BILLY THE KID (1859-1881)

Billy the Kid's history, and indeed his actual identity, are an intricate and tantalizing puzzle. Most sources identify him as Henry McCarty, but his surname is somewhat uncertain. Born November 23, 1859 (most likely in New York), McCarty had a troubled childhood. Historians believe that his father (some say his name was William Bonney, others think it was Patrick Henry McCarty) died near the end of the Civil War, leaving his mother (variously identified as Catherine McCarty or Katherine McCarty Bonney) with two young sons. She met and married a man named William Atrim in 1873, who took the family west to Silver City, New Mexico. A bartender and carpenter by trade, Atrim was soon seduced by gold and became a prospector, essentially abandoning his wife and stepsons. To make ends meet, Henry's mother took in borders. Suffering from tuberculosis, she died the following year, leaving Henry and his brother to fend for themselves. Henry found work in a hotel, and the owner was duly impressed with the young man, saying he was the only employee who never stole anything from the establishment. Nevertheless, Henry had a brush with the law in 1875 when he was arrested for hiding a bag of laundry. He escaped from jail by worming his way up the chimney.

Thus began his life as a fugitive. With blue eyes, a smooth complexion, and a sunny disposition, Henry seemed an unlikely outlaw, but he is credited with several murders and a life of crime. Some sources say he killed twenty-one men, but realistically the number was probably around nine. His first took place in 1877 when a young bully named Frank "Windy" Cahill attacked and beat McCarty, who defended himself by shooting his assailant. Immedia tely jailed for the killing, Billy the Kid escaped again.

Myths about the outlaw sprang up after Billy participated in the Lincoln County War of 1877, a bloody struggle between wealthy ranchers and general store owners in Lincoln County, New Mexico. Although Billy the Kid was not responsible for the dispute, his killing of Sheriff William Brady and cunning escape from townsmen made him the most wanted man in the West. In 1878, New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace offered Billy the Kid amnesty in exchange for testimony against one of the ringleaders of the Lincoln dispute. Billy testified but was double-crossed; instead, the district attorney arrested him for the murder of Sheriff Brady, for which he was convicted and sentenced to death. The clever outlaw once again escaped and fled, but a bizarre and unexpected run-in with Sheriff Pat Garret ended Billy the Kid's life on July 14, 1881.

Billy the Kid