Best Of The West 2012: Billy The Kid, Million Dollar Mystery
Photography: Courtesy Brian Lebel's Old West Auction
The last words spoken by the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid — “Who is it?” — could sum up his life. Who was this young desperado? And how did he become the murdering fugitive who died, bounty on his head, by Sheriff Pat Garrett’s gunshot at the age of 21?
He was born William Henry McCarty, most likely in 1859, most likely in New York, to Irish immigrant Catherine McCarty; his father is unknown. When his mother married William Antrim in 1873, he became Henry Antrim. Orphaned at age 14 when his mother died of tuberculosis and his stepfather abandoned him, Billy, along with his brother, began shifting for himself, eventually turning to petty thievery (first arrest: for stealing cheese) and heading west as a fugitive.
Soon enough the gunslinging teenager going by the name Kid Antrim would become William H. Bonney — alias Billy the Kid. He turned up briefly in Arizona, where he apprenticed to a horse thief and shot and killed his first victim, a burly blacksmith named Frank “Windy” Cahill, who had taken pleasure in harassing him. Now wanted for murder, The Kid fled to New Mexico Territory, where he became involved in a fracas that would seal his fate.
In 1870s Lincoln, Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, powerful businessmen with strong political connections, owned the only general store; lucrative beef and other contracts with the U.S. Army and Mescalero Apaches afforded them an enviable monopoly. Into this scenario in late 1876 strode John Tunstall, an enterprising Englishman who opened a competing store; this pleased the Murphy-Dolan forces not one whit.
Billy, who had been up to no good with a gang of cattle-rustling gunfighters, went to work for Tunstall. Trouble between Tunstall and Murphy escalated, and in February 1878, a sheriff’s posse brutally murdered Tunstall. The Lincoln County War was on.
The Regulators, made up of Tunstall’s cowhands (including Billy) and some locals, formed to hunt down Tunstall’s murderers. On April 1, 1878, Billy took part in a retaliatory ambush in which Sheriff William J. Brady and Deputy George W. Hindman were killed. The Kid was held responsible for Brady’s murder, and Pat Garrett, appointed county sheriff in 1880, was tasked with bringing him to justice. Captured by Garrett and sentenced to hang, Billy was imprisoned in the Lincoln County courthouse.
Billy’s abrupt end came at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, on July 14, 1881. The details are as murky as the night was, and as subject to speculation as Billy’s birth.
Out of town on April 28, 1881, Garrett had entrusted deputies Bob Olinger and James Bell with guarding the illustrious prisoner. Billy, while trying to escape, got into a scuffle with Bell and managed to get his gun. Olinger, across the street at the Wortley Hotel eating what would be his last meal, rushed back to the courthouse at the sound of a shot. Billy had killed Bell and was waiting at a second floor window with Olinger’s double-barreled shotgun. Billy called out, Olinger looked up, and Billy cut him down.
Local folks loaned Billy a horse and an axe to remove his leg shackles. His daring escape came just two weeks before his hanging date. Would he have gone to all the trouble if he’d known he had just 11 weeks to live — or been singing, as he reportedly was, as he rode out of town?
Billy’s abrupt end came at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, on July 14, 1881. The details are as murky as the night was, and as subject to speculation as Billy’s birth. Had he gone to see his lover, Paulita Maxwell? Had Garrett, in Fort Sumner looking for Billy, gagged her and bound her to the bed then lain in wait for The Kid? Had Garrett gone to the home of Billy’s friend Pete Maxwell, Paulita’s brother, and been questioning him when The Kid unexpectedly walked in? Had Billy pulled a gun? Did he have a knife? Whatever the circumstances, Billy could not distinguish who was there in the darkness. “¿Quién es?” he uttered suspiciously in Spanish. In answer, Pat Garrett shot twice.
Billy died that fateful night, but the legend never has. The tiny town of Lincoln leaped into prominence. Dime novels from Eastern publishers and Garrett’s 1882 book, The Authentic Life of Billy, The Kid, hurtled the outlaw from local celeb to a Wild West icon with the power to enthrall and inflame generations hence.
Passions ignited in 2010 as Gov. Bill Richardson considered pardoning The Kid for the murder of Sheriff William Brady. A clemency had ostensibly been promised more than 130 years before by Gov. Lew Wallace in return for Billy’s testimony in a murder case. Though The Kid testified, the clemency never came. In December 2010 as he was leaving office, Richardson nixed the pardon, citing “historical ambiguity.”
A more fitting postscript to the short, dramatic life of William Henry McCarty than the pardon that never was is perhaps the world-famous tintype that still is. The only known photo of Billy the Kid sold in June 2011 for a record-smashing $2.3 million to Florida billionaire and Wild West memorabilia collector William Koch, who intends to let a few select museums display it for all to enjoy. The metallic photo, probably taken outside a saloon in Fort Sumner, shows a standing Billy the Kid holding a Winchester rifle, a Colt .41, on his hip. At an unassuming 5 feet 8 inches, his sandy hair jauntily topped by a rumpled hat instead of his trademark sugar loaf sombrero, he looks every inch the oddly charming outlaw, oblivious to the fate and fame that await him.