1881: In the village of Fort Sumner, New Mexico a young man is shot dead by law enforcement. He’d arrived at the home of a rancher to buy meat and got more than he bargained for.
1950: An elderly man passes away from a heart attack on the way to the Post Office in the city of Hico, Texas.
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Two very different forms of demise, 70 years apart. What links them? They’re both said to bring the legend of Billy The Kid to a close.
The notorious story has several versions. No-one knows for sure where he came from or how he exited this world.
What the history books show is he was born Henry McCarty, in a poor area of New York 1859.
His family were Irish immigrants. Father Patrick died when Henry was an infant. Mother Catherine then headed West and married William Antrim. Sadly she died of tuberculosis in 1874.
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Antrim focused on prospecting for gold, ignoring the treasure of a young man in his charge. “Left in the care of an absentee stepfather,” writes History.com, “the future gunslinger spent the next year living in foster homes and boardinghouses.
Before long, he fell in with a rough crowd and turned to petty crime and thievery.” The path to Wild West infamy was set.
Over the next few years he earned a reputation as a formidable fighter, outlaw and escapologist extraordinaire.
He slipped his first jail cell in 1875. Arguably the most formative experience lay in Arizona. Wayward Henry had a while to go before attaining legendary status. Working initially as a ranch hand – where the nickname “Kid” was first applied – he went on to sign up for the military at Camp Grant.
In what sounds like a familiar Western movie scene, he shot and killed Frank “Windy” Cahill over a card game. Blacksmith Cahill was his first recorded victim.
Following the incident Henry rebranded himself as William H Bonney. Young fugitive Billy The Kid went on the run, spending much of his time one step ahead of the law.
Billy fell in with John C. Tunstall, an English rancher in Lincoln County, New Mexico. As Tunstall’s friend and gunslinger, he appeared to find a home.
However when Tunstall was murdered by his enemies, it sparked the bloody and factional Lincoln County War (1878 – 81). The Kid was a member of a posse called The Regulators. In their sights was one Sheriff Brady, who was mixed up in the slaying of Tunstall.
At the start of April 1878, they put in motion a plan that would haunt Billy for the rest of his days. PBS recounts, “The Kid and five other Regulators position themselves in a corral hidden by a 10-foot wall.
As Sheriff Brady walks down the street they open fire, killing him and a deputy in retaliation”.
The Lincoln County War culminated in a 5 day long battle in Lincoln town. Lew Wallace became new Governor of the New Mexico Territory, charged with restoring law and order.
While an amnesty was on the table for some combatants, Billy had the death of Brady hanging over his head. A deal was done whereby Billy agreed to hand himself in and testify against the War’s instigators.
The Kid got his freedom but fell foul of Wallace in 1880 over the shooting of another man – Jim Carlyle, another blacksmith! Wallace put a $500 price tag on Billy’s head, and the chase was on.
His pursuer was Sheriff Pat Garrett, with whom he’d previously forged a friendship. Garrett caught him in 1881 and The Kid was sentenced to death for the killing of Sheriff Brady.
Despite previously aiding authorities, this made him the only individual ever convicted over the Lincoln County War.
Maybe the lawmen knew deep down they couldn’t hold The Kid for long. The legend promptly made his escape from captivity. History.com writes, “During a trip to the outhouse, the Kid slipped out of his handcuffs, ambushed a guard and shot the man to death with his own pistol.
He then armed himself with a double-barreled shotgun and gunned down a second guard who was crossing the street.” Using a pickaxe to break open his shackles he rode off into the sunset, drawing the nation’s attention in the process.
After 3 months of searching, Garrett received a tip off concerning rancher Pete Maxwell. Billy showed up at Maxwell’s home looking for some beef, and the Sheriff was waiting for him with a bullet.
That’s the official version, though when Brushy Bill Roberts claimed he was Billy The Kid in 1950 the legend made headlines again. Roberts died shortly after requesting a pardon for his crimes. How credible is it that he was the famous outlaw?
Definitive evidence is tough to come by – the Pecos river flooded Billy’s grave and many others at Fort Sumner, meaning his bones have been lost to the elements. Fitting for a celebrity of the Old West but maddening for history hounds.
“Roberts had all of the scars Billy the Kid had according to records” notes Outdoor Revival. “This included gun and knife wounds.” Friends and associates of Billy seemed convinced he was the genuine article. In 1990 the story got a modern twist, when facial recognition software revealed a 93% match with images of The Kid.
One key factor debunked the claim – Roberts was born in 1879, which put the matter to bed for most people.
Whether Billy The Kid died in New Mexico or Texas, he was still a tough personality to pin down. The legend is one thing, the truth another.
Mr Bonney could certainly sling lead like a pro. However… according to History.com he was also “known for his easygoing personality”. (The site then adds “but he wasn’t afraid to draw his six-shooter when provoked”!)
He ran from the law, but didn’t shrink back from co-operating with it. An 1879 letter to Gov Wallace declares “I have no wish to fight any more.
Indeed I have not raised an arm since your proclamation’. Billy goes on to sign it “your obedeint (sic) servant.”
Garrett was reportedly the man who brought him down. Yet the pair were pals, as well as cat and mouse. PBS mentions the events of Dec 23rd 1880, when the Sheriff closed in: “After a day of banter between the Kid and Garrett, the Kid and his men surrender, allegedly drawn out by the aroma of bacon and beans from Garrett’s posse.”
He may have sounded like a character from a Western. Indeed, many movies have been made about his life – most recently Vincent D’Onofrio’s The Kid (2019) starring Ethan Hawke as Garrett and Dane DeHaan as Billy.
Even so, History.com observes he didn’t follow the cliche. “The young gunslinger stole the occasional horse,” it writes, “but he never once held up a bank, train or even a stagecoach.”
New Video of Ned Kelly’s Life and Controversial Legacy
The real Henry McCarty is as mysterious as the real William H Bonney… or as one poster names him, Wm. Wright. The man may be long gone, but the legend lives on.