Henry McCarty (November 23, 1859—July 14, 1881), better known as Billy the Kid, but also known by the aliases Henry Antrim and William H. Bonney, was a 19th-century American frontier outlaw and gunman who participated in the so-called Lincoln County War. According to legend, he killed 21 men, one for each year of his life, but he most likely participated in the killing of less than half that number.
McCarty (or Bonney, the name he used at the height of his notoriety) was 5 ft 8 in-5 ft 9 in (173-175 cm) tall with blue eyes, a smooth complexion and prominent front teeth. He was said to be friendly and personable at times, and many recalled that he was as "lithe as a cat". Contemporaries described him as a "neat" dresser who favored an "unadorned Mexican sombrero". These qualities, along with his cunning and celebrated skill with firearms, contributed to his paradoxical image, as both a notorious outlaw and beloved folk hero.
A relative unknown during his own lifetime, he was catapulted into legend the year after his death when his killer, Sheriff Patrick Garrett, published a sensationalistic biography titled The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid. Beginning with Garrett's account, Billy the Kid grew into a symbolic figure of the American Old West.
By 1868, Catherine McCarty had relocated with her two young sons, 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 sporadic work as a bartender and carpenter but soon became more interested in prospecting and gambling for fortune than in his wife and stepsons. Despite this, young McCarty often used the surname "Antrim" when referring to himself.
Faced with a husband who was frequently absent, McCarty's mother reportedly washed clothes, baked pies, and took in boarders in order to provide for her sons. Although she was fondly remembered by onetime boarders and neighbors as "a jolly Irish lady, full of life and mischief", she was already in the final stages of tuberculosis when the family reached Silver City. The following year, on September 16, 1874, Catherine McCarty died; she was buried in the Memory Lane Cemetery in Silver City. 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 that did not steal anything. One of McCarty's school teachers later recalled that the young orphan was "no more of a problem than any other boy, always quite willing to help with chores around the schoolhouse". Early biographers sought to explain McCarty's subsequent descent into lawlessness by focusing on his habit of reading dime novels that romanticized crime. A more likely explanation, however, was his slender physique, "which placed him in precarious situations with bigger and stronger boys".
Forced to seek new lodgings when his foster family began to experience "domestic problems", McCarty moved into a boardinghouse and pursued odd jobs. In April, 1875, McCarty was arrested by Grant County Sheriff Harvey Whitehill, after McCarty stole some cheese. On September 24, 1875, McCarty was again arrested when he was 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 by worming his way up the jailhouse chimney. From that point on, McCarty was more or less a fugitive. According to some accounts, he eventually found work as an itinerant ranch hand and shepherd in southeastern Arizona. In 1876, he settled in the vicinity of Fort Grant Army Post in Arizona, where he worked local ranches and tested his skills at local gaming houses. Sheriff Whitehill would later say that he liked the boy, and his acts of theft were more due to necessity than criminality.
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; and McCarty, who targeted local soldiers, became known by the sobriquet of "Kid Atrim". 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 an altercation with the civilian blacksmith at Fort Grant, a loquacious Irish immigrant named Frank "Windy" Cahill, who took pleasure in bullying young McCarty. On August 17, Cahill reportedly attacked McCarty after a verbal exchange and threw him to the ground. Reliable accounts suggest McCarty retaliated by drawing his gun and shooting Cahill, who died the next day. Years later, Louis Abraham, who knew McCarty in Silver City, denied that anyone was killed in this altercation. Records show, however, that a 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.
In fear of Cahill's friends and associates, McCarty fled Arizona Territory and entered New Mexico Territory. He eventually arrived at the former army post of Apache Tejo, where he joined a band of cattle rustlers who targeted the sprawling herds of cattle magnate John Chisum. During this period, McCarty was spotted by a resident of Silver City, and the teenager's involvement with the notorious gang was mentioned in a local newspaper. It is unclear how long McCarty rode with the gang of rustlers known as "the Boys", but reliable sources indicate that he soon turned up at the house of Heiskell Jones in Pecos Valley, New Mexico. According to this account, Apaches stole McCarty's horse, forcing him to walk many miles to the nearest settlement, which happened to be Jones' 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 "Willam H. Bonney".
Late in 1877, McCarty, along with Brewer, Bowdre, Scurlock, the Coe's 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 local ranchers. Events turned bloody on February 18, 1878, when an unarmed Tunstall was spotted herding cattle on the open range and murdered by William Morton, Jessie Evans, Tom Hill, and Frank Baker — all members of the Murphy-Dolan faction. 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. Although members of the Murphy-Dolan faction sought to frame Tunstall's death as a "justifiable homicide", 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.
McSween, who abhorred violence, took steps to punish Tunstall's murderers through legal means; he obtained warrants for their arrests from a local justice of the peace. Tunstall's men formed their own group called the Regulators. After being deputized by rancher Richard "Dick" 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-Dolin ranch. The wanted men, Bill Morton and Frank Baker, attempted to flee, but they 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 very day that McCloskey, Morton, and Baker were slain, Governor Samuel Beach Axtell arrived in New Mexico Territory to investigate the ongoing violence. The governor, accompanied by James Dolan and associate John Riley, proved hostile to the faction now headed by McSween. Thus, the Regulators "went from lawmen to outlaws." Axtell, Dolan, Riley and the rest of the faction that had murdered Tunstall were part of the infamous "Santa Fe Ring", a corrupt group of Republican carpetbaggers, mostly Irish, who had taken over New Mexico after the Civil War.
Unfazed, 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 attempting to serve a warrant on Brady for his suspected role in looting Tunstall's store after the Englishman's death. On April 1, Regulators Jim French, Frank McNab, John Middleton, Fred Waite, Henry Brown and McCarty 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 McSween faction disillusioned many former supporters, who came to view both sides as "equally nefarious and bloodthirsty".
The connection between McSween and the Regulators was ambiguous, however. McCarty was loyal to the memory of Tunstall, not necessarily to McSween, however. There is some doubt as to whether McCarty and McSween were even acquainted at the time of Brady's death. According to a contemporary newspaper account, the Regulators disclaimed "all connection or sympathy with McSween and his affairs" and expressed their sole desire to track down Tunstall's murderers.
On April 4, in what became known as the Gunfight of Blazer's Mills, the Regulators sought the arrest of an old buffalo hunter known as Buckshot Roberts, whom they suspected of involvement in the Tunstall slaying. Roberts, however, refused to be taken alive, even after he suffered a severe bullet wound to the chest. During the gun battle that ensued, Roberts 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, given that many local residents "admired the way Roberts put up a gutsy fight against overwhelming odds."
After Brewer's death, Frank McNab was elected as captain of the Regulators. For a short period, the Regulators benefited from the appointment of Sheriff John Copeland, who proved sympathetic to the McSween faction. Copeland's authority, however, was undermined by the Murphy-Dolan faction, which promptly rounded up recruits from among Sheriff Brady's former deputies. On April 29, 1878, a posse including the Jessie Evans Gang and the Seven Rivers Warriors, under the direction of former Brady deputy George W. Peppin, engaged Regulators Frank McNab, Ab Saunders and Frank Coe in a shootout at the Fritz Ranch. McNab was killed in a hail of gunfire, while Saunders was severely wounded and Frank Coe was captured. Frank Coe escaped custody a short time later, when his captors were occupied elsewhere.
What is known about the morning following McNab's death is that the Regulator "iron clad" took up defensive positions in the town of Lincoln, trading shots with Dolan men as well as U.S. cavalrymen. The only casualty was Dutch Charley Kruling, a Dolan man wounded by a rifle slug fired by George Coe at a distance of 440 paces. By shooting at government troops, the Regulators earned their animosity and gained a whole new set of enemies. On May 15, the Regulators tracked down Seven Rivers gang member Manuel Segovia, the suspected murderer of Frank McNab, and shot him to death. Around the time of Segovia's death, the Regulator "iron clad" 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 George Peppin (an ally of the Murphy-Dolan faction) 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" (as the Murphy-Dolan faction was known) and some of Brady's men. On July 19, a column of U.S. cavalry soldiers entered the fray. Ostensibly neutral, the column's actions worked to the clear advantage of the Dolan faction. After a five day siege, McSween's house was set on fire. McCarty and the other Regulators fled, although McCarty is believed by some to have killed one "House" member named Bob Beckwith. McSween was shot down while fleeing the blaze, and his death essentially marked the end of the Lincoln County Cattle War.
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 trial, McCarty and O'Folliard slipped away on horses that were supplied by friends.
For the next year-and-a-half, McCarty survived by rustling, gambling, and taking defensive action. In January 1880, during a well-documented altercation, he killed a man named Joe Grant in a Fort Sumner saloon. Grant was boasting that he would kill the "Kid" if he saw him, not realizing the man he was playing poker with was "Billy the Kid." In those days people only loaded their revolvers with five bullets, since there were no safeties and a lot of accidents. The "Kid" asked Grant if he could see his ivory handled revolver and, while looking at the weapon, cycled the cylinder so the hammer would fall on the empty chamber. He then informed Grant of his identity. When Grant fired, nothing happened, and Bonney then shot him. When asked about the incident later, he remarked, "It was a game for two, and I got there first". Other versions of this story exist. In one version, Billy emptied the gun. In another, Grant had just purchased the six-shot pistol from a Chisum-employed cowboy named Jack Finan, who had fired three rounds earlier without reloading. According to this account, the Kid turned the empty cartridges up to the hammer.
In November 1880, a posse pursued and trapped McCarty's gang inside a ranch house owned by one of the Kid's friends, James Greathouse, at Anton Chico in the White Oaks area. A posse member named James Carlysle ventured into the house under a white flag, in an effort to negotiate the group's surrender. Meanwhile, Greathouse was sent out to act as a hostage for the posse. At some point in the evening, Carlysle evidently decided the outlaws were stalling. According to one version of events, Carlysle heard a shot that had been fired accidentally outside. Concluding that the posse members had shot down Greathouse, he chose to run for his life. Carlysle crashed through a window and jumped into the snow. The posse, mistaking Carlysle for a member of the gang, fired and killed him. Recognizing their mistake, the posse members became demoralized and scattered, enabling McCarty and his gang to slip away. McCarty vehemently denied shooting Carlysle, and later wrote to Governor Wallace, claiming to be innocent of this crime and others attributed to him.
During 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 concrete evidence that they were ever friends. Running on a pledge to rid the area of rustlers, Garrett was elected as sheriff of Lincoln County in November 1880, and in early December, he assembled a posse and set out to arrest McCarty, now known almost exclusively as "Billy the Kid" and carrying a $500 bounty on his head.
The posse led by Garrett fared well, and his men closed in quickly. 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. 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 later that day and were allowed to join in the meal.
McCarty was transported from Fort Sumner to Las Vegas, where he spent much of his time giving interviews to reporters. Next, the prisoner was transferred to Santa Fe, where he peppered Governor Wallace with letters 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 Cattle 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.
Whatever happened, Bell staggered into the street and collapsed, mortally wounded. Meanwhile, McCarty scooped up Ollinger's 10-gauge double barrel shotgun and waited at the upstairs window for Ollinger, who had been across the street with some other prisoners, to come to Bell's aid. As Ollinger came running into view, McCarty leveled the shotgun at him, called out "Hello Bob!" and shot him dead. The townsfolk supposedly gave him an hour that he used to remove his leg iron. The hour was reportedly granted in appreciation for his work as part of "The Regulators." After cutting his leg irons with an axe, the young outlaw borrowed (or stole) a horse and rode leisurely out of town, reportedly singing. The horse was returned two days later.
Responding to rumors that McCarty was still lurking in the vicinity of Fort Sumner almost three months after his escape, Sheriff 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 Maxwell (son of 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 just above his heart, killing him. In a 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 in ambush style.
Although the popularity of the first story persists, and portrays Garrett in a better light, many 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 Discovery Channel documentary, "Billy the Kid: Unmasked", this theory contends that Garrett went to the bedroom of Pedro Maxwell's sister, Paulita, and bound and gagged her in her bed. Paulita was an acquaintance of Billy the Kid, and the two may have considered getting married. When McCarty arrived, Garrett was waiting behind Paulita's bed and shot the Kid.
McCarty was buried the next day in Fort Sumner's old military cemetery, between his fallen companions Tom O'Folliard and Charlie Bowdre. A single tombstone was later erected over the graves, giving the three outlaws' names and with the word "Pals" also carved into it. The tombstone has been stolen and recovered three times since it was set in place in the 1940s, and the entire gravesite is now enclosed within a steel cage.
Like many gunfighters of the "Old West", Billy the Kid enjoyed a reputation built partly on exaggerated accounts of his exploits. While McCarty was credited with the killing of no less than 20 men, his proven murder count was four. Some historians speculate that his image was created deliberately to distract the public's attention from the nefarious activities of the Dolan faction and their influential supporters in Santa Fe, notably regional political leader Thomas B. Catron.
Ironically, the undeserved notoriety that McCarty gained during the Lincoln County War effectively doomed his appeals for amnesty. A number of the Regulators faded away or secured amnesty, but McCarty was in no position to accomplish either. His negotiations with Governor Lew Wallace (famed Civil War general and author of the novel Ben Hur) for amnesty came to nothing. His position was further undermined by a string of negative newspaper editorials that referred to him as "Billy the Kid". When a reporter reminded Wallace that the Kid was depending on Wallace's intervention, the governor supposedly smiled and said, "Yes, but I can't see how a fellow like him can expect any clemency from me".
One widely reported characteristic of Henry McCarty, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, has stood the test of research: his personal charisma and popularity. Various accounts recorded by friends and acquaintances describe him as fun-loving and jolly, articulate in both his writing and his speech, and loyal to those he cared for. He was fluent in Spanish, popular with the Latina girls, an accomplished dancer, and thus especially well-loved within the territory's Hispanic community. There he was regarded as a champion of the oppressed. "His many Hispanic friends did not view him as a ruthless killer but rather as a defender of the people who was forced to kill in self-defense", Wallis writes. "In the time that the Kid roamed the land he chided Hispanic villagers who were fearful of standing up to the big ranchers who stole their land, water, and way of life". In this sense, the Lincoln County War was a microcosm of the struggle of New Mexico's established Hispanic ranching communities to hold onto their lands in the face of the encroachments of northern Republican carpetbaggers such as Dolan, Fritz, Martin, Murphy and other corrupt members of the faction called "The House". This post-war struggle between Anglo-newcomers and ancestral Hispanic ranchers divides New Mexico to this day along the old Republican-Democrat lines.