Actor Derek Chariton played Billy the Kid in the AMC series "The American West." (amc.com)
Youthful Old West outlaw Billy the Kid would be celebrating his 160th birthday today, November 23, if he had not been killed at the tender age of 21 (and, you know, if old age wasn't fatal). Billy the Kid was a thief, murderer, and overall delinquent, but today, we would say he was the unfortunate result of a terrible upbringing. Let's look at the incredible life and premature death of this desperate young man who earned a place in the wild lore of the America West.
Is this the only known photograph of Billy the Kid? (history.net)
The Rarely Photographed Billy The Kid
Photography was in its infancy during Billy the Kid's day, so it is not surprising that he was only photographed a few times. For a long time, historians knew of only one photograph of the young outlaw. It's called the Dedrick ferrotype because it belonged to a friend of Billy's named Dan Dedrick, who passed it down through his family like an ancestral heirloom. In the image, which was probably taken in late 1879 or early 1880, Billy is holding a Winchester rifle and wearing a cowboy hat, a bandana, and a vest. Although the photo was reproduced numerous times, the original plate was auctioned in 2011 for $2.3 million.
The croquet photo that surfaced in 2010 may show Billy the Kid playing a whimsical game with his equally notorious pals. (allthatsinteresting.com)
A New Photo Surfaced
In 2010, a 4"-by-6" ferrotype photograph found at an antique store in Fresno, California turned out to be the find of a lifetime. The image shows a group of people who have been identified as members of a gang associated with Billy the Kid, one of whom looks a lot like the Kid himself. (Hilariously, they are playing croquet.) Digital analysis and facial recognition software have returned mixed results, but whether or not it truly depicts the infamous outlaw, the croquet photograph generated renewed interest in Billy the Kid.
Henry McCarty took the name Billy the Kid after moving to New Mexico. (mashable.com)
The Many Names Of Billy The Kid
When Billy the Kid was born in New York City on November 23, 1859, he was actually named Henry McCarty, the first of two sons born to Patrick and Catherine McCarty. By the age of 14, however, both of his parents had died, and he was a transient orphan living on the other side of the country. Within a few years of that, he'd gotten himself into enough trouble with the New Mexico Territory authorities to require an alias, so he chose "William H. Bonney." Folks naturally started calling him "Billy," and when he started hanging around hardened criminals, they referred to the teenage hoodlum with the baby face as "the kid."
Billy the Kid was a horse thief. (chrisenss.com)
Horse Thieving And Murder
After those first arrests, Billy the Kid fled to Arizona, where he took a job as a ranch hand and spent his evenings at the local saloon, drinking and gambling away his paychecks. There, he befriended a former U.S. cavalry member, and the two started a lucrative horse-stealing business. Billy the Kid committed his first murder on August 17, 1877, after an argument with a local blacksmith named Windy Cahill turned physical. The two scuffled, and Billy shot and killed Cahill.
The Battle of Lincoln in 1878 was really a fight for control of an Old West town. (alchetron.com)
The Battle Of Lincoln
The so-called Battle of Lincoln was not a military skirmish but a battle for power and control between outlaw factions in Lincoln County, New Mexico, during which Billy the Kid killed his second man. He was arrested and later released, but the murder charge was still pending, which meant that fleeing would make Billy a fugitive once again. He offered information about other criminal activity in the county in exchange for dropping his charges, but the governor of the territory seemed to be stringing Billy along, so he blew out of there regardless of the consequences. He actually managed to stay out of trouble ... for a few months.
Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang. (gothicwestern.com)
Two More Murders And A Death Sentence
Billy the Kid added two more killings to his resume when he shot Sheriff William Brady in Lincoln and then Joe Grant on January 10, 1880 at a saloon in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. With a bounty of $500 on his head, he was later arrested and went on trial in Mesilla, New Mexico in April 1881. When the judge delivered his sentence by telling the 21-year old that he was going to "hang until he was dead, dead, dead," Billy reportedly responded by telling the judge "You can go to hell, hell, hell."
The jail from which Billy the Kid escaped. (atlasobscura.com)
One More Trick Up His Sleeve
Of course, that wasn't the end of Billy the Kid. In a last-ditch effort to avoid the gallows, he planned a daring jailbreak that took place on the evening of April 28, 1881. He waited until everyone in the jail was gone except for himself and one deputy, then he asked to be taken to the outhouse. On their way back inside, Billy darted ahead of his captor and hid behind a corner, where he slipped out of his handcuffs. When the deputy caught up to him, Billy beat him about the head with the metal handcuffs and stole his revolver, which he used to shoot him in the back. He then took a loaded shotgun to a second-floor window and waited for the sheriff, who undoubtedly heard the gunshot, to return to the jail. Moments later, the sheriff appeared in the street, and Billy shouted from the window "Look up, old boy, and see what you get." When the sheriff complied, Billy fatally shot him. His work completed, he stole a horse and rode out of town, singing as he left.
Billy the Kid meets his end at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. This violent scene is the finale of G Waldo Browne's "Dandy Rock, the Man from Texas."
The Death Of Billy The Kid
After that little performance, New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace issued a bounty for Billy's head, so on July 14, 1881, Sheriff Pat Garrett followed a tip that Billy the Kid was hiding out near Fort Grant. At the fort, he staked out the area and spoke to some of Billy's friends, including Pete Maxwell, the son of a local land baron. Sometime around midnight, Garrett and Maxwell were sitting in a dark bedroom in Maxwell's home when Billy the Kid unexpectedly walked in. He couldn't see who was sitting in the room because of the low light, so he asked (in Spanish) who was there, and Garrett recognized the voice as Billy's. Barely believing his luck, he pulled out his gun and shot the fugitive outlaw.
He hadn't gotten as lucky as he thought, however. Even though the local authorities identified the body as Billy the Kid, Governor Wallace had his doubts, so he refused to give the sheriff the reward money. Garrett took the case to court and eventually prevailed, but soon, public opinion turned against him for unfairly ambushing Billy. In response, he wrote a book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, which was published in April 1882 and went on to become the definitive guide to the outlaw's life. It might seem strange to publish a biography of the other guy in an attempt to get your side of the story out, but it's not like this article is titled "Pat Garrett Stories You've Never Heard Before."
The gravestone of Billy the Kid has been vandalized so much that an iron fence now surrounds it. (accounting-4-life.com)
The Final Resting Place Of Billy The Kid
Billy the Kid was buried in Fort Sumner Cemetery the day after his (alleged---we'll get to that in a second) death in 1881, but he didn't get a gravestone until 1940. After a local resident who served as an unofficial tour guide for Billy the Kid enthusiasts campaigned for a permanent gravestone, a Colorado stone cutter donated his services, and Billy's resting place was finally permanently marked. That is, until it was stolen in 1981. It was located only a few days later in California, but Billy the Kid's grave markers continue to be vandalized by fellow outlaws who have their own ways of paying their respects. As recently as 2012, the gravestone was tipped over in the night.
Did Sheriff Pat Garrett, shown here, help Billy the Kid escape? (allthatsinteresting.com)
Did Billy The Kid Fake His Own Death?
There's a reason why Governor Wallace was reluctant to hand over the reward money. Following the death of Billy the Kid, rumors swirled that the entire event had been staged. According to legend, Billy and Garrett planned the ruse together so that Billy could start a new life in a new place and Garrett could collect the bounty. As a result, several men claimed to be Billy the Kid in the ensuing years. Most of these claims were easily dismissed, but two gave the public pause.
In 1948, an intrepid paralegal who was investigating the Lincoln County War was told by one of the survivors that not only was Billy the Kid alive, the survivor knew exactly where he was. Ollie "Brushy Bill" Roberts first denied being Billy the Kid, but after the paralegal confronted him with the inconsistencies of his birth record and scars on Roberts's body that were the same as those known to be sported by the Kid, Roberts admitted it. He refused to go public, however, unless the paralegal agreed to help him get the pardon he was promised all those years ago. It's a pretty convincing case, right? Well, it turns out Roberts actually had a history of claiming to be various Old West gangsters, and no one ever managed to produce scientific proof of his secret identity.
Meanwhile, John Miller had claimed to be Billy the Kid throughout his life, and truth be told, he bore an eerie resemblance to the outlaw in both appearance and skill. Most interestingly, he showed up to his wedding on August 8, 1881 with a visible chest wound---three weeks after Billy the Kid's supposed death. It doesn't make a ton of sense for Billy the Kid to fake his death only to spend the rest of his life bragging about it, but when Miller's body was exhumed in 2005, tests comparing his DNA to the blood-stained floorboards of the jail where Billy's body was taken after he was shot came back inconclusive. Maybe the Kid really was that good.