Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid was born William Henry McCarty Jnr on November 23rd 1859 in New York City. He was slim, fair haired, blue eyed, with prominent front teeth and possessed a temper that could veer from charming and polite to angry violence in seconds. Legend has it that he killed 21 men in his short life, but this is certainly exaggerated. His father deserted the family when Billy was nine and his mother Catherine moved with Billy and his brother Joseph to Indianapolis Indiana where she met a William Antrim. The couple and the two boys moved around the country for a few years until they arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico where, in 1873 they married and finally settled down in Silver City. Antrim became involved in prospecting and gambling and spent little time at home and Catherine had to bake pies, wash clothes and take in boarders to support her children.

Billy became an orphan when, at the age of 15, his mother died of tuberculosis. Left to themselves, Billy and his brother drifted into petty crime. He was then taken in by a neighbour who ran a small hotel and worked for his keep until the business failed and he moved to a boarding house and pursued odd jobs to support himself.

In April 1875, he was arrested by Grant County Sherriff Harvey Whitehill for stealing cheese. On September 24th, he was again arrested when found in possession of clothing and firearms that a fellow boarder had stolen from a Chinese laundry. Two days after being jailed, Billy escaped by climbing the jailhouse chimney. From then on in he was a fugitive.

He drifted to Arizona and settled in the vicinity of Fort Grant where he found work as a ranch hand. It was here that he met John Mackie, a Scottish born ex cavalryman and together they began stealing horses from the local army post and selling them on. About this time he began to use his stepfather’s name of Antrim as an alias and also picked up the nickname “Kid” due to his slight build and his pleasant and juvenile personality.
In 1877, he became involved with a Fort Grant blacksmith called Frank “Windy” Cahill, who took pleasure in bullying Billy and on April 17th that year the pair got into an argument during which the Kid shot Cahill. He claimed he acted in self defence, but the coroner called it “A criminal and unjustifiable act”.

Fearing arrest and also the vengeance of Cahill’s friends, he fled to New Mexico where he joined a gang of cattle rustlers who raided the stock of the cattle magnate John Chisum. During one raid he was spotted by a resident of Silver City and his involvement with the gang was mentioned in the local newspaper.

He then joined a gang of rustlers known as the Jesse Evans gang and on one occasion while riding alone, his horse was stolen by Apache Indians and he was forced to walk for miles to the nearest settlement. In very poor condition, he knocked at the door of Heiskel Jones, a farmer of Pecos Valley who took him in and nursed him back to health. The family took a liking to him and when he recovered, they gave him a horse. He told them his name was William H. Bonney, a name that he then continued to use thereafter.

In late 1877, he was in Lincoln County, New Mexico, working on a ranch owned by three cousins, Frank Coe, George Coe and Abe Saunders and their neighbour Richard Brewer. A growing conflict known today as The Lincoln County Wars had erupted in the area between two established town merchants, Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan and competing business interests headed by John Tunstall, an English cattle rancher, banker and merchant, and his partner Alexander Mcsween, a prominent lawyer.

Before the arrival of Dolan and Mcsween, the two merchants Murphy and Dolan had a monopoly of all Lincoln County cattle and merchant trade and resented attempts by the others to intrude on their business. They ran their business from a mansion known as “The House” with a large gang of enforcers, including Lincoln County Sherriff William Brady.  Tunstall hired Billy and his friends as cattle guards and events turned very bloody in February 1878 when an unofficial posse, led by Brady, ambushed and killed Tunstall as he was driving a herd of horses to sell in Lincoln. They also killed his prize horse and as a macabre joke, placed Tunstall’s hat on the dead horse’s head.

Tunstall’s murder enraged his men who formed a group calling themselves “The Regulators” and swore to get revenge. Their chance came when Tunstall’s foreman, Dick Brewer, was appointed a Special Constable and given a warrant to find Tunstall’s killers. He deputised Billy and the other cattle guards who lost no time in chasing after two of the suspects, Bill Morton and Frank Baker who they arrested on March 5th 1878. When the posse returned to Lincoln on the 9th however, they stated that the two men had been killed while trying to escape. There was obviously a little more to this story as it was later revealed that one of the posse, a man named McCloskey, was also shot for being suspected by them as a traitor.

They then turned their attention to Sherriff Brady, and on April 1st ambushed him and his deputy George Hindman, killing them in a shootout on a Lincoln Street. During the fight, Billy was shot in the thigh as he tried to retrieve a rifle that Brady had taken from him earlier. Their next target was another suspect called Buckshot Roberts, a former buffalo hunter and in the ensuing gunfight Roberts was killed but not before he had killed Dick Brewer and wounded four of the Regulators.

The two factions continued the feud and on the 29th April the Regulators were ambushed by friends of the dead Sherriff Brady who killed one and captured two others.  In retaliation the Regulators rode into Lincoln looking for revenge and another gunfight broke out, but this time some US Cavalrymen became involved. By shooting at government forces, the Regulators now had the Federal authorities against them.

Billy and the Regulators were now under indictment for the Brady murder and they went into hiding at a ranch in Lincoln County. Brady’s supporters and a troop of US Cavalry tracked them down and laid siege to the building. The siege lasted five days until the building was set on fire and as the Regulators fled, McSween was killed.

In the autumn of 1878, the President appointed a former army general, Lew Wallace, as Governor of New Mexico. Wallace declared an amnesty for any man involved in the Lincoln County War who was not under indictment. Billy, who had fled to Texas after the siege, was still under indictment for the Brady shooting but wrote to Wallace requesting immunity in return for testifying before a Grand Jury. The pair met in Lincoln County in March 1879 to discuss a deal, but a wary Billy was reported to have kept a pistol in one hand and a Winchester rifle in the other throughout the meeting.

A deal was made whereby Billy would give testimony in return for an amnesty. He agreed to submit to a token arrest and a stay in jail until he had testified. He was however wary of a trap and wrote to Wallace about the detail of his surrender, stating, “Sir, I will keep the appointment I made but be sure and have men come that you can depend on. I am not afraid to die like a man fighting, but I would not like to be killed like a dog unarmed”.

His evidence was sufficient to send John Dolan to prison, but the local District Attorney, an associate of Dolan and “The House”, disregarded Wallace’s order to release Billy. With the help of some friends, Billy escaped and for the next one and a half years made a living by rustling and gambling.

In January 1880, he was in a saloon in Fort Summer when he met a fellow gambler called Joe Grant. Grant was not aware of Billy’s identity and boasted that he would kill Billy the Kid if ever they met. This clearly amused the outlaw, who asked if he could take a look at Grant’s ivory handled revolver. It was a practise of the time to load six shooters with only five rounds, leaving the hammer resting on an empty chamber to avoid an accidental discharge. Billy is reported to have rotated Grant’s cylinder so that the hammer would fall on an empty chamber when the trigger was pulled. When Grant fired nothing happened and Billy shot him. Speaking of the incident later, Billy said “It was a game for two and I got there first”.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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