Depending on the story you read, William Henry “Billy the Kid” McCarty was either a hero or an outlaw. The only thing that can be said for certain about him is that he was a young boy, alone, during a violent time of American history.
Billy was born late in 1859 in New York City to Catherine McCarty. There is no record of his father (possibly his father was named Bonney and this is why he used the surname at times) and he and his brother were probably raised by their mother alone. The family moved to Indianapolis for a while, where she met William Antrim. After being diagnosed with tuberculosis, Catherine and her family moved to New Mexico where she married William Antrim, presumably hoping he will care for her two boys.
Silver City, New Mexico Territory
The family settled in Silver City in 1873, but sadly, within two years, Catherine would be laid in her grave. Billy was sent to work at a hotel at the age of 14 and his stepfather took off for Arizona. The young man worked to earn his keep and was well thought of by the family that ran the hotel. When his foster family began to experience domestic issues, Billy was sent to live in a boarding house. Left to fend for himself, he was arrested for stealing cheese, and a short time later he was implicated in a robbery, charged with larceny and jailed. As he was of slight build, Billy was able to climb up the chimney and escape, leading to the first newspaper story about him.
Camp Grant, Arizona Territory
In April, 1876, Billy arrived in Camp Grant and soon found work at nearby ranches. Despite some questionable activities, the boy is well liked by most of the men and his petty thievery was dismissed as a necessity to support himself. He was a frequent gambler and soon became part of a local gang of horse thieves. It is there that the men begin calling him “the Kid”, probably due to his age, small stature, and delinquency.
The Kid and his new mentor, criminal John R Mackie, were arrested and charged with stealing horses belonging to soldiers from a nearby camp. His name is given as “Henry Antrim alias Kid” and, despite being shackled, he manages to escape again.
After a few months during which his whereabouts were unknown, the Kid returns to Camp Grant and gets into an altercation during a poker game. Blacksmith Francis Cahill pinned the Kid to the ground during a fight, and was subsequently shot. Cahill died the next day, and the Kid was implicated in his murder, despite multiple witnesses that stated that young Billy acted in self-defense.
Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory
Back in New Mexico, the Kid, now calling himself William H Bonney, joined with another band of outlaws and was soon arrested for stealing horses belonging to John Tunstall. Surprisingly, when Billy was released, Tunstall offered him a job as a cowboy and a hired gun for the ranch. The arrangement worked well, and in February of 1878 Tunstall left Billy and four other hired hands to tend the ranch while Tunstall transported horses to Lincoln.
On the way, John Tunstall was killed and his horses taken by a posse claiming to be acting on the orders of Sherrif William Brady. The members of the gang had in fact been hired by James Dolan, a wealthy businessman and racketeer who was in competition with Tunstall for control of the dry goods trade. Dolan’s gang was commonly known as The Boys and they were headed by notorious outlaw Jesse Evans.
The murder signaled the start of what would become known as the Lincoln County War, one of the great range wars of America’s Old West. Tunstall’s foreman was appointed “special constable” by the justice of the peace John Wilson, and he immediately deputized a posse that was known as the Regulators. The group considered themselves as a lawful posse that had been given license to avenge the murder of John Tunstall. Billy was 19 when he set off with the other Regulators to carry out their task.
The group quickly captured three members of The Boys, but all three are subsequently killed on the way to the Lincoln Jail. Samuel Beach Axtell, the Governor of New Mexico, cancelled Wilson’s appointment as justice of the peace, thereby turning the Regulators from a lawful posse into outlaws.
In retaliation for the death of Tunstall, five of the Regulators, including the Kid, ambushed Sherriff Brady, killing both him and a deputy. For three months the violence continued to escalate and several more people are killed. Only the Regulators are indicted.
July 15, 1878, the Five-Day War, a bloodbath involving 60 Regulators against about 40 gun-fighting members of The Boys kicked off. After five days the army cavalry took control of the fighting by aiming a Gatling gun and a howitzer at the house that held the Regulators, threatening to blow the house away if any of them fired. Several Regulators escaped out the back and only 13 remained.
Newly appointed Sherriff, George Peppin, set the house on fire while calling for those inside to surrender. Billy ran, presumably trying to distract the Sherriff’s men and allow the others to escape, but he was not successful. Most of the others were killed in “the big killing” that ensues. Billy went into hiding.
Later that year, newly appointed Governor Lew Wallace pardoned all parties involved in the Lincoln War. As he was under indictment for the killing of Sherriff Brady and another man, the pardon does not apply to Billy, who was now on the run.
One year after the murder of John Tunstall, Billy and four others met with James Dolan and four of his men. Despite nearly turning violent, ultimately the meeting resulted in both sides agreeing to stop testifying against or killing each other. Billy began writing to Governor Wallace requesting immunity, and Wallace agreed to pardon him if he will testify against the men who killed Tunstall and others. Two men, including James Dolan, were indicted based on Billy’s testimony and a third was named as an accessory to murder. Dolan, who had ties to powerful criminal organizations, was later acquitted.
The Kid left town and was said to have travelled to Las Vegas, Nevada, where he dined with Jesse James. He spent time near Fort Sumner, where he killed a drunk in a saloon, but not much else was heard of him. In November 1880, a posse tracked Billy and his gang to a ranch near White Oaks, Nevada, and a local blacksmith was killed while attempting to negotiate a surrender with the Kid. A second story stated that the man killed was a local cattle rustler who was mistaken for the Kid. Despite his unclear identity, each side blamed the other for the man’s death.
In December of 1880 an editorial was published in the Las Vegas Gazette, naming William McCarty as “Billy the Kid” and embellishing his reputation as an outlaw. Billy wrote again to Governor Wallace proclaiming his innocence in the death of the blacksmith, but Wallace offered a $500 reward for the capture of the Kid. Pat Garrett, now the sheriff of Lincoln County, captures the Kid and brings him to Las Vegas.
Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory
The trial for the murder of Sherriff Brady was held in Santa Fe. Billy’s appointed representative was a man who had published viscous editorials attacking on Billy and his gang. After only two days, the Kid was convicted and sentenced to hang. He was the only person ever convicted for crimes stemming from the Lincoln County War.
While awaiting execution, the Kid managed to take a gun from his guard, shoot him and a second guard, break the shackles from his ankles with a pickaxe, steal a horse and escape.
Fort Sumner, De Baca County, New Mexico Territory
Billy had a girlfriend, Paulita Maxwell, who lived in Fort Sumner, and Sherriff Garret tracked the Kid to her house. The stories vary as to exactly what happened, but many believe that Garrett shot an armed Billy as he walked through the darkness in the house. A coroner ruled that the Kid’s death was justifiable homicide and William Henry “Billy the Kid” McCarty was carried to the Fort Sumner cemetery and laid to rest. He was not yet 22 years old.