13
Oct
16

billy the kid

billy_film_landing

The only authenticated photo of Billy the Kid, now colorized for TV. All of the people who knew the Kid said this picture didn’t do his good looks justice.

It wasn’t the only justice Billy didn’t get.

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It is difficult to understand why Billy the Kid—born William Henry McCarty in 1859, and killed as William H. Bonney in 1881—has achieved such legendary status in the history of Old West crime.

As a criminal, he was in many respects “small potatoes.” He never committed armed robbery of a bank, train, or stagecoach as did more famous desperadoes; he never committed rape or assault on women; he was never accused of drunk or disorderly conduct.

He was charged with petty theft on two occasions: in 1875 (at the age of 16, two years after his mother died and he was alone in the world) in Silver City NM Territory, where he stole several pounds of butter and which he sold to a merchant, and a few months later, when he was named an “accomplice” in the theft of laundry from a Chinese laundry, which was meant as more of a practical joke by a character named “Sombrero Jack.” Jack had stolen the clothes and asked the Kid to “hold them” for him at his lodgings. As it turned out, the stolen goods were found by the Kid’s landlady and given to the sheriff, who then arrested the Kid and held him in jail (but allowed him to walk freely through the corridors rather than being confined to a cell). On the next day, when he was left unguarded, the Kid managed to escape the jail by shimmying up the chimney. He then fled New Mexico for Arizona. This was the beginning of the Kid’s “life of crime.”

On one or two occasions, the Kid was later busted for running an illegal card table—again, pretty minor stuff.

The Kid was accused of cattle rustling/horse stealing, but only on a small scale with a handful of his friends. Most of his rustling was against John Chisum for supposedly owing him wages in the Lincoln County War (1878), a conflict of warring business interests between Chisum and two others (the Tunstall-McSween-Chisum Faction) and the Murphy-Dolan-Riley Faction over the control of dry goods and cattle interests in the county.  Neither faction was particularly ethical. The Kid rode for the losing Chisum Faction as one of the so-called “Regulators.” His thievery was greatly exaggerated by the newspapers, which of course turned public opinion against him.

Due to the Kid’s participation in the Lincoln County War, he was involved in some gunfights, assassinations, and killings. For example, the Kid was one of six men to gun down Sheriff William Brady and a Deputy named George Hindman. He was also part of a posse that killed Bill Morton, Frank Baker, and William McCloskey execution style. However, Billy the Kid was solely responsible for the deaths of just four men. Two deaths were strictly self-defense (Windy Cahill and Joe Grant) and  the other two happened as a result of the Kid’s escaping jail (Jim Bell and Bob Olinger). According to one website I consulted, the Kid was “tough but not mean. He would kill, but he wasn’t a killer.”

This is, I think, the most important aspect to the Kid’s enduring fame: he was a truly charismatic and likeable personality. He had an outgoing and fun-loving way, a “stay-and-fight” rebellious attitude. He wanted to be a “good guy.” He was a skillful gunfighter and was courageous to the point of recklessness. He was loyal to his friends and appointed himself protector of the helpless.

Several websites I consulted said that Billy the Kid would have been a forgotten person of the West, a drifter and insignificant saddle-rat, were it not for the Lincoln County War. But I say that his winning personality appears to merit him more memory than that.

Here is a contemporaneous description of the Kid by a reporter of the Las Vegas NM Gazette: “He is about five feet eight or nine inches tall, slightly built and lithe, weighing about 140; a frank, open countenance, looking like a school boy, with the traditional silky fuzz on his upper lip; clear blue eyes, with a roguish snap about them; light hair and complexion. He is, in all, quite a handsome looking fellow, the only imperfection being two prominent front teeth protruding like squirrel’s teeth, and he has agreeable and winning ways.” (Las Vegas Gazette, December 27, 1881)

Here are some additional descriptions of the Kid from people who knew him:
“Even though Henry possessed incredible physical strength and endurance for a boy, he still retained the grace of a cat, according to friend Lily Casey. On horseback he would ride at full gallop, dodging behind the side of his mount to fire his Winchester 73, the same way the Apaches did. He could even retrieve a handkerchief from the ground at full gallop. But she also indicated that you were far more likely to find him reading a book, than getting into trouble.  She remembered that Henry was 16 when he came back from Arizona in 1877. “The Kid had a great personality, and could ingratiate himself in peoples good graces very quickly. He had laughing blue eyes always smiling or laughing, quick and more accommodating very good hearted, had an innocent timid look all of this took with the girls at once.” ~ Lily Casey, the girlfriend of one of Billy’s greatest enemies, Bob Olinger
Lincoln resident and rancher George Coe would later say, even when he was armed, Henry seemed as gentlemanly, friendly and polite as any college-bred youth from proper society.  Everyone always commented how different Henry was. He was incredibly smart, well-read and even-tempered, while most cowboys were reckless, uneducated, and drunk. As he went from town to town in his travels and flights, the Kid made friends easily, becoming known for his easy going, friendly and generous ways. Almost everybody liked him.  He always made many more friends than enemies.
Coe would describe the Kid this way:  “He was about seventeen, but looked 14, 5′ 8″, weight 138 lbs. and stood straight as an Indian, as fine looking a lad as ever I met. He was a lady’s man and the Mexican girls were all crazy about him. He spoke Spanish quite well.” He was also a fine dancer, he could do all of the currently popular steps, especially the Irish Jig and the Spanish Fandango, at which the Kid excelled. He had a beautiful tenor voice and loved to sing, too. “He was a wonder, you would have been proud to know him.” ~ Frank Coe
To Hispanics, wherever he went, he was immediately welcomed into their homes and communities because he spoke Spanish flawlessly, always treated  them as equals, and showed the proper respect to their parents and young girls, as dictated by their culture. He dressed the part too, normally wearing a Mexican sombrero and moccasins. To them, he wasn’t just Irish, he was also one of them as well. Henry McCarty wasn’t just a hyphenated Irish-American, he was, by word and deed, a tri-hyphenated Irish-Hispanic-American.
“Billy was an expert at most Western sport, with the exception of drinking. He was a handsome youth with a smooth face, wavy brown hair, an athletic and symmetrical figure, and clear blue eyes that could look one through and through. Unless angry, he always seemed to have a pleasant expression with a ready smile. His head was well shaped, his features regular, his nose aquiline, his most noticeable characteristic a slight projection of his upper front teeth. He spoke Spanish like a native, and although only a beardless boy, was nevertheless a natural leader of men. With his poise, iron nerve, and all-round efficiency properly applied, the Kid could have made a success anywhere.”  ~ Dr. Henry Hoyt   
Again and again, ordinary people protected the Kid because they liked him.
Even Lew Wallace, the governor of the territory and author of Ben-Hur, had this to say about him: ”A precious specimen named ‘The Kid,’ whom the sheriff is holding here in the Plaza, as it is called, is an object of tender regard. I heard singing and music the other night; going to the door, I found the minstrels of the village actually serenading the fellow in his prison.” ~ Gov. Lew Wallace, in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, March 31, 1879
In fact, Wallace offered to pardon the Kid if he testified against others in his gang, and then (as historical records show), he failed to follow through after the Kid apparently held up his end of the deal. Billy was known as a murderer, a horse thief and a cattle rustler, all equally deserving of disapprobation by Old West standards, yet his testimony helped prosecutors charge 50 others with murder and other crimes. No evidence has ever surfaced to explain why the Kid never got his pardon.
And this is, I believe, the final reason the legend of Billy the Kid holds such fascination for us—real justice for the Kid was always elusive. He was screwed and betrayed time and again. His life, so full of promise, was a series of dead ends. The myths and faux notoriety concocted after his death were always more appealing than the reality.

pat-garrettPat Garrett, the man who eventually killed the Kid, was elected Sheriff of Lincoln County in 1880 on a reform ticket with the expectation that he would reinstate justice in the area. One of his first acts was to capture Billy the Kid, sending him to trial for the murder of the Lincoln sheriff and his deputy. Garrett was away from Lincoln on county business when the Kid made his second escape, using his chimney trick for egress. Rather than chase after the fugitive, Garrett kept to his ranch mending fences and tending to his cattle. Garrett then received word that the Kid was hiding out at the abandoned Fort Sumner about 140 miles away. Rounding up two deputies, Garrett set off in pursuit.

On the night of July 14, Garrett and his two deputies approached the dusty old Fort now converted to living quarters. The residents were sympathetic to the Kid and the lawmen could extract little information. Garrett decided to seek out an old friend, Peter Maxwell, who might tell him the Kid’s whereabouts. But as chance would have it, the Kid stumbled right into Garrett’s hands. Garrett shot him in the dark when the Kid came calling for a piece of meat.

Since then, beginning with Garrett’s written account and continuing with the 1911 silent film “Billy the Kid,” the gun-toting outlaw’s story has appeared on the big screen more than 50 times, bigger with each retelling. Some of the most famous actors to play the Kid include Roy Rogers, Paul Newman, Val Kilmer and Emilio Estevez.

Today the Kid is known to many young people and is emblematic of a life of individualism and determination.

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