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.
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)
Pat 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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