Blogs > Cliopatria > Billy the Kid Was (Was Not) a Cold-Blooded Killer

Mar 12, 2004 12:56 pm

Billy the Kid Was (Was Not) a Cold-Blooded Killer

Maryalice Yakutchik, in Discovery News (March 2004):

Billy the Kid was a cold-blooded killer. Or he was a good boy fighting for survival in the Wild West.

Depends on who you ask, it seems. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Here's what we know:

William H. Bonney — aliases"William McCarty" and"William Antrim" — lived for roughly two decades.

Some called him simply,"Kid.""Billy-the" was added later, after the Lincoln County War in which he fought. After he died and became a legend.

It's true he killed men, but certainly not 21 and probably not for fun, as some would insist. We know he killed at least four men: two were bullies who pushed him too hard and too often. Two were deputies, murdered by Billy during his do-or-die escape from jail.

Billy was shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett at a time when he still qualified for his title of"Kid." The story goes that he was 21 when he died at Fort Sumner, N.M., on July 14, 1881. But since no one really knows when or where Billy was born, even his age is conjecture.

Some historians think he was a teenager who had trumped up his age after his mother, Catherine Antrim, died of tuberculosis, and his stepfather, William Antrim, deserted him. Billy's father remains a mystery to this day.

"I would like to know where he was born and who his father was," says Frederick Nolan, a British author who's been following the Kid's cold trail for more than half a century."I want to know what he sounded like when he spoke: Did he have a Missouri, Indiana or New York accent? How did he spend his first 10 years of life? It's like fate almost decided it would excise every record and hint of where he came from in order that he might be a legend. But it's in an attic somewhere, in an old box or some musty files: The truth is out there."

A number of exquisite artifacts exist, such as letters Billy wrote.

"The Kid attended school up to the fourth grade in Silver City, N.M., quitting after his mother's death," says historian Drew Gomber of the Hubbard Museum of the American West in Ruidoso Downs, N.M."In those days a fourth-grade education was better than average. His letters to (Governor) Lew Wallace show a beautiful handwriting and in one of them he uses the phrase, 'If it were not for those indictments,' so his grammar wasn't too shabby either. We have those letters in our collection."

The Kid's first known crime was receiving stolen laundry. Then he began stealing stock from cattlemen. He was sentenced to death after fighting on the losing side of a bloody feud between merchants battling for economic control of Lincoln County, N.M., a feud in which a sheriff was killed.

"He was the only person tried for anything during the Lincoln County War, and was found guilty of the murder of Sheriff William Brady," says Gomber."The judge was a pawn of (those who) the Kid fought against in the Lincoln County war. If the Kid was in New Mexico when the sheriff was killed, that meant he was guilty. He was sentenced to death.

"Then he shot his way out of the Lincoln County courthouse and essentially into legend." ...

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