Billy the Kid’s outlaw life began in earnest when he took a sheriff’s attempt at scaring him straight far more seriously than the lawman intended.
For all the myth surrounding him, little is known for certain about legendary outlaw Billy the Kid before his first brushes with the law.
As historian Robert M. Utley tells it in his 2015 book, Wanted: The Outlaw Lives of Billy the Kid & Ned Kelly, Billy — then known as Henry McCarty or Henry Antrim —was about 15 years old when he was arrested for the first time: September 23, 1875. He had lost his mother to tuberculosis a year earlier, making him an orphan, and was known to associate with one “Sombrero Jack,” a local drunk, in Silver City, New Mexico Territory, when some clothing went missing from a laundry business.
Grant County sheriff Harvey Whitehill pegged the pair as the culprits and arrested Henry, telling the boy he could cool his heels in jail until a grand jury was convened. The small-framed Henry, loath to face the charges and possible imprisonment, managed to climb up a chimney when left alone. He was on the lam before Whitehill, having only intended to scare the boy into abandoning this fledgling career in crime, got the chance to release him. Henry fled to Arizona, where he briefly worked as a ranch hand and then began stealing tack and the occasional horse.
Less than two years after his arrest for the laundry theft, Henry would kill for the first time.
Blacksmith Francis “Windy” Cahill was a much larger regular at a saloon where Henry socialized and frequently bullied him. On the night of August 17, 1877, the teasing went too far, and words gave way to a fistfight. Cahill was atop Henry and pummeling him when the teen reached for a pocketed revolver and fired it into Cahill’s abdomen, fatally wounding his aggressor. The blacksmith died the next day.
Once again, Henry fled before a grand jury — a real one, this time — could consider the case. And once again, Henry overestimated his fugitive status. He headed back to New Mexico, apparently not understanding that a jury would most likely have taken his youth into consideration and freed him on a self-defense plea.
It was around this time that Henry began calling himself “William H. Bonney” — with friends referring to him as “Billy” or “the Kid” — and obsessively practicing with his six-shooter and rifle. A foreman working for young English rancher-merchant John Tunstall took notice and hired Bonney to work Tunstall’s Lincoln County ranch, ostensibly as a cowboy but also as protection.
Tunstall and his partner, attorney Alexander McSween, were in heated conflict with a rival business owned and operated by Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan. Local ranchers, businessmen, lawmen, and criminal gangs alike took sides in the simmering range war, with each faction supported by politicians and law enforcement to give them the impression of legitimacy and thugs willing to carry out the dirty work.
Tunstall’s February 18, 1878, murder by members of a posse seizing his cattle in a legal dispute sparked what would be remembered as the Lincoln County War. Bonney joined up with other friends and supporters of Tunstall in an outfit known as the Regulators to avenge the death. Deputized by justice of the peace “Squire” John B. Wilson, they captured and killed two members of the posse a few weeks later, then — after the Dolan-Murphy-supporting territorial governor invalidated their law-enforcement authority — ambushed Sheriff William Brady and killed him and one of his deputies.
Bonney was wounded in the thigh and arm in sporadic gunfights and revenge killings over the next few months leading up to the Battle of Lincoln. On July 15, a mob of Dolan-Murphy supporters surrounded McSween’s home, where 15 Regulators were staying. The two sides exchanged gunfire for two days until soldiers from nearby Fort Stanton arrived.
The sight of a howitzer and Gatling gun put a temporary stop to things. That night, though, the posse set fire to the house. Bonney stepped up to devise a daring escape, distinguishing himself as a leader among the remaining Regulators. But McSween was stopped along with some of his men and, after shouting his refusal to surrender, killed in a hail of gunfire.
New Mexico Territory had a new governor, Lew Wallace, who was eager to put an end to the troubles in Lincoln County. He issued a general pardon to any fighter on either side who had not been indicted by a grand jury. It did not apply to Bonney, wanted for the murder of Sheriff Brady and another Dolan associate, Andrew “Buckshot” Roberts. Bonney managed to get a private meeting with Wallace and left with the understanding that he would not be prosecuted, or would be pardoned, in exchange for testimony about a homicide Bonney witnessed in the aftermath of the war.
Governor Wallace did not hold up his side of the deal.
From then on, Bonney’s status as an outlaw was indisputable — despite his protests and letters to the governor pleading for him to intervene.
Another dispute in a saloon led to another killing January 10, 1880, in Fort Sumner when Texan Joe Grant wagered Bonney that he would kill someone that night. Bonney made a show of admiring Grant’s revolver and furtively rotated the cylinder so that the hammer would hit an empty chamber. Later that night when Grant attempted to shoot Bonney in the back as he walked out, the Kid turned around at the sound of the trigger’s useless click and put three bullets through his chin.
Bonney became involved in a counterfeiting ring, cattle and horse rustling, and a mail buckboard holdup. In November of that year, Lincoln County elected Patrick F. Garrett to be sheriff, and Garrett and a posse managed to capture Billy December 23, 1880, at Stinking Springs, New Mexico. An attempt to dig out of the Santa Fe jail failed to free him, as did his repeated letters to Governor Wallace. A jury found him guilty of premeditated murder on April 9, 1881, and judge Warren Bristol sentenced him to hang, setting the date for May 13. But back in Lincoln awaiting the gallows, Bonney managed another escape on April 28. Deputy U.S. Marshal Bob Olinger had taken the other prisoners across the street to eat and left Bonney under the care of only one guard, James Bell. Walking back upstairs after using the outhouse, the Kid turned a corner ahead of Bell, slipped a hand free of his shackles, beat the deputy with the cuff, and wrestled away his pistol. Bell ran, and Bonney shot him in the back, killing him. He then picked up Olinger’s double-barreled shotgun, with which Olinger had earlier menaced Bonney, packing it with 18 buckshot — not nine dimes, contrary to Young Guns II’s depiction — per barrel. The Kid looked down from a window at Olinger. “Look up, old boy, and see what you get,” Bonney called out, as he later told it, and blasted both loads of 00 into the deputy marshal’s face and chest.
After his escape, the Kid talked about escaping to Mexico but ultimately could not give up his girlfriends near Fort Sumner. In July, Garrett knew he was in the vicinity and made trips there to question area citizens, none of whom would admit knowing where Bonney was. He was about to give up but made one last trip on July 14, 1881, to talk to one of Bonney’s friends, Pete Maxwell. A freshly slaughtered yearling hung from a rafter on Maxwell’s porch.
Around midnight that night, the Kid, hungry, was going to cut himself a steak from the yearling and bring it back to a girlfriend’s room when he was surprised by two men sitting outside Maxwell’s room. “¿Quién es? [Who is it?]” he asked in Spanish, drawing his pistol as he backed into Maxwell’s bedroom. He turned to ask Maxwell who the men were, not recognizing that Garrett was in the room too. “That’s him!” Maxwell exclaimed. The Kid hesitated and repeated the question, giving Garrett time to draw and fire twice. Bonney was dead before he hit the ground.
That is, he was dead according to most historians. A few men claimed over the next few decades that they were Billy the Kid, notably including Ollie “Brushy Bill” Roberts, who went so far as to seek a pardon from New Mexico Governor Thomas Mabry, and rumors persist to this day that he survived the shooting or that Garrett was secretly friends with the outlaw and they faked the killing. None of the claims have withstood serious scrutiny, but the Kid lives on to this day, if only in legend.
Photography: This ferrotype, ca. 1880 by an unknown photographer, is the only certified image of William “Billy the Kid” Bonney.