Often glorified and romanticized by Hollywood, the Wild West nonetheless had some colorful characters who hold a unique place in American history. The stories, which include many notorious outlaws, sheriffs, miners, fur trappers, buffalo hunters, cowboys, Native American chiefs, and gunslingers, bestow a mystique on the era and surely will continue doing so for years to come.
Perhaps one of the most interesting lives of the Wild West is that of Billy the Kid, one of America’s most notorious outlaws and bank robbers. While many people have heard the saga of Billy the Kid and his nemesis, Sheriff Pat Garrett, what is less known about the Kid’s life is his facility with languages. He was actually trilingual and might have acted as a translator for Irish immigrants.
During the 1800s, more than 1 million Irish people immigrated to the United States, with many settling in either New York City or Boston. Most of them were native Gaelic speakers, which meant that people who spoke both English and Gaelic were always welcomed to help the new settlers. According to historian and writer Chuck Usmar, one such man was Henry McCarty, aka Billy the Kid.
A recording of Clark Hust, a cowboy who reportedly worked on a ranch with the infamous gunslinger, brings us the fact that Billy the Kid spoke fluent Irish. In the recording, Hust tells that while he and Billy the Kid were working at the ranch, the owner, Pat Coghlan, had a niece, Mary, who came from Ireland to stay with the family. According to Hust, the girl could only speak Irish and Coghlan spoke only English, so they used the Kid who spoke both English and Irish as a translator.
Usmar examined some newspapers from the period and found out that Coghlan’s niece really came to visit, which meant that Hust was not lying about her existence, but we can never be sure if Billy the Kid really acted as a translator. Some historians believe that the Kid could also speak fluent Spanish.
Not much is confirmed about the birthplace of Henry McCarty, but most historians agree that it was New York. What is certain about him is that he had Irish blood running through his veins, and was believed to have been a first generation Irish-American.
Billy the Kid’s biological father still remains a mystery for Wild West historians. He is believed to have either died or left his family while the Kid was still young. It is known that his mother was named Catherine McCarty and died of tuberculosis in 1874, leaving her 15 years old son orphaned.
It is estimated that the Kid was born in 1859, and around 1872 his family moved to New Mexico, where just a few years later the legend of Billy the Kid began. By 1875, he had been already arrested for the first time. The next year, the teenager allegedly killed his first man and shortly after he killed another. Because of his age and short stature, the young man earned the nickname Billy the Kid and soon became one of the most wanted men in the Wild West.
Legend has it that Billy the Kid killed 27 people, but there is no clear evidence whether this is true and many experts claim that he actually didn’t kill more than six people. Nonetheless, in 1878 he became involved in the Lincoln County War and ended up killing Sheriff James Brady. Soon after, he was placed on a wanted list with a $500 bounty on his head.
Many people were after him and he was captured in 1880 and sentenced to death. He somehow managed to escape, but Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked him down in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and shot him dead. Today, not everyone is convinced that Sheriff Garrett really gunned down Billy the Kid, with some believing that the famed outlaw faked his own death.