Billy the Kid
Billy the Kid has been described in legend as being a ruthless killer, an outlaw who died at the age of twenty-one. It was said he took the lives of twenty-one men, one for each year of his life, the first one when he was just twelve years old. In reality, the Kid was not the cold-blooded killer as he has been portrayed, but a young man who lived in a violent dog-eat-dog world, where knowing how to use a gun was the difference between life and death.
Billy did kill four men and was involved with gangs who killed a further five (whether it was Billy’s bullet or someone else’s that made the killing shot no-one will ever know, but Billy has been credited with all five of these deaths). As for the other supposed 12 killings, Billy was not involved in any of these.
Billy the Kid is a misunderstood outlaw and gunfighter of the Old West. He was not a cold-blooded killer, nor was he a robber of trains or banks. He was a gunfighter, he shot men in self defence or in the process of a jailbreak.
Billy the Kid’s real name was William Henry Bonney (or later McCarthy – the name of his younger brother Joseph’s father), when and where he was born or who or what happened to his father, is not known. It’s estimated that he was born around 1860-61 possibly in New York, making him nineteen or twenty at the time of his death in 1881.
His mother Catherine died of Tuberculosis in 1874. The thirteen-year-old Kid took his mother’s death hard. His stepfather didn’t want to be burdened with two small boys, so he separated them and placed them in foster homes.
The Kid now had to earn his own keep, so he worked washing dishes and doing chores. After a year of no parental guidance and looking out for himself, the Kid quickly fell in with the wrong crowd. In 1875, one of his troublemaking buddies, Sombrero Jack, stole some laundry from a Chinese laundry cleaner and told the Kid to hide the bundle. The Kid got caught with it and was arrested, but the Kid escaped and ran away.
The Kid wandered from one ranch to another to find work. For the next 2 years the Kid made a living as a ranch hand and gambler.
One day while at a saloon in Camp Grant, Arizona, the Kid, got into an argument with a bully named Frank Cahill, who had picked on him numerous times before. After some name-calling, Cahill rushed the Kid and slammed him down on the ground, then jumped on top of him and proceeded to punch him in the face. The Kid worked his hand free to his revolver and fired it into Cahill’s gut. When Cahill fell over the Kid squirmed free, ran off, and mounted the nearest horse and fled Camp Grant. This was his first killing and arguably self defence, but The Kid didn’t stick around to face murder charges and left Arizona and returned to New Mexico. Now an outlaw and unable to find honest work, The Kid met up with other outlaws and joined a gang of rustlers.
He fought as a gunfighter in a feud, which escalated and became known as The Lincoln County War. Billy’s role in the LCW was minor. After the war, he became a small-scale rustler. Although Billy the Kid was one of many who fought and killed during the LCW, he was the only one that faced conviction and was sentenced to death. When Billy the Kid used his wit and courage to escape his date with the hangman, he boosted his notoriety higher than before and was now a fugitive. Billy the Kid wasn’t an innocent victim, but he was made a scapegoat.
Billy the Kid made his living by gambling and rustling cattle. The Kid wrote to the governor that he was tired of running and would surrender to authorities and testify against the Dolan side of the LCW in return for having his murder charges dropped. The governor agreed and promised the Kid a full pardon.
The Kid surrendered and testified in court, but due to the corruption in the court system, the accused were acquitted, and the prosecuting attorney wanted to put the Kid on trial for the murder of Sheriff Brady and hanged (the sheriff and his deputy were killed by another gang, The Kid had nothing to do with these deaths, but was accused of them). The Kid felt betrayed when he learned that the Governor didn’t have the power to pardon him. Billy the Kid knew he didn’t stand a chance in court and he had lost faith in the governor, so he escaped.
On the run again and an outlaw, the Kid went back to making a living the only way he knew how –rustling. There were other outlaws and rustlers in New Mexico, much worse than Billy the Kid, but the Kid had gained fame and was singled out by the newspapers who built him up into something he wasn’t and christened him with a name that he would forever be know “Billy the Kid.”
Since the end of the Lincoln County War, the Kid spent two years eluding the law and living in and around Fort Sumner. While in Fort Sumner, he killed a drunk at a saloon after the man pulled a gun on him, but when the drunk’s gun failed to fire, the Kid shot him (killing number 2 and self defence once again). The killing was shrugged off and got little to almost no attention, but unfortunately, the Kid got into a more serious murder rap. It happened when a posse from White Oaks surrounded him and his gang at a station house and during the standoff the posse accidentally killed their own deputy, James Carlyle. The death was credited to the Kid and destroyed any chance for him to get things squared up with the governor for his pardon.
Pat Garrett was elected sheriff and made US marshal to hunt for Billy the Kid. During the pursuit for Billy the Kid, Garrett ended up killing two of the Kid’s closest comrades, Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre. Finally on December 23, 1880 Garrett trapped the Kid and three other gang members at a cabin in Stinking Springs; after a short standoff, Billy the Kid surrendered.
Billy the Kid was quickly put on trial in Mesilla and was sentence to hang for the murder of Sheriff Brady. After his sentence was passed, the Kid was taken to Lincoln to await his hanging. The Kid was shackled and imprisoned in a room in the Lincoln courthouse as two deputies took turns guarding over him. On April 28, 1881 the Kid was successful in getting a drop on the lone guard, Deputy James Bell, by slipping his hand out of the handcuffs and using the heavy restraints to hit the deputy over the head. The Kid then jerked Bell’s pistol and told him to throw up his hands, but instead the deputy ran and the Kid shot him (killing number 3). The other guard, Bob Olinger was across the street having dinner when he suddenly heard the gunshots. He ran toward the building and as the Kid saw him approaching, he shot him (killing number 4). The Kid rode out of Lincoln and headed to the only place he could call home: Fort Sumner.
The Kid had friends in Fort Sumner that he trusted and he decided to lay low long enough until he could leave the territory. By July of 1881, Garrett heard rumours that Billy the Kid was in the Fort Sumner area, so with two deputies he rode into Fort Sumner.
On July 14, 1881, Pat Garrett slipped into Pete Maxwell’s room. Garrett was a former employee of Pete Maxwell’s and Maxwell may have tipped Garrett off that the Kid was in the area. Billy the Kid walked into Pete’s room and Garrett shot him. The bullet pierced the Kid’s heart.
Billy the Kid was buried at the Fort Sumner cemetery near his two fallen comrades, Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre. He was killed not for who he really was, but for what people thought he was. He was a pawn in a losing game and he was made a scapegoat for other outlaws’ crimes. He did participate in some killing, but was not responsible for all the deaths attributed to him. This nineteen or twenty year old lived a short life but made a lasting impression.