Billy the Kid
The story of Billy the Kid is one steeped in mystery and folklore. He has been portrayed as both a dangerous criminal and a folk hero, but who was he really? Was he an outlaw or a victim of circumstance? These questions have puzzled historians for over 140 years.
The mysterious life of Billy the Kid began in New York City in 1859 when Henry McCarty, later known as William H. Bonney, was born to Irish immigrants Catherine McCarty and Patrick Antrim.
Little is known about his early childhood, but at some point between 1861-1864 his family relocated to Silver City, New Mexico where they lived with his stepfather William Antrim.
By age 15, young Henry had already acquired several aliases including William H. Bonney and Billito Valdez y de Aquilar before eventually becoming known simply as ‘Billy the Kid’, the name created by 1870s newspapers covering his exploits in Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory.
The Legend: Myth and Reality
The Legend of Billy the Kid is surrounded by a great aura of myth and mystery. Though Billy was only 21 when he met his end, his well known status as an outlaw dates back to numerous stories told about him by people he knew or had interacted with during his short life time.
In life, Billy was known to have been a daring, confident yet modest character; these traits have likely added further mystique to the history surrounding Billy’s life and legends.
Billy’s wild escapades and his cunning ability to escape deadly situations have continued to both mystify and intrigue those interested in the legendary figure.
Crimes of Billy the Kid
Billy the Kid, was active in New Mexico Territory during the 1860s and 1870s. Billy’s criminal career began when he allegedly killed a blacksmith named Billy Bonney in August, 1877.
Billy is believed to have killed at least nine people throughout his life, although he may have been responsible for several more. He became increasingly well-known for his skill with firearms and word of his exploits spread throughout the borderlands area in which he operated.
Billy the Kid’s notoriety increased after escaping from jail and being unsuccessfully pursued by a posse led by Pat Garrett. Billy’s life finally came to an end in July 1881 when Garrett shot him dead near Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Although Billy’s infamous history has long been recounted in popular books and films, historical documents suggest that much of it is fictionalized or exaggerated.
The Kids First Crimes
McCarty lost his mother when he was 15 years old. He received lodging and food from boarding house owner Sarah Brown in exchange for his labor.
McCarty was apprehended on September 16, 1875, for stealing food. A Chinese laundry was looted ten days later by McCarty and George Schaefer, who also stole two firearms and some clothing. He was consequently imprisoned after being accused of theft.
The Silver City Herald published the first article about him, reporting that he had fled two days after capture and was now a wanted man. When Antrim pushed his stepfather out, McCarty found him and stayed with him, robbing him of clothes and weapons.
Early Run in with the Law
After the notorious Battle of Lincoln, four survivors – including McCarty – were implicated in a murder that shook up the Mescalero Indian Agency. However, their indictments would not last long: all except for his own were quashed due to conflicting evidence pointing at Constable Atanacio Martinez as being responsible for the murder.
On October 5th, 1878, U.S. Marshal John Sherman contacted new Territorial Governor Lew Wallace about warrants he held for suspected criminals such as William H Antrim (also known by aliases ‘Kid’ and ‘Bonny’). Notable among them was McCarty’s warrant which went unserved because of “the disturbed condition” caused by a group of dangerous men still on the loose at that time.
Wanted by Lawman Pat Garrett
With a large bounty on his head, Lawman Pat Garrett was determined to track Billy down and bring him to justice.
In pursuit of Billy, Pat Garrett never backed down and was soon celebrated as someone who could be counted on to bring justice to the Wild West.
Despite this, Billy continued to elude capture and remained wanted by Garrett for years. To this day, his legend remains alive with stories about his daring escapes.
About Pat Garrett
Lawman Pat Garrett is perhaps best known for his pursuit of Billy the Kid.
After Billy had already killed two lawmen in Texas, Garrett was chosen to lead a band of men in pursuit of the outlaw, eventually killing him during a shoot out in 1881.
Prior to joining Billy’s hunt, Garrett served as the sheriff of Lincoln County in New Mexico and earned the trust of many residents. This was due to his straightforward approach and attention to detail.
Before becoming a lawman, he lived an adventurous life, owning saloons and serving as a buffalo hunter and scout for both military expeditions and railroads.
In addition, he pursued other occupations such as farming and ranching—experiences that would come in handy during his time as a lawman.
Local Lincoln County Support
Billy the Kid was famous for his lawless ways, but he and his gang were also strong supporters of their local community. Known as the Regulators, Billy, and his group provided protection to small farms in Lincoln County; they also helped provide basic necessities like food to those who needed it.
Billy would also use scraps of wood to repair broken fences and wagons of local farmers, easing their burden while they worked to make a living.
Billy’s actions demonstrate that people in need are often supported best by the members of their own community.
Manhunt for Billy the Kid
Wanted by law enforcement for multiple murders and robberies, Billy the Kid achieved notoriety through his evasion of capture for two years after his crime spree began in 1877 in Lincoln County, New Mexico.
Billy’s most famous feat of eluding those charged with his arrest lies in his escape from a Lincoln County jail in April 1881 with the use of a smuggled handgun.
He managed to avoid his pursuers and remain on the run until he was shot dead in a saloon by Sheriff Pat Garrett later that year.
Escape from Lincoln County Jail
Deputy Bob Olinger escorted five other detainees across the street for a supper on April 28, 1881, while Garrett was away in White Oaks collecting taxes, leaving James Bell, another deputy, and McCarty alone in the jail.
McCarty had begged to be brought outside to use the restroom behind the courthouse. Bell attempted to flee, but McCarty seized his revolver and fatally shot him in the back.
McCarty entered Garrett’s office while being restrained and stole a loaded shotgun that had been left there by Olinger. Before unshackling and fleeing, McCarty killed Olinger.
Changing Image of Billy the Kid
Billy the Kid’s image has certainly changed over time. Though Billy was a convicted felon and fugitive from justice during his lifetime, he has become an iconic outlaw figure in American folklore today.
He is heavily romanticized; modern-day Billy the Kid enthusiasts often portray him as a hero looking for revenge against those who wronged him, rather than a criminal on the run.
Billy the Kid even makes appearances in pop culture, such as novels, films, television shows, and music. His changing image reflects how society views the process of mythologizing well-known figures of history.
Pat Garrett’s pursuit of Billy the Kid is one for the history books.
The Lincoln County jailbreak in 1881 was a turning point in this epic manhunt, and despite Pat Garrett eventually killing him that same year, it only served to further cement his place as an iconic outlaw figure in American folklore.
Even today, we see references to Billy the Kid everywhere from pop culture to historical accounts—a testament to how society views figures like him with admiration and respect even when they were criminals during their lifetime.
It goes without saying that Pat Garrett played a critical role in bringing justice by pursuing Billy relentlessly and ultimately capturing and killing him; he stands as an example of those who strive for law enforcement against all odds.