Billy the Kid
By William H. Wroth
The outlaw called “Billy the Kid” was born Henry McCarty about 1859, possibly in New York City. By 1866 he was living with his widowed mother Catherine McCarty and elder brother Joseph McCarty in Marion County, Indiana. His mother soon took up with and eventually married a Civil War veteran, William H. Antrim in the town of Huntsville, near Indianapolis. In 1869 Antrim and the McCarty family moved to Wichita, Kansas, where they built a house on a quarter section of land in 1870. Mrs. McCarty ran a laundry in Wichita, and Antrim pursued various occupations: farming, carpentry, and bartending.
In 1872 the family moved west to Denver, and by March 1873 they were living in Santa Fe where Mrs. McCarty and William Antrim were married in the First Presbyterian Church, with Henry and Joseph serving as witnesses. Possibly because of Mrs. McCarty’s tubercular condition, they soon moved south to Silver City. Unfortunately her condition worsened and she died in September 1874. Orphaned at age 14, young Henry McCarty began an independent life. He first lived at the Star Hotel in Silver City owned by parents of one of his classmates; then with his stepfather and brother he lived with Richard Knight who ran a butcher shop in which he worked for a while. Within a year he was involved in petty theft and was put in jail for receiving stolen goods. Henry managed to escape from jail and fled to Arizona where he worked as a cowboy on the huge Henry C. Hooker ranch. Later, in 1876 he began hanging around the civilian community at the edge of Camp Grant. At this time he began going by his stepfather’s name and was known as Kid and also as both Henry and Billy Antrim. In August 1877 he got into a fight with a blacksmith who worked at Camp Grant and killed him, apparently in self-defense. He was arrested and put into the camp guardhouse, but escaped the next day, fleeing on a stolen horse.
After wandering around southern New Mexico for a while, he went to Lincoln County and fell in with a vicious group of cattle rustlers, the Jesse Evans gang. In December 1877 he was hired as a cowboy on the ranch of John H. Tunstall at Río Féliz. Tunstall, a young British entrepreneur, had come to the area in 1876 and was attempting, along with the cattleman John Chisum and lawyer Alexander McSween, to get into the lucrative business of provisioning the United States Army and the Indian reservations. At that time the provisioning business was almost completely in the hands of a group of recent army veterans, under the leadership of Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, who had inside deals with the army and also great influence in state politics, most notably with Thomas B. Catron and the notorious Santa Fe Ring. The two groups came into bitter competition over a number of complex issues, finally resulting in the murder of Tunstall in February 1878.
This was the beginning of the Lincoln County War in which Billy Antrim (now using the pseudonym Billy Bonney) was to play a part as member of the group associated with Tunstall and McSween. While Billy’s role in this “war” has been over the years the subject of romance and legend, the cold fact of the matter is that the Lincoln County War was an ugly battle between two greedy and ambitious groups of unethical entrepreneurs. They in turn were aided by corrupt county and state officials and corrupt U. S. army officers. There was in fact nothing romantic about the war in which many individuals were ruthlessly murdered.
After Tunstall’s murder, the group associated with Alexander McSween, of which Billy Bonney was a member, became known as the “Regulators.” McSween, however, lacked the political influence held by the members of Dolan group, and soon the Regulators were declared outlaws by Governor Samuel Axtell. Intent on avenging the murder of Tunstall and protecting McSween, a group of six Regulators, including Bonney, ambushed and murdered Sheriff William Brady in the town of Lincoln on April 1, 1878. Brady, a former army officer, was a close cohort of Dolan. In the aftermath of this fight Bonney received a flesh wound in the leg and had to hide out in town under the floor of the Tunstall store. McSween was brought before a grand jury two weeks later and exonerated of most of the legal charges against him. The grand jury, trying to bring justice to the situation, issued indictments for members of both warring parties, including Bonney, whom they indicted for the murder of Sheriff Brady. At the end of April John S. Copeland was appointed interim sheriff, replacing Brady. He was thought to be a McSween sympathizer, so Dolan went to Santa Fe and got Governor Axtell to reverse this appointment. A man in Dolan’s employ, George Peppin, a former butcher at Fort Stanton, was appointed sheriff and began a concerted effort to hunt down Regulators.
After several inconclusive battles, in July of 1878 McSween, with a group of more than 50 followers, rode into Lincoln where he re-occupied his home, protected by ten of his men, including Bonney. Soon Dolan and his men came from San Patricio to back up the newly appointed Sheriff Peppin. A standoff prevailed for several days until Colonel Nathan Dudley from nearby Fort Stanton arrived with army troops. Ostensibly, Dudley was to be neutral in the conflict, but in actuality he lent support to Dolan’s forces. When Dolan set McSween’s house on fire, Dudley refused to do anything to help. In the desperate attempt to escape from the burning house McSween and several men were shot and killed, while Bonney and several others were successful in escaping. Thus ended the “five-day battle” of Lincoln and the life of Alexander McSween.
In September of 1878 President Rutherford Hayes dismissed Governor Axtell, due to many complaints, and replaced him with General Lew Wallace, who began an attempt to bring the lawlessness of Lincoln County to an end. For many of the participants he issued a general amnesty, but for others, including Billy Bonney, he issued arrest warrants. Bonney, having witnessed the recent murder of Mrs. McSween’s lawyer, Huston Chapman, attempted to receive a pardon by offering himself to Wallace as a prosecution witness. He had at least two secret meetings with Wallace and testified against Dolan and his men in their trial for Chapman’s murder, but charges against Dolan were dismissed by Judge Warren Bristol. Later, Bonney also testified unsuccessfully against Colonel Dudley, who had been removed by Governor Wallace as commander of Fort Stanton, for allowing the burning of the McSween home. However, in spite of Bonney’s cooperation, Wallace bowed to Bonney’s enemies and did not grant him the pardon. Bonney continued his life of cattle and horse rustling for the next two years and was also implicated in robbing a U. S. mail wagon.
In the fall of 1880 Bonney was still trying to convince the governor to pardon him, while at the same time continuing his lawless life, including involvement in another murder, of a posse member named James Carlyle. At this time he began to receive a lot of notoriety from local journalists, who now dubbed him “Billy the Kid” and called him the most important outlaw in New Mexico. In November Pat Garrett was elected sheriff of Lincoln County with the hope that he would bring Bonney and other outlaws to justice. He was also appointed deputy U. S. marshal so that he could operate beyond the confines of the county. His first success occurred on December 19th at the civilian community at old Fort Sumner. When Bonney and his cohorts rode in late at night, not realizing Garrett and men were waiting for them, Garrett shot and killed Bonney’s close friend, Tom O’Folliard. Bonney and the rest of the outlaws escaped to a ranch outside of town.
Four days later Garrett surprised and captured Bonney and three cohorts at an abandoned ranch house. Bonney was first taken to jail in Las Vegas, then to Santa Fe, then south to Mesilla where he was tried and convicted of the murder of Sheriff Brady and sentenced to death by hanging. Repeated petitions to Governor Wallace to pardon him were unsuccessful, and Bonney was transferred to the jail in Lincoln to await hanging scheduled for May 13, 1881.
Bonney arrived in leg irons and handcuffs, under heavy armed guard, in Lincoln on April 21, 1881 and was incarcerated in a room on the second floor of the courthouse. Garrett, aware of his reputation for escaping, placed him under twenty-four guard by deputies James W. Bell and Bob Olinger. On April 28 while Garrett was out of town, Bonney made a spectacular escape, killing both Bell (who had been treating him kindly) and Olinger (who had not), in the process. Bonney was able first to slip out of his cuffs, knock down Bell, grab his pistol and shoot him. Then from the window he killed Olinger who happened to be out on the street. Bonney, shot Olinger with his own double-barreled shotgun. He then ordered a sympathetic bystander to throw him up a pick ax to break his leg irons and to saddle him a horse. While all of this was happening, many of the citizens watched in fear or awe or sympathy. No one lifted a hand against him and he made good his escape.
A few days of wandering soon led Bonney back to the Fort Sumner area where he still had many friends. After a couple of months Sheriff Garrett, along with Deputies John W. Poe and Thomas McKinney, made a secretive trip to Fort Sumner, arriving the night of July 14. They came to the house of rancher Pete Maxwell to ask him for information about Bonney’s whereabouts. By what appears to be pure luck, while Garrett was talking with Maxwell in his dark bedroom, Bonney came in. He saw that some one besides Maxwell was in the room but could not see who it was. Bonney whispered nervously “quién es? quién es?” and thus revealed his identity. Garrett instantly shot and killed him, ending the short bloody career of the most famous New Mexico outlaw, Henry McCarty, alias Henry, Billy and Kid Antrim, alias Billy Bonney, and named in the last months of his life by sensation-seeking journalists, “Billy the Kid.”
Tuska, Jon. Billy the Kid: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1983.
Utley, Robert M. “Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War” in New Mexico Historical Review, Vol. 61, no. 2 (April 1986), pp.93 -120.
Utley, Robert M. Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Weddle, Jerry. Antrim Is My Stepfather's Name: The Boyhood of Billy the Kid. Tucson: Arizona Historical Society, 1993.
Letters from Billy the Kid to Gov. Lew Wallace
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