The Life and Legend of Billy the Kid

There are several names that come to mind when we think of American outlaws: Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, Belle Starr, and Black Bart. Of course we can’t forget one of the most famous outlaws of the wild west, William Henry McCarty Jr., also known as Billy the Kid. His life was brief, only 21 years, but in that time he made a place for himself in American History.

Early Life

There are quite a few unknowns about the early life of Billy the Kid. He was born to parents Catherine and Patrick McCarty and was older brother to Joseph. We do know he was born in 1859 in New York City, but there is debate over the actual date of his birth. Scholars have narrowed it down to two dates, September 17th and November 23rd. Before Billy’s 10th birthday, his father passed away. Catherine moved with her sons to Indianapolis, Wichita, Santa Fe and then Silver City.

In 1873, Catherine married William Antrim and just over a year later she died from “consumption”, known today as tuberculosis. Billy and Joseph were left in the custody of their stepfather, who abandoned them quickly thereafter. Orphaned at age 15, Billy was taken in and employed by the owner of a boarding house. It was at this point that he made his foray into the lawless world of the wild west.

Billy the Kid, The Outlaw

Billy quickly devolved into his new identity as an outlaw. On September 16, 1875, Billy was arrested for the first time after he was caught stealing food. Only 10 days later, he was arrested again for robbing a Chinese laundry where he stole clothes and two pistols. He was jailed and made an escape two days later; he fled from New Mexico to Arizona. Now a federal fugitive, his name was published for the first time in the Silver City Herald. He started to call himself William H. Bonney, but the public knew him as Billy the Kid.

In August of 1877, Billy killed a blacksmith, Francis P. “Windy” Cahill. Witnesses of the incident recounted that Cahill instigated a confrontation by calling Billy a “pimp”, which led to a fight. Billy shot Cahill who died from his injuries the next day. Billy fled from Arizona but was arrested a few days later. Once again, Billy escaped and fled to New Mexico where he joined “The Regulators”, a deputized posse in Lincoln County. This group was composed of ranch owners and cowboys, and competed with a rival faction for profits from dry goods and cattle. The competition turned into a violent and deadly conflict in 1878, known as the Lincoln County War. Several men were killed, and once again, Billy was a wanted man. He managed to stay out of trouble until 1880, when he committed another murder in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

In April of 1881, Billy was captured, tried and convicted for murder. He was sentenced to hang for his crimes. Held in jail awaiting his hanging scheduled for May, Billy once again made a daring escape, killing two sheriff’s deputies in the process. He evaded capture for two months. The Governor of the New Mexico Territory, Lew Wallace, put up a $500.00 reward for the capture of Billy the Kid, dead or alive.


Sheriff Pat Garrett set out to find Billy. On July 14, 1881, he left for Fort Sumner on a tip that Billy had been spotted there. Garrett went to the home of Pete Maxwell, a friend of Billy. While questioning Maxwell in a darkened room of the house, Billy walked in. Prepared for an ambush, he unholstered his pistol but Garrett had the faster draw. He fired two shots at Billy, the first entered just above the heart and the second one missed completely. It is not known if Billy died instantly or if it took some time for him to pass.

He was buried the next day and a wooden marker was placed on his grave. Sheriff Garrett collected the $500 reward from Governor Wallace.

Billy was only 21 years old when he died. Some say he was responsible for dozens of murders during his short lifetime, but the more accurate number is closer to eight or nine. Some claim he wasn’t killed at all but had arranged to fake his death to evade the law. No real evidence has been presented to support this theory. For those who do believe he was shot and killed, Billy’s grave can be visited in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.