Born Henry McCarty in New York City, Billy the Kid committed his first act of murder before he turned 20. Join Candace and Katie as they explore the fact -- and fiction -- surrounding the legendary outlaw in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.
A print from the Pictorial History of the Wild West, by James D Horan and Paul Sann, Spring Books, London, 1954. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Announcer: Welcome to "Stuff You Missed in History Class" from HowStuffWorks.com.
Candace: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor Candace Keener, joined by fellow editor Katie Lambert.
Katie: Hey, Candace.
Candace: Katie, when you think of the American Wild West and all the outlaws of fame and legend and lore, who comes to mind?
Katie: Well, Butch Cassidy for one and Billy the Kid for two.
Candace: Billy the Kid actually had a whole lot of names or a lot of aliases, I should say. He was born Henry McCarty, but he also went by Henry Antrim, William H. Bonney and, of course, the Kid, as he was somewhat affectionately known. And he's sort of a folkish figure and there's not a whole lot of records that exist to show precise details of his life as in when he was born. We know when he died, but because his birth date is a little bit suspect, people suspect that perhaps some people said he was born in 1859 and died in 1881, which would have made him 21-years old so it wouldn't have made the sheriff who killed him look so bad for killing a minor.
Katie: And we don't know very much about his early life. We do know that he was born in New York City and that his mother died of tuberculosis when he was fairly young.
Candace: And some historians and chroniclers of Billy the Kid's life would say that his mother's early death is what catapulted him into a lifetime of mischief making because some eyewitness accounts from his childhood say that he was, you know, as much a little boy as anyone else, just running around town, causing mild mischief, nothing extreme. And his step-father was in the picture for a little while, but after his mother's death, he was pretty much out of the picture.
Candace: Exactly. Billy was forced to do for himself and bounced around to different foster homes. And the details of his young life sort of pale comparison to the trouble he got into later. And he didn't become the kind of cult hero that we think of him as today until the sheriff who killed him, Pat Garrett, and M.A. Ash Upson wrote The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid.
Katie: A sensationalistic tale of his life.
Candace: Exactly. And I haven't read the book. Katie has read it 12 times in four different languages.
Katie: And counting.
Candace: And counting. But if any of you have read it, I'm a little bit curious about how Billy the Kid is portrayed because to read some accounts of him, it's almost like he was the troubled teen who was reconciled to a lifetime of crime.
Katie: Cold-blooded killer.
Candace: Right. But I'm wondering if Garrett makes him out to be just a ruthless monster.
Katie: Because other accounts say he starting getting into a little bit of trouble in his teens, but nothing too big. I mean, he didn't have much money anyways so he was maybe picking things up that weren't quite his.
Candace: Like the butter.
Candace: Do you remember the butter?
Katie: A little butter theft.
Candace: A little butter theft. He stole it from a rancher. The kid had no money so he filched some butter and sold it to a shopkeeper and he got caught, obviously, but he only got a finger shaken in his face at that point.
Katie: Not that we condone butter theft.
Candace: Not at all. And he was kind of skinny and had what some people describe as lady's hands so he was passed over for many types of employment opportunities that went to heartier fellows, such as ranch hands, for instance. So he started working at Star Hotel washing dishes, waiting on tables and that's when he met up with Sombrero Jack. Sombrero Jack was the first, I suppose, one could say bad character that Billy the Kid crossed paths with. And he noticed that Billy the Kid didn't have any real clothes to speak of so he stole some laundry from a Laundromat and gave it to Billy the Kid to wear. And he's like, "But, if you put this on, you know, you're risking your own hide because these are all stolen." And Billy the Kid was obviously caught when he donned these stolen threads and put in prison. But he escaped and this would become, as Katie is winking at me right now, a hallmark of his later life. So he got some money from one of the foster families he'd been a part of and he headed toward Arizona to see if his step-father could give him a hand with his troubles. And his step-father absolutely refused.
Katie: Real class act, that step-father.
Candace: Right. So here's Billy the Kid, he really is just a kid, he's skinny, he's fragile, he's got no work, no chance really and he's adrift in the desert. And it was while he was in Arizona that he met another outlaw named John Mackie, with whom he dabbled in horse thievery for awhile. And soon after, he would engage in his very first act of manslaughter.
Katie: And some people say it was self-defense, while others say it was just an act of cold-blooded killing. But he got into an altercation with Windy Cahill -
Candace: Who was teasing him about his size, right?
Katie: Yes and ended up shooting him. And some people say, again, that he attacked Henry McCarty, Billy the Kid, who was much smaller, and Billy really didn't have a chance and shot him in self-defense, while others say that it was just a little bit of sport on Billy the Kid's side.
Candace: Well, no matter what actually happened, Billy the Kid was pretty scared and so he got out of Dodge. And soon after, in New Mexico, he met up with Jessie Evans and his gang, termed, very innovatively, The Boys. I know, no one saw that coming. So he became incorporated into this little coterie of gun slingers and even though the Kid wasn't too fond of the idea of associating himself with outlaws, he realized that if you are going to get by in the American west, which was largely lawless at this time, you had to have some sort of protection.
Katie: And the problem with The Boys, the Jessie Evans gang, was that they were involved in the Lincoln County War. And basically, this is in the 1870s in New Mexico and a guy named John Tunstall had moved there and realized that the entire place was run by Lawrence Murphy and John Dolan. They owned the only store in the entire county and thanks to an army contract, had a beef monopoly as well. And he decided that wasn't fair and wanted to set up shop against them. And it just started this battle that went on for years, starting in 1878 when Murphy and Dolan tried to take Tunstall's horses for a "outstanding debt" that may or may not have existed, probably didn't. And that's where the gangs come in.
Candace: And the Kid actually turned on his gang when Tunstall offered him a job in exchange for his testimony against Dolan and company. And so the Kid thought this was a pretty good offer. He wanted to do something a little more righteous than what he'd had been involved with. So he agreed and he took on the new alias, William H. Bonney. This was an act of reinventing himself in a way.
Katie: And became part of the Regulators, the name of the gang that was going to avenge the death of Tunstall, who was shot and killed by Sheriff William Brady and his posse, which included Jessie Evans' gang.
Candace: The Regulators were semi-lawful until they killed three men, Bill Morton, Frank Banker and William McCloskey. And they also set up a trap for Sheriff Brady. They'd been trying to do things by the book, trying to file complaints and act in a proper, paperwork sort of way, but in the American west, that doesn't get you very far.
Katie: They were almost forced into being outlaws. They were doing their best, but when the local government is corrupt, that doesn't leave you with a lot of options. And so it's Billy the Kid, some Mexican cowboys, some American cowboys and they finally took out their guns and started the gun fights of the next couple years.
Candace: And the Regulators had a pretty good reputation until then and then they became known as these awful outlaws.
Katie: These gun fights were pretty violent. Sheriff Brady was killed in April of 1878 and was riddled with bullet holes. It just wasn't one shot that happened to get him. They made sure that he was dead. And the same with the deputy!
Candace: They made a Wiffle ball out of him.
Katie: That's unkind.
Candace: I know. I'm sorry. I shouldn't speak so irreverently of the past. Eventually, all of these separate skirmishes culminated in a final event at Alex McSween's house. And McSween, as you may recall, had been associated with Tunstall, the British businessman. He'd been his partner, as well as his attorney. So the Regulators are held up in McSween's house and they are surrounded by Dolan's gang and the new sheriff. And they are panicking and so finally, the Kid is the only one trying to keep his wits about him and devises a plan where half the gang will go out one side of the house and the other will escape out the opposite so as to distract the gunslingers out front. And it works, except that half of the outlaws got shot and killed and Billy the Kid and his cohorts made off out the other side. So the escape plan wasn't the best, but it did save the Kid's hide, which was, you know, accounted to him. And he ran. He was an outlaw again for, what is this, the third, fourth time? I've lost count. He is famous for supposedly having committed as many murders as there were years of his life.
Candace: Right. We don't know if that's actually true or if it was more like nine.
Candace: But he was good at getting himself off the hook. But when he got word that there was a new governor in Lincoln, named Lew Wallace, he offered to surrender and come back to Lincoln and give a testimony in exchange for getting the new governor's good graces. He said he was tired of being an outlaw and wanted to do the right thing.
Katie: And kept writing him letter upon letter offering to give himself up in exchange for some kind of amnesty. And Lew Wallace, I believe, at one point did agree to it or made some sort of promise to him that maybe that was something they could do, which he later recanted.
Candace: Wallace was still not fully aware of the kind of power and clout that Dolan and his gang had so even if he had wanted to give the Kid some sort of asylum and some sort of pardon, he wouldn't have been able to because his hands were tied. Any sense of court system or legality there was in Lincoln was overruled by Dolan.
Katie: And Billy the Kid at this time is so notorious from the Lincoln County War, the upshot of which no one won and they just had large gun battles every couple of days. But it wasn't possible for him politically to make that move.
Candace: Yeah. And not to mention that at this time the newspapers are really getting a hold of his name and splashing it everywhere and maybe people had had some semblance of sympathy for him in the past, but now that he shoots people and then leaves -
Katie: And gives lots of interviews about it while he's in jail.
Candace: People are thinking he's trouble. No one wants him in town. So he goes off to Fort Sumner. So he goes off to Fort Sumner and there he gets embroiled in more gang conflict, surprise, surprise. And then the opposition posse of his kills a deputy named James Carlyle and the Kid gets blamed, even though it was supposedly friendly fire that killed the deputy. He's so notorious at this point; anywhere he goes he's like a little black rain cloud on the west. Trouble just follows him and it's so easy to scapegoat him.
Katie: And at this point, I believe, he has a bounty on his head and they are after him. That's one too many people and it's about time the law catches up with Billy the Kid.
Candace: And the law came in the form of Pat Garrett. He was an appointed U.S. Marshall on the hunt. And on December 23rd, 1880, he trapped him and got him to surrende r, threw him in prison and he was convicted of murdering Sheriff Brady and sentenced to -
Candace: - to hang.
Katie: So it's April 1881. He's in prison. He's supposed to hang. And being Billy the Kid, he murders his guards and escapes.
Candace: Good job, Billy the Kid. This one's on us. So where does he go? Well, back to Sumner because he feels somewhat safe there. It's a place where he feels that he somewhat belongs. But Garrett is not going to let him get away with this. So he gets word, supposedly through this guy Maxwell, who he knows, that the Kid is in town. And Maxwell is somewhat friendly with the Kid, or at least the Kid thinks that he is. And on the night of July 14th, 1881, he came sniffing around for dinner.
Katie: And the events of the evening of July 14th, 1881 are a bit murky.
Candace: But how most people interpret the story is this. Billy the Kid knocks on Maxwell's door hoping that he can get his dinner. And he enters the house and it's pretty dark. And he's a little bit of uncertain of what's going on because he sees two strange men on the front porch. The men were actually Garrett's two deputies. Well, Billy the Kid precedes inside the house and he can make out a shadowy form in Maxwell's room. And he calls out asking about the two men, gets no answer. So he calls out again, but this time asks the question in Spanish. And at this point, Garrett is pretty sure that's Billy the Kid so he aimed his gun and shoots. And then Maxwell and Garrett slip outside and they come back in and they ascertain that yes, indeed, that was Billy the Kid and now he is dead on Maxwell's floor.
Katie: Although, some people refuse to believe that Billy the Kid died at all and there were several people who for years pretended that they were him and he had escaped that evening in a staged death.
Candace: It's pretty believable given all of his stunts prior to his supposed death, but for people who really get into American west lure and sorts of legendary figures like Billy the Kid, it's rather anticlimactic to think that Billy the Kid died after an ambush. I mean, that's the sort of trap that he's been springing his whole life for other people. But alas, it got him in the end. But today, the state of New Mexico really does have Billy the Kid to thank for bringing a thriving tourism industry to its fair borders where people can see different spots where Billy the Kid engaged in gun slinging and all sorts of pranks, harmless and not.
Katie: So if you want to go see the stomping grounds of Billy the Kid, that's where you should go.
Candace: And if you want more information on the Wild West and guns and gunslingers, be sure to check out the website at HowStuffWorks.com.
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