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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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