Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid

Henry McCarty (Billy the Kid) was born in New York City on 17th September, 1859. After the death of his father, Patrick McCarty in 1863, the family moved to Wichita. His mother remarried William Antrim but she died in 1874. Around this time he acquired the nickname, Billy the Kid.

In 1875 Billy was arrested and charged with being involved in robbing a Chinese laundry. He managed to escape through a fireplace chimney and fled to Arizona where he became involved in horse stealing. In August 1877 he killed Frank Cahill, an army blacksmith at Fort Grant. He was arrested but once again escaped and eventually found work with John Tunstall.

After Tunstall was murdered on 18th February, 1878. This incident started the Lincoln County War. Billy the Kid was deeply affected by this murder and claimed that Tunstall "was the only man that ever treated me like I was a free-born and white." Apparently at Tunstall's funeral Billy the Kid swore: "I'll get every son-of-a-bitch who helped kill John if it's the last thing I do."

Billy the Kid joined the Regulators, a group led by Dick Brewer that supported Alexander McSween, Tunstall's former partner. It was claimed that Tunstall had been murdered on the orders of Major L. G. Murphy. Over the next few months this group killed Sheriff William Brady, George Hindman, Frank Baker, William Morton, Buckshot Roberts and others who they claimed they had been involved in the killing of Tunstall.

On 19th July, 1878, Alexander McSween and his supporters, including Billy the Kid, were besieged by Sheriff George Peppin and a group of his men. McSween's house was set on fire and several people were shot dead as they came out of the house. This included McSween but Billy the Kid managed to escape.

When Lewis Wallace took office as Governor of New Mexico on 1st October 1878, he proclaimed an amnesty for all those involved in the bitter feud. However, after Billy the Kid surrendered to the authorities, he was told he would be charged with the killing of William Brady. Billy the Kid escaped from custody and went to see John Chisum, a prominent figure in the Lincoln County War. Billy believed he was owed $500 but Chisum refused to pay. Billy the Kid responded by promising to steal enough cattle to make up this sum. This he did with a gang that included Dave Rudabaugh, Billy Wilson, Tom O'Folliard and Charles Bowdre. Billy's gang also stole from other cattlemen and became a serious problem in Lincoln County.

Billy the Kid
Billy the Kid

In 1880 Pat Garrett was elected sheriff of Lincoln County. He immediately attempted to deal with the problems being caused by Billy the Kid. In December 1880, Garrett shot dead two of the Kid's gang, Tom O'Folliard and Charles Bowdre. Soon afterwards Billy the Kid, Dave Rudabaugh and Billy Wilson were captured by Garratt.

Billy the Kid was found guilty of murdering William Brady and was held in Lincoln jail while waiting to be executed on 13th May, 1881. However, Billy killed two guards (J.W. Bell and Bob Olinger) and escaped while Pat Garrett was away collecting taxes. News eventually reached Garratt that Billy the Kid was hiding out at the abandoned Fort Sumner. With his deputies, John Poe and Thomas McKinney, Garratt headed for Fort Sumner, a place 140 miles west of Lincoln. On 14th July, 1881, Garratt killed Billy the Kid during a shoot-out in a darkened room at the home of Pete Maxwell.

It was later claimed that Billy the Kid had killed 21 men in his 21 years of life. However, most experts believe he was only responsible for nine deaths.

Primary Sources

(1) Pat Garrett, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid (1882)

All who ever knew Billy will testify that his polite, cordial, and gentlemanly bearing invited confidence and promised protection - the first of which he never betrayed, and the latter he was never known to withhold. Those who knew him best will tell you that in his most savage and dangerous moods his face always wore a smile. He eat and laughed, drank and laughed, rode and laughed, talked and laughed, fought and laughed, and killed and laughed. No loud and boisterous guffaw, but a pleasant smile or a soft and musical "ripple of the voice." Those who knew him watched his eyes for an exhibition of anger. Had his biographers stated that the expression of his eyes - to one who could read them - in angry mood was cruel and murderous, they would have shown a more perfect knowledge of the man. One could scarcely believe that those blazing, baleful orbs and that laughing face could be controlled by the same spirit.

Billy was, at this time, about five feet seven and one half inches high, straight as a dart, weighed about one hundred and thirty-five pounds, and was as light, active, and graceful as a panther. His form was well-knit, compact, and wonderfully muscular. It was his delight, when he had a mis-understanding with one larger and more powerful than himself, but who feared him on account of his skill with weapons, to unbuckle his belt, drop his arms, and say: "Come on old fellow: I've got no advantage now.

Let's fight it out, knuckles and skull." He usually won his fights; if he got the worst of it, he bore no malice. There were no bounds to his generosity. Friends, strangers, and even his enemies, were welcome to his money, his horse, his clothes, or anything else of which he happened, at the time, to be possessed. The aged, the poor, the sick, the unfortunate and helpless never appealed to Billy in vain for succor.

(2) Francisco Gomez, knew Billy the Kid when he was a child. He was interviewed about this as part of the WPA Project in 1938.

When I was about eighteen years old I went to work for the McSween's. I stayed with them for about two years. I remember that one winter Billy the Kid stayed with the McSween's for about seven months. I guess he boarded with them. He was an awfully nice young fellow with light brown hair, blue eyes, and rather big front teeth. He always dressed very neatly.

He used to practice target shooting a lot. He would throw up a can and would twirl his six gun on his finger and he could hit the can six times before it hit the ground. He rode a big roan horse about ten or twelve hands high, all that winter and when this horse was out in the pasture Billy would go to the gate and whistle and the horse would come up to the gate to him. That horse would follow Billy and mind him like a dog. He was a very fast horse and could out run most of the other horses around there. I never went out with Billy but once.

Captain Baca was sheriff then and once some tough outlaws came to Lincoln and rode up and down the streets and shot out window lights in the houses and terrorized people. Captain Baca told Billy the Kid to take some men and go after these men. Billy took me and Florencio and Jose Chaves and Santano Mayes with him. The outlaws went to the upper Ruidoso and we followed them. We caught up with them and shot it out with them. One of the outlaws was killed and the other ran away. None of us were hurt.

When the Lincoln County war broke out my father did not want to get into it so he made me quit working for the McSween's and come home and stay there.

(3) Las Vagas Gazette (30th November, 1880)

He did look human, indeed, but there was nothing very mannish about him in appearance, for he looked and acted a mere boy. He is about five feet eight or nine inches tall, slightly built and lithe, weighing about 140; a frank open countenance, looking like a school boy, with the traditional silky fuzz on his upper lip; clear blue eyes, with a rougish snap about them; light hair and complexion. He is, in all, quite a handsome looking fellow, the only imperfection being two prominent front teeth slightly protruding like squirrel's teeth, and he has agreeable and winning ways.

(4) Amelia Church lived in Lincoln, New Mexico, when Billy the Kid murdered William Brady. She was interviewed about this as part of the WPA Project (September, 1938).

I knew Major Brady very well. He was sheriff of Lincoln County when he was killed. I saw him as he and another man, deputy sheriff George Hindman, lay dead in the street, shot down, as they were passing, by Billy the Kid and his gang, who lay hidden behind an adobe wall. Major Brady was killed instantly. George Hindman fell when he was shot, and Ike Stockton who was standing near, on seeing he was still alive, ran to him and gave him water that he brought from a ditch in his hat. However nothing could revive him for he was mortally wounded and died in a few minutes. The third man, Billy Mathews, who was with Major Brady when the shooting began, made his escape by running into an adobe house near by.

Up stairs in the old Court House at Lincoln is the room where Billy the Kid was confined waiting his trial for the killing of Major Brady. There have been many untrue stories told of the Kid's sensational escape after killing his two guards Bell and Ollinger. I remember all the facts in connection with that escape. Billy the Kid was playing cards with Bell while Ollinger, his other guard, was at dinner across the street. He saw his chance and grabbed Bell's gun. Bell darted down the inside stairway, but Billy the Kid was too quick for him, fired and Bell fell dead at the bottom of the stairs. Billy the Kid then walked calmly to a window and shot Ollinger down as he came running when he heard the shooting. The "Kid" then threw the gun on Ollinger who lay dying and told Goss, the jail cook, to saddle a horse that was feeding in a field nearby. The cook helped get the shackles off the Kid's hands but, because they were welded on he couldn't get them off his legs. That is why he was thrown from the horse because of having to ride side-wise on account of the shackles. He rode a mile and a half west before they were removed by a Mexican man, who afterwards gave the shackles to George Titsworth, who lived at Capitan, and possessed an interesting collection at that place.

(5) Ella Davidson lived in Lincoln, New Mexico, durng the Lincoln County War. She was interviewed about this as part of the WPA Project in 1938.

On the Sunday evening before the terrible days that ended the Lincoln County War Mother said: 'Ella this is the week that will end all this bloodshed and fighting and, I thank God your father is away and won't be mixed up in the shooting, but I an afraid to stay here with you children unprotected.' So that night after supper she took us to stay with the Ellis family, in their house which was built with all the rooms in one long row. About ten o'clock we heard someone with spurs on, come clattering down the whole length of the house. The door where we sat opened and there was Billy the Kid! He was followed by fourteen men who took possession of the house. We went back to our home but Mother was afraid to stay there after she thought our water supply would perhaps be cut off, so we went to Juan Patron's house and about midnight that house was taken over by some of the fighters. We then went to Montonna's store where we went to bed and when we got up the next morning about twenty men had taken possession there, but we stayed there from Sunday evening, until the next Friday morning. Mother got up and after we saw men fired on and one killed, she said, 'I am going to take you children out of this danger!’

So she took us two miles out of town to where there were some tall poplar trees - they are still there - and about noon we saw heavy smoke. It was the McSween store that had been set afire by the Murphy men to burn out the McSween men (one of them was the Kid) who were surrounded, so they couldn't escape. When the fire was under way Mr. McSween calmly walked to the door as if surrendering and was shot down. Then, two others that followed were riddled with bullets. George Coe, Henry Brown, and Charlie Bowdre were among the crowd that escaped. Billy the Kid was the last one left in the building. During the excitement of the roof crashing in, he rushed out with two pistols blazing. Bob Beckwith, whose shot had killed McSween, was killed by one flying bullet and two others were wounded. The Kid, with bullets whizzing all around him, made his escape.

After this battle that took place in July, 1878 everything quieted down, and my mother took us home. Mrs. McSween, whose home was burned, stayed with us all night, and the next morning she asked me to go with her to see the ruins of her house. We found only the springs and other wires of her piano that was the pride of her life. She raked in the ashes where her bureau had stood and found her locket.

That was the most destructive battle of the Lincoln County War. We were terribly upset with all the fighting and killings. My sister Amelia had more than she could stand so my mother sent her to a ranch until things could settle down.

(6) Pat Garrett, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid (1882)

We had ridden to within a short distance of Maxwell's grounds when we found a man in camp and stopped. To Poe's great surprise, he recognized in the camper an old friend and former partner, in Texas, named Jacobs. We unsaddled here, got some coffee, and, on foot, entered an orchard which runs from this point down to a row of old buildings, some of them occupied by Mexicans, not more than sixty yards from Maxwell's house. We approached these houses cautiously, and when within earshot, heard the sound of voices conversing in Spanish. We concealed ourselves quickly and listened; but the distance was too great to hear words, or even distinguish voices. Soon a man arose from the ground, in full view, but too far away to recognize. He wore a broad-brimmed hat, a dark vest and pants, and was in his shirtsleeves. With a few words, which fell like a murmur on our ears, he went to the fence, jumped it, and walked down towards Maxwell's house.

Little as we then suspected it, this man was the Kid. We learned, subsequently, that, when he left his companions that night, he went to the house of a Mexican friend, pulled off his hat and boots, threw himself on a bed, and commenced reading a newspaper. He soon, however, hailed his friend, who was sleeping in the room, told him to get up and make some coffee, adding: 'Give me a butcher knife and I will go over to Pete's and get some beef; I'm hungry.' The Mexican arose, handed him the knife, and the Kid, hatless and in his stocking-feet, started to Maxwell's, which was but a few steps distant.

When the Kid, by me unrecognized, left the orchard, I motioned to my companions, and we cautiously retreated a short distance, and, to avoid the persons whom we had heard at the houses, took another route, approaching Maxwell's house from the opposite direction. When we reached the porch in front of the building, I left POE and McKinney at the end of the porch, about twenty feet from the door of Pete's room, and went in. It was near midnight and Pete was in bed. I walked to the head of the bed and sat down on it, beside him, near the pillow. I asked him as to the whereabouts of the Kid. He said that the Kid had certainly been about, but he did not know whether he had left or not. At that moment a man sprang quickly into the door, looking back, and called twice in Spanish, 'Who comes there?' No one replied and he came on in. He was bareheaded. From his step I could perceive he was either barefooted or in his stocking-feet, and held a revolver in his right hand and a butcher knife in his left.

He came directly towards me. Before he reached the bed, I whispered: 'Who is it, Pete?' but received no reply for a moment. It struck me that it might be Pete's brother-in-law, Manuel Abreu, who had seen POE and McKinney, and wanted to know their business. The intruder came close to me, leaned both hands on the bed, his right hand almost touching my knee, and asked, in a low tone: - 'Who are they Pete?' -at the same instant Maxwell whispered to me. 'That's him!' Simultaneously the Kid must have seen, or felt, the presence of a third person at the head of the bed. He raised quickly his pistol, a self-cocker, within a foot of my breast. Retreating rapidly across the room he cried: 'Who's that? Who's that?' All this occurred in a moment. Quickly as possible I drew my revolver and fired, threw my body aside, and fired again. The second shot was useless; the Kid fell dead. He never spoke. A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasped for breath, and the Kid was with his many victims.

(7) White Oaks Golden Era (21st July, 1881)

To those not familiar with the deceased (Billy the Kid) criminal record cannot comprehend the gladness that pervades the wole of New Mexico and especially this country. He was the worst of criminals.

(8) Sante Fe Weekly Democrat (21st July, 1881)

Billy Bonny, alias Antrim, alias Billy the Kid, the twenty-one year old desperado, who is known to have killed sixteen men, and who boasted that he killed a man for every year of his life, will no longer take deliberate aim at his fellow man and kill him, just to keep in practice.

(9) Grant County Herald (23rd July, 1881)

The vulgar murderer and desperado known as 'Billy the Kid' has met his just deserts at last. . . . Despite the glamor of romance thrown about his dare-devil life by sensation writers, the fact is he was a low down vulgar cut-throat, with probably not one redeeming quality.

(10) Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy (1897)

The whole region was full of horse thieves and outlaws, the worst of these being under the leadership of the notorious cut-throat, Billy the Kid, a name famous even yet along the border. Billy the Kid died at the ripe age of twenty-three, and at that time had killed twenty-three men, committing his first murder when he was but fourteen years of age. He and his men inaugurated a reign of terror, which made his name a dread one from one end of the country to the other.