November 23, 1859 is the day most historians agree as the day William H. Bonney, later called Billy the Kid, was born. However, as with many events of the American West, this date may or may not be accurate. There is no official record of Bonney's birth. In fact, there is very little that is known with much accuracy where Billy the Kid is concerned. In his short life, there is an even shorter span of a few years that give credence to his life. Much of his life is myth, born from the pages of newspaper clippings and dime novels; a life created in print.
William H. Bonney in the Early Years
Most historians agree that William Bonney was born in New York, though no records exist that prove he ever lived there. Many western history scholars conclude the birthplace of New York is likely due to the belief that his mother was an Irish immigrant from New York. His biological father is unknown with any certainty. There is speculation it could have been Patrick McCarty, Michael McCarty, William McCarty or Edward McCarty. By historians' accounts, Billy the Kid was named William Henry McCarty. There is evidence that his mother's name was Catherine McCarty but it is not as clear whether this was a maiden or married name.
In 1868, Catherine was living with her two sons, Henry and Joseph in Indianapolis, Indiana where she met William Antrim, a man 12 years her junior. The four traveled around the country some before settling in Silver City, New Mexico. Catherine and Antrim were married in 1873 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Antrim eventually became drawn to prospecting and gambling and spent much time away from his family. Young Henry was using Antrim as his surname by that time.
In 1874, Catherine succumbed to tuberculosis leaving Henry an orphan when he was barely into his teenage years. He was taken in by a neighbor who operated a hotel where Henry worked in exchange for his keep. No one knows what set Henry on the path as an outlaw. It could have been his habit of reading dime novels romanticizing crime or perhaps merely the fact that he was a slight boy targeted by the stronger and bigger.
Henry moved into a boarding house when his foster family began to experience some problems. At that time he took odd jobs and in April of 1875 was arrested for the first time for stealing some cheese. Later that year, in September, he was once again arrested, this time when he was hiding some clothing and firearms for another boarder who had stolen the items from a Chinese laundry owner. Young Henry found jail a place he could not tolerate and two days in, he shimmied up the chimney and escaped.
Henry moved to Arizona where he worked on various ranches and as a sheepherder. At that time Henry became associates with John R. Mackie, an ex-cavalry man who had a penchant for criminal behavior. The two became horse thieves and Henry became know as "Kid Antrim" by the soldiers he targeted. In 1877, the local blacksmith who seemed to enjoy bullying the slight boy, attacked Henry with a verbal exchange and threw him to the ground. Henry drew his gun, shot the blacksmith who died the next day. While some witnesses claimed Henry shot in self-defense, the coroner concluded that the shooting was "criminal and unjustifiable."
Henry fled to the New Mexico Territory where he eventually joined a group of cattle rustlers who targeted the cattle of John Chisum. During this time the story crops up in which Apaches stole Henry's horse and left to his own devices, Henry walked miles to the nearest settlement where he happened upon the home of Heiskell Jones. The family took Henry in and nursed him back to health. The family developed a strong attachment to Henry and gave him one of their horses. Some time in 1877, Henry began to call himself William H. Bonney.
Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War
Now known as Bonney, Henry McCarty moved to Lincoln County, New Mexico and while working in a cheese factory owned by Doc Scurlock and Charlie Bowdre met Frank and George Coe and Ab Saunders. After a short period of working on another ranch, Bonney started working on the Coe-Saunders ranch which was near the ranch of Dick Brewer.
Near the end of 1877, Bonney, the Coes, Saunders, Brewer, Bowdre and Scurlock were hired by John Tunstall as cattle guards. Tunstall was an English cattle rancher, merchant and banker; his partner, Alexander McSween was a prominent lawyer. The Lincoln County War erupted when Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan who were the established town merchants competed with business interests that where headed by McSween and Tunstall.
February 18, 1878, the feud turned uglier and became bloody as Tunstall was spotted herding nine horses towards Lincoln. Members of the Murphy-Dolan faction, Jessie Evans, Frank Baker, Tom Hill, and William Morton, followed Tunstall and Morton shot and killed him. The men then shot Tunstall's prized bay horse and according to reports laid the horse's head on Tunstall's hat. The men attempted to paint the incident as justifiable, but evidence suggested Tunstall was trying to avoid confrontation before being shot. Bonney and the other ranch hands were outraged.
McSween obtained warrants fro the arrest of the men who killed Tunstall, but Tunstall's men formed a group they called the Regulators and were deputized by Brewer who had been appointed special constable and given the warrant to arrest Tunstall's killers. The Regulators went to the Murphy-Dolan store but Bill Morton and Frank Baker got away. They were captured later and while returning to Lincoln were shot by Bonney. The Regulators reported the men were shot attempting to escape. That same day, Governor Samuel Beach Axtell arrived in Lincoln County accompanied by Dolan and John Riley. The Governor was sympathetic to the Murphy-Dolan faction and the Regulators went from deputies to outlaws.
The Regulators were undaunted and went after Sheriff William J. Brady who had arrested Bonney and Fred Waite after Tunstall's death. Sheriff Brady had been suspected of having a role in the looting of Tunstall's store after is death and the two were attempting to serve an arrest warrant on Sheriff Brady when he arrested them. On the first of April, Regulators McNab, Middleton, Waite, Brown, French and Bonney ambushed and killed the Sheriff and his deputy George W. Hindman. Bonney was hit in the thigh but managed to escape. That act resulted in McSween and his faction to declare both sides of the feud "equally nefarious and bloodthirsty."
Three days later, the Regulators attempted to arrest another man they believed to be involved in Tunstall's murder. During the gunfight that ensued, the Regulator's leader, Brewer was killed and four other Regulators wounded. This incident further alienated the Regulators from the local residents. Frank McNab was elected captain of the Regulators and for a few weeks it was relatively quiet partly due to the appointment of Sheriff John Copeland who was sympathetic to the McSween faction.
Unfortunately for the Regulators, the Murphy-Dolan faction promptly added new members from Sheriff Brady's former deputies and they undermined Copeland's authority. At the end of April, 1878, a posse under their direction engaged Regulators Frank Coe, Ab Saunders and Frank McNab in a gunfight at the Fritz Ranch. McNab was killed, Saunders severely wounded and Coe captured though he escaped a short time later.
The following day the core group of Regulators, Bonney included, traded shots with some of Dolan's men and some U.S. cavalrymen. One of Dolan's men was wounded and because the Regulators were shooting at government men, they gained another set of enemies. In the middle of May, the Regulators tracked down a man they believed responsible for McNab's death and killed him. At about the same time a new member, Tom O'Folliard, joined the Regulators and became a close friend and constant companion to Bonney.
Not long after, the Governor removed Copeland and appointed an ally of the Murphy-Dolan faction as sheriff. Bonney and the other Regulators were under indictments for killing Sheriff Brady and remained in hiding for several months. In July the Regulators as well as McSween became trapped in McSween's home and a few days later the sheriff's posse set the house on fire. Bonney and the other Regulators fled and McSween was killed while fleeing the fire. His death pretty much ended the Lincoln County War.
Billy the Kid Makes a Deal with the Governor
In the fall of 1878, Lew Wallace became Governor of the New Mexico Territory. In efforts to restore a lasting peace to Lincoln County, Wallace proclaimed amnesty for any man who was involved in the war and was not already under indictment. Even though Bonney was under indictment, he wrote a letter to the Governor and requested immunity in exchange for Grand Jury testimony. In March of 1879, Wallace met with Bonney and the two came to an agreement in which Bonney would testify in exchange for amnesty.
The agreement included Bonney submitting to an arrest and a stay in jail until the conclusion of his testimony. The testimony did help indict Dolan, but the district attorney refused to set Bonney free afterwards. After the trial, Bonney and O'Folliard escaped on horses supplied by friends. The next 18 months Bonney rustled cattle and gambled and stayed on the defense to stay alive.
William H. Bonney one of American's Gunslingers
In January 1880, Bonney killed Joe Grant while playing poker in a Fort Sumner saloon. According to reports of the day, Grant did not know the man he was playing with was Bonney and he boasted that if he ever encountered Billy the Kid, he would kill him. Bonney asked Grant if he could see his ivory handled revolver. While looking at it, Bonny rotated the cylinder so the hammer was down on an empty chamber. In those days, one chamber was left empty and the hammer down on it to prevent accidental discharges. Bonney handed the revolver back to Grant and informed him he was Billy the Kid. Grant fired, but of course nothing happened. Bonney shot and killed Grant, commenting later that it was a game for two and he got there first. As usual, there are several versions of this story, with one of them claiming Grant attempted to shoot Bonney in the back as he left the saloon and Bonney turned and shot Grant in the chin before Grant reached a loaded chamber.
In November of 1880, Bonney and his gang found themselves trapped by a posse inside a ranch house of James Greathouse, a friend of Bonney. In efforts to settle the clash peacefully, a posse member, James Carlyle was exchanged for Greathouse. During the evening, Carlyle believed the outlaws were stalling, heard a shot from outside and believing the posse had shot Greathouse, jumped through a window where he was promptly shot by his own posse colleagues. As the posse became aware of their mistake, they scattered and Bonney and his gang were able to escape. Bonney later wrote Governor Wallace claiming innocence in Carlyle's death which had been attributed to him.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Another event occurred in November of 1880 that changed the course of Bonney's life. Pat Garrett was elected sheriff of Lincoln County and in December, he gathered a posse and set out to arrest Bonney who by then went by Billy the Kid. The Kid had a $500 bounty on his head. The posse quickly closed in on Billy and during an ambush in Fort Sumner Tom O'Folliard was killed, and The Kid barely escaped. Garrett continued tracking Billy and finally found him and his gang in Stinking Springs. Garrett surrounded the building while the outlaws slept and waited for the sun to rise. When Charlie Bowdre walked outside the next morning to feed his horse, he was mistaken for The Kid and shot. When someone from inside attempted to grab the halter of the horse, Garrett shot and killed the horse. The horse's body blocked the door, thus the outlaws were trapped. As the posse cooked breakfast over a campfire, Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett exchanged "pleasantries." Later in the day, the hungry outlaws surrendered.
Billy was taken from Fort Sumner to Las Vegas, then to Santa Fe. Over the next three months, he sent four letters to Governor Wallace, but the Governor refused to intervene on Billy's behalf. In April 1881, Billy the Kid was put on trial for the murder of Sheriff Brady. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang. He was taken back to Lincoln where he was scheduled to be executed on May 13. While there he was under the guard of deputies James Bell and Robert Ollinger.
On April 28 Garrett was out of town and Billy the Kid escaped from the jail. There are several theories as to how he accomplished the feat. One has him aided by a friend who hid a pistol in the outhouse he was permitted to use, while another had him slip his handcuffs, grab Bell's gun and shoot him as he escaped.
What is known is Deputy Bell staggered into the street, collapsed and died. Billy grabbed Deputy Ollinger's 10-gauge double barrel shotgun and when Olliger came running from across the street, Billy shot him too. Billy then proceeded to free his legs from their irons, which took about an hour, jumped on a horse and rode out of town. Reports say he was singing as he left town and two days later the horse returned to town.
Billy the Kid remained elusive for a few months until in July, Garrett got wind that the Kid was staying at a friend's, Pete Maxwell. Around midnight Garrett and Maxwell were talking in Maxwell's bedroom. Several versions of the ensuing event are reported. One version has Billy unexpectedly entering the bedroom asking "who is it?" in Spanish when he failed to recognize Garrett and drawing his gun as he backed away. Garrett drew his gun and fired two times, hitting Billy above his heart and killing him. Another version has Billy entering the room carrying a knife; and yet another version has Maxwell alerting Garrett that it was Billy the Kid who entered the room.
Regardless of how the incident actually played out, the end result was the death of Billy the Kid at the hand of Pat Garrett. William H. Bonney, aka "Billy the Kid" was barely 21 years old. He claimed to have killed "one man for each year." Historians contend the more accurate number was about nine men. But as other gunslingers of the day, Billy the Kid's reputation was partly built on exaggerated accounts of his exploits.
Billy the Kid was buried between Tom O'Folliard and Charlie Bowdre in Fort Sumner's cemetery. A single tombstone was erected over their graves in 1940 and subsequently stolen and recovered three times before the gravesites were enclosed in a security cage. Several people wrote about Billy the Kid, including Pat Garrett and The Kid was often described as a jolly young man, fluent in Spanish, popular with Latina girls and quite articulate in his speech and writing as well as being a good dancer. He was well-liked by the Hispanic community of the territory who regarded him as a "champion of the oppressed." To date there is only one known picture of Billy the Kid. As with many things of the past, his life will continue to carry many myths and questions with little evidence to prove any truths.
Tractman, Paul. "Sinister Masters of Murder." In The Old West: The Gunfighters, edited by George Constable. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1974.
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