Born: November 23, 1859
New York, New York
Died: July 14, 1881
Fort Sumner, New Mexico
American criminal and murderer
William H. Bonney, known as Billy the Kid, was the youngest and most famous example of a gun-fighter from the American West. His legend survived and grew long after his death.
On November 23, 1859, Henry McCarty was born in New York City but moved to Kansas with his family when he was very young. His father died soon after the move and his mother remarried and moved west to New Mexico. Henry took his stepfather's name, Antrim, and eventually changed his name to William H. Bonney.
There are very few facts about Bonney's career that can be verified. His problems with the law began at age fifteen, when he was thrown in jail for theft in Silver City, New Mexico. After escaping to Arizona, he shot and killed an older man who had bullied him into a fight. Bonney then fled back to New Mexico.
Back in New Mexico, Bonney became involved in the Lincoln County War (1878–79), a violent struggle between rival groups of cattle ranchers and merchants. He proved to be a fearless fighter and an excellent shot. However, two of those shots ended up killing Sheriff James Brady and a deputy. As a result, Bonney was wanted for murder. "His equal for sheer inborn savagery," wrote journalist Emerson Hough, "has never lived." Such statements sent Bonney's reputation soaring and won him the nickname Billy the Kid.
Billy struck a deal with Territorial Governor Lew Wallace. He agreed to testify against other murderers in return for having the charges against him dropped. However, after gaining his freedom, Billy returned to his criminal ways. He led several other men in stealing cattle from some Texas ranchers. Wallace then ordered him arrested. Sheriff Pat Garrett soon took the Kid into custody. A judge told Billy that "You are sentenced to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead!" Billy the Kid's reply was "And you can go to hell, hell, hell!"
Billy the Kid was somehow able to overpower and kill his jail guard, shoot another deputy, and escape. This time the lawmen would take no chances. In July 1881 Sheriff Garrett and his posse (a group of men organized by the sheriff to assist him) trapped Billy at a house in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. They ambushed him in a dark room and shot him to death. The next day he was buried in a borrowed white shirt that was too large for his slim body. Admirers scraped together $208 for a gravestone, which was later broken into pieces and stolen by souvenir hunters. Billy had lived exactly twenty-one years, seven months, and twenty-one days.
Over the years, the legend of Billy the Kid grew as a result of several books and movies made about his life, many of which exaggerated
Cline, Donald. Alias Billy the Kid: The Man Behind the Legend. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press, 1986.
Utley, Robert M. Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.