Billy the Kid (aka William Bonney aka William Henry Antrim aka Henry McCarty, c.1859 - 1881) was probably born in New York City. The day and year and place of his birth are still open to speculation. His family were probably Irish immigrants who left Ireland during the Great Potato Famine (1845-1852). At least one historian has argued for a partly Hispanic ancestry, pointing to Billy's fluency in Spanish and association with Hispanic people of the New Mexico Territory. However, Billy could have learned Spanish as a second language.
By 1868, Billy's father had died. He and his brother and his mother, Catherine McCarty, moved to Indianapolis, Indiana. There she met William Antrim. The couple had a common-law marriage at first. They were legally married in 1873. Antrim was employed as a carpenter and as a bartender, but he never settled anywhere for long, being by choice a prospector and gambler. The family moved west to find a better climate for Catherine, who suffered from consumption (tuberculosis). They were in Silver City, New Mexico when Catherine died in 1874. Antrim abandoned his stepsons after Catherine's death.
Billy was taken in by a neighboring family who owned a hotel in Silver City. He worked for a while in the hotel to earn his keep, but domestic problems in his new family forced him to move out. He relocated to a boarding house and survived by doing odd jobs. He was arrested twice in 1875 for theft. In the first case Billy had only stolen some cheese and the incident was forgotten. In the second he was found in possession of clothing and firearms stolen from a Chinese laundry owner. The actual thief was an acquaintance from the boarding house but the goods had ended in the hands of Billy. He was jailed but managed to escape through the jailhouse chimney because of his small size.
Wanted in New Mexico following his escape, Billy skipped out to Arizona. He seems to have worked for a while there as a ranch hand and shepherd. He also had his first taste of gambling while in the area. A colleague introduced him to the profitable but risky business of horse thievery. By 1877 Billy was probably 18 or 20, but his slight build and lack of a beard made him appear younger. He was thought to be an easy target for bullying. Frank "Windy" Cahill, a local blacksmith, seems to have been among those who thought so. On August 17, 1877, a verbal argument between them turned physical when Cahill threw Billy to the ground. Billy pulled his gun, shot Cahill and fled. Cahill died of his wounds the following day. Though there were witnesses willing to call it self-defense, no trial ever occurred.
Unwilling to face murder charges, Billy fled back to New Mexico. He resurfaces as a member of the "the Boys", a group of New Mexico cattle rustlers led by Jesse Evans, an infamous outlaw. For whatever reason, Billy stayed with the Boys for a couple of months. He turns up again not as a thief but as a victim of theft. His horse was apparently stolen by Apaches and he had to walk miles to the nearest settlement, hiding out during the day and walking at night to avoid detection. He was in rough shape when he finally made it to a farm owned by a family named Jones. The family nursed him back to health and gave him one of their horses. The autumn of 1877 sees Billy working briefly in a cheese factory and then returning to his trade as a ranch hand.
At the end of 1877, Billy was working for John Tunstall, a prominent cattle rancher, banker, and merchant who had arrived in Lincoln the previous fall. Tunstall and some fellow ranchers, who also worked for him, became involved in the Lincoln County War, a mercantile conflict that morphed into a lethal grudge match. New Mexico Territory was controlled by a small, corrupt gang of politicians who ran the territory out of the capital and so were known as the "Santa Fe Ring." Tom Catron, the leader of the Ring, owned the mortgage on the only store in Lincoln town. This store, a monopoly called "The House," was run by Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan. They controlled Lincoln town and county by money and pistol. The sheriff, William Brady, was their sheriff. Tunstall attempted to break this monopoly by opening his own store in Lincoln. This ran him and his men afoul of the Ring. At the time Billy was hired, the conflict was bloodless, although tensions between the factions had been rising for a year. The bloodlessness would not last for long.
On February 18, 1878, Sheriff Brady deputized a large posse that he sent to Tunstall's ranch, which was about 30 miles southeast of Lincoln town on the Rio Feliz. The posse was supposed to attach some cattle on a civil suit against Tunstall's business partner, Alexander McSween. By the time the posse arrived on the Feliz, Tunstall and his hands, among whom was Billy, had left for Lincoln driving nine horses to the town to put in a corral there. Three or four members of the posse (called in the histories of the war the "sub-posse" to distinguish them from the larger posse), including Jesse Evans, Tom Hill, and William Morton, went after Tunstall and caught him and his men in wooded, hilly country a few miles south of Lincoln. Tunstall's hands all took off when the posse members began firing at them. For some inexplicable reason--perhaps because as an upper-middle-class Englishman he did not appreciate the violence of which the depraved killers who worked for the Ring were capable--Tunstall did not flee with his men.
The sub-posse members rode up to Tunstall and shot him down in cold blood. Though the identity of the first shooter cannot be known for certain, it seems likely that it was William Morton. Tom Hill likely administered the coup de grace to Tunstall, shooting him at close range in the back of the head with a pistol. They also shot Tunstall's horse, a prized bay. The assassins then faked the crime scene to make it look like the killing was in self-defense, a scrap of counterfeit as common then as now. Tunstall's murder set off the conflagration that became the Lincoln County War. On viewing Tunstall's body, Billy is supposed to have said that he would get "every son-of-bitch who killed John Tunstall if it's the last thing I ever do."
Tunstall's men had themselves deputized by a sympathetic JP, who also gave them warrants for the killers. These new deputies, calling themselves Regulators, went after Tunstall's murderers. There were now two legally deputized posses in Lincoln shooting at each other. About three weeks after Tunstall's death, the Regulators, after a long chase and shootout, arrested two men who had been with Brady's posse, one of whom was William Morton; the other was Frank Baker. Three days after their arrest, these two men were killed in what the Regulators claimed was an escape attempt. There were no witnesses to these killings other than the Regulators themselves, who were strongly suspected of having killed the prisoners out of hand, probably because they knew that if they turned them over to Sheriff Brady in Lincoln that he would immediately set them free. The Regulators also killed one of their own members, William McCloskey, because they suspected him of being a spy for the Murphy-Dolan side.
These events prodded Dolan to exercise his political connections with the Ring. Samuel B. Axtell, the governor of the territory and a prominent Ring member, declared the deputizing of the Regulators to have been illegal. In a matter of days, the Regulators went from lawmen to outlaws . Unfazed, the now ex-deputies turned their attention to Sheriff Brady. On April Fools' Day, six weeks after Tunstall's murder, Billy and several of his friends ambushed and killed Brady and a deputy, George Hindman, in the middle of the Lincoln road in broad daylight. Brady was hit by a first volley, fell to a sitting position, said, "Oh, Lord" and was hit again by a second volley that killed him instantly. Hindman had been in Brady's large posse that had ridden to Tunstall's in mid-February, and so he may have been specifically targeted. Two other deputies of Brady were present at the shooting. They escaped, probably because the Regulators mostly ignored them.
However justified in this rash deed Billy and his friends felt themselves to be; however much Brady earned his fate by deputizing Murphy-Dolan cutthroats that he knew would rather murder Tunstall than serve papers on him; and however little Brady’s passing may have been generally mourned in Lincoln, still, viewed tactically, gunning down the sheriff was a crucial blunder. The rulers in Santa Fe were untouched. Brady was only a cog, so he was easily replaced (eventually by Pat Garrett, Billy's slayer). Many who had supported Tunstall’s side now distanced themselves. Regular citizens fled, never to return. Lincoln began its descent into a savage chaos.
On April 4, 1878, Billy and a group of Regulators encountered by chance Andrew "Buckshot" Roberts, a former buffalo hunter and current minor rancher who was employed at times by Dolan. The encounter was at Blazer's Mill, a sawmill on the Mescalero Apache Reservation, though the mill was not part of the Reservation. Roberts was an aging veteran of the Civil War and had a reputation as a gunfighter. But he was a loner and had mostly stayed out of the conflicts of the Lincoln County War, though he had been with Brady's posse that had gone after Tunstall (he was not with the sub-posse). Roberts was actually planning to flee the area altogether. The Regulators accused him of being involved in Tunstall's murder and called on him to surrender. Roberts knew what had happened to Morton and Baker when they had surrendered. He is reported to have said, "Not much, Marianne," and fired his rifle from the hip, blowing off the forefinger of the right hand of George Coe, one of the Regulators. He was then gutshot by a Regulator--a long, slow, painful way to die. Roberts managed to survive a lengthy standoff in which he killed Richard "Dick" Brewer, the leader of the Regulators, with a very long rifle shot through the forehead that is considered one of the "best" shots in Wild West history. Who were the heroes and who were the villains in this encounter is problematic. Roberts, though he died from his wound, earned a lasting reputation in the annals of gunfight history by standing off 13 men. The Regulators, who fled after Brewer's death, did not exactly honor themselves in this battle. Brewer and Roberts, as irony would have it, were buried side by side near Blazer's Mill the next day.
The conflict continued in the following months. The war came to a head in July of 1878 with the so-called "Five-Day Battle" in which the Murphy-Dolan faction and the Tunstall faction engaged in a pitched gunfight right in Lincoln town. The sides were about evenly matched, the Regulators controlling the east side of town, the Murphy-Dolan fighters controlled the west side. The Regulators lost this battle when the bibulous commandant of the nearby U.S. Army fort, Colonel Nathan Dudley, brought his troops to town and entered into the fray on the Murphy-Dolan side, despite a recent presidential order that the army was forbidden to enter into civilian affairs. (Dudley was later subjected to a military Court of Inquiry for this action. His fellow officers whitewashed him.) On the last day of the battle, Dudley stood around while the Murphy-Dolan group set fire to the house in which Billy and members of the Tunstall side had taken refuge. Trapped in the final room of the house, the flames all around them, Billy and a couple of his friends escaped certain death as they were fired upon while fleeing. During this gunfight at close range, called "The Big Killing," several people on either side died in a hail of bullets. In the following couple of years after this defeat, Billy became somewhat of a hero in New Mexico, especially among the Hispanic people, because of his refusal to surrender or to leave New Mexico. He was a symbol of resistance to the Ring.
In autumn, 1878, former general Lew Wallace was appointed the new governor of New Mexico Territory. He offered an amnesty for all the combatants willing to lay down their guns. Billy returned and offered to testify against other combatants if amnesty were extended to him. Wallace agreed and Billy surrendered in March 1879. The Kid's court testimony incriminated Dolan and members of his side in the outright murder of Huston Chapman, a lawyer in Lincoln who was suing the Murphy-Dolan faction (Billy was an eyewitness to the killing). Though he promised Bonney a pardon for his misdeeds, Wallace never fulfilled his end of the bargain. He left New Mexico to become the ambassador to Turkey and to have his new novel, Ben-Hur, published. William Rynerson, the District Attorney in Santa Fe, and a hard Ring member, disregarded the agreement between Wallace and Billy. The Kid, whom Rynerson wanted to prosecute for his involvement in Brady's slaying, could have faced the rope. Friends arranged for Billy to escape.
Billy was now a fugitive with a murder indictment against him. He survived by rustling and gambling. He resurfaces in January 1880 when he killed a man called Joe Grant in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Grant had been playing poker in a saloon and had boasted of being able to kill "Billy the Kid", if he ever met the man. Grant failed to recognize that Billy was among the other poker players.
In November 1880, Billy was running with a gang when a posse was sent after them. The lawmen pursued them to a house owned by a friend of Billy's, Jim Greathouse. One of the posse, James Carlyle, entered the house to negotiate surrender terms. However, a miscommunication and lack of discipline in holding fire resulted in Carlyle being shot dead by his fellow posse members on his way out. The posse was demoralized and the members scattered. Billy and his gang fled. Billy was accused of one more murder, this time one he did not commit.
In the same month, Pat Garrett ran on the Democratic ticket (Tom Catron, head of the Ring, was a Democrat) and was elected the new sheriff of Lincoln. Part of his mandate was to get Billy out of New Mexico. He set out to do this by leading a small posse after The Kid. On the night of December 21, 1880, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, Billy and his gang were surprised by the posse, who killed Tom O'Folliard, a member of Bonney's group. The rest of the gang fled to a small rock house in Stinking Springs, not far from Sumner. Garret and his men located Billy and his gang and lay siege to the small rock dwelling. On December 23rd, the gang, freezing cold and without food, surrendered early in the morning. Billy was imprisoned, taken to Mesilla, and placed on trial in April 1881. He was prosecuted by Rynerson, the DA who was a Ring member, and found guilty of the murder of Sheriff Brady. Judge Warren Bristol, also a member of the Ring, sentenced The Kid to death by hanging. Although the Murphy-Dolan-Ring faction committed heinous crimes during the war, including rape and wanton murder, Billy was the only person ever convicted of a crime committed during the war. That's how badly the Ring wanted him.
He was sent from Mesilla to Lincoln town to be held in custody until his execution, scheduled for May. On April 28, Billy somehow managed to get hold of a pistol (legend has it that someone stashed the gun in the outhouse behind the building where Billy was being held). He killed both of the deputies guarding him, including Bob Ollinger, a bitter enemy, with Ollinger's own shotgun, and fled.
In July 1881, Garret was still looking for Billy. On July 14th, he and two deputies, John Poe and Tip McKinney, went to the house of Pedro "Pete" Maxwell in Fort Sumner. Maxwell was a friend of Billy's (and Pat's). Garrett, who had been tipped off that The Kid was back in Fort Sumner, wanted to question Pete concerning Bonney's whereabouts. Around midnight, Garret was in Maxwell's bedroom questioning him. Billy suddenly appeared in the doorway of the darkened room. He realized there was another person in the room besides Maxwell but could not see who the second person was. Billy asked Maxwell, whose first language was Spanish, "¿Quién es? ¿Quién es?" ("Who is it? Who is it?"). Garret recognized Billy's voice and shot at him twice. One bullet missed and one hit him in the heart. Billy was dead and the search was over. His legend had just begun. Interestingly, Garrett was defeated for sheriff when he ran in the next election. His defeat is often said to have been because although many people in New Mexico wanted Garrett to run Billy out of the territory, they did not want him killed. Garrett's reputation after killing Billy was forever star-crossed. Even today, he is often portrayed as a traitor because he and Billy had once been friends.
Billy was well liked and highly thought of by many friends and acquaintances, who spoke of his intelligence, his sense of humor, his charismatic personality, and his fight against the corrupt politicians who ruled New Mexico at the time. These reports helped create a rather positive reputation of him following his death. The outlaw eventually became a folk hero. Legions of books and learned articles have been written about The Kid, of which the single best history is probably "The West of Billy The Kid" by Frederick Nolan, the dean of Billy historians. More than a 100 films have him as a central or supporting character. There is a ballet choreographed by Eugene Loring with music by Aaron Copland, and a wonderful atonal lied written by Andre Previn with the lyrics taken directly from a famous passage in the diary of Sally Chisum, a friend who knew Billy well. There has also been the comic book that ran for more than a 150 issues, a TV show that ran for three years, and a scandalous play, "The Beard," by Michael McClure, in which Billy and Jean Harlow meet in the afterlife and make the most of it.