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Billy The Kid


A decade after the Civil War the tragedy of Billy The Kid was played out in the beautiful New Mexico river valleys whose names ring like Spanish chapel bells: Ruidoso, Tularosa, Hondo, Bonito, Pecos, and the Ponasco. Ballads, books, films, and ballet have been written on his life. He is one of the world's favorite legends-a merry-eyed youth, the Robin Hood of the American southwestern frontier whose deadly skill with a six-shooter protects the oppressed ranchers against the evil cattle barons.

In the past, reminiscences of octogenarians and sparse accounts in yellowing, newspapers supplied a flimsy framework of his life but a "secret history," an extant cache of little known official documents in government depositories, reveals the real Billy the Kid and the role he played in the most savage political and economic range war in the history of the American West.

The portrait that emerges of him from the thousands of pages of affidavits, reports, trial transcripts, his letters, and his testimony is neither the mythical Robin Hood nor the stereotyped adenoidal moron and pathological killer. Rather Billy appears as a disturbed, lonely young man, honest, loyal to his friends, dedicated to his beliefs, and betrayed by our institutions and the corrupt, ambitious, and compromising politicians of his time. He also kept a part of himself so hidden that it has never been touched by any document, newspaper article, or memories of those who knew him. Billy the Kid bared his soul to no man.

The existing records also shatter the myth that "he killed a man for every year of his life-not including Mexicans and Indians." The total is nearer four some killed in self-defense, in his celebrated escape from the Lincoln County jail or as a member of a vigilante group.

The popularly accepted account of the Kid's life is based on information supplied by Marshall Ashmun Upton, better known as Ash Upton, a veteran newspaperman, who had started on the New York Herald and drifted to the New Mexico frontier where he became a newspaper editor, railroad conductor, storekeeper, and unofficial postmaster.

He gained literary immortality by ghosting for Sheriff Pat Garrett, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, the Noted Desperado of the Southwest, Whose Deeds of Daring and Blood Made His Name a Terror, in New Mexico, Arizona, and Northern Mexico. The book, printed in 1882, sold for $1.25; today an original copy is valued in the hundreds of dollars by collectors. Ironically, Garrett and Upton sold their slow-moving stock of books for twenty-five cents a copy; the buyer took them away in a wheelbarrow.

Upton's usually inaccurate account, source of countless volumes and articles written on Billy the Kid, included the one indisputable fact that Billy the Kid was born in New York City. What he did not know - or had deliberately ignored - was that Billy the Kid's real name was Henry McCarty, that his father, Michael, had died when he was a child, and his mother, Catharine McCarty, moved west with him and his younger brother, Joseph. The long journey of this tiny family from New York City to the sparsely settled Civil War frontier is documented in yellowing land claims, mortgages, city directories, and the brittle pages of forgotten newspapers.

What emerges is not the accepted version of an impoverished widow burdened with two small children living a hand-to-mouth existence in the raw towns of the Middle Border before she finally married William Henry Antrim. Rather, the attractive Widow McCarty appears to have been an aggressive, independent businesswoman who supported herself and her family by dealing in real estate and operating hotels, boardinghouses, and laundries, services always needed in the frontier communities.

There is some evidence Antrim, the widow, and her two sons first settled in Denver, New Orleans, then finally Silver City, New Mexico. The still attractive widow who apparently knew she was dying finally agreed to marry Antrim. On March 1, 1873, according to extant records, they were married in the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe; Henry, then fourteen, and Joseph were among the witnesses.

Once again she opened a boardinghouse while Antrim worked in the mines. A year later she was dead. It had been a bitter year for the future outlaw as he watched his mother, then thirty-four, slowly dying from "galloping consumption," as they called it. Billy's close friend, Chauncey I. Truesdell, whose mother nursed Mrs. Antrim, recalled how Billy was constantly at his mother's side for the four months she was confined to bed, holding her tightly when she was shaken by deep racking coughs. The funeral was held from the Antrim's home on Main Street with Mrs. Truesdell, a few friends, Antrim, Billy, and Joe riding in the carriages behind the hearse to the tiny cemetery on the outskirts of town.

Watching his mother die apparently did something to Billy. The pleasant, smiling youngster refused to attend the frontier school; monte and poker chips were now taking the place of school books. Antrim tried to keep his family together but Billy was becoming uncontrollable; he eagerly accepted Mrs. Truesdell's offer to take in his stepson. The Truesdells operated the Star Hotel in Silver City and for a year Billy worked for his keep, waiting on tables and doing kitchen chores.

Many years later when she was asked about Billy, the frail, silver-haired Mrs. Truesdell quietly rocked for a few minutes, then told the interviewer that of all the boys who had worked in her frontier hotel, Billy had been the only one who had never stolen anything. He was polite, worked hard, and obeyed any order. He never really was a bad boy, she said, only a little wild after he got under the influence of an older small town thief named "Sombrero Jack," so called because he wore a large Mexican hat.

Billy quickly adopted Mrs. Truesdell as a mother image and it is evident she cared for him deeply, constantly warning him that his association with the Silver City toughs would only lead him into trouble. Billy charmed her as he would many women. He was about five foot eight inches, slender with wavy light hair. The traditional faded tintype taken hastily one day in Fort Sumner unfortunately shows him to be a bucktoothed moron leaning on a rifle. Actually two upper teeth protruded slightly but did not disfigure his face. He had an easy smile, a sense of humor, and was well liked in the town. He also had startling blue eyes that some men recalled would dance when he laughed; others told how they became cold and full of menace before he went for his gun.

Where young Henry McCarty got the name William H. Bonney is still a mystery. In 1902 Sheriff Whitehall, who had arrested him for the first time, claimed Billy had changed his name to Bonney "in order to keep the stigma of disgrace from his family," which seems logical in view of the reverence he had for his mother's memory.

Truesdell, his boyhood friend, also said he had "never heard the name of Bonney until after he became notorious. After Henry left town some people, who knew him said he called himself Bill Bonney. It was the same boy all right, they knew him well ..."

Three years later Billy appeared in Grant City, an incongruous figure in store shoes and pants and a six-shooter stuck in his belt as he mingled with the frontiersmen, miners, and cowboys in George Adkins's saloon. He had now gained the nickname of "Kid."

He killed his first man in Grant City. On August 17, 1877, he shot E. P. Cahill, who the Arizona Daily Citizen reported had made a deathbed statement that "he had some trouble with Antrim during which the shooting was done." A coroner's jury's verdict called the killing "criminal and unjustifiable and Henry Antrim, alias Kid, is guilty thereof." As always with the events in Billy the Kid's life, there is another side.

The teen-age killer now became a wanderer, drifting among the cow camps on the New Mexico-Arizona frontier, stopping for a time in mining camps and towns to gamble, drink, and work at odd jobs. He finally made his way into New Mexico's Lincoln County, the nation's largest county, 150 miles east and west and 170 miles north and south." And there began the legend of Billy the Kid ...

Billy's first stop was at the cow camp of Jimmy Dolan, who controlled Lincoln County's powerful Murphy & Co. Whether Dolan was present is not known but after an argument with Billy Morton, the outfit's foreman, the Kid packed his gear and rode off.

Some weeks later he stopped at the Coe ranch in the beautiful valley of the Rio Ruidoso, ten miles below Lincoln and the Rio Bonito. George Coe, about Billy's age, never forgot him. They became close friends and from Coe and his cousin Frank, the Kid first learned of the growing hate and bitterness in the county that the Coes predicted would soon explode into a shooting war.

As Coe explained, the cattle king of Lincoln County was John Chisum, a former Texas cowboy whose ranch was one of the largest in the West. More than 60,000 head grazed on the open land, and his army of hands, most of them fast with a gun, was ready to drive off any homesteader or small rancher who dared trespass on the king's domain.

It was a familiar tale repeated in many parts of the West of the cattle baron who had hacked an empire from the wild lands, fought off the Indians, rustlers, and outlaws, and now in his middle years was determined to bar the outside world - even the tin stars and United States marshals with their official papers and documents. But when Billy arrived, the Lincoln County frontier was slowly changing, the king's domain was being challenged by the growing number of smaller ranchers like the Coes, and there was the smell of death in the thin desert air.

The second combatant in this growing war was L. G. Murphy & Co., called "The Company," run by the deadly Jimmy Dolan and Jimmy Riley in league with Jesse Evans's outlaws. Even the powerful Chisum appeared helpless against the Murphy combination. In addition to its hired guns, "The Company" had the protection of the Santa Fe Ring, a seemingly invincible group of corrupt politicians that controlled prosecuting attorneys, judges, sheriffs, and deputies, along with the profitable army and Indian agency contracts. A hundred years later the power and corruption in the Territory appears incredible; even Washington seemed unable to crush it.

The Meeting

In March Billy, weary of being hunted, wrote to Governor Wallace offering to come in and discuss his surrender. The simply written letter with few errors is impressive proof Billy the Kid was far from the legendary bucktoothed moron. Wallace, who would always remember that meeting, sat at a table with Wilson, who knew and liked the Kid, in a room on the east side of the adobe building. A coal oil lamp cast wavering shadows on the wall. Promptly at nine o'clock there was a knock at the door. "Come in," Wallace called out.

The door opened and Billy stepped inside. "I was sent to meet Governor Wallace at nine o'clock," he said to Wilson. "Is he here?" Wallace, a well-built man with a dark spade beard, rose and motioned Billy to an empty chair. "I am Governor Wallace," he said. "Your note gave me promise of utmost protection," Billy pointed out. "Yes, I have been true to my promise," the governor replied. "This man here, whom of course you know, and I are the only ones in the house."

Billy slowly lowered the Winchester he was cradling in one arm and advanced to the table where he shook hands with Wallace and Wilson. It was one of the most dramatic and romantic meetings in frontier history: the boy outlaw and the prominent Civil War general. Billy the Kid and Wallace, the man who had been Lincoln's friend, who had saved Washington from capture by Jubal Early's troops, who had investigated the shocking conditions at Andersonville, and who had served on the jury that tried the Lincoln conspirators, studied each other in the dim light as the night wind moaned about the eaves.

They talked for more than an hour with Wallace urging Billy to testify before the grand jury as a people's witness. In return he promised a complete pardon. For Billy a pardon meant many things: to be able to wander about the Bonito and Ruidoso valleys, living the free life, drifting from cow camp to ranch, stopping off at the little Mexican villages to whirl the pretty girls about in a wild fandango, caring not for tomorrow only for today, and never more to sleep under a bush with a Winchester while playing hare and hounds with the sheriff's posse and bounty hunters eager to collect that $500 reward ...

But the Kid pointed out to Wallace that the Dolan-Murphy-Riley Santa Fe forces still controlled the Territory; if he turned state's evidence he could be dead within hours. Wallace assured him he had the power and men to protect him. The Kid finally accepted Wallace's plan; after a planned arrest, he would be taken before a grand jury. Following his appearance as a witness in a trial against Campbell, Evans, and the others, the indictment for the Brady murder would be dismissed. As the governor promised, he would go "scot-free."

Billy said he would think it over and left. Two days later Jesse Evans and Bill Campbell easily escaped from the Fort Stanton guardhouse. The Kid sent a letter to Squire Wilson, asking him to talk to Wallace and find out if the deal was still firm; Wilson's brief note assured him it was.

On March 21, 1879, Billy allowed himself to be "captured" by Sheriff Kimbrell and a posse; Tom O'Folliard insisted he go along. Billy made himself at home in jail with friends constantly visiting him. The amazed Wallace reported that one night he heard music and went outside to find musicians "actually serenading" the Kid in jail.

Killing of Billy The Kid

In May 1881, Pat Garrett hired John Poe, a lean, taciturn Kentuckian, as a deputy. He had cleaned up Fort Griffin, as wild in its day as Abilene or Dodge, then joined the Canadian River Cattle Association as a stockman's detective. He resigned his U.S. deputy marshal's post when Garrett offered him the job as deputy sheriff of Lincoln County.

Poe began a methodical cleanup of rustlers and horse thieves, trailing some into Arizona where he took them at gunpoint. In July, when he stopped off at White Oaks, a barroom derelict whom he had befriended told him a strange story: he had been sleeping off a drunk in a livery stable when he heard two men discussing Billy the Kid and how he was still living at Fort Sumner.

Poe was stunned; both he and Garrett assumed that by this time Billy was safe in Mexico. He missed Garrett in Lincoln but finally found him at his ranch on the Pecos. Pat was skeptical and reluctantly agreed to ride with Poe and Roswell Deputy Sheriff Thomas L. (Tip) McKinney to Sumner.

It is difficult to explain Garrett's strange lethargy. Perhaps he was bored with his job and yearned for the rancher's life he loved. Then again he might have been secretly jubilant that Billy had made his escape - it is clear he was uneasy when Poe gave him the news.

Pat Garrett, Billy's friend of those wonderful lazy days when the only crisis was a bad poker hand in Beaver Smith's saloon, now rode slowly along the trail toward Fort Sumner where Billy the Kid almost fatalistically waited for their meeting ...

Garrett's account of how he killed Billy the Kid on that warm July evening in 1881, written by the unreliable Ash Upton, has been the standard version, but Poe's account, not as well known, is vivid and precise. Published in a London magazine shortly after World War I, Poe gives a step-by-step account of the killing of the West's greatest legend.

Billy was placed in a cheap pine box set up on two wooden horses. While the Mexican women prayed during the night, Billy's friends came into the room one by one to pay their respects. First there was only the moonlight, then someone from the Maxwell family brought candles, which were placed at the foot and head of the coffin.

In the morning they buried him in the old military cemetery next to Tom O'Folliard and Charlie Bowdre. There was no priest or minister in the community so each mourner said his own prayers as the sunbaked dirt hit the coffin with a hollow sound. Billy had lived twenty-one years, seven months, and twenty-two days.

James D. Horan. The Authentic Wild West: The Outlaws. Crown Publishers, Inc., New York. Copywright 1976.

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