Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid posing for a ferrotype photograph
Born William Henry McCarty, Jr.
November 23, 1859
Died July 14, 1881 (aged 21)
Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory, United States
Cause of death Gunshot
Other names William H. Bonney, William McCarty, Henry McCarty, Henry Antrim, Kid Antrim
Occupation Cowboy, gambler, cattle rustler, outlaw

Father: unknown—possibly Patrick Henry McCarty, Michael McCarty, or William Bonney
Stepfather: William Antrim
Mother: Catherine McCarty/Katherine McCarty


Half-brother: Joseph Antrim

William H. Bonney (born William Henry McCarty, Jr.) est. November 23, 1859[1] – c. July 14, 1881, better known as Billy the Kid but also known as Henry Antrim, was a 19th-century American gunman who participated in the Lincoln County War and became a frontier outlaw in the West. According to legend, he killed 21 men,[2] but he is generally accepted to have killed between four[2] and nine.[3]

McCarty (or Bonney, the name he used at the height of his notoriety) was 5 feet 8 inches (173 cm) to 5 feet 9 inches (175 cm) tall with blue eyes, a smooth complexion, and prominent front teeth. He was said to be friendly and personable at times,[4][5] and many recalled that he was as "lithe as a cat".[4] Contemporaries described him as a "neat" dresser who favored an "unadorned Mexican sombrero".[4][6] These qualities, along with his cunning and celebrated skill with firearms, contributed to his paradoxical image, as both a notorious outlaw and beloved folk hero.[7]

Relatively unknown during most of his lifetime, Billy was catapulted into legend in 1881 when New Mexico's governor, Lew Wallace, placed a price on his head. In addition, the Las Vegas Gazette (Las Vegas, New Mexico) and the New York Sun carried stories about his exploits.[8] Many other newspapers followed suit. After his death, several biographies were written that portrayed the Kid in varying lights.[8]

Early life

William Henry McCarty, Jr. is believed by Michael Wallis and Robert M. Utley, scholars of western history, to have been

"born on the eve of the Civil War in an Irish neighborhood in New York City" (at 70 Allen Street). If indeed his birthplace was New York, no records that can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he ever lived there have ever been uncovered".[9]

[10] While his biological father is obscure, some researchers have theorized that his name was Patrick McCarty, Michael McCarty, William McCarty, or Edward McCarty.[9] His mother's name was Catherine McCarty, although "there have been continuing debates about whether McCarty was her maiden or married name."[9][10] She is believed to have immigrated to New York during the time of the Great Famine.[9][10]

By 1868, Catherine McCarty had moved with her two young sons, Henry and Joseph, to Indianapolis, Indiana.[11] There she met William Antrim, who was 12 years her junior.[12] In 1873, after several years of moving around the country, the two were married at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico,[13] and settled further south in Silver City.[14] Antrim found sporadic work as a bartender and carpenter, but he became involved in prospecting and gambling for fortune, nearly abandoning his wife and stepsons.[15] Young William McCarty did not often use the surname "Antrim." [16]

Married to a husband who was frequently absent, McCarty's mother reportedly washed clothes, baked pies, and took in boarders in order to provide for her sons.[17] Boarders and neighbors remembered her as "a jolly Irish lady, full of life and mischief",[18] but she was already in the final stages of tuberculosis when the family reached Silver City.[19] On September 16, 1874, Catherine McCarty died; she was buried in the Memory Lane Cemetery in Silver City.[15]

At age 14, McCarty was taken in by a neighboring family who operated a hotel where he worked to pay for his keep. The manager was impressed by the youth, contending that he was the only young man who ever worked for him who did not steal anything.[20] One of McCarty's schoolteachers later recalled that the young orphan was "no more of a problem than any other boy, always quite willing to help with chores around the schoolhouse."[21] Early biographers sought to explain McCarty's subsequent descent into lawlessness by focusing on his habit of reading dime novels that romanticized crime. Another potential explanation was his slender physique, "which placed him in precarious situations with bigger and stronger boys."[22]

Forced to seek new lodgings when his foster family began to experience "domestic problems," McCarty moved into a boarding house and pursued odd jobs.[22] In April 1875, McCarty was arrested by Grant County Sheriff Harvey Whitehill, for stealing cheese. On September 24, 1875, McCarty was arrested again when found to possess clothing and firearms that a fellow boarder had stolen from a Chinese laundry owner.[23] Two days after McCarty was placed in jail, the teenager escaped up the jailhouse chimney. From that point on, McCarty was more or less a fugitive.[24]

According to some accounts, he eventually found work as an itinerant ranch hand and shepherd in southeastern Arizona.[25] In 1876, McCarty settled in the vicinity of Fort Grant Army Post in Arizona, where he worked local ranches and tested his skills at local gaming houses.[26] Sheriff Whitehill would later say that he liked the boy, and his acts of theft were more due to necessity than wantonness.

During this time, McCarty became acquainted with John R. Mackie, a Scottish-born ex-cavalry private with a criminal bent.[27] The two men supposedly became involved in the risky, but profitable, enterprise of horse thievery. McCarty, who stole from local soldiers, became known by the sobriquet of "Kid Antrim".[28] The biographer Robert M. Utley writes that the nickname arose because of McCarty's "slight build and beardless countenance, his young years, and his appealing personality."[29] In 1877, McCarty was involved in a conflict with the civilian blacksmith at Fort Grant, an Irish immigrant named Frank "Windy" Cahill, who took pleasure in bullying young McCarty.[30] On August 17, Cahill reportedly attacked McCarty after a verbal exchange and threw him to the ground. Reliable accounts say McCarty retaliated by shooting Cahill, who died the next day.[31] The coroner's inquest concluded that McCarty's shooting of Cahill was "criminal and unjustifiable." Some of those who witnessed the incident later claimed that McCarty acted in self-defense.[32] Years later, Louis Abraham, who had known McCarty in Silver City but was not a witness, denied that anyone was killed in the altercation.[33]

In fear of Cahill's friends, McCarty fled Arizona Territory and entered New Mexico Territory.[34] He eventually arrived at the former army post of Apache Tejo, where he joined a band of cattle rustlers who raided the sprawling herds of cattle magnate John Chisum.[35] During this period, McCarty was spotted by a resident of Silver City, and the teenager's involvement with the notorious gang was mentioned in a local newspaper.[36] McCarty rode for a time with the gang of rustlers known as the "Jesse Evans Gang", but soon turned up at Heiskell Jones's house in Pecos Valley, New Mexico.[37][38]

According to this account, Apaches stole McCarty's horse, forcing him to walk many miles to the nearest settlement, which happened to be Jones's home. When he arrived, the young man was supposedly near death, but Mrs. Jones nursed him back to health.[38] The Jones family developed a strong attachment to McCarty and gave him one of their horses.[38] At some point in 1877, McCarty began to refer to himself as "William H. Bonney".[39]

Lincoln County War

In 1877, McCarty (now widely known as William Bonney) moved to Lincoln County, New Mexico, and was hired by Doc Scurlock and Charlie Bowdre to work in their cheese factory.[40] Through them he met Frank Coe, George Coe and Ab Saunders, three cousins who owned their own ranch near the ranch of Richard M. Brewer. After a short stint working on the ranch of Henry Hooker, McCarty began working on the Coe-Saunders ranch.[41]

Late in 1877, McCarty, along with Brewer, Bowdre, Scurlock, the Coes and the Saunders, was hired as a cattle guard by John Tunstall, an English cattle rancher, banker and merchant, and his partner, Alexander McSween, a prominent lawyer.[42]

A conflict known today as the Lincoln County War had erupted between the established town merchants, Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, and competing business interests headed by Tunstall and McSween.[43] Before the arrival of Tunstall and McSween, Murphy and Dolan presided over a monopoly of Lincoln County's cattle and merchant trade; their far-reaching operation was known locally as "The House", after a large mansion in Lincoln that served as Murphy and Dolan's headquarters. There was also an ethnic element to the House's conflict with Tunstall; Murphy and Dolan, both Irish immigrants, were strongly opposed to an Englishman like Tunstall cutting into their business.[44]

Events turned bloody on February 18, 1878, when Tunstall was spotted while driving a herd of nine horses towards Lincoln and murdered by William Morton, Jesse Evans, Tom Hill, Frank Baker  and Sheriff William J. Brady of Lincoln County — all members of a posse serving the House, sent to attack McSween's holdings.[45] After murdering Tunstall, the gunmen shot down his prized bay horse.[46] "As a wry and macabre joke on Tunstall's great affection for horses, the dead bay's head was then pillowed on his hat", writes Frederick Nolan, Tunstall's biographer.[47] Although members of the House sought to frame Tunstall's death as a "justifiable homicide", evidence at the scene suggested that Tunstall attempted to avoid a confrontation before he was shot down.[48] Tunstall's murder enraged McCarty and the other ranch hands.[49]

McSween, who abhorred violence, took steps to punish Tunstall's murderers through legal means; he obtained warrants for their arrests from the local justice of the peace, John B. Wilson.[50] Tunstall's men formed their own group called the Regulators.[51] After being deputized by Brewer, Tunstall's foreman, who had been appointed a special constable and given the warrant to arrest Tunstall's killers, proceeded to the Murphy-Dolan store.[52] The wanted men, Bill Morton and Frank Baker, attempted to flee, but they were captured on March 6. Upon returning to Lincoln, the Regulators reported that Morton and Baker had been shot on March 9 near Agua Negra during an alleged escape attempt.[53][54][55] During their journey to Lincoln, the Regulators killed one of their members, a man named McCloskey, whom they suspected of being a traitor.[53][56][57]

On the day that McCloskey, Morton, and Baker were slain, Governor Samuel Beach Axtell arrived in Lincoln County to investigate the ongoing violence. The governor, accompanied by James Dolan and associate John Riley, proved hostile to the faction now headed by McSween. The Regulators "went from lawmen to outlaws".[58] Axtell refused to acknowledge the so-called "Santa Fe Ring", a group of corrupt politicians and business leaders led by U.S. Attorney Thomas Benton Catron.[59] Catron cooperated closely with the House, which was perceived as part of the notorious "ring".[60]

The Regulators planned to settle a score with Sheriff William J. Brady, who had arrested McCarty and fellow deputy Fred Waite in the aftermath of Tunstall's murder. At the time Brady arrested them, the two men were trying to serve a warrant on him for his suspected role in looting Tunstall's store after the Englishman's death, as well as against his posse members for the murder of Tunstall.[50] On April 1, the Regulators Jim French, Frank McNab, John Middleton, Fred Waite, Henry Brown and McCarty/Bonney ambushed Sheriff Brady[61] and his deputy, George W. Hindman,[62] killing them both in Lincoln's main street.

McCarty was shot in the thigh while attempting to retrieve a rifle that Brady had seized from him during an earlier arrest.[56] With this move, the Regulators disillusioned many former supporters, who came to view both sides as "equally nefarious and bloodthirsty".[63] The connection between McSween and the Regulators was ambiguous, however. McCarty was loyal to the memory of Tunstall, though not necessarily to McSween.[64] Jacobsen doubts whether McCarty and McSween were acquainted at the time of Brady's death.[64] According to a contemporary newspaper account, the Regulators disclaimed "all connection or sympathy with McSween and his affairs" and expressed their sole desire was to track down Tunstall's murderers.[64]

On April 4, in what became known as the Gunfight of Blazer's Mills, the Regulators sought the arrest of Buckshot Roberts, a former buffalo hunter whom they suspected of involvement in the Tunstall murder.[65] Roberts refused to be taken alive, although he suffered a severe bullet wound to the chest.[66] During the gun battle, he shot and killed the Regulators' leader, Dick Brewer.[65][67] Four other Regulators were wounded in the skirmish.[56] The incident had the effect of further alienating the public, as many local residents "admired the way Roberts put up a gutsy fight against overwhelming odds."[68]

Killing of Frank McNab and after

After Brewer's death, the Regulators elected Frank McNab as captain.[68] For a short period, the Regulators benefited from the appointment of Sheriff John Copeland, who proved sympathetic to their cause.[68] Copeland's authority was undermined by the House, which recruited members from among Brady's former deputies.[69] On April 29, 1878, a posse including the Jesse Evans Gang and the Seven Rivers Warriors, under the direction of former Brady deputy George W. Peppin, engaged McNab, Ab Saunders and Frank Coe in a shootout at the Fritz Ranch.[69] They killed McNab, severely wounded Saunders and captured Coe.[69] Coe escaped custody a short time later.[70]

The next day the Regulators "iron clad" took up defensive positions in the town of Lincoln, where they traded shots with Dolan's men as well as U.S. cavalrymen.[71] The only casualty was Dutch Charley Kruling, a House gunman wounded by a rifle slug fired by George Coe.[72] By shooting at US government troops, the Regulators gained a new set of enemies. On May 15, the Regulators tracked down Seven Rivers Warriors gang member Manuel Segovia, the suspected murderer of Frank McNab, and killed him.[73] Around the time of Segovia's death, the Regulator "iron clad" gained a new member, a young Texas "cowpoke" named Tom O'Folliard, who became McCarty's close friend and constant companion.[74]

The Regulators' position worsened when the governor, in a quasi-legal move, removed Copeland and appointed House ally George Peppin as sheriff.[75] Under indictment for the Brady killing, McCarty and the other Regulators spent the next several months in hiding and were trapped, along with McSween, in McSween's home in Lincoln on July 15, by members of the House and some of Brady's men.[76] On July 19, a column of U.S. cavalry soldiers entered the fray. Although the soldiers were ostensibly neutral, their actions favored the Dolan faction.[77] After a five-day siege, the posse set McSween's house on fire.[78] McCarty and the other Regulators fled.[79] The posse shot McSween when he escaped the fire, essentially marking the end of the Lincoln County War.[80]

Lew Wallace and amnesty

In the Autumn of 1878, the president appointed Lew Wallace, a former Union Army general, as Governor of the New Mexico Territory.[81] In an effort to restore peace to Lincoln County, Wallace proclaimed an amnesty for any man involved in the Lincoln County War who was not already under indictment.[81] McCarty, who had fled to Texas after his escape from McSween's house, was under indictment, but sent Wallace a letter requesting immunity in return for testifying in front of the Grand Jury.[82] In March 1879, Wallace and McCarty met in Lincoln County to discuss the possibility of a deal. McCarty greeted the governor with a revolver in one hand and a Winchester rifle in the other. After taking several days to consider Wallace's offer, McCarty agreed to testify in return for amnesty.[82]

The arrangement called for McCarty to submit to a token arrest and a short stay in jail until the conclusion of his courtroom testimony.[82] Although McCarty's testimony helped to indict John Dolan[disambiguation needed ], the district attorney, one of the powerful "House" faction leaders disregarded Wallace's order to set McCarty free after his testimony.[83] After the Dolan trial, McCarty and O'Folliard escaped on horses supplied by friends.[84]

For the next year-and-a-half, McCarty survived by rustling, gambling, and taking defensive action. In January 1880, he reportedly killed a man named Joe Grant in a Fort Sumner saloon.[85] Grant, who did not realize who his opponent was, boasted that he would kill "Billy the Kid" if he ever encountered him. In those days people loaded their revolvers with only five rounds, with the hammer down on an empty chamber. This was done to prevent an accidental discharge should the hammer be struck. The Kid asked Grant if he could see his ivory-handled revolver and, while looking at the weapon, rotated the cylinder so the hammer would fall on the empty chamber when the trigger was pulled.[85] He told Grant his identity. When Grant fired, nothing happened, and McCarty shot him. When asked about the incident later, he remarked, "It was a game for two, and I got there first."[86]

Other versions of this story exist. One biographer, Joel Jacobsen, recounts the story as described in Utley, describing Grant as a "drunk" who was "making himself obnoxious in a bar".[87] The Kid is described as rotating the cylinder "so an empty chamber was beneath the hammer".[87] In Jacobsen's recounting of the incident, Grant tried to shoot McCarty in the back. "As [McCarty] was leaving the saloon, his back turned to Grant, he heard a distinct click. He spun around before Grant could reach a loaded chamber. Always a good marksman, he shot Grant in the chin."[87]

In November 1880, a posse pursued and trapped McCarty's gang inside a ranch house owned by his friend James Greathouse at Anton Chico in the White Oaks area.[88] James Carlyle[89] of the posse entered the house under a white flag, in an effort to negotiate the group's surrender.[88] Greathouse was sent out to act as a hostage for the posse.[90] At some point in the evening, Carlyle evidently decided the outlaws were stalling. According to one version, Carlyle heard a shot that had been fired accidentally outside. Concluding that the posse had shot down Greathouse, he chose escape, crashed through a window and was fired upon and killed.[88] Recognizing their mistake, the posse became demoralized and scattered, enabling McCarty and his gang to slip away. McCarty vehemently denied shooting Carlyle,[88] and later wrote to Governor Wallace, claiming to be innocent of this crime and others attributed to him.[91]

Pat Garrett

During this time, McCarty became acquainted with an ambitious local bartender and former buffalo hunter named Pat Garrett.[86] While popular accounts often depict McCarty and Garrett as "bosom buddies", there is no evidence that they were friends.[92] Running on a pledge to rid the area of rustlers, Garrett was elected as sheriff of Lincoln County in November 1880; in early December, he assembled a posse and set out to arrest McCarty, at that time known almost exclusively as "Billy the Kid." The Kid then carried a $500 bounty on his head that had been authorized by governor Lew Wallace.[93][94]

The posse led by Garrett fared well, and his men closed in quickly. On December 19, McCarty barely escaped a midnight ambush in Fort Sumner, which left one member of the gang, Tom O'Folliard, dead.[95] On December 23, the Kid was tracked to an abandoned stone building located in a remote location known as Stinking Springs (near present-day Taiban, New Mexico). While McCarty and his gang were asleep inside, Garrett's posse surrounded the building and waited for sunrise. The next morning, a cattle rustler named Charlie Bowdre stepped outside to feed his horse.[96] Mistaken for McCarty, he was shot down by the posse.[96] Soon afterward, somebody from within the building reached for the horse's halter rope, but Garrett shot and killed the horse, whose body blocked the building's only exit.[97] As the lawmen began to cook breakfast over an open fire, Garrett and McCarty engaged in a friendly exchange, with Garrett inviting McCarty outside to eat, and McCarty inviting Garrett to "go to hell."[97] Realizing that they had no hope of escape, the besieged and hungry outlaws finally surrendered and were allowed to join in the meal.[97]

Escape from Lincoln

McCarty was transported from Fort Sumner to Las Vegas, where he gave an interview to a reporter from the Las Vegas Gazette.[98] Next, the prisoner was transferred to Santa Fe, where he sent four separate letters over the next three months to Governor Wallace seeking clemency.[99] Wallace, however, refused to intervene,[99] and the Kid's trial was held in April 1881 in Mesilla.[100] On April 9, after two days of testimony, McCarty was found guilty of the murder of Sheriff Brady, the only conviction ever secured against any of the combatants in the Lincoln County War.[100] On April 13, he was sentenced by Judge Warren Bristol to hang.[100]

With his execution scheduled for May 13, McCarty was removed to Lincoln, where he was held under guard by two of Garrett's deputies, James Bell and Robert Ollinger, on the top floor of the town courthouse. On April 28, while Garrett was out of town, McCarty stunned the territory by killing both of his guards and escaping.[101] The details of the escape are unclear. Some researchers believe that a sympathizer placed a pistol in a nearby privy that McCarty was permitted to use, under escort, each day. McCarty retrieved the gun, and turned it on Bell when the pair had reached the top of a flight of stairs in the courthouse. Another theory holds that McCarty slipped off his manacles at the top of the stairs, struck Bell[102] over the head with them, grabbed Bell's own gun, and shot him with it.[56]

Bell staggered into the street and collapsed, mortally wounded.[2] McCarty scooped up Ollinger's[103] 10-gauge double-barrel shotgun. Both barrels had been fully loaded with buckshot earlier by Ollinger himself. The Kid waited at the upstairs window for his second guard, who had been across the street with some other prisoners, to respond to the gunshot and come to Bell's aid. As Ollinger came running into view, McCarty leveled the shotgun at him, called out "Hello Bob!" and killed him.[2][104] The Kid's escape was delayed for an hour while he worked free of his leg irons[105] with a pickax and then the young outlaw mounted a horse and rode out of town, reportedly singing.[2] The horse returned two days later.[106]


Sheriff Pat Garrett responded to rumors that McCarty was lurking in the vicinity of Fort Sumner almost three months after his escape. Garrett and two deputies set out on July 14, 1881, to question one of the town's residents, a friend of McCarty's named Pete Maxwell (son of the land baron Lucien Maxwell).[107] Close to midnight, as Garrett and Maxwell sat talking in Maxwell's darkened bedroom, McCarty unexpectedly entered the room.[108]

There are at least two versions of what happened next. One version suggests that as the Kid entered, he failed to recognize Garrett in the poor light. McCarty drew his pistol and backed away, asking "¿Quién es? ¿Quién es?" (Spanish for "Who is it? Who is it?").[108] Recognizing McCarty's voice, Garrett drew his own pistol and fired twice, the first bullet striking McCarty in the chest just above his heart; McCarty fell to the floor and gasped for a minute and died.[108] In a second version, McCarty entered carrying a knife, evidently headed to a kitchen area. He noticed someone in the darkness, and uttered the words, "¿Quién es? ¿Quién es?" at which point he was shot and killed. Although the popularity of the first story persists, and portrays Garrett in a better light, some historians contend that the second version is probably the accurate one.[109] A markedly different theory, in which Garrett and his posse set a trap for McCarty, has also been suggested. Most recently explored in the 2004 Discovery Channel documentary, Billy the Kid: Unmasked, this version says that Garrett went to the bedroom of Pedro Maxwell's sister, Paulita, and bound and gagged her in her bed. When McCarty arrived, Garrett was waiting behind Paulita's bed and shot the Kid.

In his book, Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life, Robert Utley told the story of Pat Garrett's book effort. In the weeks following Garrett's execution of the Kid, he felt the need to tell his side of the story. Many people had begun to talk about the unfairness of the encounter, so Garrett called upon his friend, Marshall Ashmun (Ash) Upson, to ghostwrite a book with him.[110] Upson was a roving journalist who had a gift for graphic prose. Their collaboration led to a book entitled The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid, which was first published in April 1882. The book originally sold few copies; however, it eventually proved to be an important reference for historians who would later write about the Kid's life.[110]


Like many gunfighters of the "Old West", Billy the Kid enjoyed a reputation built partly on exaggerated accounts of his exploits.[111] McCarty was credited with the killing of between 15 to 26 men, depending on varying sources.[2][112][113] Wallis has speculated that the Dolan faction created the Kid's image to distract the public's attention from their activities and those of their influential supporters in Santa Fe, notably the regional political leader Thomas Benton Catron.[111]

The notoriety that McCarty gained during the Lincoln County War effectively doomed his appeals for amnesty.[114] A number of the Regulators faded away or secured amnesty, but McCarty could not accomplish either. His negotiations with governor Lew Wallace (a famed Civil War general and author of the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ) for amnesty came to nothing. A string of negative newspaper editorials referred to him as "Billy the Kid".[114] When a reporter reminded Wallace that the Kid was depending on the governor's intervention, the governor supposedly smiled and said, "Yes, but I can't see how a fellow like him can expect any clemency from me."[99]

Firsthand accounts of character

Various accounts recorded by friends and acquaintances describe him as fun-loving and jolly, articulate in both his writing and his speech, and loyal to those for whom he cared.[115] He was fluent in Spanish, popular with Latina girls, an accomplished dancer, and well loved in the territory's Hispanic community.[7] "His many Hispanic friends did not view him as a ruthless killer but rather as a defender of the people who was forced to kill in self-defense," Wallis writes. "In the time that the Kid roamed the land he chided Hispanic villagers who were fearful of standing up to the big ranchers who stole their land, water, and way of life."[106]

Several surviving accounts portrayed Billy McCarty as friendly, fun loving and loyal. Frank Coe, who rode as a Regulator, recalled years after the Kid's death:

"I never enjoyed better company. He was humorous and told me many amusing stories. He always found a touch of humor in everything, being naturally full of fun and jollity. Though he was serious in emergencies, his humor was often apparent even in such situations. Billy stood with us to the end, brave and reliable, one of the best soldiers we had. He never pushed in his advice or opinions, but he had a wonderful presence of mind. The tighter the place the more he showed his cool nerve and quick brain. He never seemed to care for money, except to buy cartridges with. Cartridges were scarce, and he always used about ten times as many as everyone else. He would practice shooting at anything he saw, from every conceivable angle, on and off his horse."[33]

George Coe, a cousin to Frank who also served as a Regulator, said : "Billy was a brave, resourceful and honest boy. He would have been a successful man under other circumstances. The Kid was a thousand times better and braver than any man hunting him, including Pat Garrett."[33]

Susan McSween, the widow of Alexander McSween, came to McCarty's defense in the years of his notoriety, saying:

"Billy was not a bad man, that is he was not a murderer who killed wantonly. Most of those he killed deserved what they got. Of course I cannot very well defend his stealing horses and cattle, but when you consider that the Murphy, Dolan, and Riley people forced him into such a lawless life through efforts to secure his arrest and conviction, it is hard to blame the poor boy for what he did."[33]

Contemporaries of Bonney often claimed that tales of his crimes were exaggerated or denied their veracity altogether. Louis Abraham, who befriended the Kid in Silver City, denied the killing of the blacksmith attributed to Bonney there, saying:

"The story of Billy the Kid killing a blacksmith in Silver City is false. Billy was never in any trouble at all. He was a good boy, maybe a little too mischievous at times. When the boy was placed in jail and escaped, he was not bad, just scared. If he had only waited until they let him out he would have been all right, but he was scared and ran away. He got in with a band of rustlers in Apache Tejo in part of the county where he was made a hardened character."[33]

Deluvina Maxwell, who was at the Maxwell farmhouse at the time of The Kid's death, said, "Garrett was afraid to go back in the room to make sure of whom he had shot. I went in and was the first to discover that they had killed my little boy. I hated those men and am glad that I lived long enough to see them all dead and buried."[33]


One of the few artifacts of McCarty's life is a 2x3 inch ferrotype taken by an unknown photographer sometime in late 1879 or early 1880. It is the only image of McCarty which scholars agree is authentic.[116] The ferrotype survived because after Billy's death, Dan Dedrick, one of Billy's rustler friends, held onto the picture and passed it down in his family. The ferrotype appeared in several copied forms before the original was made public in the mid 1980s by Stephen and Art Upham, descendants of Dedrick. It was displayed for several years in the Lincoln County Heritage Trust Museum before it was withdrawn again.

The ferrotype sold at auction on June 25, 2011, in a three-day Western show. It was purchased for 2.3 million dollars, some six times the estimate. It was the most expensive piece ever sold at Brian Lebel's Annual Old West Show & Auction,[117] and the 7th most expensive photograph ever sold.

The photograph of The Kid, commonly known as the Upham tintype – after its longtime owner Frank Upham– was the subject of intense study by experts in the late 1980s. Their detailed findings were presented at a symposium held in 1989. The experts concluded that the Colt revolver carried by McCarty was probably not his primary weapon, since his holster is not the type normally associated with gunslingers. Rather, it is a common holster, with a safety strap across the top to keep the six-shooter from bouncing out. McCarty's main weapon appears to be the Winchester Carbine held in his hand in the ferrotype.

Left-handed or right-handed?

It was widely assumed throughout much of the 20th century that Billy the Kid was left-handed. This perception was encouraged by the above mentioned photograph of McCarty, in which he appears to be wearing a gun belt with a holster on his left side,[118] but further examination revealed that as all Winchester Model 1873 rifles were made with the loading gate on the right side of the receiver, the "left-handed" photograph is in fact a mirror image.[119] Indeed, the notion of a left-handed Billy became so entrenched that, in 1958, a film biography of "the Kid" (starring Paul Newman) was titled The Left Handed Gun.

In 1954, western historians James D. Horan and Paul Sann announced the disclosure that McCarty was "right-handed and carried his pistol on his right hip".[120] More recently, in response to a story from The Guardian that used an uncorrected McCarty ferrotype, Clyde Jeavons, a former curator of the National Film and Television Archive, cited their work and added:

A second look at the ferrotype confirms what Jeavons wrote. The prong on the belt buckle points the wrong way, and the buttons on the Kid's vest are on the left side, the side reserved for ladies' blouses. The convention for men's wear is that buttons go down the right side.[122]

Wallis wrote in 2007 that McCarty was ambidextrous.[123] This observation seems to be supported by contemporaneous newspaper accounts reporting that Billy the Kid could shoot handguns "with his left hand as accurately as he does with his right" and that "his aim with a revolver in each hand, shooting simultaneously, is unerring." [124]

People who claimed to be Billy the Kid

Legends grew over time that Billy the Kid had somehow cheated death and survived, despite eyewitness accounts of his slaying.[125] In 2004, researchers sought to exhume the remains of Catherine Antrim, McCarty's mother, "so her DNA could be tested and compared with DNA to be taken from the body buried under the Kid's gravestone".[125] Ultimately, the case was bogged down in the courts, "much to the delight of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who knows all too well the value of Billy as a cultural icon and a draw for tourists".[125] Several men have claimed to be McCarty over the years, and at least two became notable because they were successful in persuading a small segment of the public.

Brushy Bill Roberts

In 1949, a paralegal named William Morrison located a man in Central Texas named Ollie P. Roberts (nicknamed Brushy Bill), who claimed to be Billy the Kid and challenged the popular account of McCarty as shot to death by Pat Garrett in 1881.[126][127] Despite discrepancies in birth dates and physical appearance, the town of Hico, Texas (Brushy Bill's residence), has capitalized on the Kid's infamy by opening the "Billy The Kid Museum".[128] Brushy Bill's story was further promoted by the 1990 film Young Guns II, as well as a 2011 episode of Brad Meltzer's Decoded on the History Channel. Robert Stack did a segment on Brushy Bill in early 1990 on the NBC television series Unsolved Mysteries.

John Miller

Another individual who allegedly claimed to be Billy the Kid was John Miller, whose family supported his claim in 1938, some time after Miller's death. Miller was buried at the state-owned Pioneers' Home Cemetery in Prescott, Arizona. Tom Sullivan, a former sheriff of Lincoln County, and Steve Sederwall, a former mayor of Capitan, disinterred the bones of John Miller in May 2005.[129] Though Sederwall and Sullivan believed the exhumation was allowed, official permission had not been given.[130] DNA samples from the remains were sent to a lab in Dallas, Texas, to be compared with traces of blood obtained from a bench that was believed to be the one upon which McCarty's body was placed after he was shot to death. The two investigators had searched for McCarty's physical remains since 2003. They had started in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and had eventually ended up in Arizona. To date, no results of the DNA tests have been made public. As of 2008, a lawsuit is pending against officials in Lincoln County that would, if successful, publicize the results of those tests along with other evidence collected by Sullivan and Sederwall.[131]

Posthumous pardon considered

In 2010, the governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, considered a posthumous pardon for McCarty, who had been convicted for killing Sheriff William Brady. The pardon was considered to be a follow-through on a purported promise made by then Governor Lew Wallace in 1879. On December 31, 2010, on the last day of his term in office, Bill Richardson announced on Good Morning America his decision not to pardon McCarty. He cited "historical ambiguity" surrounding the conditions of Lew Wallace's pardon.[132]

Grave Marker Theft and Locations

According to Garrett, McCarty was buried the day after he was killed in Fort Sumner's old military cemetery, between his fallen companions Tom O'Folliard and Charlie Bowdre.[133] After Billy's burial, someone took a plain board, stenciled letters on it, and jammed it into the soft earth at the head of his grave to mark it. This marker remained until at least until the early part of 1882 before it was stolen or shot to pieces.[134]

Pete Maxwell then placed the next marker and used a four-foot-long, wooden slat removed from the parade-ground picket fence near his home. A one-foot length was cut off and hammered onto the longer piece to form a cross, and the words "Billy The Kid (Bonney) July 14, 1881" were placed on the horizontal crosspiece. After Maxwell sold the old fort to the New England Livestock Company, one of the Board of Directors (a fellow named Chauncey from Boston), that visited Fort Sumner in the late 1880s took the marker claiming he was taking it back east to a museum. It was never recovered.[134]

In 1889 and 1904 the Pecos River floods over took the cemetery and all the markers were washed away. The latter flood inundated the cemetery under four feet of muddy water until the cemetery had no grave markers left of any kind.[134]

For over two decades Billy's grave remained unmarked. The exact location of Billy's grave in the small one-acre cemetery is unknown, however relying on old timers who had once lived nearby to pick the walls, corner, and cemetery entrance, they were able to approximate Billy's grave location.[134]

In 1932,[135] Charles W. Foor, the unofficial tour guide of the cemetery, spearheaded the drive to raise funds for a marker. Although the edges are damaged, this large white marker has never been stolen. It serves as a memorial monument noting three individuals buried in the cemetery, Tom O'Folliard, Charlie Bowdre, and William H. Bonney.[135]

Eight years later, James N. Warner of Salida, Colo., donated the most famous marker and installed it in April, 1940. This individual grave marker was placed as a footstone with a pointed top. This is the marker which has been stolen and recovered twice. The first time the tombstone was stolen, it was not found for over 25 years. It was stolen in August, 1950, but not until May 1976 was it found in a field on a ranch near Granbury, Texas. Local resident Joe Bowlin brought it back, and it was ceremoniously reinstalled that June.[134]

It was stolen again in February 8, 1981, but recovered days later in Huntington Beach, California. New Mexico Governor Bruce King arranged for Sheriff of the county seat to fly to California to take possession of the marker and return it to Fort Sumner [136] It was reinstalled in May, 1981. A short time later, the village, which currently owned the cemetery, erected the steel cage to protect the gravesites, preserve the chipped-away white headstone and placed Billy's individual footstone in shackles, to discourage further vandalism and theft.[134]

The cemetery is located 34° 24.253′ N, 104° 11.593′ W. about three and a half miles south of State Highway 60 on Route 212.

The stolen tombstone became the inspiration for the World's Richest Tombstone Race, held during Fort Sumner's Old Fort Days Celebration every June.[137]

Selected references in popular culture

Billy the Kid has been the subject and inspiration for many popular works, including:





Television and radio

See also

Author:Bling King
Published:May 19th 2012
Modified:Feb 27th 2013

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