If you’ve lived in New Mexico for any amount of time, you have to have heard of Billy the Kid (1859-1881). As someone who spent the better part of four years in the Land of Enchantment, it’s hard to argue with that.
Any Wild West historian worth his/her salt can tell you all about the legendary outlaw simply known as Billy the Kid. And that’s exactly what he was – a legend. To that end, there have been dozens of poems, documentaries, and live-action movies about Billy, most notably the 1973 Sam Peckinpah film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, starring Kris Kristofferson as Billy and James Coburn as Pat Garrett.
Still, many people, even experts in the field, know very little about Billy other than a few facts and information handed down by oral tradition and folklore. In fact, the above photo is the only surviving depiction of the man.
Some people – both Western historians and Billy’s own contemporaries – are divided over who he actually was. In some circles, he’s known as a vicious killer and thief who was part of a growing violent epidemic in post-Civil War New Mexico. Others believe that Billy was simply a punk kid who fell in with the wrong crowd and never killed anyone for the fun of it. And still others viewed Billy as a cunning, suave marksman – noted for being a charmer, a talented dancer, and a folk hero. In modern terms, say a combination of James Bond, Batman, and Clint Eastwood.
So what DO we know about the mysterious Billy the Kid? Let’s find out.
The first thing that you need to know about Billy the Kid is that his name wasn’t Billy. He was born September 17, 1859 in New York City and his given name was Henry McCarty. He was raised Catholic by his Irish-American mother Catherine, and he had a younger brother, Joseph (born 1863).
Very little is known about Billy’s father, other than the fact that he died when Billy was very young. Shortly thereafter, Ms. McCarty and her boys moved to Indiana, where she met and fell in love with a man named Henry Antrim. The family moved around to several places before settling in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1873. Ms. McCarty married Antrim shortly thereafter, and then moved the family again, this time a few hundred miles south to Silver City, New Mexico.
Unfortunately, Billy’s mother passed away a year later from tuberculosis. Billy, by now age 15, started working for a lady named Sarah Brown in Silver City. Brown took him in after his mother’s death, while Billy’s brother remained with Antrim.
In 1875, Billy and a friend robbed a local laundromat, stealing clothes as well as two pistols. Billy was charged with theft and put in jail, but escaped two days later and fled to his stepfather’s house. Soon after that, Billy fled again to the Arizona Territory, where he worked on a ranch and developed a gambling habit. The following year, a respected rancher named Henry Hooker took Billy in and gave him consistent work as a cattle wrangler.
Around this time, Billy befriended a man named John Mackie, an ex-Army cavalryman who had become a small-time horse thief following his discharge. The two men began stealing horses from soldiers at nearby Camp Grant.
During one of these incidents, things turned violent. On August 17, 1877, Billy got into a verbal altercation with Francis Cahill, a blacksmith who had become increasingly suspicious of Billy. During a poker game, Cahill attacked Billy, and after a brief struggle, Billy shot Cahill, who died the next day. Billy was taken into custody by Camp Grant authorities, but managed to escape again.
Billy stole a horse and attempted to return to New Mexico, but was attacked by Apaches on the way back, who robbed him and stole his horse. A tired and dehydrated Billy managed to walk several miles through the desert to the home of John Jones, a gang member who lived in Pecos Valley, New Mexico. Billy stayed at the Jones home and recuperated for awhile before catching on with a band of cattle rustlers. By this time, Billy began using the alias “William H. Bonney” to avoid catching unnecessary attention from newspapers and authorities in his adopted hometown of Silver City.
Billy eventually went back to honest work as a ranch-hand in Lincoln County, New Mexico, working for an Englishman named John Tunstall. Tunstall and his friend, a lawyer named Alexander McSween, were locked in a feud with three prominent businessmen: John Riley, James Dolan, and Lawrence Murphy. This trio were intimately involved in local politics and were suspected of shady dealings with various authority figures in Lincoln County.
In early 1878, on behalf of Dolan, county sheriff William Brady attempted to claim $40,000 of Tunstall’s property in order to repay a much smaller debt owed by McSween. Tunstall, sensing danger, warned his ranch-hands (including Billy) to guard the property and prevent the sheriff’s men from stealing any horses or cattle.
On February 18th, Sheriff Brady assembled a posse and attempted to force Tunstall off his land. In the process, Tunstall was shot and killed, starting what eventually became known as the Lincoln County War.
Two days later, Billy and a couple of his associates went to the local justice of the peace, John Wilson, and obtained murder warrants for Sheriff Brady. While attempting to do so, Billy and his friend, Dick Brewer, were ambushed by the sheriff’s posse and imprisoned. This caught the attention of Deputy U.S. Marshal Rob Widenmann, who freed Billy and Brewer on February 23rd and, in turn, locked up Sheriff Brady’s men.
After his release, Billy joined the Lincoln County Regulators and attempted to avenge Tunstall’s murder. On March 9th, two of Tunstall’s alleged killers, Bill Morton and Frank Baker, were shot dead. A month later, during an ambush at nearby Blazer’s Mill, Brewer and Sheriff Brady were also killed. A warrant was then issued for the arrest of numerous parties, including Billy.
By now, McSween was the leader of the Regulators, who were nearly 60 strong. They occupied the town of Lincoln on the night of July 14th, surrounding the town for several days. The new sheriff, George Peppin, dispatched several sharpshooters to kill the Regulators at the local saloon, but it backfired when Charles Crawford, one of the snipers, was shot by a Regulator named Fernando Herrera.
A furious Sheriff Peppin requested help from Colonel Nathan Dudley of nearby Fort Stanton, but Dudley refused. On July 19th, McSween and the Regulators were attacked at their lodge by Deputy Sheriff Jack Long, who burned the house down. As Billy and the Regulators retreated, McSween was shot and killed by Robert Beckwith, who was then shot by Billy.
Billy and three surviving Regulators regrouped outside of town on the Mescalero Apache Indian Agency. However, when a local bookkeeper was murdered on August 5th by a Lincoln County Constable, the Regulators were framed for the crime.
On October 5th, U.S. Marshal John Sherman met with the new governor of the New Mexico Territory, Lew Wallace. A Union officer during the Civil War, Wallace was intent on restoring law and order to the dangerous New Mexico landscape. In their meeting, Sherman informed Wallace of a number of pending arrest warrants, including for a one “Billy the Kid.” Due to widespread political corruption in Lincoln County, Sherman had been unable to indict the people involved in the conflict.
In November, Governor Wallace issued amnesty to anyone involved in the Lincoln County War following Tunstall’s murder earlier that year. However, the pardon did not apply to anyone who was under indictment for a crime, so Billy was still a wanted man.
On February 18, 1879, Billy and a friend of his were in the wrong place at the wrong time. A local attorney, Huston Chapman, was murdered and his corpse set on fire while Billy and his friend were forced to watch. Later, Billy wrote a letter to Governor Wallace, offering information on Chapman’s murder in exchange for amnesty. Billy met with Wallace in person on March 15th, with Wallace offering full amnesty to Billy if he testified before a grand jury. Soon after, Billy turned himself in to Sheriff George Kimball.
As agreed, Billy provided information about the Chapman murder, but as the weeks passed, Billy began to question Wallace’s motivations. Believing that the Governor had double-crossed him, Billy escaped the jail on June 17th and decided to lie low for several months.
In January 1880, Billy shot and killed a man named Joe Grant (allegedly in self-defense) at a saloon in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. By now, Billy had joined a new posse and they were still causing trouble in the area, causing headaches for the new sheriff, Pat Garrett.
Garrett had been given a bounty on Billy’s head from Governor Wallace himself. Two days before Christmas 1880, Garrett captured Billy and his posse and took them to stand trial in Santa Fe. On the way there, the group was mobbed by rowdy locals attempting to kill Billy and his men. After arriving in Santa Fe, Billy was interviewed in the jailhouse by a reporter from the Las Vegas Gazette. The reporter took note of Billy’s relaxed demeanor, to which Billy replied that he didn’t believe in being pessimistic and that he would have the last laugh.
While in jail, Billy wrote Governor Wallace again, asking for clemency, but to no avail. In April 1881, Billy was transported to stand trail in Mesilla, New Mexico. After two days of testimonies, Billy was found guilty of murdering Sheriff Brady – the only conviction of any combatant in the Lincoln County War. On April 13th, Billy was sentenced to hang. He was moved once again, this time back to Lincoln.
On the night of April 28th, Sheriff Garrett was out of town. Deputy Bob Olinger and his colleagues were out at dinner, leaving a lone deputy, James Bell, to watch Billy.
Billy requested to use the outhouse, and Bell agreed. Somehow, on the way back to the jail, Billy freed himself from his handcuffs and knocked Bell over, before grabbing his revolver and shooting him in the back as he fled. Billy’s legs were still shackled, but amazingly, he was able to hobble into Garrett’s upstairs office and arm himself with a shotgun. Olinger, who had heard gunshots from across the street, approached. Billy called out, “Look up, old boy, and see what you get,” before shooting Olinger in the head. Billy then freed himself from his leg irons, stole a horse, and fled town.
Three months later, Governor Wallace placed a new bounty for Billy’s arrest or death. After hearing rumors that Billy was in Fort Sumner again, Garrett and two deputies left on July 14th to question Pete Maxwell, a friend of Billy’s and the son of a prominent landowner. Late at night, Garrett was questioning Maxwell when Billy unexpectedly entered the room. Due to the poor lighting, Billy did not recognize Garrett and called out, “Who is it?” Garrett, recognizing Billy’s voice, shot him in the chest twice, killing him.
Garrett was eventually given the bounty by Governor Wallace, but rumors began circulating that Garrett had ambushed Billy and killed him in cold blood. Feeling a need to set the record straight, Garrett told his side of the story in his book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, published in April 1882. It remains one of the few definitive chronicles of Billy’s life.