November 23, 1859 — Just why Billy the Kid stands as some kind of American folk hero remains a mystery to many historians who see him instead as a murderous psychopath. He is said to have boasted that he killed twenty one men – one for each year of his short life.
Whether that is true or not, it is known that as an outlaw he personally killed at least four men between 1877 and 1881 and was involved in the shooting to death of five or six others.
Little is known about his early days, but it is widely believed that he was born as Henry McCarty on November 23, 1859 in the slums of New York City. He moved to Wichita, Kansas, as a boy before migrating to New Mexico in the early 1870s. He became an orphan at the age of 14 when his unmarried mother died of tuberculosis.
McCarty then began living in foster homes and boarding houses, at the same time turning to petty crime. His first run-in with the law came in 1875 when he stole clothes from a Chinese laundry. He hid the haul in his boarding house but was arrested after his landlord informed the local sheriff.
Rather than face punishment, McCarty escaped from the jailhouse and went on the run.
He killed his first victim in August 1877 during a dispute in a saloon and to escape detection and capture adopted the name William H. Bonny. He also used the name William Wright but would soon become known as Billy the Kid, or simply The Kid.
His reputation as a gunslinger began to be developed in 1878 when he took a decisive part in what became known as the “Lincoln County War.” British-born rancher John Tunstall had hired Billy the Kid and several others to protect his property and interests when he became involved in a dispute with some Irish businessmen.
Matters came to a head in February 1878 when Tunstall was killed by a posse organised by Sheriff William Brady, a supporter of the Irish contingent.
Billy the Kid and several others swore revenge and formed themselves into a vigilante group called The Regulators who tracked down Sheriff Brady and shot him dead. The feud dragged on for months, culminating in a five-day gunfight at the town of Lincoln.
After that the Regulators disbanded but the Kid remained wanted for the murder of Sheriff Brady and would be on the run for the rest of the life remaining to him.
In 1880, he was captured by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett and put in jail. But the Kid escaped, shooting to death two guards and fleeing town on a stolen horse. He spent months in hiding before Garrett once again tracked him down, but there would be no chance of another escape for the young gunman. The sheriff shot him near the heart and Billy died instantly.
So ended the short and violent life of a man who would have hardly merited a footnote in history had not Hollywood taken up and glamourised his story, starting in 1911 with the silent movie Billy the Kid.
Since then the outlaw’s supposed story has appeared on the big screen more than 70 times while he has been the subject of numerous newspaper articles and books. Actors who have played him include Roy Rogers, Paul Newman, Val Kilmer and Emilio Estevez.
Writer Johnny D. Boggs summed it all up when in 2013 he published his 300-page book, Billy The Kid On Film, 1911-2012. The publisher described it as “a comprehensive filmography composed of lengthy entries on about 75 films depicting legendary outlaw Billy the Kid – from the lost Billy the Kid (1911), to the blockbuster Young Guns (1988), to the direct-to-video 1313: Billy the Kid (2012), and everything in between.”
Billy must be furious that he is not around to cash in on all this!
Published: October 12, 2021