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The Legend and Murder of Billy the Kid

Introducing Henry McCarty aka Billy the Kid
More than 50 films and television dramas have been made about Billy the Kid. That wasn’t his real name. His birth name was Henry McCarty, but he was also known by the pseudonym William H (Henry) Bonney. He was born in the slums of New York City’s East Side. His short life came to a violent end on 14th July 1881 at age 21 at the hands of the lawman who had been pursuing him.

Billy was an outlaw and gunfighter of the American Old West who killed several men before he was shot and killed at the age of only 21.[1] He also fought against rich ranchers in New Mexico’s Lincoln County War[2], in which he allegedly committed three murders.

Billy the Kid c. 1880
Ben Wittick (1845–1903), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commonss.

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Billy may have used many aliases, but Billy the Kid is the one by which he is best remembered. There’s an unsolved mystery centred in Central Texas around the notorious outlaw. Was he gunned down at age 21 in New Mexico, or did he cheat death and live to age 90 in a quiet corner of Hamilton County under the name of Brushy Bill Roberts?[3]

A Life of Crime
As a child, Billy moved with his parents to Kansas; his father died there, and the mother and her two boys moved to Colorado, where she remarried. The family moved to New Mexico, and, in his early teens, Billy fell into a career of thievery and lawlessness, wandering throughout the Southwest and northern Mexico, often with gangs.[4]

Billy was orphaned at the age of 15. His first arrest was in 1875 for the theft of food at the age of 16. Ten days later, he robbed a Chinese laundry and was arrested again but escaped shortly afterwards.

He fled from New Mexico Territory into neighbouring Arizona Territory, making himself both an outlaw and a federal fugitive. In 1877, he began to call himself William H. Bonney.[5] After killing a blacksmith during an argument in August 1877, Billy became a wanted man in Arizona and returned to New Mexico, where he joined a group of cattle rustlers.

Billy became well-known in the region when he joined the Regulators[6]. He and two other Regulators were later charged with killing three men, including Lincoln County Sheriff William J. Brady plus one of his deputies.

Although Billy claimed to have killed 21 men, the actual number is likely to be less than ten. Billy’s notoriety grew in December 1880 when newspapers carried stories about his misdemeanours[7]. Sheriff Pat Garrett captured Billy later that month. In April 1881, McCarty (Billy) was tried for and convicted of Sheriff Brady’s murder and was sentenced to hang in the following month.

He escaped from jail on 28th April 1881: as he was being returned to his cell, Billy the Kid made a mad dash for freedom, grabbed a gun and shot his guard. Upon hearing the shots, a second guard ran from across the street only to be fatally shot by Billy standing on the balcony above him. Mounting a horse, Billy galloped out of town and into history. He evaded capture for nearly three months.


A person with a mustache Description automatically generated with medium confidence
Sheriff Pat Garrett, c. 1903
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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While Billy was on the run, Governor Wallace placed a new $500 bounty on his head[9]. Almost three months after Billy’s escape, Sheriff Garrett, responding to rumours that Billy the Kid was in the vicinity of Fort Sumner, left Lincoln with two deputies on 14th July 1881 to question resident Pete Maxwell, a friend of Billy.[10] Maxwell spoke with Garrett the same day for several hours. Around midnight, the pair sat in Maxwell’s darkened bedroom when Billy unexpectedly (and conveniently) entered.[11]

Accounts vary as to what happened next. According to one version, Billy failed to recognise Garrett as he entered the room due to the poor lighting. Drawing his revolver and backing away, Billy asked: “¿Quién es? ¿Quién es?” (Spanish for “Who is it? Who is it?”).[12] Although Billy could speak Spanish fluently, it is odd that he should do so at that moment.

But Sheriff Garrett, recognising Billy’s voice, drew his revolver and fired twice[13]. The first bullet struck Billy in the chest just above his heart, while the second missed altogether. Garrett’s account of the incident leaves it unclear whether Billy was killed instantly or took some time to die.[14]

Another version suggests that Maxwell helpfully informed Garrett that this new visitor was none other than Billy the Kid, whispering, “That’s him.” Either way, Garrett drew his gun and fired. Billy fell, struggled to breathe for a few moments, and then expired.

A few hours after the shooting, a local justice of the peace assembled a coroner’s jury of six people. The jury members interviewed Maxwell and Garrett. The body and the location of the shooting were examined. The jury certified the body as being Billy the Kid. According to a local newspaper, the foreman said, “It was the Kid’s body that we examined.”[15]

Billy was given a wake by candlelight; he was buried the next day, and his grave was denoted with a wooden marker[16].

Five days after Billy the Kid’s killing, Garrett travelled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to collect the $500 reward offered by Governor Lew Wallace for his capture, dead or alive of the fugitive. William G. Ritch, the acting New Mexico governor, refused to pay the reward.[17] Over the next few weeks, the residents of Las Vegas, Mesilla, Santa Fe, White Oaks, and other New Mexico cities raised over $7,000 in reward money for Garrett. A year and four days after McCarty’s death, the New Mexico territorial legislature passed a special act to grant Garrett the $500 bounty reward promised by Governor Wallace.[18]

At first, allegations were made that Garrett had murdered Billy, but no legal charges were brought against him since the killing was ruled a justifiable homicide[19]. However, as people had begun to claim Garrett unfairly ambushed and murdered Billy, Sheriff Garrett felt the need to tell his side of the story and called upon his friend, journalist Marshall Upson, to ghostwrite a book for him[20]. The book, The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid[21], was first published in April 1882.[22] Although only a few copies sold following its release, in time, it became a reference source for later historians who wrote about Billy the Kid’s life and death[23].

Was Billy’s ‘death’ falsely reported?
According to several sources,[24] Sheriff Pat Garrett was keen to collect the $500 bounty on Billy the Kid’s head. History records that in July 1881, he tracked Billy down in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and killed him. Billy was buried the next day in a simple grave. But some people say that recorded history is wrong and that Billy wasn’t the man in that grave. Sixty-eight years after Billy’s death, a man from Texas named “Brushy Bill” Roberts[25] claimed he was Billy the Kid.

Brushy Bill Roberts, who claimed to be the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid – he wears a wide-brimmed hat, moustache, neck scarf and coat
Author or copyright owner unknown. Fair Use claimed.

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Some sceptics argue that Roberts wasn’t Billy the Kid because Billy was ambidextrous and Roberts wasn’t. It’s a myth that is often claimed, but the fact is that Roberts was ambidextrous. He admitted that he was naturally left-handed but added he could shoot a gun with either hand, and those who knew him personally verified that fact.[26]

There seems to be more to Billy the Kid’s death than meets the eye. A website[27] devoted entirely to whether Roberts and Billy the Kid were one and the same person, may provide some answers for sceptics.

During the decades following his death, legends grew that Billy the Kid had survived, and several men claimed to be him[28]. Billy the Kid remains one of the most notorious figures from the era, whose life and likeness have been frequently dramatised in Western popular culture.

The Legend of Billy the Kid[29]
The legend of Billy the Kid has acquired iconic status in American folklore, yet the outlaw had minimal impact on historical events in the New Mexico Territory of the late 1800s[30]. More has been written about Billy the Kid than any other gunslinger in the history of the American Wild, Wild West,[31] while hundreds of books, motion pictures, radio and television programmes and even a ballet have been inspired by his legend.[32]

When he was still alive, Billy had already become a nationally-known figure whose exploits, real and imaginary, were reported in the National Police Gazette and the large newspapers of the eastern United States. After his death on 14th July 1881, all of New York City’s papers ran his obituary. Within days, newspapers around the United States printed exaggerated and romanticised accounts of Billy the Kid’s short career.[33]

In the fifteen or so dime novels[34] about Bill the Kid’s criminal career published between 1881 and 1906, Billy was cast as an outlaw antihero, customarily depicted as a badman with superior gunslinging skills, or even as a demonic agent of Satan who delighted in murder.[35] Of note is that within six weeks of Billy the Kid’s death, the first complete narrative of his life appeared: The True Life of Billy the Kid. Written by dime novelist John Woodruff Lewis under the pen name “Don Jenardo”, this pulp novel depicted Billy the Kid as a sadistic psychopath.[36]

The modern legend of Billy the Kid as an immortal figure of the Old American West first developed within a larger cultural context of social upheaval in the late 19th and early 20th century United States[37]. Between 1897 and 1909, during the Progressive era of political activism and reform, the popular American novelist Emerson Hough wrote magazine articles, novels and informal histories that reintroduced Billy the Kid to a national audience, albeit in works that often relied more on fantasy than on actual events.[38]

Hough embellished the Kid’s reputation with lurid descriptions of his exceptional villainy in an article called “Billy the Kid: The True Story of a Western ‘Bad Man’ “, written in 1901 for the literary publication, Everybody’s Magazine, using language such as “the soul of some fierce and far-off carnivore got into the body of this little man, this boy, this fiend in tight boots and a broad hat.”[39] Hough further developed this image of the Kid in his book about western desperados, The Story of the Outlaw (1907), though not in such excessive language.[40]

A picture containing text, book Description automatically generated
“The True Life of Billy the Kid” first appeared in print in August 1881
Unsigned, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Films and other media about Billy the Kid
Hundreds of songs, books, motion pictures, radio and television programs, and plays have been inspired by the story of Billy the Kid. Depictions of him in popular culture have fluctuated between a cold-blooded murderer without a heart and a sentimental hero fighting for justice.[41]

The Texas historian, J. Frank Dobie wrote many years ago in A Vaquero of the Brush Country (1929): “…Billy the Kid will always be interesting, will always appeal to the popular imagination.”[42]

While many writers and filmmakers have depicted Billy the Kid as the personification of either heroic youth or juvenile punk[43], a few have attempted to portray a more complex character.[44] In any case, the dramatic aspects of Billy the Kid’s short life and violent death still appeal to popular taste[45], and he remains an icon of teenage rebellion and nonconformity.[46]

The mythologising of his story has long legs and continues with new works in various media[47], including Comics, Literature, Film, Music, Stage’, Radio, Television and even Video games, many of which are listed on Wikipedia[48].

Best Film?
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a 1973 American Revisionist Western film directed by Sam Peckinpah, written by Rudy Wurlitzer, and starring James CoburnKris KristoffersonRichard JaeckelKaty JuradoChill WillsBarry SullivanJason RobardsSlim Pickens and Bob Dylan. The film is about an ageing Pat Garrett (Coburn), hired as a lawman by a group of wealthy New Mexico cattle barons to bring down his old friend Billy the Kid (Kristofferson).[49]

Bob Dylan composed the score and songs for the film, most prominently “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door“, which were released on its soundtrack album the same year. It was filmed on location in Durango, Mexico[50], and was nominated for two BAFTA Awards for Film Music (Dylan) and Most Promising Newcomer (Kristofferson). It was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Album of Best Original Score (Dylan).[51]

The film was noted for behind-the-scenes battles between the director and the studio (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). Shortly after completion, the film was removed from the director and substantially re-edited, many critics hailing it as a mistreated classic and one of the era’s best films. It is ranked 126th on Empire magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.[52]

4.7.11 - 'Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid'
Picture Credit:4.7.11 – ‘Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid’” by moviesinla is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Sources and Further Reading

Billy the Kid
Picture Credit:Billy the Kid” by teofilo is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  1. Sources: (1) Rasch, Philip J. (1995). Trailing Billy the Kid. Stillwater, Oklahoma: Western Publications. ISBN 978-0-935269-19-2. pp. 23–35, and (2) Wallis, Michael (2007). Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 978-0-393-06068-3. OCLC 77270750. pp. 244–45.
  2. The Lincoln County War was an Old West conflict between rival factions which began in 1878 in New Mexico Territory, the predecessor of the state of New Mexico, and continued until 1881. The feud became famous because of the participation of William H. Bonney (“Billy the Kid“). Other notable participants included Sheriff William J. Brady, cattle rancher John Chisum, lawyer and businessmen Alexander McSweenJames Dolan and Lawrence Murphy. Read about the Lincoln County War at: See also Roberts, Calvin A.; Roberts, Susan A. (2004). A History of New Mexico. University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 9780826335074.
  3. Source:
  4. Source:
  5. Source: Wallis, Michael (2007). Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 978-0-393-06068-3. OCLC 77270750.
  6. The Regulators were formed out of numerous small ranch owners and cowboys in the Lincoln, New Mexico area. Many of those who became best known as “Regulators” had a long history with one another previously. William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid or Henry McCarty, would become the best known, mostly because news accounts attached his name to everything the Regulators did. The Lincoln County War brought him to the front, but several of the other Regulators were actually the driving force behind the events, and had a history of killing alongside one another prior to the war. See more at:
  7. Source: Utley, Robert M. (1989). Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-9558-2.
  8. Source for this section:
  9. Sources: (1) Utley, Robert M. (1989). Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-9558-2. p. 188, (2) Boardman, Mark (May 24, 2011). “The Holy Grail for Sale – The Billy the Kid tintype is on the auction block, and it might just clear half a million”. True West Magazine, and (3) Villagran, Lauren (December 1, 2013). “Is this Billy the Kid?”. Albuquerque Journal – Las Cruces Bureau.
  10. Source: Wallis, Michael (2007). Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 978-0-393-06068-3.
  11. Ibid
  12. Source: Frederick Nolan (2014). The Billy the Kid Reader. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 86. ISBN 978-0806182544.
  13. Source: Janofsky, Michael (June 5, 2003). “122 Years Later, Lawmen Are Still Chasing Billy the Kid”. The New York Times. p. 24.
  14. Sources: Wallis 2007, p. 247. The Death Of Billy The Kid, 1881, Eyewitness to History/Ibis Communications. Wallis, Michael (2007). Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 978-0-393-06068-3.
  15. Source: Klein, Christopher (February 27, 2015). “Historian Seeks Death Certificate to End Billy the Kid Rumors”.
  16. Sources: (1) Rose, Elizabeth R. (December 31, 2012), “Ft. Sumner New Mexico: Where Billy The Kid met his demise”, Santa Fe Examiner, and (2) Bell, Bob Boze; Gardner, Mark Lee (August 12, 2014). “A Shot in the Dark: Billy the Kid vs Pat Garrett”. True West Magazine.
  17. Source: “Santa Fe Daily New Mexican Newspaper”, Santa Fe Daily New Mexican, p. 4, 21st July 1881
  18. Source: New Mexico Territorial Legislature, 18th July 1882
  19. Source:
  20. Source: Utley, Robert M. (1989). Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-9558-2.
  21. The full title of the Garrett-Upson book was The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid, the Noted Desperado of the Southwest, Whose Deeds of Daring and Blood Made His Name a Terror in New Mexico, Arizona and Northern Mexico. By Pat. F. Garrett, Sheriff of Lincoln Co., N.M., By Whom He Was Finally Hunted Down and Captured by Killing Him.
  22. See: LeMay, John and Stahl, Robert J. (2020). The Man Who Invented Billy the Kid: The Authentic Life of Ash Upson. Roswell, NM: Bicep Books. pp. 127–133. ISBN 978-1953221919.
  23. Source: Utley, Robert M. (1989). Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-9558-2., pp. 198–199.
  24. See:
  25. Also known as William Henry Roberts, Ollie Partridge William Roberts, Ollie N. Roberts, or Ollie L. Roberts. Sources: and
  26. Source:
  27. Source:
  28. Source: “The Old Man Who Claimed to Be Billy the Kid”. Atlas Obscura. March 30, 2017.
  29. Excerpted from:
  30. Source: Stephen Tatum (1 January 1982). Inventing Billy the Kid: Visions of the Outlaw in America, 1881-1981. University of New Mexico Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-8263-0610-4.
  31. Source: Robert N. Mullin; Charles E. Welch, Jr. (April 1973). “Billy the Kid: The Making of a Hero”. Western Folklore. 32 (2): 107.
  32. Source: Jon Tuska (2004). David J. Wishart (ed.). Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. University of Nebraska Press. p. 446. ISBN 0-8032-4787-7.
  33. Source: Frederick Nolan (1 September 1999). The West of Billy the Kid. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 291. ISBN 978-0-8061-3104-7.
  34. Explanation: The dime novel is a form of late 19th century and early 20th century US popular fiction issued in series of inexpensive paperbound editions. The term has been used as a catchall term for several different but related forms, referring to story papers, five- and ten-cent weeklies, “thick book” reprints, and sometimes early pulp magazines. The term was used as a title as late as 1940.
  35. Sources: (1) Stephen Tatum (1st January 1982). Inventing Billy the Kid: Visions of the Outlaw in America, 1881-1981. University of New Mexico Press. p. 45. ISBN 978-0-8263-0610-4, and (2) Eric Gary Anderson (1999). American Indian Literature and the Southwest: Contexts and Dispositions. University of Texas Press. p. 47. ISBN 978-0-292-70488-6.
  36. Source: Frederick Nolan (20th October 2014). The Billy the Kid Reader. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-8061-8254-4.
  37. Source: Margaret K. Reid (2004). Cultural Secrets as Narrative Form: Storytelling in Nineteenth-century America. Ohio State University Press. p. 151. ISBN 978-0-8142-0947-9.
  38. Sources: (1) Robert M. Utley (17 November 2015). Wanted: The Outlaw Lives of Billy the Kid and Ned Kelly. Yale University Press. p. 109. ISBN 978-0-300-21668-4, and (2) Stephen Tatum (1st January 1982). Inventing Billy the Kid: Visions of the Outlaw in America, 1881-1981. University of New Mexico Press. p. 49. ISBN 978-0-8263-0610-4.
  39. Sources: (1) Stephen Tatum as foonote above, and (2) Hough, Emerson (September 1901). “Billy the Kid: The True Story of a Western ‘Bad Man’”. Everybody’s Magazine. New York: The Ridgeway Company.
  40. Sources: (1) Mark J. Dworkin (27th February 2015). American Mythmaker: Walter Noble Burns and the Legends of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and Joaquín Murrieta. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-8061-4902-8, and (2) Emerson Hough (1907). The Story of the Outlaw: A Study of the Western Desperado. Grosset & Dunlap. pp. 273–274.
  41. Source: Margaret K. Reid (2004). Cultural Secrets as Narrative Form: Storytelling in Nineteenth-century America. Ohio State University Press. p. 151. ISBN 978-0-8142-0947-9.
  42. Source: J. Frank Dobie; John D. Young (1st August 1998). A Vaquero of the Brush Country: The Life and Times of John D. Young. University of Texas Press. p. 169. ISBN 978-0-292-78704-9.
  43. Source: Joseph Natoli (8th February 2007). This Is a Picture and Not the World: Movies and a Post-9/11 America. State University of New York Press. p. 233. ISBN 978-0-7914-7028-2.
  44. Source: Frederick Nolan (20th October 2014). The Billy the Kid Reader. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 363. ISBN 978-0-8061-8254-4.
  45. Source: Stephen Tatum (1 January 1982). Inventing Billy the Kid: Visions of the Outlaw in America, 1881–1981. University of New Mexico Press. p. 190. ISBN 978-0-8263-0610-4.
  46. Source: Michael Wallis (2007). Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride. W.W. Norton & Company. p. xvi. ISBN 978-0-393-06068-3.
  47. Sources: (1) Christopher R. Fee, Jeffrey B. Webb, ed. (31 August 2016). American Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales: An Encyclopedia of American Folklore (3 Volumes). ABC-CLIO. pp. 145–146. ISBN 978-1-61069-568-8, and (2) Richard W. Slatta (2001). The Mythical West: An Encyclopedia of Legend, Lore, and Popular Culture. ABC-CLIO. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-57607-151-9.
  48. At:
  49. Source: “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”. IMDb, noted at:
  50. Source:
  51. Source:
  52. See:


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