Street Punk of the Old West
Folk hero, legend, killer of 21 men before he reached the age of 21? Or, in reality, an adenoidal moron, a lucky bastard whose luck finally ran out? The complete picture of the man/boy known more infamously today as Billy The Kid will likely never be clearly drawn.
The use of the term “outlaw” in the Old West tended to legitimize and elevate the status of many common criminals. There is a heroic, romantic quality to an “outlaw” that is not inherent in the common thug or simple cold-blooded killer. The masses love their outlaws: the legends of Robin Hood (a man who cannot even be proven to exist, though many theories to his “real” identity abound) and William Tell (his deeds greatly exaggerated for a revolutionary Swiss cause) have come to symbolize their respective eras in folklore.
So, too, did the outlaw of the Old West come to represent a romantic mythos that wasn’t always based in facts. More particularly, the specifics of the life and times of the man known as “Billy The Kid” are murky at best. Interestingly, more is known about his mother’s early life than his own; it is with her the story of the notorious Billy The Kid begins.
For those who have seen the movie Gangs of New York, the “Five Points” district depicted in the film (actually cleaner and less criminal in the movie than it was in reality) was a seething hotbed of grinding poverty, child prostitution, squalor, and immigrant drama. It was likewise the first home of many Irish arrivals. The Irish Potato Famine (starting in the mid 1840s when Ireland felt the first pangs of mass starvation after a fungus infected the potato crop) spurred a multitude of Irish to seek livelihoods elsewhere.
With problems in her homeland an Irish woman named Catherine McCarty (a/k/a, “Katherine McCarty Bonney” – there remains some debate whether “McCarty” was her maiden name or a laterpart-time prostitution.
She bore a son on November 23, 1859 (no actual birth records exist to support this date; it is accepted by most historians, however). The boy’s name was William Henry McCarty, Jr., but Catherine expressed a preference for calling him “Henry" because she did not want him known simply as “Junior”.
Catherine lived at 70 Allen Street, an Irish slum area at the time of Henry’s birth. His biological father, however, is not fixed. He may actually be one of at least four candidates, all with the last name “McCarty” (Patrick, Michael, William, or Edward). [Further confusing the paternity issue is William H. Bonney (Sr.). Bonney, Sr., is most likely a step-father, and not Henry’s biological father].
Catherine and Bonney, Sr. (believed to have been legitimately married), left New York with their small family (her son Henry and his younger half-brother Joseph). Joseph’s father is not known (perhaps it was William Bonney, Sr., but uncertain – Joseph would later use the surname Antrim, however, as would Henry). The family moved to Coffeyville, Kansas, in 1862, where Bonney, Sr., died.
Catherine moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1867. She became acquainted with a man, William Antrim. Antrim was a general ne’er-do-well 12 years Catherine’s junior. The little group moved to Wichita, Kansas, in 1870. Catherine and her sons took up residence in the town proper while Antrim moved a few miles out of town, building a cabin on a purchased plot. Catherine’s entrepreneurial spirit (opening a laundry and dabbling in real estate) allowed her, independently, to buy a tract of land on her own (paying $200 cash for it). The land she bought adjoined Antrim’s, and she and the boys moved in with him. Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and, upon a doctor’s advice, sought a different climate. In late summer 1871 the Antrim tribe had divested itself of its business and lands and decamped for Denver, Colorado, but migrated again in 1873. Catherine and Antrim finally married on March 1, 1873, in Santa Fé, New Mexico. The family then moved further south and settled in Silver City.
Domestic bliss was not found for Catherine and her boys. Her husband worked sporadically at whatever odd jobs he found (bartender and carpenter). He was bitten by the prospecting bug, however, and preferred the lazier life of periodic prospecting forays and intense interest in gambling (thinking he would “strike it rich” on a big bet pay-out). He was not a strong presence on the home front, yet both the 12-year-old Henry and his kid brother, Joseph, adopted William’s surname of “Antrim” as their own.
Catherine was compelled to take in laundry, baked pies for sale, and boarded strangers in her home, all to make a few dollars to support her sons as Antrim was unreliable and often absent. She was recalled, in later interviews, by some of her Silver City neighbors and former boarders as a pleasant woman, filled with joie de vivre. However, she was in the last stages of tuberculosis by the time the little family settled in Silver City. Her advanced condition allowed her to live only a year after arriving there. She died September 16, 1874 (age 45), and was buried in the local Silver City cemetery.
William Antrim, for sure, would have not wanted to stay as a parent for Catherine’s two boys. Joseph was farmed out to a saloon keeper. The 14-year-old Henry was pawned off onto a Silver City
Henry’s hotelier foster family began having what are only obliquely referred to as “domestic problems”. Henry was compelled to move into new lodgings, a boarding house. Up to this time, he was an unremarkable, even unnoticeable person on the public landscape. He worked odd jobs where he could and lived independently peaceably enough.
In April 1875, however, that would all change. Henry stole some cheese (another report says it was butter) from a local supplier (it is presumed, while not excused, he did this out of hunger). The Grant County Sheriff Harvey Whitehill picked him up, and after castigating him, let him go.
He was arrested again for yet another petty offense on September 24, 1875. This time, Henry was taken into custody when he was found holding clothing and firearms that a fellow boarder had swiped from a Chinese laundry owner. In this case it seems Henry was, indeed, only holding the stolen merchandise for his friend and had not participated in the actual theft. He was locked up, but two days into his incarceration the 15-year-old wormed his way up the jailhouse’s chimney and escaped. It is this action alone that created the “outlaw” – Henry, from that point on, was a fugitive. [Sheriff Whitehill would later say he had actually liked Henry, and his acts of theft were more due to “necessity than wantonness”].
While on the lam in southeastern Arizona Territory he later found ranch hand and shepherd work. He settled near Fort Grant Army Post in Arizona in 1876. Still technically a fugitive the proximity to law-and-order at the Post had to be unsettling for Henry. However, he kept his nose clean, did his work on the ranches, and gambled at the local tables occasionally.
Henry met John R. Mackie in a local watering hole. Mackie was a Scottish-born ex-cavalry private and a practicing criminal. This influence on the rootless Henry McCarty is immeasurable – this boy needed a mentor; unfortunately, he found Mackie instead. Henry was working as a cook at the Hotel de Luna then, and Mackie invited him to join his gang to make some easier money. Mackie apparently worked out schemes of horse thieving for profit. The local soldiers from Fort Grant were preferred targets for stealing horses. [It is the Fort Grant soldiers who, knowing Henry, affectionately nicknamed him “Kid” Antrim. This tag was probably applied because of Henry’s physique. He was frail, of a very slight, gracile build. His fragile physicality combined with his actual tender years and affable personality is what led to the “Kid” moniker.]
In 1877, Henry engaged in an altercation with the Fort Grant blacksmith. This man, a civilian Irish immigrant named Frank "Windy" Cahill, bullied the boy often. On August 17, 1877, Cahill physically attacked Henry after a verbal exchange. Cahill threw Henry to the ground; Henry overreacted by drawing his gun and shooting Cahill. Cahill died the next day. Thus, at age 17, “Kid” Antrim had his first confirmed kill under his belt and was on the way to becoming the more noted “Billy The Kid”. A coroner’s inquest concluded (rightfully so) that Henry’s shooting of Cahill was "criminal and unjustifiable" (even in the Old West the legal concept of “meeting force with equal force” was applied in the law – Henry McCarty’s shooting of Cahill represented what is legally known as “use of deadly force” all out of proportion to the precipitating event).
Rightfully fearing retribution from Cahill's friends and associates, Henry fled Arizona Territory and returned to his old stomping grounds of New Mexico. John Chisum was a local cattle baron. Henry joined a gang of rustlers, known as the Jesse Evans Gang (or sometimes simply “The Boys”). They specifically targeted Chisum’s sprawling herds. Henry was later spotted by a Silver City resident, and his association with The Boys was mentioned in a local paper. It was around this time in 1877 Henry started calling himself “William H. Bonney”.
The Lincoln County “War”
Now generally known as “William Bonney”, Henry moved to Lincoln County, New Mexico. He found a job in a cheese factory run by “Doc” Scurlock and Charlie Bowdre. Through his cheese-factory cohorts, Henry met the cousins Frank Coe, George Coe, and Ab Saunders. The cousins owned a ranch near that of cattleman Richard Brewer. Henry worked briefly as a ranch hand for someone else, then left to work on the Coe-Saunders spread.
In late 1877, Henry was hired as a cattle guard by John Tunstall (an English cattle rancher, banker, and merchant) and his partner, Alexander McSween (a prominent lawyer). Brewer (rancher),
What is today known as “The Lincoln County War” erupted between two factions fighting for economic and political control of the area. The first group was represented by long-established town merchants Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan. Their competition for control was the business interests held by Tunstall and the lawyer McSween.
Things became ugly between the two factions on February 18, 1878. Tunstall was ambushed driving nine horses toward Lincoln; he was murdered by William Morton, Jesse Evans (of the cattle rustling gang Henry formerly belonged), Tom Hill, and Frank Baker. All of the bushwhackers were affiliated with the townsmen’s faction headed by Murphy and Dolan. A vigilante group was also sent out to rampage and to attack McSween's holdings. Upon killing Tunstall, the gunmen shot his prized bay horse. Tunstall’s biographer wrote later: “As a wry and macabre joke on Tunstall’s great affection for horses, the dead bay’s head was then pillowed on his hat”. Members of the Murphy-Dolan group tried to put down Tunstall’s murder as “justifiable homicide”. Evidence at the crime scene, however, supported the contention Tunstall had attempted to avoid a confrontation (by riding off) before he was shot down. Tunstall's murder enraged Henry and his friends. [Much has been made of Tunstall’s being a “father figure” to Henry. This isn’t likely: at the time of his murder, Tunstall was only 24, hardly “fatherly” in years.]
McSween, Tunstall’s business partner, hated violence. He sought to punish the murderers using the legal system. Warrants for the arrest of the killers were issued by the local Justice of the Peace. Tunstall's men formed their own vigilante group, calling themselves “The Regulators”. The Regulators were all deputized by Brewer (Tunstall's foreman – he had been appointed a special constable and given the warrant to arrest Tunstall's killers).
Once duly deputized, The Regulators rode to the Murphy-Dolan store. Two of Tunstall’s ambushers, Bill Morton and Frank Baker, tried to flee, but they were captured on March 6, 1878. The Regulators returned, empty-handed, to Lincoln County. They alleged Morton and Baker had been shot on March 9 during an escape attempt. On their way back to Lincoln County from chasing Morton and Baker, The Regulators also killed one of their own members (a man the posse suspected of treachery) named McCloskey. The day McCloskey, Morton, and Baker were killed by The Regulators, New Mexico Territory Governor Samuel Beach Axtell arrived in Lincoln County to investigate the ongoing violence. Gov. Axtell, in the company of James Dolan and his associate John Riley, learned of the hostility between the McSween faction and the Dolan-Murphy contingent. The Regulators, in Gov. Axtell’s mind (with propaganda from Dolan), "went from lawmen to outlaws".
There was a third faction at work behind the scenes in Lincoln County. That was a group of corrupt politicians and business leaders headed by US Attorney Thomas Benton Catron. Catron’s allegiance went toward the Murphy-Dolan group of “townies”. Gov. Axtell, however, either purposefully or by simple ignorance failed to acknowledge the existence of this third group of agitators, the so-called "Santa Fé Ring" led by Catron.
Sheriff William J. Brady arrested Henry and his fellow “deputy” Fred Waite following Tunstall’s murder. At the time Brady picked them up, Henry and his buddy were trying to serve a warrant on Sheriff Brady for his suspected role in looting Tunstall’s store after his death. Brady was also suspected as being a member of the party that killed Tunstall.
The Regulators planned to settle a score with Brady, and on April 1, Regulators Jim French, Frank McNab, John Middleton, Fred Waite, Henry Brown and William Henry Bonney ambushed both the sheriff and his deputy, George W. Hindman. Both lawmen died on the town’s main street. Henry took a slug to the thigh while trying to snag up a rifle (perhaps his beloved 1873 Winchester) Brady had seized from him during his earlier arrest. With the gunning down of the sheriff and his deputy the town’s allegiance/sympathy (once with the McSween-Tunstall faction) shifted vigorously. Many former supporters now saw both sides as “equally nefarious and bloodthirsty”.
The connection between McSween and The Regulators was not clear at the time, though. Henry was loyal only to the memory of Tunstall, and it could not be surmised his loyalty extended to McSween. It isn’t certain that Henry and McSween were even acquainted at the time of Sheriff Brady's death. A contemporary newspaper report has The Regulators disclaiming “all connection or sympathy with McSween and his affairs”. The Regulators, in the same report, expressed their sole purpose in forming was a wish to run down Tunstall's killers.
As of this time in his life, Henry McCarty, (a/k/a, William Bonney; a/k/a, “Kid” Antrim) had one confirmed kill to his credit, that of the blacksmith Cahill. It is certain he either participated in, or was an eyewitness to, the killings of Morton and Baker (two of Tunstall’s killers), McCloskey (a Regulator perceived to be a traitor), and Sheriff Brady and Deputy Hindman.
The skirmish known as the “Gunfight of Blazer's Mills” occurred on April 4, 1878. The Regulators tried to arrest “Buckshot” Roberts (an old buffalo hunter) suspected of involvement in Tunstall’s murder. Roberts refused to be taken alive (even after he suffered a severe bullet wound to the chest). During the ensuing gun battle, “Buckshot” Roberts managed to shoot and kill The Regulators’ leader, Richard Brewer. Henry took a slug to the thigh (a through-and-through). Four other Regulators were also wounded. This gunplay further alienated the public – many local residents, however, “admired the way Roberts put up a gutsy fight against overwhelming odds”.
As time passed The Regulators’ activities became increasingly violent and less law-and-orderly. Frank McNab was elected as The Regulators’ captain after Brewer was killed. A new sheriff was appointed named John Copeland and he was largely sympathetic to the Regulators-McSween group. Sheriff Copeland’s authority was challenged by the Murphy-Dolan faction (who had rounded up recruits from among Sheriff Brady's former deputies for their own enforcement).
On April 29, 1878, a posse including the Jesse Evans Gang (Henry’s former running buddies) and the Seven Rivers Warriors (directed by former Brady deputy and future Lincoln County sheriff George W. Peppin) fought with McNab, Ab Saunders, and Frank Coe in a shootout at the Fritz Ranch. McNab was killed, Saunders was severely wounded, and Coe was captured (although he escaped custody a short time later when his captors were occupied elsewhere).
The morning after McNab’s death The Regulators assumed defensive positions in town and traded shots with Dolan's men as well as with US cavalrymen. The only casualty in this limited gun battle was a Dolan supporter named “Dutch Charley” Kruling. Kruling took a rifle slug fired by George Coe from 440 paces away. Firing upon US Government troops earned The Regulators the Army's animosity and netted them a whole new, and very powerful, group of enemies with which to contend.
The Regulators tracked down Manuel Segovia (Seven Rivers Warriors’ gang member and suspected murderer of Frank McNab). They killed him on sight. Around the time of Segovia's death, The Regulators gained a new member, a young Texan named Tom O’Folliard. Tom became Henry’s closest friend, and he was also a constant companion afterward.
The New Mexico governor removed Sheriff Copeland from office. The Regulators no longer enjoyed the “protection” of favorable local law enforcement. To make matters worse the governor appointed a Murphy-Dolan supporter, George Peppin, to fill the vacancy. Henry and the rest of The Regulators (under indictment for killing Sheriff Brady) spent the next few months in hiding. On July 15, 1878, they were ultimately pinned down, along with McSween, in McSween's home. The residence was surrounded by members of "The House" (as the Murphy-Dolan vigilantes were known) accompanied by some of Sheriff Brady’s former employees. On July 19 the US Cavalry sent in a column of soldiers to help. Although they were supposed to stay neutral the Calvary actions worked to the clear advantage of the Dolan faction (creating confusion and providing outside re-enforcement). At the end of a five-day siege, McSween's house was set afire by the sheriff's posse. Henry and all the other Regulators escaped. McSween was shot down while fleeing the blaze; his death essentially marked the end of the Lincoln County War.
This “war”, a skirmish over political control in Lincoln County, lasted about 6 months from Tunstall’s murder to McSween’s murder. The total number of dead isn’t clearly accounted for or known. What can be gleaned, however, is the notorious Billy The Kid was not a leader in this fight. Rather, he acted as a loyal foot soldier doing the bidding of those who held his admiration. Of the total number killed in this political battle only five (at the most) directly involved Henry as either bystander or ancillary player. Thus, his confirmed individual “kills” to this time, his 18th year, still remained at one murder.
The False Amnesty
Lew Wallace (former Union Army general) was appointed Governor of the New Mexico Territory in late 1878. [An interesting side-note about Lew Wallace: among other books, he is the author of the historical novel Ben Hur, published in 1880 while he was governor of New Mexico]. His vow to restore peace to the Territory led to an amnesty proclamation for any man involved in the Lincoln County War who was not already under indictment. Henry (actually under indictment for Sheriff Brady’s murder) fled to Texas after escaping from McSween's burning house. He sent Gov. Wallace a letter, though, asking for immunity in return for his Grand Jury testimony. In March 1879, Gov. Wallace met Henry in Lincoln County to discuss a deal; Henry (understandably) was fully armed with his revolver and rifle when the two met. After taking a few days to mull over Gov. Wallace’s deal Henry agreed to testify in return for amnesty.
The deal called for Henry to submit to a “token” arrest. He was to stay a short time in jail until his courtroom testimony concluded. Henry’s testimony did help indict John Dolan. The district attorney, however, was one of the powerful “House” faction leaders, and he ignored Gov. Wallace's order to set Henry free after he gave his statement. After sitting three months in jail after the trial Henry and his friend Tom O'Folliard managed to slip away on horses that were supplied by other friends.
Still a fugitive Henry McCarty, now known almost universally by the sobriquet “Billy The Kid”, survived for the next roughly 18 months rustling, gambling, and defending himself from capture. He killed a man named Joe Grant in a Fort Sumner, New Mexico, saloon in January 1880.
The impetus for this murder is allegedly Grant’s “fault”. Grant, playing poker with Henry and not knowing who he was, commented boastfully that he would kill “Billy the Kid” if he ever came across him. For safety reasons, most gunmen only loaded their six-shooters with five shots, leaving an empty cylinder beneath the firing pin. This helped prevent accidental discharges when drawing or riding or if the hammer was struck inadvertently.
Billy The Kid casually asked Grant if he could look at Grant’s ivory handled revolver, claiming he admired it. While handling the gun Billy rotated the cylinder so the hammer was over the empty slot in the cylinder. He gave Grant back his gun, and then told Grant that he was Billy The Kid. Grant fired, nothing happened, and The Kid shot him. When asked about the incident later, he remarked, “It was a game for two, and I got there first.” Variations on this story have Grant being shot after he was drunk and acting belligerently. Another version claims The Kid was actually leaving the salon when Grant attempted to shoot him in the back; The Kid, hearing the snick of the gun’s cocking, turned, fired, and shot Grant in the chin.
The Kid’s gang of rustlers was pursued by a posse in November 1880. They were trapped in a ranch house owned by one of Henry’s friends, James Greathouse. A posse member named James Carlyle went into the house under a white flag of truce. He attempted to negotiate a surrender of the gang. The Kid’s friend, Greathouse, was sent out as part of a hostage exchange. Carlyle’s negotiations with the gang wore on, and he came to believe they were stalling for time.
What transpired after this point is uncertain. One particular version of the story (the most widely reported one) has Carlyle hearing a shot (fired accidentally) outside. In a panic (thinking the posse members outside had killed Greathouse thus insuring his own death at the hands of Billy's gang), Carlyle attempted to escape. He crashed through a window; the posse outside thought he was one of The Kid’s gang and opened fire upon Carlyle. Carlyle was instantly killed. The outside posse members figured out quickly enough their error and scattered. This allowed The Kid and his gang to slip away. He vehemently denied shooting Carlyle; he later wrote to Gov. Wallace telling of his innocence in this matter. By this date, Billy The Kid had two confirmed kills to his credit (Cahill and Grant) and complicity in five more.
Billy The Kid Meets Pat Garrett
The Kid, while on the run, met an ambitious local bartender and former buffalo hunter named Pat Garrett. Popular tales often show the two men as close friends; in reality there is no evidence
Because of his fugitive status (and greatly inflated reports of his bloodthirsty, cold-blooded, murdering behavior – publicity started and sustained by the “townie” faction he had fought against in the Lincoln County War) he had a $500 bounty on his head. This reward had been authorized by Gov. Wallace, and made a great incentive for anyone to try to bring in The Kid, dead or alive. [As a side note, there were never any “Wanted” posters issued for Billy The Kid during his lifetime. The $500 reward notice was posted in local newspapers in ads by Gov. Wallace. Any sightings of “Wanted” posters – usually with a remarkable $5000 reward tacked on – are of novelty souvenirs, and most information on said posters is false]
Garrett’s posse located him fairly quickly. On December 19, 1880, The Kid barely escaped a midnight ambush in Fort Sumner (which left a member of his gang, best friend Tom O’Folliard, dead). A few days later just before Christmas (December 23) The Kid was tracked to an abandoned stone building in a remote area named Stinking Springs (near the present-day town of Taiban, New Mexico).
While The Kid and his gang slept inside, Garrett's men surrounded the stone building, waiting for sunrise. The next morning, one of the gang, a rustler named Charlie Bowdre (the cheese maker) went out to feed his horse. One of the posse thought Bowdre was The Kid and shot him. Someone inside the hideout stretched a hand to reach for Bowdre’s wandering horse’s halter rope; Garrett shot and killed the horse. The horse’s body lay blocking the hideout’s only exit.
Garret and his men started cooking breakfast. He and The Kid exchanged words, not acrimonious, during this time. Garrett invited The Kid out to eat; Billy The Kid suggested Garrett “go to Hell”. The Kid’s gang soon figured out they had no real chance of escape. Besieged and hungry they surrendered later that day. Garrett, true to his earlier invitation, actually fed them (but at a local hotel en route to jail).
The End of Billy The Kid
In custody, Billy was moved from Fort Sumner to Las Vegas, New Mexico. He was interviewed by a Las Vegas Gazette reporter there. He was then transferred to Santa Fé. While there he sent four separate letters over the next three months to Gov. Wallace, asking the governor to uphold his “amnesty” deal of 1879. Wallace refused to act on The Kid’s behalf, and he was tried in April 1881 in Mesilla, New Mexico. After two days of testimony, Billy The Kid was found guilty of the murder of Sheriff Brady on April 9, 1881. His was the only conviction ever obtained against any of the participants of the short, but bloody, Lincoln County War. Billy The Kid, on April 13, was sentenced to hang, scheduled for May 13, 1881.
The Kid was taken from Mesilla to Lincoln County where he awaited execution. Because of his notoriety he had two guards watching over him (both deputies of Sheriff Garrett), James Bell and Robert Ollinger. His cell was on the top floor of the town’s courthouse. Garrett was out of town on April 28, and The Kid managed to kill both of his guards and escape from jail.
Billy The Kid’s jail break this final time is indeed the stuff of legend, but it is uncertain, exactly, what facilitated it. Some researchers think a sympathizer placed a gun in a privy The Kid was allowed to use (under escort) daily. He then recovered the gun and turned it on Bell after the pair reached the top of the stairs in the courthouse. Another theory maintains The Kid (recall, he was very slightly built) had slipped his manacles at the top of the stairs, struck Bell in the head with them, grabbed Bell's own gun, and shot him.
Bell stumbled into the street and collapsed. Meanwhile, The Kid snagged guard Ollinger’s 10-gauge double-barrel shotgun. The shotgun had been loaded with buckshot earlier by Ollinger himself. Billy lay in wait at an upstairs window for Ollinger (he had been across the street with some other prisoners). The Kid assumed Ollinger would hear the shots that killed Bell and rush to Bell’s aid in the street. Ollinger did just that, and as he ran into Billy The Kid’s line of sight The Kid allegedly called out, "Hello Bob!” As Ollinger responded by looking up at hearing his name, Billy The Kid killed Ollinger with his own shotgun. [There is historic evidence to support a genuine animosity between Ollinger and The Kid. Ollinger, apparently, enjoyed antagonizing Billy while in his custody.] Billy, however, couldn’t make a run for it immediately – he spent the next hour working free of his leg irons with a pickax. He then mounted a convenient horse and rode out of town. The stolen horse returned of its own accord two days later.
Sheriff Pat Garrett heard rumors The Kid was in Fort Sumner (this was three months after his escape in July 1881). Garrett, with two of his deputies (John Poe and Kip McKinney), set out the evening of July 13, 1881. Their goal was to question a resident of Fort Sumner (and friend of The Kid), Pete Maxwell. As midnight neared, Garrett continued his interrogation of Maxwell about The Kid’s recent activities. They sat in Maxwell’s darkened bedroom. Suddenly, and without warning, Billy The Kid walked into Maxwell’s bedroom where he and Garrett sat talking.
As with almost any major event in the life of William H. McCarty, Jr., there are several versions of what transpired. The first of two more probable narratives suggests The Kid did not recognize Garrett in the poor light of Maxwell’s bedroom. In Spanish, The Kid asked Garrett, “Who is it?” He then drew his pistol and backed out of the room. Garrett, apparently recognizing Billy The Kid’s voice, drew his own pistol and fired twice (the first bullet, spot-on, striking McCarty in the chest just above his heart, killing him instantly).
In another version (this one without Garrett’s excellent marksmanship or gallantry by at least facing his victim) states The Kid came into the house, carrying a knife, apparently headed toward the kitchen area. He allegedly heard voices in the dark, famously asked (in Spanish), “Who is it?”, and was immediately shot and killed (ambushed) by Garrett.
Most historians agree the first version is self-serving, a cornerstone of Garrett’s storytelling afterwards. They also agree the second version (the knife-holding Billy shot down without defense) is probably closer to the truth.
Conspiracy “theorists” and all-around sensation seekers posit yet a third version. In this piece of apocrypha Garrett set a trap for The Kid. Garrett entered the bedroom of Maxwell’s sister, Paulita. After binding and gagging her in her bed, he lurked in her room (behind the bed). When The Kid arrived, apparently he entered Paulita’s bedroom where Garrett sprang up and killed him.
This story is ridiculous for many reasons. In the first place, it can be reasonably sure Pete Maxwell would not have allowed Garrett to brutalize his sister in the way described. Also, since Garrett was invited into Maxwell’s home he would not have needed to truss up Paulita – he simply could have asked her to leave if he had wanted her out of the way. Finally, the last question to ask is, with no incentive (no voices being heard, Paulita gagged and not able to speak) why would Billy The Kid enter her room unbidden and without provocation? There is nothing to suggest he had a relationship with her (although there is much conjecture).
According to Garrett, Billy The Kid was buried without fanfare the next day. He was placed in Fort Sumner’s old military cemetery (between his friends Tom O'Folliard and Charlie Bowdre). In the 1930s a single monument (memorializing all three bodies) was placed over the graves listing the names (Billy's as “William H. Bonney”) and the one-word epitaph, “Pals”, carved into it.
A smaller stone was placed in the 1940s for Billy alone. This stone has been stolen and recovered several times since its placement; now the entire gravesite is enmeshed in a steel cage. The gravesite itself, much like Billy’s life, is also questionable. The area had been flooded severely, and the markers washed away. Although the extant markers are in approximately the same area as the final interment, they are, likely, several feet removed from the actual bodies (short of exhumation, this cannot be corrected).
Pat Garrett “wrote” a book (via ghostwriter Marshall Ashmun Upson). In the immediate aftermath of his execution-style killing of Billy The Kid, Garrett felt a compulsion to absolve himself in the public’s mind by telling his version of events. The collaborative effort between Garrett and Upson was entitled The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid (partial title; in the style of the day the whole book's contents are practically described on its front cover). It was first published in 1882. During Garrett’s lifetime the book did not sell well. It has, however, proven to be a useful reference tool for the scholar.
The Iconic, “Left-Handed” Billy The Kid Tintype
The only known captured image of Billy The Kid is very famous, indeed. This 2”x3” ferrotype (shot by an unknown photographer) is iconic, and irreplaceable in its content and symbolism.
It is the only universally agreed upon captured image of Billy The Kid. It is of a young man standing in a portrait photographer’s studio in Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory either in late 1879 or early 1880. There were actually four of these photos taken (The Kid paid 25 cents apiece).
All but this one are lost, and it is fading – clearer copies and reprints actually exist in older books when the source plate itself was in better shape. However, much interest surrounds this image, and it has come to be symbolic of the Old West’s lawlessness.
The photo itself has contributed falsely to Billy The Kid’s story. This was not a fault of the technology but of public memory.
The photographic process by which the iconic image was captured (a metal plate sensitized by metal salts) did not use the negative imaging techniques developed in later years. The image of the subject is literally “burned” into the plate (through photosensitivity) and is a mirror image of what is before the camera. Secondly, the image produced is unique – there is only the end product on the plate, no negatives from which to make extra prints.
However, over time many historians forgot the mirror-imaging of tintype photography. The Kid was believed to be left-handed (the Colt revolver carried on his hip is on his left-side in the most common print of the photo). This error actually informed a Paul Newman film about Billy The Kid called The Left Handed Gun (1958). The Kid was not left-handed – he was right-handed; flipping the image to its correct “life” orientation gives a slightly different view of The Kid.
A perusal of the photo’s subject reveals The Kid is not what one might call “handsome”. He has a certain “aw-shucks” Beaver Cleaver look about him. He has bucked and snaggled teeth, his top incisors clearly projecting beyond his lip and crossed over one another.
His clothing is not in the best state of repair, and his boots are much worn. He is wearing a silver pinky ring on his left hand. The crumpled hat upon his head does nothing to add to his
As noted on multiple occasions during this narrative The Kid was not a big man. His fake, novelty "Wanted" posters describe him as 5’3” tall (short, even by late 1870’s standards), and weighing about 125 pounds (which, for this height, would actually put him a bit on the pudgy side). His hair color is simply described as “light”, and his eyes were blue. The weight, hair and eye color are correct, however.
Billy The Kid was not a short pudgy man. His actual height, recorded on more than one occasion by his contemporaries, including newspaper reporters, was between 5’8” and 5’9” (actually above-average height for that time). The rumors of his short stature are baseless, probably emanating from the fake “Wanted” posters. Examination of the photo, and inspection of the 1873 Winchester rifle (with its known barrel length), yields a roughly calculated height for him of about 5’10”. The 5’3” height, therefore, must be inaccurate (or a downright lie – nothing hurts a man more than being considered “small”).
Since the world is full of people always looking to capitalize on quirky ideas and/or hypotheses, one “researcher” several years ago posited Billy The Kid was actually a woman! This is because of his sloppily ectomorphic body; the pear-shaped figure (narrow shoulders with wide, almost womanly hips) suggested The Kid might be female. There is nothing to bear this out. He may not have been a good man, or a tall man, or a handsome man, but all indications are he was a man nonetheless. The “womanly” shape is likely attributable to his slovenly appearance, poorly fitting clothing, and poor posture.
It is a lucky thing to have at least this one image of Billy The Kid. He gave the photo to a close friend of his, Dan Decker, shortly after it was taken. Decker kept it, and passed it on to Frank Upham, a nephew of his. The photo has remained in the Upham family ever since that time. The original was made available to the public for the first time in the mid 1980s by Stephen and Art Upham. It was on display for many years in the Lincoln County Heritage Trust Museum before it was withdrawn again.
The image was studied extensively by researchers in the 1980s and their findings were presented in a symposium in 1989. Of the many things discovered about the image, a couple of idiosyncrasies emerged. The Colt revolver strapped to The Kid was probably not his primary weapon. The experts believe the holster he’s using is not the type normally associated with gunslingers. In fact, it is a fairly common one, with a safety strap across the top to keep the piece from bouncing out while riding a horse. They concluded his main weapon was the Winchester carbine held in his left hand.
In late June 2011 this iconic image came up for auction in Denver, Colorado. The advance estimated fetching price was thought to be in the neighborhood of roughly $400,000. When the smoke cleared on June 25, 2011, the photo had been sold to 71-year-old Florida businessman William Koch for $2.3 million.
The Legend and Non-Legend
The Old West spawned many conflated legends. Billy The Kid was no exception. His reputation as a dangerous killer was fomented in Lincoln County and his own exaggerations of his exploits. Pat Garrett certainly didn’t help matters – after all, it is much more palatable to the public to shoot an armed cold-blooded, crazed killer than it is to shoot the same person (unarmed) with only four actual murders (all of opportunity) to his credit.
Some historians speculate that much of his notoriety (after living in obscurity for all but the last two years of his life) was created by “The House”, the faction he helped war against in Lincoln County in 1878. This was done to distract the public from the real criminals in Lincoln County – Dolan, the attorney Thomas Catron, et al. Also, there came a string of negative newspaper editorials castigating him. The notoriety he gained for his participation in the Lincoln County fracas (largely tangential) ruined any chances he had for amnesty under Gov. Wallace’s amnesty agreement.
There has been a suggestion over the years that he was illiterate. This, too, is untrue. Although not the best educated man, in an era when the majority could not even sign their own names, Henry McCarty could read and write. Any missives sent on his behalf were actually written in his own hand. His writings to two New Mexico governors, for example, are relatively error free and coherent. This is also an indicator of a fairly bright man.
Billy The Kid was not a gunslinger. There are no instances of his classically being called out to a gunfight in the street, duel-fashion. His weapon of choice was a rifle, and he was an opportunistic killer. The murder of Cahill was an overreaction to being pushed to the ground. Grant was murdered for belittling The Kid’s “greatness” (Grant suggesting he could best The Kid in person). The two jail guards were killed as a means to an end – The Kid’s escape depended upon no interference. The five men killed in the Lincoln County mess involved Billy The Kid but the fatal bullets could have been fired by any one of The Regulators.
He reportedly killed many Indians during his short career, but his familiarity with (and genuine affection for) the local Hispanics probably does not bear this out. The Hispanic community liked him, as well; he spoke some Spanish, and they thought his role in the Lincoln County conflict was akin to revolution of sorts. In consideration of this, he probably had no grudge, by extension, against the Indians he met in the area (frequent fixtures at Fort Sumner certainly).
William Antrim is partly responsible for the creation of Billy The Kid. Had he remained and cared for his two step-sons after Catherine’s death (and not abandoning them to foster families and then absconding himself) The Kid may have settled into history as yet another obscure ranch hand, married with children. But that isn’t what happened. Antrim left and The Kid had to fend for himself.
In the end the portrait one can paint of Billy The Kid is of a young man from a broken home who ended up, through his own fault and no one else’s, on the wrong side of the law. Had he simply stayed in jail for his receiving stolen property charge (after his cheese-stealing incident) he probably would’ve been either acquitted or given a very short jail term. He exacerbated his problems by escaping, thus making himself a fugitive. Everything negative in what remained of his life stems from this jail break.
The legend of Billy The Kid is a construct, a romantic template applied to more than one “outlaw”. In reality The Kid was no “outlaw” (in the mold of, say, Jesse James, for example). He did not rob from the rich to give to the poor. He rustled cattle and stole horses for his own profit. He was a disenfranchised wanderer, and an immature kid who became a killer (though not with the numbers of dead credited to him).
Loyal? Perhaps. Fun-loving and blithe? Maybe. But it won’t be for his lightness of character, his more joyous aspect of personality for which he will be remembered. The innocuous William Henry McCarty, Jr., will always be the killer Billy The Kid.
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