Billy the Kid

aka William Bonney, Henry McCarthy, and Henry Antrim

by Robert C. Jones

Some people say that he was a “psychotic moron from the slums of New York”. (Gary Cooper, The Real West). Some paint a picture of a misguided, but basically decent youth, thrust into events over which he had little control. (Chisum, starring John Wayne). Others paint a picture of a man who just happened to be on the losing side in a war, and was punished solely because of this fact. (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, starring Kris Kristofferson). But no matter which version you accept, there is no question that Billy the Kid(also known as William Bonney, Henry McCarty, and Henry Antrim) is a figure who has long fired the imagination and interest of the American public.

Billy the Kid, tintype Fort Sumner, 1879-80. Public Domain.

Billy the Kid was born in 1859, most likely in New York City. After a short stay in Kansas, his mother eventually settled in New Mexico, where Billy would earn his fame. Hardly a moron, Billy received at least some formal schooling while he lived in Silver City, New Mexico. Until the death of his mother in 1874, Billy led a fairly normal life for a youth living on the Western frontier in the days of the Wild West.

For several years after the death of his mother, the activities of Billy the Kid are a bit murky. From all accounts, it appears that he was fond of gambling, and it seems certain that he was involved in various rustling activities in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. He may have killed a man in Fort Grant, Arizona, in 1877. The real legend started in 1878, though, when Billy became embroiled in the infamous Lincoln County War, in New Mexico.

Billy had drifted into Lincoln County around 1877, working as a cowboy for rancher John Chisum, and then later for English rancher/businessman John Tunstall. Tunstall, and lawyer Alex McSween were in business competition with a group headed by Major L.G. Murphy and James Dolan. Both sides had mercantile, financial, and livestock interests in the Lincoln County area. The Murphy/Dolan group is generally considered the less savory of the two camps, and indeed, there is evidence that they were involved in widespread cattle rustling against Tunstall, and John Chisum.

Photo of the interior of the Tunstall store, built in 1877 to compete with the Murphy-Dolan faction.

Curiously, both sides had their own set of law officers, and various legal maneuverings were carried out by both sides against the other. In mid-February 1878, the lawman for the Murphy/Dolan faction, Sheriff William Brady, ordered a posse to serve some legal papers on John Tunstall. The posse, drunk, and spoiling for a fight, gunned Tunstall down in cold blood. It was their misfortune that Billy the Kid was in the area at the time of the murder. Billy swore vengeance on the men who killed his employer, and it appears that he was involved in the killing of up to eight of the men in the ill-fated posse over the next several months. Among the dead was Sheriff Brady. It was this killing that would eventually put the Kid behind bars, and lead to his untimely death at the tender age of 21.

One may notice that I used the word “killed”, not “murdered” in the above paragraph, when referring to the men who met their fate at the hands of Billy the Kid. This is because, in the confused legal atmosphere of Lincoln County, Billy was acting as a “special constable” or deputy sheriff at the time of the killings. Thus, while his methods may have been extreme, he had some patina of officiality when he killed the members of the errant posse.

The Lincoln County War came to its climax on July 14/19 in 1878, when the Five Day Battle broke out. During this period, up to eighty men on each side fought a ferocious gun battle in the streets of Lincoln, New Mexico. The battle turned against the Tunstall/McSween forces when a Colonel Dudley, from nearby Fort Stanton, led 39 soldiers into the streets of Lincoln during the height of the battle. While Dudley and his men did not actively participate in the fighting, they did everything they could to assist the Murphy/Dolan forces. (After the conflict, the War Department found Dudley’s actions to be improper, and one William Bonney was among the battle veterans who testified against him.)

When the smoke had cleared, there were numerous casualties on both sides, including Alex McSween, who died trying to escape from his burning house. (Billy the Kid successfully escaped from the same burning house). With McSween and Tunstall dead, the army interceding on the side of the Murphy/Dolan faction, and land baron John Chisum artfully staying on the sidelines, the remaining members of the Tunstall/McSween deputies were now branded as outlaws, and became fugitives. If the Tunstall/McSween forces had won the Five Day Battle, Billy the Kid and his associates might very well have become the sole law enforcement officials in Lincoln County.

The lonely graves of Alex A. McSween (1843-1878) and John H. Tunstall (1853-1878), located behind the Tunstall store.

The official reaction to Billy the Kid over the next two years was strangely ambivalent. The Kid had at least one meeting with New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace, (author of Ben Hur), to discuss the terms under which the Governor might pardon the Kid. (All other participants in the Lincoln County War had been pardoned as part of a general amnesty). The Governor and the “moron” exchanged several lively and quite civil letters. And the Kid continued to roam freely around New Mexico, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was now officially a hunted man. Eventually, on March 21, 1879, the Kid surrendered peaceably, on the promise of a pardon from Governor Wallace. The Kid later escaped, when it appeared that the terms of the pardon were not going to be honored by the state.

Finally, on December 23, 1880, the Kid and his gang were captured near Stinking Springs, New Mexico, by Deputy Sheriff Pat Garrett, an acquaintance, and possibly former friend of Billy the Kid. Imprisoned in Lincoln for the murder of Sheriff Brady two years before, the Kid killed his two guards, and made a daring escape from the jail on April 28, 1881.

The old Lincoln County courthouse, formerly the Murphy-Dolan store. The taped area shows where Billy the Kid’s jail cell was.

The Kid’s days were numbered, though. Garrett tracked him to nearby Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and on July 14, 1881, Garrett gunned down Billy the Kid in an ambush at the house of Pete Maxwell, the owner of the Fort.

There are several sites worth visiting in New Mexico if you’d like to trace the exploits of Billy the Kid. First is Lincoln, located 32 miles SE of Carrizozo. It was in Lincoln that the five-day Lincoln County War occurred, with Billy the Kid fighting on the (losing) side, the McSween-Tunstall faction. Among the sites to see: the Tunstall Store, the house of James Dolan, the old Lincoln County Courthouse, the graves of James Tunstall and Alex McSween, and the old Lincoln County courthouse, the site of Billy the Kid’s daring jailbreak.

Grave of Susan McSween Barber, wife of Alexander McSween, and later “Cattle Queen of New Mexico”, in the Cedervale Cemetery.
Impressive remains of the old White Oaks 4-room schoolhouse.

White Oaks is located 11 miles NE of Carrizozo. It was a well known haunt of Billy the Kid, and also contains two other links to the Billy the Kid legend – Pat Garrett served as sheriff there in the 1880s, and it was the later home (and burial place) of Susan McSween Barber, wife of slain Alexander McSween of Lincoln County War Fame. Of interest to see are the remains of an old bank, a school, and the Hoyle Mansion, built in 1897.

Any “search for Billy the Kid” in modern New Mexico should include a visit to the spot where Billy was killed by Pat Garrett – Old Fort Sumner, located several miles south of modern Fort Sumner. Old Fort Sumner was a U.S. Army fort from 1862-1878, and had been decommissioned by the time of the Kid’s death there. The house where the Kid was killed was long ago destroyed when the Pecos River changed its course, and started running through the middle of the old fort.

The grave of Billy the Kid is located nearby. The grave actually has two tombstones. The first one was erected in 1932 when Charlie Foor, a pallbearer at the Kid’s 1881 funeral, erected a stone using his own funds. A second tombstone was erected in 1940 by J.N. Warner.

Close-up of the gravestone of Billy, Tom O’Folliard, and Charlie Bowdre.
Grave of Billy the Kid, Old Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

So, was Billy the Kid a cold blooded, ruthless murderer as some would suggest? Or was he some kind of saintly “Robin Hood of the Pecos”, as others claim. The true answer is probably somewhere in between. There is ample evidence that Billy the Kid was a cattle rustler at various times during his short career, so that effectively removes him from the saint category. But a cold blooded killer? Most of the killings attributed to Billy the Kid occurred while he was acting in the capacity of a “special constable”, so he had at least some legal justification for the killings, although he clearly took the law into his own hands several times. And while his murder of two guards as he escaped from jail in 1881 certainly can’t be condoned, it is extremely murky as to whether the Kid deserved to be in jail in the first place. And he was slated to hang in two weeks time, at the point of his escape! Let us at least attach some doubt, then, to both extreme versions of the character of Billy the Kid.

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