Charles Siringo in his History of Billy the Kid portrays Billy as a crazed psycho killer who made his first kill at age twelve. According to Siringo, Billy snuck off to Fort Union, New Mexico, where he gambled with the Negro soldiers. One “black nigger” cheated him, and he shot the man dead. Not long after that he stabbed a man three times in a saloon fight, and ran out of the establishment with blood dripping from his right hand.
|Only known photo of Billy the Kid|
(from Chas. Siringo, History of Billy the Kid, 1920)
Siringo blamed it on Billy’s violent temper, but Sheriff Pat Garrett, the man who would eventually track Billy down, and kill him, says just the opposite. Garrett says people often talked about the look in Billy’s eye, and his temper just before he killed, but the Kid wasn’t like that. According to Garrett, Billy ate “and laughed, drank and laughed, talked and laughed, fought and laughed and killed and laughed.”
The only picture we have of Billy the Kid doesn’t do him justice. He looks more like a mental defective with a lopsided face, than someone often described as a ladies man. Billy stood five foot, eight inches tall, weighed about 140 pounds, and had a stringy muscular build. His hair was a sandy brownish-blond, and the one thing that stuck out about the Kid, was his sense of humor.
In other circumstances he might have been a politician, or a business mogul, but in the old west, he was a gunman and one of the best at his trade.
Very little is known about the Kid’s early life. He may have been born in New York, or in Indiana, but there is no evidence to favor either state. He was born William Henry McCarty, Jr., but the name he used in New Mexico was William H. Bonney.
His first real kill occurred sometime after he turned sixteen. Frank “Windy” Cahill, the blacksmith at Fort Grant, got a kick out of bullying and pushing Billy around. One day he pushed him a little too far, and began chasing and swearing at him, finally he knocked him to the ground and started to pummel his face. Billy was no fool. He knew he couldn’t outfight Cahill, so he pulled his gun, and shot him dead. The coroner’s inquest labeled the killing a homicide, and Billy hit the trail one step ahead of the law.
Billy reappeared in Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory, sometime in 1877. About this time he changed his name to William H. Bonney, and began working for the Coe-Saunders ranch. That move placed him smack-dab in the Center of the Lincoln County War.
The Lincoln County War began in the summer of 1876, but started to heat up in the spring of 1877. John Chisum was the Cattle King of New Mexico. He ran 40,000 to 80,000 head of cattle letting them range over a 200 square mile area. The smaller ranchers accused Chisum of swallowing up their cattle and placing the Chisum brand on them. Chisum claimed just the opposite. He said the small ranchers cut cattle out of his herds and sold them to the army posts for a quick profit.
Alex McSween was a prominent Lincoln County lawyer, and ally of John Chisum. Originally he worked as a lawyer for Murphy and Dolan, and then switched allegiances to work as an attorney for John Chisum. Murphy and Dolan later claimed McSween had been embezzling money from them.
John Tunstall was a wealthy Englishman who was convinced by Alex McSween that Lincoln County was ripe for the picking. Tunstall bought a ranch on the Rio Feliz, and set up a store and bank in the town of Lincoln. In doing so he allied himself with the Chisum faction.
Lawrence Murphy and John Dolan ran the Murphy-Dolan store just down the street from Tunstall’s new store. They’d had a monopoly on business in Lincoln since Murphy started the business in 1869, and because of that charged the local ranchers exorbitant prices for their goods. When Tunstall opened his store, and charged lower prices, it began stealing business away from the Murphy-Dolan store.
Things soon turned violent with each side employing hired guns to get their way.
In February of 1878 Deputy Sheriff William Morton, and his posse, began rounding up horses owned by Tunstall and McSween. Morton claimed Tunstall pulled his gun, so he shot him off his horse. Just after that Tom Hill rode up to Tunstall, placed his shotgun to his head, and “scattered his brains over the ground.”
|Sheriff Pat Garrett|
(From Pat F. Garrett, The Authentic Life of
Billy the Kid, 1882)
R. M. Brewer, Tunstall’s ranch foreman, was sworn in as a special constable in Lincoln, and his posse, known as the Regulators, rode off in search Tunstall’s killers. They captured Morton and Baker on March 6th, but reported that they were killed in an escape attempt on March 9th. The Regulators later ambushed and killed Sheriff William Brady, and his deputy, Fred Waite, on the main street of Lincoln.
Violence continued to rage throughout the spring and summer of 1878. New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace (a former Civil War general, and the author of Ben Hur) offered an amnesty for any man involved in the Lincoln County War who wasn’t currently under indictment. Billy sent Wallace a letter offering to testify in return for an amnesty. Governor Wallace and the Kid met in Lincoln in March of 1879 to negotiate for Billy’s testimony. The story is Billy met Wallace with a six-shooter in one hand, a Winchester 73 rifle in the other.
According to the deal, Billy was supposed to be arrested for a short period of time, and when he was done testifying, he was supposed to be set free. The bargain wasn’t kept, and the Kid soon escaped. His life was uneventful for the next year and a half. He stole a few horses, and rustled some cattle. The only standout event during this period was his gun battle with Joe Grant, a gunfighter wannabe. The story is Grant went on a wild bender at Hargrove’s Saloon, and grabbed a gun from one of Billy’s compadres. Billy got ahold of the gun, and set it to an empty chamber, then egged Grant into a fight. When Grant pulled his gun, it clicked on an empty cylinder, and Billy shot him dead.
Pat Garrett was elected sheriff of Lincoln County in November of 1880, and set out with a posse to chase down Billy. The kid surrendered to Garrett, and was turned over to United States Marshal Charles Conklin in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on December 27, 1880. His trial was held at Mesilla, New Mexico in March of 1881, and he was convicted for the killing of Sheriff William Brady. On April 1st Billy the Kid was sentenced to be hanged on May 13th, 1881.
While he was waiting to be hanged Billy was confined in the old Murphy-Dolan store in Lincoln. On the evening of April 28th Billy over-powered Deputy J. W. Bell on the stairs outside of his prison, snatched his gun, and shot him dead. Inside the jailhouse he grabbed Pat Garrett’s rifle from his office, and laid in wait for Deputy Marshal Robert Olinger to return. After killing Olinger Billy stole a horse and galloped out of town.
On July 14th Garrett received word the Kid was holed up in the abandoned ruins of Fort Sumner, and he rode off to bring him in. According to Garrett’s account of Billy’s death published in his book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, he went to the ranch of Peter Maxwell looking for the Kid.
Garrett was in Maxwell’s bedroom questioning him on the whereabouts of the Kid when Billy stumbled in with a six-shooter in one hand, and a meat cleaver in the other. It was dark, and at first Billy didn’t realize anyone was in the room with Maxwell.
Maxwell whispered, “That’s him!”
The Kid jumped back, “raised his pistol, a self-cocker, within a foot of my breast. Retreating rapidly across the room he cried: ‘Quien es?’ ‘Quien es?’ All this occurred in a moment. Quickly as possible I drew my revolver and fired, threw my body aside, and fired again. The second shot was useless; the kid fell dead. He never spoke. A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasped for breath, and the Kid was with his victims.”
Excerpt from my upcoming book History Bytes: 37 People, Places, and Events that Shaped American History