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Who Was Billy The Kid?

Billy the Kid
Billy The Kid as depicted in Robert Redford's The West.

Said to have killed 21 men, one for each year of his life – though he may not actually have lived that long – Billy the Kid’s body count was probably closer to eight. A cowboy, gunfighter and rustler, he is the subject of countless films, books and newspaper articles, and was known by multiple aliases.

William Henry McCarty Jr.

William Henry McCarty was born in late 1859, in a poor Irish neighbourhood of New York’s Upper East Side. His brother, Joseph, was born in 1863. The story of the boys’ father or fathers is a mystery, but by 1867, their mother, Catherine, had moved the family to Indiana. Here, she met their stepfather, Henry Harrison Antrim.

Henry Antrim

Antrim and the McCartys moved to Kansas in 1870 and New Mexico in 1873. Catherine and Antrim married in Santa Fe on 1 March, before moving to Silver City. At some point, her eldest son became known as “Henry Antrim”.

Henry’s mother died of tuberculosis on 16 September 1874. Separated from his brother, Henry spent time in foster care before living in a boarding house. In September 1875, he was jailed over theft from a Chinese laundry, but escaped two days later. For the first times, Henry was a fugitive, and in the newspapers – two reoccurring themes through his life.

Kid Antrim

Henry was living hand to mouth in Arizona when, in 1876, he met notorious felon, John Mackie. The pair joined forces and began stealing horses from local soldiers in Camp Grant. At some point during this period he became known as “Kid Antrim”, due to his youthful appearance. Mackie and Antrim were caught and jailed, but the Kid once again escaped, returning to the area a few months later.

On 17 August 1877, he shot Frank “Windy” Cahill, a blacksmith, during a bar brawl – his first killing – which many witnesses said was self-defence. With a murder charge over his head, the Kid fled to New Mexico on a stolen horse.

Here, he joined “The Boys”, Jesse Evans’ notorious rustler gang, in Dona Ana County, who raided the herds of cattle magnate, John Chisum. With growing press coverage and a crackdown from the law, the gang relocated to Lincoln County.

William Bonney

At some point during 1877, the Kid adopted the alias “William Bonney”. Following tensions after their arrival in Lincoln, he left The Boys to work as a cowboy for affluent British rancher, John Tunstall.

Tunstall had a longstanding business feud with powerful Lincoln man, James Dolan. On 18 February 1878, Sheriff William Brady brought a posse onto Tunstall’s land, to seize property at Dolan’s bequest. Tunstall came out to intervene and was shot and killed. His murder prompted the start of the Lincoln County War.

Billy the Kid and Tunstall’s other ranch hands formed the Lincoln County Regulators to take revenge. On 9 March, they killed Tunstall’s alleged killers, Frank Baker and William Morton. On 4 April, Sheriff Brady was killed in a shootout. Bonney and two others were charged with his murder.

On 19 July, the Battle of Lincoln broke out between the Regulators and and the new sheriff George Peppin’s men.

In November 1878, all Lincoln County War participants were pardoned, except those indicted for other offences. By this time, Bonney was wanted for another murder (despite evidence another man was responsible) so he was excluded from the amnesty.

In February 1879, Bonney witnessed attorney Huston Chapman’s murder and arranged to testify in exchange for a pardon. After testifying, the Kid spent weeks in prison and, fearing Lincoln’s Governor Lew Wallace had double-crossed him, he escaped on 17 June 1879.

Billy the Kid

On 10 January 1880, Bonney shot and killed Joe Grant in a New Mexico saloon, after being warned Grant planned to kill him.

By his final year of life, newspapers and novels were calling him “Billy the Kid”. He was at the peak of his notoriety, and stories of his exploits were highly embellished. 

On 23 December, Sheriff Pat Garrett and captured Billy the Kid. He was found guilty of Sheriff Brady’s murder in April 1881 and sentenced to hang. On 28 April 1881, he managed to shoot Garrett’s deputies, James Bell and Bob Olinger, with Bell’s own gun, while still in shackles. Removing the shackles with an axe, the Kid fled Lincoln on a stolen horse.

The Death of “Billy the Kid”

Garrett went to Fort Sumner on 14 July 1881, on a tip the Kid was there. He reportedly visited Pete Maxwell, a friend of Billy’s, and spent hours talking to him in a darkened room. Around midnight, it is said Billy entered the room unexpectedly and didn’t recognise Garrett in the poor lighting. Drawing his gun, he called out “Who is it? Who is it?” in Spanish. Recognising his voice, Garrett fired two shots and killed him. Billy the Kid was around 21 years old.

Rumours Garrett staged the killing, and the Kid once again escaped, persist today. Most historians accept the official account, however, as a coroners’ jury examined his body at the time.