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The Infamous Killing Spree of Billy The Kid: Unraveling the Truth Behind the Legend

The reason behind Billy the Kid being regarded as an American folk hero perplexes historians, as they tend to view him more as a violent psychopath than a heroic figure. Allegedly, he proudly claimed to have taken the lives of twenty-one men, one for each year of his short life.

Whether that is true or not, it is known that as an outlaw he personally killed at least four men between 1877 and 1881 and was involved in the shooting to death of five or six others.

Little is known about his early days, but it is widely believed that he was born as Henry McCarty on November 23, 1859 in the slums of New York City. He moved to Wichita, Kansas, as a boy before migrating to New Mexico in the early 1870s. He became an orphan at the age of 14 when his unmarried mother died of tuberculosis.

McCarty then began living in foster homes and boarding houses, at the same time turning to petty crime. His first run-in with the law came in 1875 when he stole clothes from a Chinese laundry. He hid the haul in his boarding house but was arrested after his landlord informed the local sheriff.

Rather than face punishment, McCarty escaped from the jailhouse and went on the run.

He killed his first victim in August 1877 during a dispute in a saloon and to escape detection and capture adopted the name William H. Bonny. He also used the name William Wright but would soon become known as Billy the Kid, or simply The Kid.

His reputation as a gunslinger began to be developed in 1878 when he took a decisive part in what became known as the “Lincoln County War.” British-born rancher John Tunstall had hired Billy the Kid and several others to protect his property and interests when he became involved in a dispute with some Irish businessmen.

John Tunstall

Matters came to a head in February 1878 when Tunstall was killed by a posse organised by Sheriff William Brady, a supporter of the Irish contingent.

Billy the Kid and several others swore revenge and formed themselves into a vigilante group called The Regulators who tracked down Sheriff Brady and shot him dead. The feud dragged on for months, culminating in a five-day gunfight at the town of Lincoln.

After that the Regulators disbanded but the Kid remained wanted for the murder of Sheriff Brady and would be on the run for the rest of the life remaining to him.

In 1880, he was captured by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett and put in jail. But the Kid escaped, shooting to death two guards and fleeing town on a stolen horse. He spent months in hiding before Garrett once again tracked him down, but there would be no chance of another escape for the young gunman. The sheriff shot him near the heart and Billy died instantly.

So ended the short and violent life of a man who would have hardly merited a footnote in history had not Hollywood taken up and glamourised his story, starting in 1911 with the silent movie Billy The Kid.

At least, that’s the most widely-accepted version of events. But over the years, some of the murky details surrounding the death of Billy—whose real name probably was Henry McCarty, though he later went by the alias William Bonney—have proven to be fertile ground for alternative theories.

Some have claimed that Garrett shot the wrong man and Billy escaped. To complicate matters further, at least two men emerged decades later who were believed by some to be Billy.

Men Who Claimed to Be Billy the Kid After His Death

As Dale L. Walker details in his book Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West, one prospective Billy was John Miller, a farmer and horse trainer who lived in a small village in New Mexico near the Arizona border and died in 1937. (His few possessions reportedly included a pistol with 21 notches on the grip, the same as the number of killings that some accounts attribute to Billy. The other, a resident of Hico, Texas named Ollie “Brushy Bill” Roberts, actually managed to get a meeting with the governor of New Mexico in 1950, in which he unsuccessfully sought a pardon for Billy’s murders. He died soon afterward.

The persistent belief that Billy the Kid survived and hid out somewhere shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, explains Jim Motavalli, author of The Real Dirt on America’s Frontier Outlaws, that examines the legends and the reality of various famed desperados of the American West. After all, similar stories have arisen after the deaths of other people who captured the public imagination, from Elvis Presley to Adolf Hitler.

“Things like this typically start out as bar stories,” Motavalli says. “You want someone to buy you a drink, so you say, ‘I’m Billy the Kid.’”

To add to the confusion, the actual facts about Billy the Kid haven’t been easy to come by. Details of his early life are sketchy, and much of what was written about him just before and after his death was what Motavalli calls “scurrilous literature”—sensationalised newspaper accounts and quickie books churned out by publishing houses. “They didn’t do a lot of actual research when they did these biographies,” Motavalli says.

Pat Garrett's Account of Billy the Kid's Death

The 1882 biography The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, Noted Desperado of the Southwest, Whose Deeds of Daring and Blood Made His Name a Terror in New Mexico, Arizona and Northern Mexico, which was written by Garrett, his killer, contains what seems to be the most credible account of the fatal confrontation, according to Motavalli. Instead of depicting an epic gunfight out of a dime novel, Garrett makes his shooting of the outlaw seem like an incredibly lucky break.

That night, Garrett wrote, he and two deputies, John W. Poe and Thomas McKinney, went to the ranch where Maxwell lived. A short distance from the property, Poe spotted an acquaintance who was camped out, and the lawmen dismounted and stopped to have coffee with him before heading on foot through an orchard to the house. Then they heard voices in Spanish—a language that Billy the Kid spoke as well as English and the Gaelic of his parents’ native country, Ireland.

Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett

The three men concealed themselves, as a man in a broad-brimmed hat, a dark vest, shirt and trousers walked past them. Though they didn’t realise it, the man was Billy the Kid, who was headed for the house with the intention of carving for himself a piece of beef.

Leaving the two deputies on the porch, Garrett slipped into the darkened house and quickly found the room where Maxwell was in bed. Garrett began questioning him, and Maxwell admitted that the outlaw had been around, though he wasn’t sure where he was at the moment. Just then, a figure appeared in the door, carrying a gun and a butcher knife, and asked in Spanish who was there.

“Who is it, Pete?” Garrett whispered to Maxwell.

“That’s him,” Maxwell responded.

Billy the Kid realised that someone besides Maxwell was there in the darkness, and raised his pistol within a foot of Garrett’s chest. “Who’s that?” he asked, in Spanish.

Garrett quickly drew his revolver and fired two shots. The first shot hit Kid in the chest. “He never spoke,” Garrett recalled. “A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasped for breath, and The Kid was with his many victims.”

The Pete Maxwell ranch house no longer stands, having fallen into disrepair shortly after Billy the Kid's death. The ruins were finally washed away in the 1937 Pecos River floods

When Garrett and the deputies examined Billy the Kid’s gun, they found that he had five cartridges and one shell in the chamber, with the hammer resting on it. If he hadn’t hesitated, Garrett might have been the one lying dead on the floor.

“It was the first time, during all his life of peril, that he ever lost his presence of mind, or failed to shoot first,” Garrett wrote.

The next day, according to Garrett, a Coroner’s Jury held an inquest, determined that the dead man was Billy the Kid, and ruled that Garrett’s killing of him had been a justifiable homicide. The outlaw’s body was buried that same day. Garrett noted that the corpse went into the grave fully intact, in order to discredit opportunists who were exhibiting skulls, fingers and other body parts that they claimed had belonged to Billy the Kid. “One medical gentleman has persuaded credulous idiots that he has all the bones strung upon wires,” Garrett wrote with disdain.

Since then the outlaw’s supposed story has appeared on the big screen more than 70 times while he has been the subject of numerous newspaper articles and books. Actors who have played him include Roy Rogers, Paul Newman, Val Kilmer and Emilio Estevez.

Writer Johnny D. Boggs summed it all up when in 2013 he published his 300-page book, Billy The Kid On Film, 1911-2012. The publisher described it as “a comprehensive filmography composed of lengthy entries on about 75 films depicting legendary outlaw Billy the Kid – from the lost Billy the Kid (1911), to the blockbuster Young Guns (1988), to the direct-to-video 1313: Billy the Kid (2012), and everything in between.”

Billy must be annoyed he's not around to cash in on all this!

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