Henry McCarty (Billy the Kid, William H. Bonney) occupies a prominent place in American frontier history and folklore that is almost beyond explanation. The "Boy Bandit King's" dramatic escapades as a cattle rustler and gunslinger have continued to intrigue the public long after those of most of his contemporaries were forgotten. Some of his exploits occurred in the Texas Panhandle, which abounded in cattle and was always a good place to engage in the livestock trade, legal or otherwise. While legend has it that Billy the Kid's real name was William H. Bonney, scholars have determined that Bonney was simply one of a series of aliases used by the Kid.
Historians continue to debate McCarty's date and place of birth, but evidence uncovered by Jack DeMattos convinced noted historian Robert M. Utley that McCarty was born to Patrick McCarty and Catherine Devine on September 17, 1859, in New York City, New York. He was baptised on September 28, by Rev. J. Conron with Thomas Cooney and Mary Clark as sponsors. McCarty spent his youth in New York before venturing west with his mother and brother. Santa Fe County records show that his mother married William Antrim at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe on March 1, 1873-with her two sons, Henry and Joseph, in attendance. Afterward the family moved to Silver City, where Antrim worked in the mines and Catherine died of tuberculosis on September 16, 1874. The following year Henry, who apparently had developed a rebellious streak and sticky fingers, had his first brush with the law when Harvey Whitehill, the local sheriff, arrested him for stealing clothes from a Chinese laundry. Actually an older prankster, George Shaffer, had prodded Henry and another boy into hiding the bundle. At any rate Henry, fearing his stepfather's reaction, escaped from the Silver City jail and headed for Arizona. For two years he worked in Graham County as a farmhand, teamster, and cowboy under the name of Kid Antrim. His age, appearance, and size soon won him the sobriquet "Kid."
The Kid's first killing occurred in the settlement of Bonita, near Camp Grant, in August 1877. Frank P. Cahill, a local blacksmith, took delight in bullying the boy, and the two seem to have quarreled on a number of occasions. One day, however, the usual exchange of insults erupted into a fist fight which ended with the Kid fatally shooting his antagonist. Arrested once more, Kid Antrim again broke out of jail and fled to Mesilla, New Mexico, where he assumed the alias William H. Bonney and rode briefly with the Jesse Evans gang. His only fight with Indians occurred while he and a companion, Tom O'Keefe, were riding in the Guadalupe Mountains of eastern New Mexico. From there he drifted to Lincoln County, where he became acquainted with several area residents, including George and Frank Coe.
For a time Billy enjoyed the hospitality of John S. Chisum, who was then challenging the monopoly of Lawrence G. Murphy and his associates over government beef contracts in New Mexico. The Kid's direct involvement in the struggle started when he went to work for John Tunstall and Alexander McSween, leaders of the Chisum crowd. Bad relations between rival factions culminated in the murder of Tunstall by Murphy partisans on February 28, 1878. Billy was arrested by Sheriff William Brady, a Murphy tool, and consequently cast his lot with McSween and Dick Brewer, Tunstall's foreman. In the resultant feud, known as the Lincoln County War, Billy rode with a vigilante group called the Regulators, which had a cloak of legality since Brewer was the appointed constable. In March the Regulators captured two of Tunstall's murderers, whom Brewer wanted to incarcerate in Lincoln. However, both men were killed, probably by Billy, before they ever reached town, thus giving the Murphy faction another grievance against the McSween group. Later Billy and five companions ambushed and killed Sheriff Brady and his deputy, George Hindman, on Lincoln's main street.
On April 4, 1878, the Kid was involved in the gunfight at Blazer's Mill, on the southwest slopes of the Sacramento Mountains, where A. L. (Buckshot) Roberts, a Murphy partisan, killed Dick Brewer before he himself expired from bullet wounds. After that, Billy emerged as a leader among the McSween men. In July 1878 he participated in the "five-day battle" in Lincoln, where the Murphy partisans besieged the Regulators in McSween's home. McSween was killed, but Billy and the others escaped from the burning house. Thereafter, Billy and his cohorts used no restraint in continuing the fight against the "House of Murphy," whom the power structure in New Mexico endorsed as the victor. In August the Kid was present when Morris J. Bernstein, clerk at the Mescalero Indian agency, was killed. Afterward he stayed for a time at the Chisum ranch while he and his friends stole horses and cattle from known Murphy partisans.
Billy the Kid arrived in the Panhandle in the fall of 1878, after Chisum had sent some of his cattle to graze in the Canadian valley in the vicinity of Tascosa. Although not in Chisum's employ, Billy and four companions, Tom O'Folliard, Henry Brown, Fred Waite, and John Middleton, followed in the cattleman's wake, trailing approximately 125 stolen horses, which they planned to sell to Panhandle outfits. Billy intimidated Ellsworth Torrey, after the Boston rancher had run off the Kid's men for insulting his wife and daughters; otherwise the group was generally well-behaved during their stay in Tascosa and spent money freely. Although his reputation had preceded him, Billy soon made friends among Tascosa residents, notably a young transient doctor, Henry F. Hoyt, to whom the Kid sold Sheriff Brady's horse, Dandy Dick. By the winter of 1878–79, after selling the horses, Billy and Tom O'Folliard had returned to their home turf and soon added new members, including Charlie Bowdre and Dave Rudabaugh, to their rustling operation.
In the aftermath of the Lincoln County War, Lew Wallace, the new territorial governor of New Mexico, published a wanted list which included the Kid, who was implicated in the murder of Sheriff Brady. A momentary truce called in February 1879 ended when Murphy partisans killed a lawyer named Houston Chapman. Seeking to end the troubles once and for all, Governor Wallace arranged a meeting with the Kid and promised a full pardon for all charges against him in exchange for his testimony against Chapman's murderers. Assured that his own life was not endangered, Billy agreed to have himself placed in custody at Lincoln, but then Chapman's killers escaped. Nevertheless, Billy remained in custody until the spring of 1879, when many of the cases arising from the Lincoln County conflict came before the court. By arrangement with the governor he was allowed considerable freedom, but the pardon he hoped for was delayed. Growing impatient, Billy told his guards that he was tired of waiting, walked away from the store where he was being held, mounted a horse, and rode out of town as the guards watched. Billy remained on the loose for several months thereafter. Believing that he should be paid for his services to the Lincoln County Regulators, he tried to collect $500 from John Chisum. When the cattleman refused to pay, Billy vowed he would collect in some other way and from then on helped himself to Chisum's livestock. In January 1880 he killed a bounty hunter named Joe Grant in a saloon at Gallinas, after Grant's gun misfired. By then Billy the Kid and his gang were the bane of all cattlemen in the area and were part of the reason for the formation of the Panhandle Stock Association in Mobeetie.
With a price of $500 on his head, the Kid was almost captured at the town of White Oaks, northwest of Lincoln. He escaped, however, and seems to have resurfaced at the Greathouse Ranch, where a man named Jim Carlyle died. Billy received the blame for that, and the new Lincoln County sheriff, Patrick Floyd Garrett, made catching the Kid his first priority. Late in November 1880, with a posse of Panhandle men, Garrett ambushed the gang at Fort Sumner and killed Tom O'Folliard. Billy and the other rustlers escaped, but a few days later the posse caught up with them at Stinking Springs, twenty-five miles from Fort Sumner. After a brisk gunfight, in which Charlie Bowdre was killed, Billy and three remaining cohorts surrendered. They were taken to the jail in Las Vegas, then to Santa Fe, before being moved to Mesilla for trial the following spring. There the Kid was initially charged with the shooting of Buckshot Roberts, but after that charge was dropped he was tried, convicted for the murder of Sheriff Brady, and sentenced to hang. He was then transferred to the courthouse and jail in Lincoln, but on April 28, 1881, he killed deputies James Bell and Robert Olinger and escaped.
Pat Garrett went on the Kid's trail again, this time aided by John W. Poe, who was acting as a special detective for the Panhandle Stock Association, and Thomas McKinney. At White Oaks in July 1881 Poe received an anonymous tip that Billy was hiding out at the home of Duvelina, an Indian slave and former sweetheart, at Fort Sumner. He immediately notified Garrett and McKinney, and the trio set out for that town. Unable at first to find a clue to the outlaw's whereabouts, Garrett consented to call on Pete Maxwell, whose ranch headquarters occupied the former United States Army post. On the night of July 14, 1881, Billy the Kid, who had been hiding out at a nearby Mexican sheep camp, moved on to the Maxwell Ranch to visit Celsa Gutierrez, his sweetheart. After removing his boots and other riding paraphernalia, Billy left Celsa's room, which was located in the long adobe building just south of the Maxwell home, to procure some of the fresh quarter of beef that was hanging on Maxwell's north porch. Taking a butcher knife and a pistol, the Kid walked along the inside of the picket fence in front of the house. Suddenly, he came upon the shadowy figures of Poe and McKinney, who were waiting there. Drawing his six-shooter, the Kid demanded to know who they were. Poe, not knowing who the man was, tried to reassure him, but Billy backed through the open door into the darkened bedroom, where Garrett was talking with Maxwell, repeating his demands in Spanish. Recognizing the voice and perhaps seeing the drawn gun, Garrett fired twice and killed him. Billy the Kid died without knowing who shot him. Maxwell and other Fort Sumner residents later admitted that they had been living in terror of the Kid and were afraid to inform on him.
McCarty was buried in the old military cemetery at Fort Sumner next to his "pals," Bowdre and O'Folliard, and near the grave of Lucien B. Maxwell. Even before his death, Billy's escapades had received nationwide attention through the National Police Gazette. Soon after his death, several "biographies" appeared in rapid succession, most notably Pat Garrett's Authentic Life of Billy the Kid (1882). Ghosted by Garrett's friend, Ash Upson, this book contained several errors and half-truths regarding Billy's early life and exploits. Over the years the Kid's image as a ruthless bandit who claimed twenty-one men, one for each year of his life, mellowed into that of an American Robin Hood, forced into crime by evil men. Even then, the accounts of Charles Siringo, Walter Noble Burns, and Miguel Antonio Otero relied heavily on Garrett and Upson's erroneous data. Several Hollywood westerns have portrayed Billy either as a cold-blooded killer or a good boy gone bad. The myth was enhanced even more during the 1950s when Ollie L. (Brushy Bill) Roberts, an elderly farmer from Hamilton County, Texas, claimed that he was Billy the Kid and petitioned the governor of New Mexico for a pardon for crimes committed under that name. Although a hearing was granted through the efforts of Roberts's attorney, William V. Morrison, no conclusive proof was ever brought forth. John W. Poe's eyewitness account of the Kid's last moments also generated interest among scholars like Maurice Garland Fulton, William A. Keleher, and Ramon F. Adams, who have attempted to separate the facts from the gunsmoke of legend. Billy's grave remains Fort Sumner's chief attraction, and the citizens of Lincoln reenact the Kid's dramatic last jailbreak each summer.