Billy The Kid - Outlaw

Henry "Billy The Kid" McCarty 1859-1881

Myth: Billy the Kid was a Westerner. (Implying he was born in the West.)
Fact: No one knows for certain. Three possible birth sites: New York City, Indiana, and Missouri.

Myth: His name was William H. Bonney.
Fact: His name was Henry McCarty.

Myth: He killed a man at age 12.
Fact: He was seventeen when a bully sat on him and beat him. Billy pulled a pistol out of his pocket and shot him.

Myth: Billy killed 21 men by the age of 21.
Fact: Only 4 men he shot, dead. All were in self-defense. (Self-defense also implies an act to escape being wrongfully killed or hung. There is no proof he was the one to shoot Sheriff Brady.)

Myth: Billy rescued a wagon train by scaring off the indians with an axe.
Fact: A bald-faced lie.

Myth: Billy rode 81 miles in 6 hours to free a friend from jail.
Fact: A figment of a writer's imagination (it didn't happen)

Myth: The Kid escaped to Mexico, where he died an old man.
Fact: Sheriff Pat Garrett killed Billy with a single shot to the heart, in a dark room, when he recognized Billys voice saying "Who is it?"

Myth: Brushy Bill Roberts of Texas was really Billy the Kid.
Fact: He was not. Too many saw the real Billy the Kid dead in old Fort Sumner.

Myth: Billy the Kid was a cold-blooded killer.
Fact: Billy the Kid shot only to revenge the killing of his employer who treated him as a son. Billy was educated, wrote many letters to the then Governor of New Mexico, Lew Wallace (Author of Ben Hur) asking him to keep his promise of a pardon.

- Frederick Nolan, researcher and author of The Lincoln County War - A Documentary History (1992) and The West of Billy the Kid (1998).


His real name was Henry McCarty and he was born in New York City. His father died when he was a child. His mother Catherine moved West with him and his brother Joseph. She supported them by operating various hotels, boardinghouses, and laundries. They were living in Wichita, Kansas in 1871 when she sold all her properties. She had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, and had probably been advised to move to a drier climate. Billy was 12. They moved to Silver City, New Mexico. On March 1, 1873, she finally married William H. Antrim, who had courted her for several years. She operated a boardinghouse and William worked in the mines. She died a year later.
Watching his mother slowly die may have somehow affected Billy. He no longer attended school. He took up poker. Finally Antrim agreed to let the Truesdall family take him in. They operated the Star Hotel. He worked for his keep by waiting tables and doing kitchen chores.
In 1875, his first brush with the law occurred when he was arrested for stealing clothes from two Chinese. He escaped from jail and was on the run ever after. About this time he changed his name to William H. Bonney, probably to spare his family name.
On August 17, 1877, he killed his first man. This was near Camp Grant, Arizona at a saloon. The victim was a blacksmith named Windy. He had been constantly tormenting the young, slender teenager Billy, slapping him around and wrestling him to the floor. Finally Billy had enough and shot him. He fled town and wandered among the cow towns of New Mexico and Arizona, working at odd jobs.
Finally he arrived in Lincoln County, New Mexico. He arrived just about the time the Lincoln County War was about to heat up. It erupted because of the land monopoly by John Chisum, whose ranch was one of the largest in the west. Billy was working at the Coe ranch one of the smaller ranches infringing on Chisum's space. The co-enemy was L.G. Murphy & Co. who the ranchers saw as unfairly inflating prices in their stores. John Tunstall, an Englishman who had set up a competing mercantile, took Billy in and outfitted him.
The war erupted in February 1878. Alexander McSween, a lawyer, had been retained by the late Lt. Col. Fritz's brother and sister to collect a $10,000 life insurance policy. Fritz was the partner of Murphy. McSween was on Tunstall's side. There was a delay of several months while McSween attempted to find out if there were any other heirs. Murphy & Co. persuaded the heirs to sue for failure to deliver. In February, a "sheriff's posse," rode out to the Tunstall ranch demanding payment of the debt with Tunstall's property. Billy and others urged him to fight but Tunstall said nothing was worth losing your life over. While riding in to Lincoln with his herd, another Murphy group, not knowing that Tunstall had basically given in, caught up with them and shot Tunstall dead.
Tunstall was a good friend, almost a family member of the Kid, and his death was tragic for Billy. He swore revenge on all those who had been responsible. A group of vigilantes called The Regulators, including Billy, went out after the Dolan gang, part of Murphy's bunch. But Dolan was ready and soon Billy found himself in jail. A few days later he was free and he and his friends again went out and captured Billy Morton and Frank Baker. Those two died while attempting to escape from jail. Soon after, Billy, now the leader of the group with Doc Scurlock were involved in a shootout with Sheriff Brady, who was in Dolan's pocket. Brady was killed. Billy continued to roam the county looking for others involved in Tunstall's death. They were involved in another shootout, this time with Andrew "Buckshot" Roberts, who had been in the sheriff's posse. Billy's friend Bowdre actually shot Roberts, but Billy got blamed. Now there was a price on his head.
In May, the governor appointed George Peppin the new sheriff. Unfortunately he was also on the payroll of Murphy & Co. He and his posse harassed Billy and The Regulators all spring and early summer. His posse was largely made up of deputized outlaws and desperadoes. Billy's friend Frank McNab was killed. His friend Ab Sanders was badly wounded and Frank Coe was taken into custody.
On July 11, 1878, Billy joined forces with a large band of Mexicans led by his old friend Martin Chavez. Peppin hired a new posse. He appealed to Col. N. A. M. Dudley at nearby Fort Stanton to give him some men. Dudley complied, even though the U.S. military was not supposed to get involved with civilian disputes. He needed Murphy's supplies of goods and services. It was a standoff. The two factions traded shots at the city of Lincoln.
On July 19, 1878, the enemy set fire to McSween's house. As Billy and his friends attempted to rescue McSween, the posse shot McSween five times and killed him. Billy and his friends fled unharmed. They hid out at Fort Sumner on the Pecos River where Billy had many friends. They worked at nearby ranches for awhile. It was about this time that Billy met Pat Garrett, who then was a bartender for Beaver Smith's saloon/gambling hall.
On February 18, 1879, Billy and Tom O'Folliard rode into Lincoln to meet with Dolan and Jesse Evans to discuss a truce. Supposedly the truce was made but immediately Campbell killed H. J. Chapman, Mrs. McSween's lawyer and set fire to his body. The new governor Lew Wallace, a former civil war general and future author of Ben Hur, was furious. He called for the immediate arrest of Dolan Evans and Campbell. He also offered a $500 record to bring an Billy as a witness. The kid was afraid to come in though because of past charges against him. So Wallace arranged a secret meeting with Billy. The governor promised him a pardon if he would testify. When Billy said he was still worried the Dolan gang would try to get him, Wallace promised full protection. An "arrest" was set up and Billy was taken in. On March 23, 1879, he gave a detailed statement regarding the rustling activities in the county. In April he testified before the grand jury. Unfortunately no one was convicted due to corruption, and soon Billy then found himself about to be tried for the murder of Sheriff Brady. He escaped from jail and fled with O'Folliard and Doc Scurlock. He went back to Fort Sumner working on ranches. During that time he met Dave Rudabaugh, another outlaw on the run. The two joined their forces. With Dave were Billy Wilson and Tom Pickett. With Billy were O'Folliard and Scurlock.
On December 19, 1880, Billy was captured at Stinking Springs. Billy and his five men had just returned to Fort Sumner to get supplies. They were jumped by Garrett, who had been appointed Deputy Sheriff, and his men. O'Folliard was shot on the spot and died two hours later. The rest escaped to a nearby ranch. Garrett set out with 16 men but couldn't catch Billy at first. But it was snowy outside and the moon was full so tracking was fairly easy. Garrett cornered him at an old deserted house at Stinking Springs about 3 a.m.
At first light, Charlie Bowdre stepped outside and was shot by the posse. The others wanted to surrender but Billy didn't. Eventually though, they did surrender and were taken into custody to Las Vegas, New Mexico. Pat Garrett then escorted the outlaws to Santa Fe. Billy was tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang in Mesilla by Judge Warren Bristol, suspected of being on the payroll of the Santa Fe ring and the Dolan gang. The execution date was set for May 13, 1881. They moved back to Lincoln to await that date. Billy escaped from jail on April 18. He killed jailor J. W. Belle with a six-shooter that his friends hid in the privy. He killed Robert Olinger, the other jailor, with a shotgun. It was easy for him to find people who sympathized with him and helped him remove the leg iron. He headed to his old hideout at Fort Sumner. However, now his friends were encouraging him to escape to old Mexico. But he wouldn't go.
In May 1881, Garrett hired John W. Poe as Deputy. Poe discovered that the Kid was still at Fort Sumner. He and Garrett and Roswell Deputy Thomas L. (Tip) McKinney rode after him. The two scouted around for Billy and were about to give up when Poe suggested they visit Pete Maxwell, a local wealthy rancher, who they hoped could tell them about Billy. While there, Billy walked in and Garrett shot him dead, on July 14, 1881. He was buried at the old military cemetery at Fort Sumner. He was 21 years, 7 months, and 22 days old when he died.

-copyright 2005 by Beth Gibson