Billy the Kid was one of the most notorious outlaws of the American West. According to legend, he killed at least 21 men, one for every year of his young life, before he was gunned down in the Chihuahuan Desert by New Mexico Sheriff Pat Garrett.
While fact and myth are often difficult to separate, it seems Billy the Kid earned his reputation as one of the the Desert Southwest's most prolific killers. History records that in a period of just 4 years, he fought in at least 16 shootouts, killed at least 4 men himself, and assisted in the murder of at least 5 others.
Billy's Early Years
Also known as William Bonney, Kid Antrim and William Antrim, Billy was born Henry McCarty on New York City's east side November 23, 1859. His father soon died, and his mother Catherine migrated with Henry and his brother to Indiana in 1865. There, Catherine met (and eventually married) Bill Antrim. The family moved on to Wichita Kansas, then to Santa Fe and, finally, Silver City, New Mexico by 1873, where Catherine died of tuberculosis the following year.
In Silver City, Kid Antrim, as he was then called, was arrested for theft but escaped jail and began wandering the Desert Southwest and northern Mexico. In Arizona, he took up horse rustling, and on August 17, 1877, shot and killed his first man -- blacksmith, F.P. Cahill -- in a Camp Grant Saloon.
Billy fled Arizona and an indictment for murder, eventually arriving in Lincoln County, New Mexico where he became known as Billy Bonney, a young horse rustler fluent in Spanish and popular with Mexican women.
Billy & the Lincoln County War
Billy soon found employment with the young English rancher John Tunstall, who together with his partners John Chisum and Alexander McSween, was embroiled in bloody Lincoln County Range War. When Tunstall was murdered February 18, 1878, Billy joined a force called the "Regulators," led by Tunstall's foreman Dick Brewer, who vowed vengeance and loyalty to partner McSween.
The Regulators embarked on a killing spree of those suspected of involvement in the assassination. Billy then hatched and carried out an ambush plot for the leader of Tunstall's murders, Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady. On April 1, Billy and the Regulators murdered Sheriff Brady and his deputy George Hindman as they strolled through the town of Lincoln.
The Lincoln County War came to a bloody end during the 5-day Battle of Lincoln in mid-July. After being besieged in McSween's house with a dozen other Regulators, opponents (reinforced by soldiers from Fort Stanton), burned the house to the ground and shot McSween dead. Billy escaped unhurt, but with a price on his head, he surrendered in exchange for amnesty.
But Billy soon formed another gang and took up cattle rustling throughout the county again. In December 1880, after two of his partners were shot and killed, Billy was captured at Stinking Springs by Sheriff Pat Garrett. After standing trial for murder in Mesilla, New Mexico in April 1881, he and was found guilty and sentenced to hang. On April 28, Billy escaped jail once again, killing two deputies in the process.
Billy's Untimely End
On July 14, Pat Garrett, together with two deputies, sat in a darkened bedroom at the Fort Sumner ranch home of Billy's friend, Pete Maxwell. Garrett was asking Maxwell about Billy's whereabouts when Billy, in his stocking feet, unexpectedly entered Maxwell's quarters, spotting, but not recognizing Garrett in the dim light.
"Quien es? Quien es?" -- "Who is it? Who is it?" were the last words Billy ever uttered. Garret pumped two shots from his revolver, one of which went straight into Billy's heart. Billy the Kid was buried the next day at Fort Summer cemetery between his two outlaw pals, Tom O'Folliard and Charlie Bowdre, where his grave can be seen to this day. Although he didn't live to celebrate his 22nd birthday, Billy the Kid remains one of the notorious legends of the AmericanWest.
There are those who still question whether Henry McCarty or William H. Bonney, Jr. (the name he used at his trial), was Billy the Kid's true name. Others maintain that Billy the Kid was, in fact, Ollie L. "Brushy Bill" Roberts, who actually escaped Pat Garrett's bullets, hid out in Mexico and the Desert Southwest, rode in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and finally died in Hico, Texas in 1950.
-- Bob Katz
More on Billy - The Night Pat Garrett
(Probably) Shot Billy the Kid