William H. Bonney (born William Henry McCarty, Jr. c. November 23, 1859 – c. July 14, 1881), better known as Billy the Kid (but also known as Henry Antrim), was a 19th-century American gunman who participated in the Lincoln County War, and became a frontier outlaw in the American Old West.

According to legend, Billy killed 21 men, but it is generally believed that he only killed between four and nine.

He killed his first man at 18.

Relatively unknown during most of his lifetime, Billy was catapulted into legend in 1881, when New Mexico’s governor, Lew Wallace, placed a price on his head.

At the movies, Billy the Kid was played by actor Emilio Estevez, in the 1988 film “Young Guns”, and its 1990 sequel, “Young Guns II”.

Video comes courtesy of YouTube:

So much, for Hollywood.

Here’s what history has to say:

Billy’s Early life

William Henry McCarty, Jr. is believed by Michael Wallis and Robert M. Utley, scholars of western history, to have been born on the eve of the Civil War in an Irish neighborhood in New York City, at 70 Allen Street. If indeed his birthplace was New York, no records that prove that he ever lived there have ever been uncovered.

While it’s not known for sure who his biological father was, some researchers have theorized that his name was Patrick McCarty, Michael McCarty, William McCarty, or Edward McCarty.

His mother’s name was Catherine McCarty – although there have been continuing debates about whether McCarty was her maiden or married name. She is believed to have emigrated from Ireland to New York during the time of the Great Famine.

In 1868 Catherine McCarty moved with her two young sons, William Henry and Joseph, to Indianapolis, Indiana. There she met William Antrim, who was 12 years her junior.

In 1873, after several years of moving around the country, the two were married at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and settled further south in Silver City. Antrim found work as a bartender and carpenter, but then became involved in prospecting and gambling as a way to make a living, and during that period spent very little time at home with his wife and stepsons.

McCarty’s mother reportedly washed clothes, baked pies, and took in boarders in order to provide for herself and her sons. Boarders and neighbors remembered her as a jolly Irish lady, full of life and mischief, but she was already in the final stages of tuberculosis when the family reached Silver City.

On September 16, 1874, Catherine McCarty died; she was buried in the Memory Lane Cemetery in Silver City.

Orphan, and Fugitive

At age 14 McCarty was taken in by a neighboring family who operated a hotel where he worked to pay for his keep. The manager was impressed by the youth, contending that he was the only young man who ever worked for him who did not steal anything.

Forced to seek new lodgings when his foster family began to experience domestic problems, McCarty moved into a boarding house and pursued odd jobs.

In April 1875, McCarty was arrested by Grant County Sheriff Harvey Whitehill for stealing cheese.
Sheriff Whitehill would later say that he liked the boy, and his acts of theft were more due to necessity than wantonness.

On September 24, 1875, McCarty was arrested again, when found in possession of clothing and firearms that a fellow boarder had stolen from a Chinese laundry owner. Two days after McCarty was placed in jail, the teenager escaped up the jailhouse chimney. From that point on McCarty was more or less a fugitive.

Risky Businesses

In 1876 McCarty settled in the vicinity of the Fort Grant Army Post in Arizona, where he worked on ranches and tested his skills at local gaming houses.

During this time McCarty became acquainted with John R. Mackie, a Scottish-born ex-cavalry private with a criminal bent. The two men supposedly became involved in the risky, but profitable, enterprise of horse thievery.

McCarty, who stole from local soldiers, became known by the name of “Kid Antrim”. Biographer Robert M. Utley writes that the nickname arose because of McCarty’s slight build and beardless countenance, his young years, and his appealing personality.

In 1877 McCarty was involved in a conflict with the civilian blacksmith at Fort Grant, an Irish immigrant named Frank “Windy” Cahill, who took pleasure in bullying the young McCarty. On August 17, Cahill reportedly attacked McCarty after a verbal exchange and threw him to the ground. Reliable accounts say that McCarty retaliated by shooting Cahill, who died the next day.

The coroner’s inquest concluded that McCarty’s shooting of Cahill was criminal and unjustifiable. Some of those who witnessed the incident later claimed that McCarty acted in self-defense.

Fugitive, Again

In fear of Cahill’s friends, McCarty fled the Arizona Territory and entered the New Mexico Territory. He eventually arrived at the former army post of Apache Tejo, where he joined a band of cattle rustlers who raided the sprawling herds of cattle magnate John Chisum.

McCarty rode for a time with the gang of rustlers (known as the Jesse Evans Gang), but then turned up at Heiskell Jones’s house in Pecos Valley, New Mexico.

According to one account, Apaches stole McCarty’s horse, forcing him to walk many miles to the nearest settlement – which happened to be Jones’s home.

When he arrived, the young man was supposedly near death, but Mrs. Jones nursed him back to health. The Jones family developed a strong attachment to McCarty, and gave him one of their horses.

At some point in 1877, McCarty began to refer to himself as “William H. Bonney”.

The Left-Handed Gun?

One of the few artifacts of McCarty’s life is a 2×3 inch ferrotype taken by an unknown photographer sometime in late 1879 or early 1880. It is the only image of McCarty that scholars agree is authentic.

McCarty (or Bonney, the name he used at the height of his notoriety) was 5’8″ (173 cm) tall with blue eyes, a smooth complexion, and prominent front teeth.

The photograph of The Kid, commonly known as the Upham tintype – after its longtime owner Frank Upham – was the subject of intense study by experts in the late 1980s. The experts concluded that the Colt revolver carried by McCarty was probably not his primary weapon, since his holster is not the type normally associated with gunslingers. Rather, it is a common holster, with a safety strap across the top to keep the six-shooter from bouncing out. McCarty’s main weapon appears to be the Winchester Carbine held in his hand in the ferrotype.

It was widely assumed throughout much of the 20th century that Billy the Kid was left-handed. This perception was encouraged by the above mentioned photograph of McCarty, in which he appears to be wearing a gun belt with a holster on his left side, but further examination revealed that as all Winchester Model 1873 rifles were made with the loading gate on the right side of the receiver, the “left-handed” photograph is in fact a mirror image.

A closer look at the ferrotype confirms that the prong on the Kid’s belt buckle points the wrong way, and the buttons on the Kid’s vest are on the left side – the side reserved for ladies’ blouses. The convention for men’s wear is that buttons go down the right side.

Michael Wallis wrote in 2007 that McCarty was ambidextrous. This observation seems to be supported by newspaper accounts of the time reporting that Billy the Kid could shoot handguns “with his left hand as accurately as he does with his right” and that “his aim with a revolver in each hand, shooting simultaneously, is unerring.”

The Lincoln County War

In 1877, McCarty (now widely known as William Bonney) moved to Lincoln County, New Mexico, and was hired by Doc Scurlock and Charlie Bowdre to work in their cheese factory. Through them, he met Frank Coe, George Coe and Ab Saunders, three cousins who owned their own ranch near the ranch of Richard M. Brewer. After a short stint working on the ranch of Henry Hooker, McCarty began working on the Coe-Saunders ranch.

Late in 1877, McCarty, along with Brewer, Bowdre, Scurlock, the Coes and Saunders, was hired as a cattle guard by John Tunstall, an English cattle rancher, banker and merchant, and his partner, Alexander McSween, a prominent lawyer.

A conflict known today as the Lincoln County War had erupted between the established town merchants, Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, and competing business interests headed by Tunstall and McSween.

Before the arrival of Tunstall and McSween, Murphy and Dolan had presided over a monopoly of Lincoln County’s cattle and merchant trade.

Their far-reaching operation was known locally as “The House”, after a large mansion in Lincoln that served as Murphy and Dolan’s headquarters. There was also an ethnic element to the House’s conflict with Tunstall; Murphy and Dolan, both Irish immigrants, were strongly opposed to an Englishman like Tunstall cutting into their business.

Events turned bloody on February 18, 1878, when Tunstall was spotted while driving a herd of nine horses towards Lincoln and murdered by William Morton, Jesse Evans, Tom Hill, Frank Baker, and Sheriff William J. Brady of Lincoln County – all members of a posse serving the House, sent to attack McSween’s holdings.

After murdering Tunstall, the gunmen shot down his prized bay horse.
“As a wry and macabre joke on Tunstall’s great affection for horses, the dead bay’s head was then pillowed on his hat”, writes Frederick Nolan, Tunstall’s biographer.

Evidence at the scene suggested that Tunstall attempted to avoid a confrontation before he was shot down.

Tunstall’s murder enraged McCarty and the other ranch hands.

The Regulators

McSween, who abhorred violence, took steps to punish Tunstall’s murderers through legal means; he obtained warrants for their arrests from the local justice of the peace, John B. Wilson.

Tunstall’s men had other ideas.

They formed their own group, called the Regulators. After being deputized by Brewer, Tunstall’s foreman (who had been appointed a special constable and given the warrant to arrest Tunstall’s killers), they proceeded to the Murphy-Dolan store.

The wanted men, Bill Morton and Frank Baker, attempted to flee, but were captured on March 6.

Upon returning to Lincoln, the Regulators reported that Morton and Baker had been shot on March 9 near Agua Negra, during an alleged escape attempt.

During their journey to Lincoln, the Regulators also killed one of their own members, a man named McCloskey, whom they suspected of being a traitor.

On the day that McCloskey, Morton, and Baker were slain, Governor Samuel Beach Axtell arrived in Lincoln County to investigate the ongoing violence. The governor, accompanied by James Dolan and associate John Riley, proved hostile to the faction now headed by McSween.

The Regulators “went from lawmen to outlaws”.

Settling Scores

The Regulators planned to settle a score with Sheriff William J. Brady, who had arrested McCarty and fellow deputy Fred Waite in the aftermath of Tunstall’s murder. At the time Brady arrested them, the two men were trying to serve a warrant on him for his suspected role in looting Tunstall’s store after the Englishman’s death, as well as against his posse members for the murder of Tunstall.

On April 1, the Regulators Jim French, Frank McNab, John Middleton, Fred Waite, Henry Brown and McCarty/Bonney ambushed Sheriff Brady and his deputy, George W. Hindman, killing them both in Lincoln’s main street.

McCarty was shot in the thigh while attempting to retrieve a rifle that Brady had seized from him during an earlier arrest.

With this move, the Regulators disillusioned many former supporters, who came to view both sides as “equally nefarious and bloodthirsty”.

On April 4, in what became known as the Gunfight of Blazer’s Mills, the Regulators sought the arrest of Buckshot Roberts, a former buffalo hunter whom they suspected of involvement in the Tunstall murder. Roberts refused to be taken alive, though he had suffered a severe bullet wound to the chest.

During the gun battle, he shot and killed the Regulators’ leader, Dick Brewer. Four other Regulators were wounded in the skirmish.

The incident had the effect of further alienating the public, as many local residents “admired the way Roberts put up a gutsy fight against overwhelming odds.”

The Killing of Frank McNab and Its Aftermath

After Brewer’s death, the Regulators elected Frank McNab as captain. For a short period, they benefited from the appointment of Sheriff John Copeland, who proved sympathetic to their cause.

However, Copeland’s authority was undermined by the House, which recruited members from among Brady’s former deputies.

On April 29, 1878, a posse including the Jesse Evans Gang and the Seven Rivers Warriors, under the direction of former Brady deputy George W. Peppin, engaged McNab, Ab Saunders and Frank Coe in a shootout at the Fritz Ranch. They killed McNab, severely wounded Saunders and captured Coe. Coe escaped custody a short time later.

The next day the Regulators took up defensive positions in the town of Lincoln, where they traded shots with Dolan’s men as well as U.S. cavalrymen.

The only casualty was Dutch Charley Kruling, a House gunman wounded by a rifle slug fired by George Coe. But by shooting at US government troops, the Regulators had gained a new set of enemies.

On May 15, the Regulators tracked down Seven Rivers Warriors gang member Manuel Segovia, the suspected murderer of Frank McNab, and killed him. Around the time of Segovia’s death, the Regulators gained a new member, a young Texas “cowpoke” named Tom O’Folliard, who became McCarty’s close friend and constant companion.

The Regulators’ position worsened when the governor, in a quasi-legal move, removed Copeland and appointed House ally George Peppin as sheriff.

Under indictment for the Brady killing, McCarty and the other Regulators spent the next several months in hiding and were trapped, along with McSween, in McSween’s home in Lincoln on July 15, by members of the House and some of Brady’s men.

On July 19, a column of U.S. cavalry soldiers entered the fray. Although the soldiers were supposed to be neutral, their actions favored the Dolan faction.

After a five-day siege, the posse set McSween’s house on fire. McCarty and the other Regulators fled. The posse shot McSween when he escaped the fire, essentially marking the end of the Lincoln County War.

Lew Wallace and Amnesty

In the Autumn of 1878, the president appointed Lew Wallace, a former Union Army general, as Governor of the New Mexico Territory.

In an effort to restore peace to Lincoln County, Wallace proclaimed an amnesty for any man involved in the Lincoln County War who was not already under indictment.

McCarty, who had fled to Texas after his escape from McSween’s house, was under indictment, but sent Wallace a letter requesting immunity in return for testifying in front of the Grand Jury.

In March 1879, Wallace and McCarty met in Lincoln County to discuss the possibility of a deal. McCarty greeted the governor with a revolver in one hand and a Winchester rifle in the other. After taking several days to consider Wallace’s offer, McCarty agreed to testify in return for amnesty.

The arrangement called for McCarty to submit to a token arrest and a short stay in jail until the conclusion of his courtroom testimony. Although McCarty’s testimony helped to indict John Dolan, the district attorney (one of the powerful “House” faction leaders) disregarded Wallace’s order to set McCarty free after his testimony.

After the Dolan trial, McCarty and O’Folliard escaped on horses supplied by friends.

On The Run – Again

For the next year-and-a-half, McCarty survived by rustling, gambling, and taking defensive action.

In January 1880, he reportedly killed a man named Joe Grant in a Fort Sumner saloon. Grant, who did not realize who his opponent was, boasted that he would kill “Billy the Kid” if he ever encountered him.

In those days people loaded their revolvers with only five rounds, with the hammer down on an empty chamber. This was done to prevent an accidental discharge should the hammer be struck.

The Kid asked Grant if he could see his ivory-handled revolver and, while looking at the weapon, rotated the cylinder so the hammer would fall on the empty chamber when the trigger was pulled. He told Grant his identity. When Grant fired, nothing happened, and McCarty shot him. When asked about the incident later, he remarked, “It was a game for two, and I got there first.”

In another version of this story, biographer, Joel Jacobsen describes Grant as a “drunk” who was “making himself obnoxious in a bar”. The Kid is described as rotating the cylinder “so an empty chamber was beneath the hammer”. In Jacobsen’s recounting of the incident, Grant tried to shoot McCarty in the back. “As he was leaving the saloon, his back turned to Grant, he heard a distinct click. He spun around before Grant could reach a loaded chamber. Always a good marksman, he shot Grant in the chin.”

In November 1880, a posse pursued and trapped McCarty’s gang inside a ranch house owned by his friend James Greathouse at Anton Chico in the White Oaks area.

James Carlyle of the posse entered the house under a white flag, in an effort to negotiate the group’s surrender. Greathouse was sent out to act as a hostage for the posse.

At some point in the evening, Carlyle evidently decided the outlaws were stalling. According to one version, Carlyle heard a shot that had been fired accidentally outside. Concluding that the posse had shot down Greathouse, he chose escape, crashed through a window and was fired upon and killed.

Recognizing their mistake, the posse became demoralized and scattered, enabling McCarty and his gang to slip away. McCarty vehemently denied shooting Carlyle, and later wrote to Governor Wallace, claiming to be innocent of this crime and others attributed to him.

Pat Garrett

Around this time, McCarty became acquainted with an ambitious local bartender and former buffalo hunter named Pat Garrett. While popular accounts often depict McCarty and Garrett as “bosom buddies”, there is no evidence that they were friends.

Running on a pledge to rid the area of rustlers, Garrett was elected as sheriff of Lincoln County in November 1880.

In early December, he assembled a posse and set out to arrest McCarty, at that time known almost exclusively as “Billy the Kid.” The Kid then carried a $500 bounty on his head that had been authorized by governor Lew Wallace.

On December 19, McCarty barely escaped a midnight ambush in Fort Sumner, which left one member of the gang, Tom O’Folliard, dead.

On December 23, the Kid was tracked to an abandoned stone building located in a remote location known as Stinking Springs (near present-day Taiban, New Mexico). While McCarty and his gang were asleep inside, Garrett’s posse surrounded the building and waited for sunrise.

The next morning, a cattle rustler named Charlie Bowdre stepped outside to feed his horse. Mistaken for McCarty, he was shot down by the posse. Soon afterward, somebody from within the building reached for the horse’s halter rope, but Garrett shot and killed the horse, whose body blocked the building’s only exit.

As the lawmen began to cook breakfast over an open fire, Garrett and McCarty engaged in a friendly exchange, with Garrett inviting McCarty outside to eat, and McCarty inviting Garrett to “go to hell.” Realizing that they had no hope of escape, the besieged and hungry outlaws finally surrendered and were allowed to join in the meal.

Escape from Lincoln

McCarty was transported from Fort Sumner to Las Vegas, where he gave an interview to a reporter from the Las Vegas Gazette. Next, the prisoner was transferred to Santa Fe, where he sent four separate letters over the next three months to Governor Wallace seeking clemency. Wallace, however, refused to intervene, and the Kid’s trial was held in April 1881 in Mesilla.

On April 9, after two days of testimony, McCarty was found guilty of the murder of Sheriff Brady – the only conviction ever secured against any of the combatants in the Lincoln County War. On April 13, he was sentenced by Judge Warren Bristol to hang.

With his execution scheduled for May 13, McCarty was removed to Lincoln, where he was held under guard by two of Garrett’s deputies, James Bell and Robert Ollinger, on the top floor of the town courthouse.

On April 28, while Garrett was out of town, McCarty stunned the territory by killing both of his guards and escaping.

The details of the escape are unclear. Some researchers believe that a sympathizer placed a pistol in a nearby privy that McCarty was permitted to use, under escort, each day. McCarty retrieved the gun, and turned it on Bell when the pair had reached the top of a flight of stairs in the courthouse. Another theory holds that McCarty slipped off his manacles at the top of the stairs, struck Bell over the head with them, grabbed Bell’s own gun, and shot him with it.

In any event, Bell staggered down the stairs, dying as he fell. McCarty scooped up Ollinger’s 10-gauge double-barrel shotgun. Both barrels had been fully loaded with buckshot earlier by Ollinger himself.

The Kid waited at the upstairs window for his second guard, who had been across the street with some other prisoners, to respond to the gunshot and come to Bell’s aid. As Ollinger came running into view, McCarty leveled the shotgun at him, called out “Hello Bob!” and killed him.

The Kid’s escape was delayed for an hour while he worked free of his leg irons with a pickaxe, and then the young outlaw mounted a horse and rode out of town, reportedly singing. The horse returned two days later.

The Death of Billy the Kid

Sheriff Pat Garrett responded to rumors that McCarty was lurking in the vicinity of Fort Sumner almost three months after his escape.

Garrett and two deputies set out on July 14, 1881, to question one of the town’s residents, a friend of McCarty’s named Pedro “Pete” Maxwell (son of the land baron Lucien Maxwell). Close to midnight, as Garrett and Maxwell sat talking in Maxwell’s darkened bedroom, McCarty unexpectedly entered the room.

There are at least two versions of what happened next.

One version suggests that as the Kid entered, he failed to recognize Garrett in the poor light. McCarty drew his pistol and backed away, asking “Quién es? Quién es?” (Spanish for “Who is it? Who is it?”). Recognizing McCarty’s voice, Garrett drew his own pistol and fired twice, the first bullet striking McCarty in the chest just above his heart, the second one missing, and striking the mantle behind him. McCarty fell to the floor, gasped for a minute, and died.

In the second version, McCarty entered carrying a knife, evidently headed to a kitchen area. He noticed someone in the darkness, and uttered the words, “Quién es? Quién es?” at which point he was shot and killed.

Although the popularity of the first story persists, and portrays Garrett in a better light, some historians contend that the second version is probably the accurate one.

A markedly different theory, in which Garrett and his posse set a trap for McCarty, has also been suggested. Most recently explored in the 2004 Discovery Channel documentary, Billy the Kid: Unmasked, this version says that Garrett went to the bedroom of Pedro Maxwell’s sister, Paulita, and bound and gagged her in her bed. When McCarty arrived, Garrett was waiting behind Paulita’s bed and shot the Kid.

Dead, or Alive?

Rumors persist that Billy the Kid was not killed that night, but that Garrett (a known friend of the Kid’s) may have staged it all so the Kid could escape the law.

Several men claimed to be McCarty over the years, and at least two became notable because they were successful in persuading a small segment of the public.

In 1949, a paralegal named William Morrison located a man in Central Texas named Ollie Partridge Roberts (nicknamed Brushy Bill), who claimed to be Billy the Kid and challenged the popular account of McCarty as shot to death by Pat Garrett in 1881. Brushy Bill’s story was further promoted by the 1990 film Young Guns II, as well as a 2011 episode of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, on the History Channel.

Another individual who allegedly claimed to be Billy the Kid was John Miller, whose family supported his claim in 1938, some time after Miller’s death. Miller was buried at the state-owned Pioneers’ Home Cemetery in Prescott, Arizona.

Tom Sullivan, a former sheriff of Lincoln County, and Steve Sederwall, a former mayor of Capitan, disinterred the bones of John Miller in May 2005. Though Sederwall and Sullivan believed the exhumation was allowed, official permission had not been given.

DNA samples from the remains were sent to a lab in Dallas, Texas, to be compared with traces of blood obtained from a bench that was believed to be the one upon which McCarty’s body was placed after he was shot to death. To date, no DNA test results have been made public.

As of 2008, a lawsuit is pending against officials in Lincoln County that would, if successful, publicize the results of those tests, along with other evidence that Sullivan and Sederwall collected.

So, who knows?

That’s it, for this one.

I hope you’ll join me, for our next installment.

Till then.