Billy The Kid – Teenage Outlaw of the Southwest

Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid

Henry McCarty, aka William Henry Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, was born on November 23, 1859, most likely in New York City. His parents’ names are not known for certain, but his mother was thought to be Katherine, and his father, perhaps Patrick. History then traces Billy to Indiana in the late 1860s and Wichita, Kansas in 1870. His father died around the end of the Civil War, and at about the same time, Billy’s mother contracted Tuberculosis and was told to move to a drier climate. On March 1, 1873, Catherine McCarty married William Antrim, who moved the family to Silver City, New Mexico.

His stepfather worked as a bartender and carpenter but soon got the prospecting bug and virtually ignored his wife and stepsons. Faced with an indigent husband, McCarty’s mother took in boarders to provide for her sons. Despite the better climate, Billy’s mother continued to worsen, and on September 16, 1874, she died of her condition.

After her death, Antrim placed Billy and his younger brother Joseph in separate foster homes and left Silver City for Arizona.

At 14, the smooth-cheeked, blue-eyed McCarty was forced to find work in a hotel, washing dishes and waiting tables at the restaurant. The boy was reported to be very friendly.

The manager was impressed by the young boy, boasting that he was the only kid who ever worked for him that didn’t steal anything. His school teachers thought that the young orphan was “no more of a problem than any other boy, always quite willing to help with chores around the schoolhouse.”

However, on September 23, 1875, McCarty was arrested for hiding a bundle of stolen clothes for a man playing a prank on a Chinese laundryman. Two days after Billy was thrown in jail, the scrawny teen escaped, worming his way up the jailhouse chimney. From that point onward, McCarty would be a fugitive.

He eventually found work as an itinerant ranch hand and sheepherder in southeastern Arizona. In 1877 he became a civilian teamster at Camp Grant Army Post, hauling logs from a timber camp to a sawmill. The civilian blacksmith at the camp, Frank “Windy” Cahill, took pleasure in bullying young Billy. On August 17, Cahill attacked McCarty after a verbal exchange and threw him to the ground. Billy retaliated by drawing his gun and shooting Cahill, who died the next day. Once again, McCarty was in custody, this time in the Camp’s guardhouse, awaiting the arrival of the local marshal. Before the marshal could arrive, however, Billy escaped.

Again on the run, Billy next turned up in the house of Heiskell Jones in Pecos Valley, New Mexico. Apache had stolen McCarty’s horse which forced him to walk many miles to the nearest settlement, which was Mrs. Jones’ house. She nursed the young man, who was near death, back to health. The Jones family developed a strong attachment to Billy and gave him one of their horses.

Now an outlaw and unable to find honest work, the Kid met up with another bandit named Jesse Evans, the leader of a gang of rustlers called “The Boys.” The Kid didn’t have anywhere else to go, and since it was suicide to be alone in the hostile and lawless territory, the Kid reluctantly joined the gang.

John Tunstall

John Tunstall

He later became embroiled in the infamous Lincoln County War, in which his newest friend and employer, John Tunstall, was killed on February 18, 1878.  Billy the Kid was deeply affected by the murder, claiming that Tunstall was one of the only men who treated him like “free-born and white.” At Tunstall’s funeral, Billy swore: “I’ll get every son-of-a-bitch who helped kill John if it’s the last thing I do.”

Billy, now a member of the Regulators, would enact revenge by gunning down the deputy who killed his friend and another deputy and the County Sheriff, William Brady, on April 1, 1878. Now an even more wanted man than before, McCarty went into hiding but soon started to steal livestock from white ranchers and Apache on the Mescalero reservation.

In the fall of 1878, retired Union General Lew Wallace became the new territorial governor of New Mexico. Wallace proclaimed an amnesty for any man involved in the Lincoln County War that was not already under indictment to restore peace to Lincoln County.

Billy was, of course, under several indictments (some of which were unrelated to the Lincoln County War). Still, Wallace was intrigued by rumors that McCarty would surrender and testify against other combatants if amnesty could be extended to him. In March of 1879, Wallace and Billy met to discuss the possibility of a deal. True to form, McCarty greeted the governor with a revolver in one hand and a Winchester rifle in the other. After several days to think the issue over, Billy agreed to testify in return for an amnesty.

Governor Lew Wallace

Governor Lew Wallace

Part of the agreement was for McCarty to submit to a show arrest and a short stay in jail until his courtroom testimony. Even though his testimony helped to indict one of the influential House faction leaders, John Dolan, the district attorney defied Wallace’s order to set Billy free after testifying. However, Billy was a skilled escape artist and slipped out of his handcuffs and fled.

For the next year, he hung around Fort Sumner on the Pecos River and developed a fateful friendship with a local bartender named Pat Garrett, who was later elected sheriff of Lincoln County. As sheriff, Garrett was charged with arresting his friend Henry McCarty, who by now was almost exclusively known as “Billy the Kid.”

At about the same time, Billy had formed a gang, referred to as the “Rustlers” or simply “Billy the Kid’s Gang,” who survived by stealing and rustling as he did before. The core members of the gang were Tom O’Folliard, Charlie Bowdre“, Tom Pickett, Billy the Kid, “Dirty Dave” Rudabaugh, and Billy Wilson.

By the Fall of 1880, Billy was still trying to convince the governor of a pardon, although continuing his outlaw activities. During this time, his notoriety with newspapers increased, and they dubbed him “Billy the Kid,” and the most important outlaw of New Mexico.

On November 30, 1880, Billy the Kid’s Gang, David Anderson, aka Billy Wilson, and Dirty Dave Rudabaugh rode into White Oaks, New Mexico, and ran into Deputy Sheriff James Redman. Redman hid behind a saloon taking shots as several local citizens ran into the street, chasing the fugitives out of town.

On December 15, 1880, Governor Wallace put a $500 reward on Billy’s head, and Pat Garrett began a relentless pursuit of the outlaw. Garrett set up many traps and ambushes to apprehend Billy, but the Kid seemed to have an animal instinct that warned him of danger, but that was not to last.

Pat Garrett

Pat Garrett

Trailed by the persistent Garrett, Billy the Kid, Billy Wilson, Rudabaugh, Tom O’Folliard, Charlie Bowdre, and Tom Pickett rode wearily into Fort Sumner, New Mexico on December 19, 1880, and were confronted by Garrett’s posse which had been hiding in an old post-hospital building. Pat Garrett, Lon chambers, and several others leaped from cover as Garrett ordered the outlaws to halt.

However, several posse members didn’t wait for the outlaws to respond to Garrett’s demand; instead, opening fire on Pickett and O’Folliard, who were riding in front. Though Pickett survived to escape, O’Folliard lay dead in the dusty street. Rudabaugh’s horse caught a bullet and collapsed. Rudabaugh managed to jump onto Wilson’s horse, and he and the other outlaws escaped, holing up in an abandoned cabin near Stinking Springs, New Mexico.

Soon, the determined Garrett’s posse tracked the outlaws down and surrounded the hideout. Inside the house were Billy, Charlie Bowdre, Dave Rudabaugh, Tom Pickett, and Billy Wilson. When Bowdre passed before an open window, he was shot in the chest. The siege continued until the next day when Rudabaugh finally waved a white flag, and the bandits surrendered. Billy the Kid and his gang of “Rustlers” were captured on December 23, 1880. Billy was first taken to a jail in Las Vegas, New Mexico, then to Santa Fe, and eventually to Mesilla.

Deliberation in his April trial took precisely one day, and Billy was convicted of murdering Sheriff William Brady and sentenced to hang by Judge Warren Bristol. His execution was scheduled for May 13, and he was sent to Lincoln to await this date. He was under guard by James Bell and Robert Olinger on the top floor of the building formerly known as the “House” before and during the Lincoln County War. On April 28, Billy somehow escaped and killed both of his guards while Garrett was out of town. It is not known how Billy could do this, but it is widely believed that a friend or Regulator sympathizer left a pistol in the privy that one of the guards escorted Billy to daily. After shooting Deputy Bell with the pistol, Billy stole Olinger’s 10-gauge double-barrel shotgun and waited for Olinger by the window in the room he was being held in.

Lincoln, New Mexico, 1800s

Lincoln, New Mexico, the 1800s

Olinger obliged by running immediately from the hotel upon hearing the shots. When he was directly under the courthouse window, he heard his prisoner say, “Hello, Bob.” Olinger then looked up and saw the Kid gun in hand. It was the last thing he ever saw as Billy blasted him with his shotgun killing him instantly.

This would be, however, Billy’s last escape. When Pat Garrett was questioning Billy’s friend, Peter Maxwell, on July 14, 1881, in Maxwell’s darkened bedroom in Old Fort Sumner, Billy unexpectedly entered the room. The Kid didn’t recognize Garrett in the poor lighting conditions and asked, “¿Quien es? ¿Quien es?” (Spanish for “Who is it? Who is it?), to which Garrett responded with two shots from his revolver, the first striking Billy’s heart.

Henry McCarty, the infamous “Billy the Kid,” was buried in a plot in-between his dead friends Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre the next day at Fort Sumner’s cemetery.

In his short life, Billy the Kid was reputed to have killed 21 men, one for each year of his life. However, many historians calculate the figure closer to nine (four on his own and five with the help of others).  Over 100 years later, in 2010, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson considered honoring the 1879 promise of pardon for the Kid, made by then-Governor Lew Wallace.  Richardson backed off of the idea though citing “historical ambiguity” surrounding Wallace’s pardon.

© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated May 2023, Credits and Resources.

Billy the Kid Wanted Poster

Billy the Kid Wanted Poster

Billy The Kid

‘Twas on the same night when poor Billy died,

He said to his friends, “I am not satisfied;

There are twenty-one men I have put bullets through,

And Sheriff Pat Garrett will make twenty-two.”


Now this is how Billy the Kid met his fate:

The bright moon was shining, the hour was late,

Shot down by Pat Garrett, who once was his friend,

The young outlaw’s life had come to an end.


There’s many a man with a face fine and fair,

Who starts out in life with a chance to be square,

But just like poor Billy, he wanders astray,

And loses his life in the very same way.


Billy the Kid Grave, Fort Sumner, New Mexico

Billy the Kid Grave

Also See:

Billy the Kid – Fatal Shot in the Dark by Pat Garrett

The Real Billy (Author Terri Meeker)

Fort Sumner – Pride of the Pecos

Lincoln, NM – Wild Wild West Frozen in Time

New Mexico’s Lincoln County War

Pat Garrett – An Unlucky Lawman

Pat Garrett and the Man Hunt