Historical Biography: Billy The Kid

The outlaw Billy the Kid led a life of robbery, murder and rustling. Learn about his adventures, influence, and fame.

There was an unwritten code in the Old West which declared that killing a man was a lesser crime than stealing his horse or rustling his cattle, but a lawbreaker -- convicted or not -- could get hung for all three offenses. The infamous outlaw Billy the Kid had been convicted all these things, and more. He was a festering boil in the Territory of New Mexico. The law could not ride him down. Even on the rare occasions that authorities had been able to throw him in the clink, he had wiggled from their grasp before the hangman managed to get a noose around his scrawny neck.

No less a person than Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States, was agitating for an end to the lawless mess the Kid was creating in New Mexico territory. There had even been attempts by the territorial governor to call a truce with the young desperado, but to no avail. Now all the options had been played out and a very stubborn Lincoln County sheriff, Pat Garrett, was hot on the Kid's trail. Like Billy he, too, had murder in his eyes.

Billy the Kid's real name was Patrick Henry McCarty, and he was born in 1859 in New York City. After his father's death, the widow and her two sons (what happened to the eldest son is unknown) moved to New Mexico. She married William Antrim at Santa Fe, then died a year later. Fourteen-year-old Billy had no love for his stepfather, so he moved out of the house and into a nearby hotel.

For a while young Henry McCarty worked as a handy man, exchanging chores at the hotel for room and board. Had he minded his dirty dishes and yard work, his life would have probably turned out much differently. But he began associating with a ne'er do well who called himself "Sombrero Jack." Jack led the impressionable, rebellious lad into a life of iniquity which turned very sour when Henry killed his first man, a blacksmith by the name of Frank P. Cahill.

From there it was all downhill. Now known as Billy the Kid, McCarty robbed, murdered, and rustled cattle. His most infamous escapade began in the winter of 1878 when he hired on with John H. Tunstall, who owned a cattle ranch on the Rio Feliz about 30 miles south of Lincoln, New Mexico.

Tunstall was a tweedy, proper English gentleman who took a shine to the little bucktoothed rider and a warm friendship developed between them. Unfortunately, the liaison was cut short when Tunstall was murdered in cold blood by elements of a faction determined to control commercial interests in the area. An enraged Billy reciprocated by dispatching five of the men suspected of killing Tunstall, including the sheriff of Lincoln County.

The so-called Lincoln County War erupted in a hail of lead when Billy and his cohorts took refuge in three Lincoln buildings and exchanged gunfire with about 40 guns organized by newly appointed sheriff George Peppin. The gunfight lasted two days. Then the army got in on the act, complete with a pair of Gatling guns. The building in which Billy and most of his men were hold up was fired and the defenders made a dash for freedom, but not before about half of them were cut down in the street.

To his credit, it must be said that Territorial Governor Lew Wallace (the same man who was to write the classic novel "Ben Hur" in a few years) tried to make peace without further bloodshed, in spite of the pressure he was getting from the White House. He even offered amnesty to those involved in the Lincoln County War -- that is, if the individuals had no outstanding warrants against them. Billy, of course, had several warrants for murder hanging over his head. Legend has it that Wallace called a secret meeting with the Kid and offered to help him if he would give himself up and go to trial. However, Billy remained on the owlhoot trail and Wallace had so choice but to send the newly elected Lincoln County sheriff, Pat Garrett, out to get him.

Garrett almost got the kid once. On Christmas Eve, 1880, the former buffalo hunter from Alabama got a tip that Billy and his band of cattle rustlers were heading for Fort Sumner. As Billy and four of his long riders appeared out of a raging blizzard, Garrett and his posse opened fire. The Kid got away but his number one henchman, Tom O'Folliard, was blasted out of the saddle.

By summer, the slippery Kid was giving Sheriff Garrett the proverbial black eye. Political pressure to get the Kid was increasing. In July, Garrett and his deputies began an all-out campaign to terminate the Kid once and for all. The fugitive had recently escaped from jail and would be fine-tuned to any trap. When an informant told Garrett that the Kid was back in Fort Sumner, Garrett hightailed it over from Lincoln with two deputies in tow.

Garrett turned Fort Sumner upside down looking for Billy. About midnight, Garrett and his deputies visited the house of Pete Maxwell, a well known associate of the Kid. After leaving his two deputies on the front porch, Garrett went inside and shook Maxwell awake.

"Where's Billy?" Garrett growled.

Maxwell didn't know.

At this very moment the Kid, himself, stepped up on the porch. Garrett drew his gun and hunkered down beside Maxwell's bed in the darkness. Maxwell was much too frightened to shout the alarm.

Billy questioned the deputies who, unbelievably, didn't recognize him. Why were they there? Then the little outlaw, six gun in his hand, shouted into the house in rapid Spanish, "Pete, who are these men?"

The Kid's figure was now framed in the doorway, moonlight at his back. Garrett took aim and fired. By the time a lamp could be lit, Billy the Kid was dead on the floor, a bullet through his heart.

In a split second the infamous trail of Billy the Kid had ended, bushwhacked by a lone bullet fired from the darkness. In those violent days, justice could be swift and to the point.

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