Of all the infamous outlaws of the Old West, none has quite the notoriety of “Billy the Kid.”
by Robert Walsh
John Wesley Hardin. Jesse James. Cole Younger. “Curly” Bill Brocius. Gunslingers, killers, thieves, icons of the Wild West. Of all the infamous outlaws of the Old West, none has quite the notoriety of “Billy the Kid.” Questionably accused of killing 21 men (one for each year of his short, violent life), Billy is as much a Wild West icon as Wyatt Earp or “Wild Bill” Hickok in spite of being firmly on the other side of the law. Ask people to name the first outlaw that springs to mind and Billy is often their first choice even now. Well over a century after his controversial shooting by buffalo hunter-turned-lawman Pat Garrett and, in spite of being a New Yorker, he’s still marketed to the tourists as New Mexico’s most infamous son.
Like so many Old West outlaws, Billy’s public image is a constant blurring of fact and fiction. The man and the myth so intertwined as to be almost indistinguishable. To start with, nobody has ever provided his accurate date of birth, we don’t know who his biological father really was, there’s no accurate body count of his victims and stripping fact from fiction is difficult to say the least. We don’t even know for certain what his real name was.
Billy’s Inauspicious Beginning as Henry McCarty
The most likely start to Billy’s story begins with his being born in New York as Henry McCarty in 1859, only a couple of years before the start of the Civil War that transformed every aspect of American history, although no records exist to confirm his name or birthplace. Catherine McCarty emigrated from Ireland after the Great Famine of the 1840’s in search of a better life. She did her best to provide for her children and took them West rather than see them grow up in the New York slums. She was known as a jolly, cheerful lady and pretty much Billy’s only positive parental role model. His father had vanished and his new stepfather, William Antrim, was far more interested in gambling, gold prospecting and generally seeking his fortune. Antrim took considerably less interest in his stepson than he did in trying to get rich, often spending long periods away from home and doing little to provide a good example even when he was actually there. Billy’s mother was cut from better cloth. She baked pies, washed laundry, took paying lodgers into her home and did whatever was necessary and legal to provide for herself and her children. She was also dying from the final stages of tuberculosis even when she brought her family West.
It was only months after their arrival in the rough New Mexico town of Silver City that she died, leaving Billy effectively alone in the world at age 14. The loss of his single positive adult role model, his being young and impressionable, the ever-present bad influences in Silver City and sheer necessity meant that it wasn’t long before Billy turned to petty crime simply to survive.
His first recorded arrest was hardly indicative of his later infamy. Billy was arrested for stealing several pounds of cheese, hardly the work of a master criminal. Even the county sheriff who arrested him found him a likeable young lad whose crime was rooted in need rather than profit. His sympathy, however, was both short-lived and misplaced. Billy soon graduated to more serious crimes like handling stolen property, more serious thefts and was soon a regular feature at the town jail. Billy was also sometimes reckless and impulsive. He didn’t like being behind bars even for short periods and that caused his first big step into the higher leagues of crime when he escaped from the local jail (rather than doing the smart thing, finishing his brief sentence and going straight). In the absence of his parents, every young man needs a mentor. Unfortunately, Billy found one of a firmly criminal disposition.
“Sombrero Jack” (whose real name has long since been lost) was a typical low-level burglar, cattle rustler and horse thief, nothing important in and of himself. But he was Billy’s first criminal mentor. He used Billy as a lookout during burglaries, stored stolen property in Billy’s rented boarding house room (protecting himself and having Billy risk the consequences of a surprise search). It was through Sombrero Jack that Billy began to make the acquaintance of more serious criminals. His mentors tutored him in cattle rustling, robbery, theft, gambling (Billy took to wearing a gambler’s pinkie ring, rings often used by cheats for secretly marking cards) and generally learning the skills necessary for a full-time outlaw, including the criminal use of firearms as every outlaw used them sooner or later.
It was at Silver City that Billy would also make an acquaintance that would finally take him from being a part-time petty crook to a full-time, professional criminal and well past the point of no return. He was a drunken bully and local tough guy, Frank “Windy” Cahill.
Windy Cahill was a nasty piece of work. He was a boorish, crude, vicious, habitually provocative local bully who was always spoiling for a fight, especially when he was drunk which was quite a lot of the time. Billy was young, physically small and no match for Cahill in a fistfight and looked like an easy target. Cahill, being like all bullies a coward at heart, particularly singled him out for abuse, verbal and physical, and had assaulted Billy at least a couple of times already when he hadn’t knuckled under as quickly as Cahill wanted. This would quickly prove Cahill’s (and, with hindsight, Billy’s) undoing.
Cahill spotted Billy one day and, with his customary aggressive and abusive style, began trying to humiliate and intimidate him. Billy stood his ground. Cahill became increasingly aggressive and it wasn’t long before verbal sparring became a bare-knuckle brawl. Cahill was winning the fight while Billy was taking yet another beating, but only until Billy managed to draw his brand-new Colt “Thunderer” .41 six-shooter. Cahill did his best to force the weapon away from his body but it was too late. Billy shot him in the stomach at a few inches range and, having been gut-shot, Cahill died the next day. Billy was in the town jail awaiting trial for capital murder.
The Legend Begins
The New Mexico Territory wasn’t the safest place to be an outlaw, especially not one facing a possible death sentence. As in many frontier areas the social climate tended to be “rough and ready” and law enforcement (such as it was) reflected that. An outlaw could go to trial and receive a conviction or acquittal, granted, but it could take weeks for judges to be available, travelling as they did from town to town and presiding over whatever cases awaited them. Defendants could just as easily find themselves hanging from the nearest tree, the local townsfolk having opted to skip the legal niceties. Lynch law wasn’t standard practice in New Mexico, but it certainly wasn’t a rarity either.
It could be argued that New Mexico’s outlaws feared vigilante justice rather more than the official variety, especially after the Lincoln County War in which Billy was a prime mover. He knew he was in serious danger even though he could have pled self-defense. He solved that problem by escaping the town jail and going on the run. Billy had moved up in the underworld. He’d gone from a petty thief and gambler to a wanted killer with a price on his head. There would be no turning back.
Billy bounced around the New Mexico Territory for a while, skipping towns whenever he felt it was time to move on. He supported himself through gambling (he was especially skilled at three-card Monte) and small-time theft and cattle rustling. After a few months he found himself in the cattle town of Lincoln and it was in Lincoln that his legend really begins.
Billy arrived in town just as tensions between local cattle barons were beginning to boil up. There were two factions in what became known as the Lincoln County War. One was led by a young Englishman, John Tunstall, and the other by two Irish cattlemen, L.G. Murphy and James “Jimmy” Dolan. The Murphy/Dolan faction was known locally as “The House” owing to Murphy’s grandiose home. The House had a virtual monopoly in Lincoln County. It had lucrative beef contracts with the U.S. Government, supplying meat (usually barely edible and at inflated prices) to the Indian reservations and local army units. It also ran Lincoln’s bank, ran the only store in Lincoln that provided other local businesses with essential supplies making it impossible not to do business with The House, entirely on its terms.
Among their many assets The House also owned Lincoln’s lawman, Sheriff William Brady. In addition to having a stranglehold over local businesses and local law enforcement (Brady seldom enforced any law without referring to Murphy and Dolan first), The House extended its corruption into New Mexico politics and secured an overly friendly relationship with the local military commanders. The House started ruthlessly squeezing out smaller ranchers and homesteaders using its political ties and financial manipulation. Smaller ranchers had to deal with Murphy and Dolan as there was nobody else. Once they were indebted to The House, bad debts became a pretext for seizing cattle and land to add to the Murphy/Dolan empire. The Santa Fe Ring included top-level political figures and a powerful block of Irish politicians, guaranteeing no hostile political attention or legislative action to curtail Murphy and Dolan’s perpetual empire-building.
Enter John Tunstall. Tunstall emigrated from England, arriving in Lincoln late in 1876. He swiftly began infuriating The House. In company with lawyer Alexander McSween and with legendary cattle baron John Chisum (no great friend of The House) supplying the money, Tunstall set up a rival ranch, store and town bank to break the monopoly previously enjoyed by The House. This was something that Murphy and Dolan bitterly resented. The fact that Murphy, Dolan and many of their henchmen were Irish immigrants and Tunstall was an Englishman would have done absolutely nothing to calm things down.
Chisum’s backing of Tunstall is unlikely to have been through altruism so much as Chisum wanting to extend his own commercial power and limit that of The House. Chisum provided the money, McSween the legal wisdom, and Tunstall the ambition. It was an ambition that would soon cost John Tunstall his life, and the lives of many others. Tunstall first encountered Billy in the town of Lincoln, took a shine to the young drifter and offered him a job as a cowhand and, if needed, gunfighter. Billy, seeing an opportunity for a home, a job, a wage and just possibly a chance to settle down and live at least semi-legitimately, jumped at the chance.
Tensions between Tunstall and The House rose rapidly and, in the absence of a full-time police force, both sides looked to hire groups of gunmen to protect their own interests and threaten each other’s. Hiring freelance gunslingers was standard practice for ranchers and other big business owners at that time. Sheriffs and marshals were few in number and often of limited competence, doubtful sobriety, violent temperament and not infrequently easily bribed. Many Western lawmen (including many famous ones) didn’t mind running dubious private enterprises to supplement their very limited income from policing (for instance, the Earp brothers indulged in gambling and, some say, pimping as well as law enforcement). Also, the U.S Constitution made deploying troops within American borders particularly difficult and usually a last resort. With very limited legal oversight and an almost complete lack of practical alternatives, employing groups of professional gunmen became the most (if not the only) workable option.
Until Tunstall’s arrival, Chisum had stood alone against The House. Murphy was now dying of cancer and Dolan (his adopted son) took command assisted by another Irishman, John Riley. With the arrival of competition the previously captive customers of The House (many of whom bitterly resented being milked like a herd of cash cows) began switching their business to Tunstall and McSween. Dolan’s anger at seeing his ambitions curbed and profits cut (and by an Englishman of all people) grew increasingly strong and tensions between the two factions continued rising. With both sides gathering increasingly large private armies it was only a matter of time before the personal and professional struggle became a shooting war, a fight to the finish that was as much based on the age-old rancor between English and Irish as it was on power and money.
The Lincoln County War
Dolan’s continual harassment of Tunstall was, at first, through “legal” means. Dolan initiated continual legal actions against Tunstall but the Englishman still refused to be run out of Lincoln County. Finally Dolan secured (by corrupt means) a writ of attachment confiscating Tunstall’s money, property and assets, essentially rendering him financially and materially destitute. Dolan’s tame Sheriff, William Brady, sent a posse to enforce the writ and, knowing full well that some posse members were known outlaws and held personal grudges against him, visited the Tunstall property anyway. On February 18, 1878, one of the posse killed John Tunstall while other posse members shot Tunstall’s horse and laid it down beside its fallen master. It was a brutal and senseless killing, either satisfying the shooter’s personal grudge or on the orders of Dolan. The Lincoln County War had properly begun.
McSween managed to arrange arrest warrants for the killers. Brady refused to recognize the warrants as lawful, refused to enforce them and also arrested the young men deputized to serve them. One of those young men called himself William Bonney, known then simply as “The Kid.” Those supporting Tunstall and McSween realized that the law was already useless and formed a vigilante group to administer their own brand of justice. They called themselves The Regulators and Billy was a founder member.
Revenge was swift in coming. Only two weeks after Tunstall’s murder two of the posse members were shot dead along with a bystander who had tried to intervene. On April 1, 1878 Sheriff Brady and a deputy, George Hindman, were shot dead while walking down the main street in Lincoln and two days after Brady’s murder, Regulators encountered, fought and killed Bill “Buckshot” Roberts. Buckshot Roberts was a notorious gunfighter with a penchant for shotguns, hence his nickname, and he didn’t die without a fight. Before he died Roberts killed the Regulators’ leader, Dick Brewer, and seriously wounded two of his men.
Lincoln County was now a virtual warzone. Groups of heavily-armed supporters of both factions roamed the area, skirmishing and killing each other on a regular basis. The first phase of the Lincoln County War ended in Lincoln itself when the Regulators were cornered at McSween’s home. The siege lasted for five days before what became known as “the big killing” took place. Troops arrived from nearby Fort Stanton, ostensibly to protect bystanders and restore order. However their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Dudley, was a firm supporter of Dolan’s. Dudley and his men simply stood by and did nothing as the McSween home was burned to the ground. McSween himself being shot dead with four other men as the remnants of the Regulators managed to flee the area. One of the survivors was Billy and he swiftly took command of the remaining Regulators. Anarchy ruled as gunmen on both sides settled personal scores.
A New Governor is Appointed to Quell a “State of Insurrection”
Finally, the Federal Government intervened, dismissing New Mexico’s Governor Samuel Axtell, a long-time cohort of Dolan’s. Former General Lew Wallace (a veteran of the Battle of Shiloh and also the author of Ben Hur) replaced him. Wallace lost no time in proclaiming a “state of insurrection” and adopted the harshest methods for restoring order and ending the perpetual violence. Outlaws could expect swift justice if they were caught and to be shot where they stood if they resisted arrest. Many found themselves confined in Lincoln awaiting trial and their prospects of avoiding the gallows looked decidedly limited.
With the end of the Lincoln County War, Billy had to resort to full-time crime. As a notorious participant he had no chance of legitimate work and, the longer he stayed around New Mexico, the shorter the chances of his survival. After the Lincoln County War ended Billy became a shameless, brazen thief and cattle rustler and a permanent annoyance to many powerful and influential cattle barons.
At first Wallace’s tough stance seemed to work reasonably well, but the war began again with the murder of lawyer Huston Chapman in February 1879. Chapman had been an ally of Tunstall and McSween and was murdered by a gang of drunken cowboys seemingly for no apparent reason. The killing looked like re-igniting the war and Governor Wallace, frustrated and infuriated by his failure to capture or kill Billy, agreed to a private meeting and struck a secret deal with him. The controversy over the precise terms of that deal remains even today.
Billy Strikes a Deal
It’s alleged that, in return for his testimony against Chapman’s killers (one of whom just happened to be Jimmy Dolan) Wallace promised Billy a pardon which would have set him free. After his testimony, Billy could have ridden out of Lincoln a free man on condition that he never re-enter New Mexico. Billy’s alternative was to be hunted down and, more than likely, shot on sight. To guard against reprisals, there would be an arrest staged for Billy’s protection as being in jail would keep the Dolan gunmen from killing him after he gave evidence. If this precise offer was indeed made, then Billy took it and found himself in the Lincoln jail ostensibly to stand trial himself for murder.
District Attorney Ryerson had other ideas. Ryerson was an Irishman and very much in the Dolan camp. He also had absolute discretion over which witnesses testified at trials and he made it clear to Billy that, as he was in custody already, that Billy would be tried for murdering Sheriff Brady. Governor Wallace was, practically speaking, powerless. Despite being the governor his hands were virtually tied by the powerful block of pro-Dolan politicians among the Santa Fe Ring. Even if he really did promise Billy a pardon in return for his testimony, there was nothing he could do to stop Ryerson prosecuting Billy for his own part in the Lincoln County War and either declining to prosecute Dolan or deliberately losing the trial if he wanted to.
Wallace was powerless and Billy was in very serious trouble. He promptly escaped from Lincoln and was free to continue his criminal career. He was now one of the most wanted men in New Mexico and, lacking any chance of legitimate work, returned to full-time cattle rustling and horse theft for his living. Fickle as public opinion usually is, Billy’s popularity swiftly faded into general loathing as, together with the few surviving Regulators, he roamed Lincoln County robbing and rustling at will. His activities quickly attracted the attention of powerful enemies, notably legendary cattle baron John Chisum.
In November of 1880 Pat Garrett was elected Lincoln County Sheriff. His campaign was backed by the cattle barons and their political allies as they believed Billy would be a problem as long as he was still alive. In return for their supporting his election Garrett agreed to make eliminating Billy his top priority.
Garrett was a curious character, a former buffalo hunter and (some say) cattle rustler. Despite the popular impression that he was formerly one of Billy’s closest friends (one of many unsupported myths about Billy’s life and career) there’s no solid evidence to suggest that Garrett and Billy were ever more than occasional acquaintances at best. There’s none at all to support ideas that Garrett rode with Billy or ever committed any crimes beside him. More likely, he saw a chance of lasting personal fame from being known for killing Billy the Kid, seeking to parlay that fame into a lucrative career as a celebrity lawman in the manner of “Wild Bill” Hickock and later Wyatt Earp.
Garrett assembled a posse of tough, ruthless gunmen and set to work. At what became known as the Battle of Stinking Springs in November of 1880, Garrett’s posse killed Tom Folliard and Charley Bowdre, two of Billy’s closest friends. Billy was forced to surrender. He was held at Santa Fe for several months and then moved to the town of Mesilla to stand trial murdering Sheriff Brady. He was tried for the Brady murder, convicted and sentenced to death before being moved from Mesilla to Lincoln where he was to publicly hang.
Billy’s Last Escape
Desperate problems require desperate measures. Billy took the most desperate. On April 28, 1881, only 15 days before his execution date, Billy escaped from the Lincoln County Jail by slipping his shackles and obtaining a gun smuggled to him by an admirer. While escaping he encountered the two deputies assigned to guard him, Deputies Ollinger and Bell. He shot them both dead. Despite repeated warnings from Garrett never to let their guard drop even for a moment, both men did so and their carelessness proved fatal. After the murders Billy stood and made a speech for some 20 minutes (as if trying to justify their deaths) before stealing a horse, riding away and later forcing a local blacksmith to remove the remains of his manacles.
Everybody expected Billy to flee south into Old Mexico and remain outside U.S legal jurisdiction. He didn’t. Garrett did nothing to hunt for Billy until it became apparent that Billy was still within Garrett’s jurisdiction. Billy was hiding at Fort Sumner around 150 miles northeast of Lincoln itself. Garrett made enquiries and found that Billy had taken up with a local woman, Paulita Maxwell. Peter Maxwell (Paulita’s father) wanted her relationship with Billy terminated and Garrett (under pressure to keep his bargain with the cattle barons) was only too obliging. It was July 14, 1881, a month short of four years since the killing of Windy Cahill, when Garrett finally got his chance. It was just after midnight at the Maxwell residence when Billy came downstairs to fix a late meal. As he walked into a darkened room he realized that he had unexpected company. Peering round the darkened room he asked in Spanish “Como Estas?” (“Who’s there?”).
It was Garrett. Only Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid ever really knew whether or not Garrett gave Billy a warning and a chance to surrender, or simply shot him dead where he stood. There was a bright flash, a deafening bang and a bullet tore into Billy’s head, killing him instantly. He was only 21 years old when he was buried beside his old friends Tom Folliard and Charley Bowdre. Aside from their names, the three men have only a single word on their shared tombstone: “Pals.”
Where Henry McCarty ends and “Billy the Kid” begins will always be a subject open to perpetual debate, often heated. Recently, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, after much consideration, refused to grant Billy the pardon allegedly promised (and undelivered) by his predecessor Lew Wallace. Governor Richardson cited the fact that, despite much anecdotal evidence of the deal being struck, there’s no solid documentary evidence that Wallace ever even made such an offer, let alone broke his word. The descendents of Pat Garrett also weighed in heavily against any notion of pardoning Billy retrospectively, claiming that to do so would tarnish the legacy of both Lew Wallace and their ancestor.
And what of Pat Garrett, the man who shot Billy the Kid? Killing Billy didn’t bring Garrett the fame that he seems to have craved and nor did it bring much fortune, either. His book on the manhunt titled The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid was a commercial failure and seldom more authentic than the dime novels so popular at the time.
Garrett was less than popular among some New Mexicans and he seems to have drifted from job to job without ever successfully capitalizing on the fame that killing Billy brought him. I’d suspect that part of his failure to do so lay in his personality. Garrett developed a reputation as being an increasingly arrogant, difficult, abrasive and confrontational man. As his life went on, he also developed a severe fondness for alcohol which did little to make him more likeable.
Eventually, Garrett died in 1901, old, ill and increasingly desperate. He was killed by a notorious hired gun, Jim “The Killer” Miller, a known assassin and gunfighter. Miller and Garrett had exchanged harsh words that swiftly turned to blows. Miller claimed that Garrett attempted to reach for Miller’s gun and was accidentally shot during the struggle. It was also claimed that persons unknown had hired Miller specifically to kill Garrett and make it look like either an accident or a fair fight. Either way, Garrett died having never really achieved the lasting fame and commercial success that he had wanted.