5th AUGUST, 1999
BILLY THE KID


Around 1950 State officials in New Mexico realised what Billy The Kid could do to boost tourism in the state. Up until that time the ‘Land of Enchantment’ was only known for it’s roadrunners. Now the books began to appear, movies from Hollywood were being turned out by the dozen. Most of these semi promotions contradicted each other. The truth became clouded as the legends grew. Today, from Santa Fe to Mesilla, from Silver City to Fort Sumner, in every corner of the state the Kid is immortal. New Mexico has become the Land of Billy The Kid. But who was he and how much do we really know ?

First of all copies of newspapers from that period of American history, still exist, but they only give us a record of events as they happened, there is little or no background to their stories. The first book about the Kid was written in 1882 by Sheriff Pat Garret, the slayer of 21 year old Billy. Pat had joined forces with journalist Ash Upton and the book was called ‘The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid’, it was a fanciful book that supplied the ‘facts’ for numerous histories to follow. The press jumped on the Billy the Kid story - and so did the ‘dime’ novelists. Billy the Kid became a household word in houses a long way from New Mexico. It took state officials nearly 70 years to ‘adopt’ the Kid or to accept his glamorization in print and latter in film.

Garret wrote in his book that the Kid was born in New York City in 1859. His early years, however, remain a mystery. He most likely came to the Territory of New Mexico in the early 1870’s. Records show that on March 1, 1873, 13 year old Henry McCarty witnessed the marriage in Santa Fe of his mother, the widow Catherine McCarty and Bill Antrim. Most likely, Henry McCarty (who would also be called Henry Antrim, Billy Bonney, Kid Antrim and the ‘Kid’ before finally becoming ‘Billy the Kid’ in the last few months of his life) and his family lived in Santa Fe for a short time. They would soon move to Silver City in southwestern New Mexico, but the Kid would see Santa Fe again as a prisoner in the Santa Fe jail some seven years later. (After Billy was captured by Garret at Stinking Springs, near Fort Summer, on Dec 21st 1880, he was jailed in Santa Fe for about three months before being moved to Mesilla, near Las Cruces, to stand trial for the murder of Sheriff Pat Brady.)

On September 16th, 1874, the Kid’s mother died of tuberculosis in Silver City, and a year later he was arrested for stealing clothes from a Chinese Laundry. He escaped to Arizona, where he stole stock and killed his first man Francis P. ‘Windy’ Cahil, during a saloon brawl at Camp Grant on September 16th 1877. The young outlaw then fled back to New Mexico, venturing into the vast and volatile Lincon County.

The February 18th 1878, killing of John Tunstall, who had hired the Kid the previous fall, touched off the Lincon County War. The Kid , who swore vengence for Tunstall’s death, was one of the men responsible for gunning down Sheriff Brady on April 1st, and he also played an active role during a five day shootout in Lincon, the county seat, that July. In the aftermath of the fighting, newly elected territorial governor Lew Wallace and the law seemed to forgive everyone except Billy. By the summer of 1879, he had fled Lincon for Fort Sumner, a former military fort that was now a lawless frontier town. While in the area he rustled both cattle and horses, and when Pat Garret became sheriff of Lincon County in November 1880, one of his top priorities was to bring in the Kid.

Garrett succeeded, and in March 1881 in Mesilla, Billy was convicted of Brady s murder and sentenced to be hanged in Lincon on May 13th. However, on April 28, while Sheriff Garrett was out of town collecting taxes, the Kid killed two deputies and escaped. Less than three months later Garrett would catch up with the Kid for the last time.

Garrett traveled to Fort Sumner in July 1881 to check reports that Billy was in the area. Pete Maxwell lived in a house that had once been the officers’ quarters at the fort, it was night and Garrett went to Maxwell’s bedroom to ask about the Kid. Minutes later Billy was startled by two deputies who had accompanied Garrett to Fort Sumner, and he ducked through a doorway that happened to lead into Maxwell’s bedroom. The kid’s last words were “Whos that ? Who’s that ?”. And Garrett answered with a fatal shot to the Kid’s heart. On July 15th 1881 Billy the Kid was buried at Fort Sumner. His grave is known as “Hell’s half acre”, because for some strange reason no flowers have ever grown on it.

The legend has it the Kid killed 21 men in his 21 years, but the official evidence does not support this claim. In fact the records show that he only killed 8 men. However, in his book in 1934 Eugene Cunningham gives an entirely different version, according to Cunningham Billy’s friend Jesse Evans told a witness of the shooting of some Mexicans and some Mexican Indians by Billy. If this is correct then Billy killed a lot more than 21 men. The truth we’ll never know. But one thing is clear, Billy the Kid was no hero nor was he a cold blooded killer. He reportedly loved to laugh and to enjoy himself, whether in the company of Anglos or Hispanics. He spoke English and Spanish equally well. And if Governor Wallace had given him a pardon after the Lincon County War, Billy might have gone straight, grown up, married a nice girl and had children, and who knows ? He might even have run for President. Imagine President Billy the Kid - it has a familiar ring to it.

Ronnie McGinn.

 

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