manhattan, not far from the notorious Five Points Irish neighborhood (of Gangs of New York fame). After Billy’s father died when the boy was not yet 10 years old, the family moved several times, moving progressively west until they ended up in Santa Fe where Billy’s mother married William Antrim. Billy and his brother were witnesses for his mother’s wedding. But very shortly after she was married, she died of tuberculosis. Billy was 14.
Billy was soon running wild and largely on his own. He was first arrested for stealing food. Ten days later, he robbed a Chinese laundry and stole clothing and two pistols. He was arrested but escaped and went to live with his stepfather until he was thrown out. Billy stole clothing and guns from his stepfather, too, before departing.
Billy killed his first man when he was 17. In a bar in Bonita, Arizona, Billy got into an altercation with a local blacksmith who had repeatedly bullied him and called the boy a “pimp.” Billy called the blacksmith a “son-of-a-bitch,” the man attacked him and both men struggled for Billy’s revolver. Billy shot and killed the blacksmith. A witness said, "[Billy] had no choice; he had to use his equalizer."
That same year, in 1877, Henry McCarty began using the alias, “William H. Bonney,” to escape his past as a killer. In the 1870s—still a teenager—Billy was employed by an English cattle baron, John Tunstall, as part of a notorious group called the Regulators. They were outlaws hired by Tunstall to protect his cattle and his business dealings. When Tunstall was murdered, the gang sought revenge and Billy was accused of killing three men, including a sheriff and deputy. As a result, Billy became a wanted man with $500 on his head. The following year, the Territorial Governor and former Union Army General, Lew Wallace, issued a pardon for all the men involved in the killings, but the amnesty excluded persons who have been formerly convicted or indicted of a crime, which therefore excluded Billy.
Billy managed to avoid the law and any further trouble for nearly two years, until January 1880, when he had an altercation with a drifter at Hargrove’s Saloon in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. According to some eyewitnesses, Billy had been warned that the drifter, Joe Grant, had announced he intended to kill Billy. Billy walked up to Grant in the saloon and told him he admired Grant’s revolver, asking if he could get a closer look. Grant handed him the pistol. Billy praised the beauty of the pistol and noticed it contained only three cartridges. He adeptly positioned the cylinder so that the next hammer fall would land on an empty chamber.
When Billy handed the pistol back to Grant, the man suddenly held the pistol up to Billy’s face point blank and pulled the trigger. Billy smiled. Then drew his revolver and shot Grant in the head. A reporter for the Las Vegas Optic interviewed Billy after the gunfight. Billy explained succinctly: “It was a game of two and I got there first.”
Billy had ridden with ruffians and roustabouts all through his teen years. He was one himself. He was involved in several more gunfights, finally arrested and escaped again. During one of his incarcerations, a reporter from the Las Vegas Gazette interviewed him in the jailhouse and noted he seemed unafraid that he was going to hang. Billy smiled: "What's the use of looking on the gloomy side of everything? The laugh's on me this time," but added "if I only had my Winchester I could lick the whole crowd.” But the laugh would be on the law soon enough, for Billy would again escape.
Billy was again on the run, and Governor Wallace placed another bounty on his head. Three months later, Pat Garrett had gotten word that Billy was in the area of Fort Sumner once again. Garrett went to question Billy’s friend, Pete Maxwell, the son of a local land baron. Maxwell said that Billy might come to visit him and, together, Maxwell and Garrett sat in Maxwell’s darkened room until Billy showed up. Billy walked into the room. Because of the dark, he could not make out who was sitting there. He asked in Spanish: ¿Quién es? ¿Quién es?" (Who is it? Who is it?")
Garrett fired twice. The first bullet struck Billy above his heart. The second missed. Billy fell dead. The local justice of the peace gathered a coroner’s jury, interviewed Maxwell and Garrett, certified the killing was justified and that the body was Billy’s. The next day, Billy was given a quick wake by candlelight. In the meantime, Billy's body was put on display. The local newspaper printed posters announcing the funeral and townspeople lined up to see the body of the famous young outlaw. He was buried the next day, with a donated pine coffin and wooden marker.
Pat Garrett later collected the bounty on Billy. But many accused Garrett of ambushing Billy in a cowardly act. And Billy’s fame grew like wildfire after his death. Garrett feared his reputation was being ruined and, in an effort to tell his side of the story, wrote a biography of Billy with a friend’s help: The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid.
But Billy’s legend was a powerful thing. The book did not sell well. And a strange thing began to happen. Rumors began to swirl that Billy was yet alive. For the next 50 years, many men claimed they were Billy the Kid. Even more strangely, the legend has continued into contemporary times. Researchers have sought to exhume Billy’s mother for DNA evidence. Other DNA tests were conducted in an effort to prove or disprove Garrett’s story and whether Billy had indeed lived on. The controversy rages on.
Billy’s legend has been the topic of numerous books, films and documentaries. He is an enigma, a charming antihero, a cocky young outlaw who died before he had ever really lived. But he took a lot of men with him to the grave. And even for his short life, he captured the imagination of the world.
For all of Billy’s fame, or, rather, infamy, there were no confirmed photographs of Billy the Kid for more than 130 years after his death. Then one image surfaced and all hell broke loose. SEE TOMORROW’S POST: “Billy the Kid Unearthed.” Read how buried vintage flea market finds turned into gold mines!
Read these related posts:
-The Real Josey Waless
-Wild Bill Hickok
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