Billy the Kid was famous across the Wild West and beyond as an outlaw, gunslinger and crook. Born in 1859 as Henry McCarty in New York City, he assumed the sobriquet Billy during his tenure as an outlaw, a vocation he pursued from 1877 when he shot a blacksmith at Camp Grant Army Post in Arizona.
The life of ‘the Kid’ – who became the most wanted outlaw in the American West – was short and replete with unhappiness and violence. Yet upon his death, his legend electrified audiences worldwide.
Here are 10 facts about Billy the Kid.
1. He was orphaned at age 15
The boy who would become known as Billy the Kid, Henry McCarty, had a turbulent childhood. He was born to Catherine and Patrick McCarty in late 1859. Within a few years, his father died. Catherine moved Henry and his younger brother to Indiana, then to Kansas and onwards to New Mexico.
On 16 September 1874, Catherine died from tuberculosis. Shortly before that, her husband William Antrim abandoned the McCarty boys. Henry was 15 years old at the time.
2. His first crime was stealing food
Henry was able to secure a room and board in exchange for work at a boarding house. One year after his mother died, on 16 September 1875, he was caught stealing food. 10 days later he robbed a Chinese laundry, stealing clothes and pistols, for which he was charged with theft and jailed.
3. His descent into lawlessness was rapid
McCarty escaped two days after being jailed and became a fugitive, as reported at the time by the Silver City Herald. He fled first to his stepfather’s house, from whom he stole clothes and guns, then to southeastern Arizona Territory. Though he had employment as a ranch hand, he began stealing horses from local soldiers with the former US Cavalry private John R. Mackie.
It was at a saloon in the village of Bonita that McCarty used his pistol on a local blacksmith, a man who had bullied him and in the event wrestled him to the floor. The man, Francis P. ‘Windy’ Cahill, died from his wounds. Henry was arrested and held in the local guardhouse. But again, he escaped.
It was around this time, while in Arizona, that Henry McCarty acquired the nickname ‘Kid Antrim’ on account of his youth and slight build. Later, in around 1877, he began calling himself ‘William H. Bonney’. The two titles were later amalgamated into the nickname ‘Billy the Kid’ or simply ‘the Kid’.
4. He joined a gang of rustlers
Having fled Arizona for New Mexico and lost his horse to Apaches, Billy the Kid arrived at Fort Stanton in a sorry state. The mother of his friend, the gang member John Jones, nursed him to health.
He then joined a band of rustlers. They raided herds in Lincoln County that belonged to cattle magnate John Chisum.
5. He became embroiled in the Lincoln County War
While in Lincoln County, Billy the Kid became involved in a violent frontier quarrel. After being jailed for the theft of horses belonging to John Tunstall, Tunstall hired the Kid to work as a cowboy on his ranch. Tunstall was an English businessman whose ranching had earned him the loathing of a faction who dominated the local market.
In February 1878, a posse intent on seizing his livestock murdered Tunstall, which ignited the Lincoln County War. Tunstall’s foreman was promptly appointed ‘special constable’. Billy the Kid became part of his deputised posse known as the Regulators, intent on avenging Tunstall’s murder.
6. The Kid fought in the Battle of Lincoln
After the Regulators killed three prisoners, its members were deemed outlaws by the governor of New Mexico. Escalating violence with lawmen culminated in the Battle of Lincoln, a dramatic five-day firefight in which dozens of Regulators held off the law.
The episode concluded only after the arrival of Army companies equipped with a Gatling gun and a 12-pound howitzer. Unlike many of his posse, Billy the Kid managed to escape. He emerged apace with a reputation as an accomplished gunslinger.
7. His murder of lawmen made him ineligible for a pardon
In order to restore order, a new governor of the New Mexico Territory by the name of Lew Wallace proclaimed an amnesty for all parties involved in the Lincoln County War. Unfortunately for the Kid, his murders of two sheriffs made him ineligible. He remained an outlaw on the run.
8. He made a famous escape
Despite appearing before a grand jury in April 1879 in order to acquire a pardon, the Kid found himself on the run again when he shot and killed a local drunk in a saloon in Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory. The death of a local at a ranch he was tracked to led to a $500 reward being offered for the delivery of ‘The Kid’ to the sheriff of Lincoln County.
After successfully evading Sheriff Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid surrendered on 23 December 1880. Yet while awaiting execution in Lincoln, he managed to take his guard’s weapon and kill him, acquire a shotgun in Sheriff Garrett’s office and kill another guard, then break his shackles with an axe and flee on horseback.
9. Billy the Kid’s reputation was spread through editorials
It’s in the pages of the Las Vegas Gazette that the man born as Henry McCarty is referred to in print for the first time as ‘Billy the Kid’. Editor and publisher J. H. Koogler’s articles embellished the Kid’s adventures on the run and spread knowledge of the outlaw.
10. He was killed by Pat Garrett
Billy the Kid was just 21 years old when he died. His killer was Pat Garrett, Lincoln’s sheriff who pursued Billy the Kid to Fort Sumner. He discovered the whereabouts of the Kid by questioning locals. Near midnight, Garret entered the house in which Billy was sleeping and killed him.
Billy the Kid’s notoriety had spread wide before his death, yet even The Times in London printed an obituary of the Kid after news of his death travelled around the globe in the summer of 1881.