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An illustration of Billy the Kid
On this day:

Billy the Kid is arrested for the first time

Image: Shutterstock

On this day in 1875, Billy the Kid is arrested for the first time after stealing a basket of laundry. He later broke out of jail and roamed the American West, eventually earning a reputation as an outlaw and murderer and a rap sheet that allegedly included 21 murders.

Who was Billy the Kidd?

The exact details of Billy the Kid's birth are unknown, other than his name, William Henry McCarty. He was probably born sometime between 1859 and 1861, in Indiana or New York. As a child, he had no relationship with his father and moved around with his family, living in Indiana, Kansas, Colorado and Silver City, New Mexico. His mother died in 1874 and Billy the Kid – who went by a variety of aliases throughout his life, including Kid Antrim and William H. Bonney – turned to crime soon afterward.

McCarty did a stint as a horse thief in Arizona before returning to New Mexico, where he hooked up with a gang of gunslingers and cattle rustlers involved in the notorious Lincoln County War between rival rancher and merchant factions in Lincoln County in 1878. He was hired as a cattle guard by ranchers John Tunstall and Alexander McSween. Tunstall was killed by rival merchants in early 1878, and McCarty and his colleagues, colloquially dubbed the Regulators, sought revenge. They shot two of Tunstall’s killers and also killed a sheriff. McSween was later killed in an escalation of the Lincoln County War, as well as many Regulators and rival factions.

Afterward, Billy the Kid, who had a slender build, prominent crooked front teeth and a love of singing, went on the run and continued his outlaw's life, stealing cattle and horses, gambling and killing people. His crimes earned him a bounty on his head and he was eventually captured and indicted for the killing of the sheriff during the Lincoln County War. Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang for his crime; however, a short time later, he managed another audacious jail break, murdering two deputies in the process.

Billy the Kid's freedom was brief, as Sheriff Pat Garrett caught up with the desperado at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, on 14 July 1881, ambushed and fatally shot him. Although his life was short, Billy the Kid's legend grew following his death, as his natural and undeniable charm and prowess with firearms were exaggerated.

Today he is a famous symbol of the Old West, along with such men as Kit Carson, Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, and his story has been mythologised and romanticised in numerous films, books, TV shows and songs. Each year, tourists visit the town of Fort Sumner, located about 160 miles southeast of Albuquerque, to see the Billy the Kid Museum and gravesite.