Friday, January 14, 2011

The Short Life of 'Billy the Kid'

American Outlaws

In return for your doing this [testifying], I will let you go scot free with a pardon in your pocket for all your misdeeds.
Gov. Lew Wallace to Billy the Kid, March 17, 1879.

I have done everything that I promised you I would and you have done nothing that you promised me.
Billy the Kid, in a letter to Gov. Lew Wallace, dated March 4, 1881.

I can’t see how a fellow like him should expect any clemency from me.
Gov. Lew Wallace to the Las Vegas Gazette, April 27, 1881

Henry McCarty (1860 – 1881). The only known  image of Henry McCarty (aka Billy the Kid). The image has been mirrored on its vertical axis to correct a misconception and popular myth that Billy the Kid was left-handed. He was right-handed, since all Winchester Model 1873 rifles were made with the loading gate on the right of the receiver.
Photo Credit: Ben Wittick (1845-1903).  
Source: Wikipedia


One of the most enduring stories of the American Old West is the outlaw, the man who stood against convention, the law and the natural order of things. One of the greatest outlaws is Billy the Kid, the  gunslinger who ruthlessly killed upwards of 21 men, including a lawman, Sheriff William Brady of Lincoln County, New Mexico, before he was himself killed by another lawman—all this done before he had a chance to marry and raise a family. He was no older than 21. Just a kid, really.

Such is the traditional story, but it's likely a fable mixed with truth—the stuff that legends are made of, concocted and cobbled together after his death to sell books. Much of his life, particularly his early life, is unknown, which is not surprising and common with persons of that era who come from poor families. It is the wealthy and the prominent who kept good family records, something to pass down to future generations.

We do know that Billy the Kid's life was a short one. Some called him a tragic hero. Many more said  he was the consummate rebel without a cause. And, as such, when he was shot down by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, on July 14, 1881, Billy the Kid was just another black hatted cold-blooded killer deserving of his fate.

The legend of Billy the Kid is fascinating, no doubt. Many books, songs, and films were made. In the legend of the Wild West of the late 19th century, his name has became synonymous with its times of white hats and black hats, between good and evil, and so forth. Billy the Kid became larger than life, although he wore the figurative black hat.

That was, until recently, the accepted wisdom and the generally accepted opinion. It's a nice neat and easy story to understand. Unfortunately, some if not most of the legend is pure fabrication, generated to sell books and justify personal actions. We now know from scholarship that much of the myth of Billy the Kid  grew from the first book rushed to print, written by the man responsible for ending his life, Sheriff Pat Garrett.

One could hardly expect an account free from bias considering the direct hand that he had in Billy the Kid's death. A hand that held a gun before resorting to a pen. Or at least that of a ghostwriter named Ash Upson.

Sheriff Pat Garett: The lawman ended the life of Billy the Kid on July 14, 1881, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Garett was himself gunned down outside Las Cruces, New Mexico, on February 29, 1908, a leap year. He was 59.
Source: Wikipedia

In 1882, Sheriff  Pat Garrett, with co-author M.A. "Ash" Upson, penned the sensationalistic biography The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid (1882). This account contributed greatly to the long-standing myth of the American West, a lawless frontier that needed taming. In a later version, in the Introduction, by J.C. Dykes raises legitimate questions as to the veracity of Sheriff Garrett's account,

We cannot ascertain much about Billy the Kid's early life. Many say that Henry McCarty (also known as William H. Bonney and Henry Antrim) was likely born in New York City on November 23, 1859, to Irish immigrants, perhaps escaping the Irish Famine. But  we can't be certain of this information:
As for Billy the Kid’s birth date, it’s estimated he was born anywhere around 1860-62, possibly in New York, Indiana, or maybe even Ireland or England. We simply don’t know. The life of Billy the Kid before the year 1870 is an utmost mystery.
That is not entirely unexpected when trying to unravel the mystery of a legend of the American West. Even so, his history is typically summarized as follows, such as found in the venerable Encyclopedia Britannia:

Born on New York City’s East Side, Billy as a child migrated with his parents to Kansas; his father died there, and the mother and her two boys moved to Colorado, where she remarried. The family moved to New Mexico, and, in his early teens, Billy fell into a career of thievery and lawlessness, wandering throughout the Southwest and northern Mexico, often with gangs.

In December 1880 he was captured by Sheriff Patrick Floyd Garrett and stood trial for murder [of Sheriff Pat Brady] in Mesilla, N.M., in April 1881; he was found guilty and sentenced to hang. He escaped jail on April 30 [ed note: April 28], however, killing two deputies, and remained at large until tracked down and ambushed by Garrett, who shot him dead on the evening of July 14 at the ranch home of Pete Maxwell. Billy the Kid’s grave is in Fort Sumner, N.M.
A short, but hardly sweet life. Some think that Henry McCarty is due a pardon, owing to the promise that Governor Lew Wallace made: for testimony before the Grand Jury, a grant of general amnesty to all involved in the Lincoln County War of 1878. The Lincoln County War was essentially a local business fight for control of the dry-good trade between two competing factions, with differing goals and interests, which turned violent. There were  killings and revenge killings, including that of Sheriff Pat Brady. The Kid was essentially a hired gun for one of the sides.

The pardon was never given. Billy the Kid was tried, found guilty and was scheduled to be hanged on May 13, 1881, the only conviction ever secured against any of the combatants in the Lincoln County Cattle War. He made a daring escape from prison, on April 28, 1881, killing two deputies, James Bell and Robert Ollinger,  in the process.

Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked him down to the house of rancher Pete Maxwell on July 14, 1881. It was after midnight, in the early morning hours.The Kid was in his darkened bedroom. The sheriff entered and fired two shots at The Kid, one striking above the heart and killing him. In his mind, no doubt, justice was served.

Some argue, however, that it was unjust that Billy the Kid had not received the pardon originally promised him. That he was singled out for what happened during the violent business dispute. That the governor changed his mind seemed unfair to some, including defense attorney Randi McGinn, a defense attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who petitioned Governor Bill Richardson for a pardon. "A promise is a promise and should be enforced," he told CNN news. 

In 2010, Bill Richardson, Governor of New Mexico, considered pardoning, posthumously, McCarty for his role in the death of Sheriff William Brady. On December 31, 2010, on the last day of his term, Gov. Bill Richardson announced his decision not to grant a pardon to McCarty, citing historical ambiguity as to why Gov. Wallace did not follow though. "It was a very close call," Richardson said. "The romanticism appealed to me to issue a pardon, but the facts and the evidence did not support it."

There is indeed a romanticism about the Wild West, built in large part on the traits that have come to define America: the pioneering spirit, the rugged individualism and the sense of justice. Many people like Westerns and Old West movies, this writer included. It's undeniably true that Henry McCarty (Billy the Kid) was no saint, but he likely characterized the age, notably that of a man of his time and station in life. His actions might shock, but will not surprise.

True historical accounts of that period in American history confirm that many men acted in similar fashion. It was called the Wild West for a good reason. Even so, the myth of Billy the Kid as a blood thirsty killer lives on. But facts are different than myth. Most historians say that he did not kill 21 men, but no more than nine, four by his own hand, and five with the help of others. When everyone carries a gun, you can be sure someone will use it.

The lives of Henry McCarty and Pat Garrett are intertwined, similar in many ways to a tragedy writ small. Both died violent deaths, confirming the myth in many minds of the Wild West. Henry McCarty has long been dead and is buried in  Fort Sumner's old military cemetery in New Mexico. His killer, Sheriff Pat Garrett, was himself gunned down in 1908 outside Las Cruces, New Mexico,and is buried at the Masonic Cemetery in Las Cruces. He was 59.

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