Summary on the Life of Billy the Kid

HOME            Back to Biography



William H. Bonney alias Billy the Kid is probably the most misunderstood historical figure of the Old West. He was not a cold-blooded killer, nor was he a robber of trains or banks. Instead he was a gunfighter in a feud between two factions in which both sides stole from each other and killed. The Lincoln County War would have turned out exactly the way it did if Billy the Kid never took part in it. His role in the LCW was minor -he wasn’t the leader but a follower.  Although Billy the Kid was one of many who fought and killed during the LCW, he was the only one that faced conviction and was sentence to death.  So Billy the Kid used his wit and courage to escape his date with the hangman which boost his notoriety even more. If his spectacular escape wasn't enough, his controversial death was the final dramatic ending to his story. But it wasn't the end, Billy the Kid lives on in history and legend.

      Please take notice of the footnote numbers in parenthesis within the summary, you will
find the footnotes at the end of the paragraph in italics


Billy the Kid’s real name was William Henry McCarty (1), when and where he was born, or who or what happened to his father is not known. It’s estimated that he was born around 1860-61 possibly in New York. History first traces the Kid as a youngster in Indiana in the late 1860s and then in Wichita, Kansas in 1870. His mother Catherine McCarty was a widow and single mother and he had a younger brother named Joseph (born 1863). By 1871, Catherine was diagnosed with Tuberculosis and was told to move to a climate that was warmer and drier.

Footnote 1: There's a mystery with the last name of McCarty; it's speculated that it may be his father's name, mother's maiden name, or the last name of his half  brother's father.

On March 1, 1873 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Catherine McCarty married a man named William Antrim. Since there were now two Billies in the household, the Kid’s mother referred to him by his middle name, he was now Henry McCarty-Antrim (2).

Footnote 2: It’s my guess that Billy the Kid’s stepfather never legally adopted his stepsons, since the Kid would also be referred to by his last name “McCarty” in Silver City.

The family moved to Silver City in Grant County, located in southern New Mexico. Catherine was suffering from consumption and her health began to deteriorate rapidly. Then on September 16, 1874, the Kid’s mother died.

Antrim didn’t want to be burden with two small boys, so he separated them and placed them in foster homes and left Silver City for Arizona.  The Kid now had to earn his own keep, so he was put to work washing dishes and waiting on tables at a restaurant. After a year of no parental guidance and looking out for himself, the Kid quickly fell in with the wrong crowd. One of his troublemaking buddies, Sombrero Jack, stole some laundry from a Chinese laundry cleaner and told the Kid to hide the bundle. The Kid got caught with it and was arrested. The county sheriff decided to keep him locked up for a couple of days just to scare him, but the Kid escaped and ran away (3).

Footnote 3: The Silver City newspaper reported: “Henry McCarty, who was arrested Thursday and committed to jail to await the action of the grand jury, upon the charge of stealing clothes from Charley Sun and Sam Chung, celestials, sans cue, sans Joss sticks, escaped from prison yesterday through the chimney. It’s believed that Henry was simply the tool of Sombrero Jack, who done the stealing whilst Henry done the hiding. Jack has skinned out.”

The Kid fled to one of his foster families and they put him on a stagecoach to Clifton, Arizona where his stepfather was living, but when he found his stepfather he didn’t want him and told the Kid to leave. All alone in a strange desert, the Kid wandered from one ranch to another to find work. For the next 2 years the Kid tramped around as a ranch hand and gambler. He then met up with a horse thief name John Mackie who taught him the tricks of the trade and the two became partners. But after some close calls, arrest, and escaping from custody, the Kid decided it was wiser to give up his new occupation. He returned some stolen horses to the army to clear himself and got work as a ranch hand.

One day while at a saloon in Camp Grant, Arizona, the Kid who was about sixteen at the time, got into serious trouble. He got into an argument with a bully named Frank “Windy” Cahill, who had picked on him numerous times before. After some name-calling, Cahill rushed the Kid and slammed him down on the ground, then jumped on top of him and proceeded to slap him in the face. The Kid worked his hand free to his revolver and fired it into Cahill’s gut. When Cahill fell over the Kid squirmed free, ran off, and mounted the nearest horse and fled Camp Grant.

The Kid didn’t stick around to face murder charges and left Arizona and returned to New Mexico. Now an outlaw and unable to find honest work, the Kid met up with another outlaw named Jesse Evans, who was the leader of a gang of rustlers called “The Boys.” The Kid didn't have anywhere else to go and since it was suicide to be alone in the hostile and lawless territory, the Kid reluctantly joined the gang.

The gang made their way to Lincoln County where the Boys joined forces with James Dolan, who was currently in a feud against an Englishman entrepreneur named John Tunstall and his attorney and partner Alex McSween. The feud would be famously known as the Lincoln County War (4).

Footnote 4: James Dolan was the protégé of LG Murphy and when Murphy became ill of cancer and hospitalized in Santa Fe, Dolan stepped up to take his place. Supporting Dolan was the powerful Santa Fe Ring (similar to a mafia) in which members consisted of the governor, politicians and attorneys. Tunstall came to Lincoln to start his own business and ranch, but Dolan didn’t like the competition and set out to drive him away. Tunstall refused to be intimidated and instead tried to fight back with legal action. When Tunstall realized he couldn't fight his enemies the legal way due to the bias Judge Bristol and Governor Sam Axtell, Tunstall decided to fight fire with fire and hired his own gunmen.  The feud then turned into an all out war.

The Boys started to steal Tunstall’s livestock, so arrests were made and the Kid eventually was caught and placed in jail. Tunstall noticed something different about this rustler, he wasn’t rough like the other men, but just a boy who got a bad start in life and was looking for place to belong. So Tunstall gave him an ultimatum: if he testified against the other rustlers, Tunstall would hire him as an employee. The Kid took Tunstall’s offer.

Now fighting for the Tunstall side and in the hopes of a better future, the Kid changed his name to William H. Bonney, but his friends called him “Kid.” Tensions were high and the feud between Dolan and Tunstall escalated in to bloody violence. John Tunstall was brutally murder by members of Sheriff Brady’s posse and the Boys. Tunstall’s ranch hands then formed a vigilante group called “the Regulators.” Now the war was on.

At first the deputized Regulators tried to do things legally by serving warrants, but with the prejudice Sheriff Brady and the bias court system, they couldn’t count on justice being served. So they took the law in their own hands. They retaliated by killing Bill Morton, Frank Baker and William McCloskey.  Then they ambushed Sheriff Brady and his deputy George Hindman in Lincoln (5). Lastly, they had a dramatic gunfight with Dolan gunman Buckshot Roberts, but during that shootout their leader Dick Brewer was killed.

Footnote 5: The Regulators were particular bitter towards Bill Morton, because he led the posse that murdered Tunstall and was one of those that shot him. As for William McCloskey, he was a Regulator suspected for playing both ends of the table and tried to intervene in Morton and Baker’s execution after the Regulator’s arrested them.  As for the Brady shooting, six members of the Regulators (the Kid included) ambushed the sheriff and four of his deputies as they walked down the street in Lincoln to arrest Alex McSween.

The Regulators revenge only made things worse. They were now viewed as the bad guys and warrants were put out for their arrest.

Now the Dolan side struck back. Dolan's gunmen and newly appointed sheriff, George Peppin and his men, had the McSween house surrounded with Alex McSween and many of the Regulators trapped in side. Dolan sent for Colonel Dudley at Fort Stanton for assistance. The colonel came with troops along with a Howitzer and Gatling gun. On the fifth day of the siege the Dolan side was getting impatient, so they set the house on fire. By nightfall, the house was completely ablaze and heat from the flames were overwhelming. The Regulators began to panic, so the cool-headed Billy the Kid, only about seventeen years old, took over leadership of the men. The Kid divided the men into two groups, he lead his party out the door first and ran in one direction so as to draw the line of fire towards them so McSween’s party could make a run in another direction and get away. When the men began to run out of the burning house the Dolan side opened fire and all hell broke loose. McSween and three men were killed, but Billy the Kid and the others escaped into the darkness.

The war was over; the Regulators disbanded and the Kid was now a fugitive.

Billy the Kid was unable to settle down, so he made his living by gambling and rustling cattle. The Kid heard about Governor Axtell being replaced by Lew Wallace, who was now trying to bring law and order to Lincoln. The Kid wrote to the governor that he was tired of running and would surrender to authorities and testify against the Dolan side to have his murder charges dropped. The governor agreed and promised the Kid a full pardon.

The Kid surrendered and testified in court, but the Santa Fe Ring had influence over the court system, so members of the Dolan side, including James Dolan, were acquitted. The Kid was in unfriendly territory and one of his threats was prosecutor attorney William Rynerson, who was part of the “Ring” and wanted to put the Kid on trial for the murder of Sheriff Brady.  The Kid felt betrayed when he learned that Governor Wallace didn’t have the power to pardon him without Rynerson’s cooperation, nor was the governor pressuring the attorney to collaborate. Wallace simply lost interest and left the Kid to his fate. Billy the Kid knew he didn’t stand a chance in court and he had lost faith in the governor, so he escaped.

On the run again and an outlaw, the Kid went back to making a living the only way he knew how –rustling. There were other outlaws and rustlers in New Mexico, much worse than Billy the Kid, but the Kid had gain fame and was singled out by the newspapers who had built him up into something he wasn’t. It was the newspapers who had given him a name that he would forever be known as “Billy the Kid.”

Since the end of the Lincoln County War, the Kid spent the next two years eluding the law and living in and around Fort Sumner (a former military fort transformed into a tiny Mexican village). While in Fort Sumner, he would kill a drunk at a saloon (6), but the killing was shrugged off and got almost no attention, but unfortunately, the Kid got into more serious trouble that did get plenty of attention. It happened when a posse from White Oaks surrounded the Kid and his gang at a station house, during the standoff the posse accidentally killed their own deputy, James Carlyle. Of course the death was credited to the Kid and destroyed any ounce of sympathy the public had for him, not to mention, any chance for him to get things squared up with the governor to get his pardon.

Footnote 6: Before the shooting, Billy the Kid sensed trouble from a man named Joe Grant and he casually went up to him and asked to see his gun. As he pretended to admire it, he spun the cylinder so the hammer would fall on an empty chamber. This wise precautionary move saved the Kid's life, because Grant then pulled his gun on him and fired. The gun clicked and then the Kid had his turn but his gun went BANG.

As the Kid dodged the law, Pat Garrett was elected sheriff and made US Marshal to hunt for Billy the Kid. He was familiar with the Kid’s habits and hideouts, which may show that Garrett may have been a rustler himself or at one time may have ridden with the Kid.  During the pursuit for Billy the Kid, Garrett ended up killing two of the Kid’s closest comrades, Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre. Finally on December 23, 1880 Garrett trapped the Kid and three other gang members at a cabin in Stinking Springs. After a short standoff, Billy the Kid came out and surrendered.

Billy the Kid was quickly put on trial in Mesilla and was sentence to hang for the murder of Sheriff Brady. After his sentence was passed, the Kid was taken to Lincoln to await his hanging. The Kid was shackled and imprisoned in a room in the Lincoln courthouse as two deputies took turns guarding over him.  On April 28, 1881 the Kid made his most daring escape (which would also be his last). The Kid was successful in getting a drop on the lone guard, Deputy James Bell, by slipping his hand out of the handcuffs and using the heavy restraints to hit the deputy over the head. The Kid then jerked Bell's pistol and told him to throw up his hands, but instead the deputy ran and the Kid had no choice but to shoot him.  The other guard Bob Olinger was across the street having dinner when he heard the gunshots. He ran toward the building and as the Kid saw him approaching he shot Olinger down with a shotgun (7).  The Kid rode out of Lincoln a free man and headed to the only place he could call home: Fort Sumner.

Footnote 7: Bob Olinger was a bully and an old enemy of Billy the Kid. He took pleasure in tormenting the helpless prisoner and used his shotgun to intimidate him. So when Olinger ran to the courthouse, the Kid didn’t hesitate to shoot him with his own shotgun. The Kid’s original plan of escape was to take Bell prisoner, lock him up, and slip out unseen before Olinger came back.

The Kid decided to laid low long enough until the law would give up hunting him and he could “rustle” up some money and leave the territory. By July of 1881, Garrett heard rumors that Billy the Kid was in the Fort Sumner area, so with two deputies he rode into Fort Sumner.

On July 14, 1881 just before midnight, Pat Garrett waited till the town was quiet before he slipped into Pete Maxwell’s room to ask him about Billy the Kid. Garrett was a former employee of Pete Maxwell's and it's possible that Maxwell tipped Garrett off that the Kid was in the area.  At that exact moment, the Kid with a knife in hand went to Maxwell’s house to get some fresh beef for a late steak dinner. As he approached, he saw Garrett’s two deputies on the porch and since he didn't recognizing the strangers, he backed cautiously into Maxwell’s room and asked “Pete, who are those fellows outside?” He got no answer and as he walked towards the bed, he saw Garrett’s silhouette and started to back away and asked in Spanish, “Whose there?”
Garrett recognized the Kid’s voice and fired his gun. The bullet pierced the Kid's heart and he fell to the floor. Garrett and Maxwell ran out of the room and huddled outside with the two deputies and waited. They could hear as the Kid gasped for breath and then all was quiet -Billy the Kid was dead (8).

Footnote 8: It’s of great speculation whether or not the Kid was armed with a gun. There's also something fishy about this whole incident and there may have been more foul play then we're led to believe. Garrett may have deliberately been waiting in the dark to shoot the Kid. 

The next day Billy the Kid was buried at the Fort Sumner cemetery near his two fallen companions, Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre. He was killed not for who he “really” was, but for what people “thought” he was. He was a pawn in losing game and he was made a scapegoat for other outlaws’ crimes. Although he did participate in killings, the men he fought against were much worse than he ever was. This nineteen or twenty year old lived a short life but made a lasting impression. If it weren’t for our attraction to Billy the Kid, the history of the Lincoln County War and its participants would've been long forgotten. Thanks to Billy the Kid, New Mexico has a thriving business in tourism as a steady flow of tourists each year come to visit the Billy the Kid sites. Even in death Billy the Kid is likeable and he has a large following with people all over the word. A matter of fact, Billy the Kid  is  known as the Old West's  most favorite outlaw.


HOME                  Back to Biography