Henry McCarty (November 23, 1859 – July 14, 1881) was better known as Billy the Kid, but also known by the aliases Henry Antrim and William Harrison Bonney. He was a nineteenth century American frontier outlaw and gunman who was a participant in the Lincoln County War. He was reputed to have killed 21 men, one for each year of his life.
McCarty was 5’8″ with blue eyes, smooth cheeks, and prominent front teeth. He was said to be friendly and personable at times, but he could also be short-tempered and determined. This made him a very dangerous outlaw, when combined with his shooting skills and cunning. He was also famous for (apparently) always wearing a sugar-loaf Sombrero hat with a wide green decorative band. He was little known in his own lifetime but was catapulted into legend in the year after his death when his killer, Sheriff Patrick Garrett, published a wildly sensationalistic biography of the outlaw called The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid. Beginning with Garrett’s account, Billy the Kid grew into a symbolic figure of the American Old West. Why an outlaw has become the subject of so much literature and film is an interesting question. The period in which he lived saw such people as John D. Rockefeller make their fortune. Such men were known as “robber barons” because of the ruthlessness of their business dealings. Some thought that to steal from the rich was justified. Billy the Kid does not fit the Robin Hood type image very neatly, though, since he made no pretense to be engaged in a social or a moral crusade. Nonetheless, the picture of a young man who pitted himself against the “establishment” has had a certain appeal, especially to those who view the very existence of “authority” as an infringement of their liberty.
Little is known about Henry McCarty’s background, but he is thought to have been born on Allen Street on the lower east side of Manhattan Island, New York on September 17, 1859 to Catherine (née Devine) McCarty. He was baptized on September 28, 1859 in the Church of St. Peter. There has been confusion among historians about McCarty’s birthplace and birth date, and they remain unsettled. His younger brother, Joseph McCarty was born in 1863.
His parents were of Irish Catholic descent, but their names—and thus McCarty’s surname—are not known for certain. Following the death of her husband, Catherine McCarty and her sons moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where she met William Henry Harrison Antrim. After several years of moving around the country, the couple married on March 1, 1873, at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Shortly afterward, the family moved from Santa Fe to Silver City, New Mexico where they settled. Antrim found sporadic work as a bartender and carpenter but soon became more interested in prospecting for fortune than in his wife and stepsons. Joseph McCarty took his stepfather’s surname and began using the name “Joseph Antrim”. However, Henry McCarty resisted, preferring McCarty, and only sometimes referred to himself by the surname “Antrim.”
Faced with an indigent husband, McCarty’s mother took in boarders in order to provide for her sons. She was afflicted with tuberculosis, even though she was seen by her boarders and neighbors as “a jolly Irish lady, full of life and mischief.” The following year, on September 16, 1874, his mother died. She is buried in the Memory Lane Cemetery in Silver City. At age 14, McCarty was taken in by a neighboring family who operated a hotel where he worked to pay for his keep. The manager was impressed by the youth, boasting that he was the only kid who ever worked for him that did not steal anything. His school teachers said that the young orphan was “no more of a problem than any other boy, always quite willing to help with chores around the schoolhouse.”
On September 23, 1875, McCarty was arrested for hiding a bundle of stolen clothes for a man playing a prank on a Chinese laundryman. Two days after McCarty was thrown in jail, the scrawny teen escaped by worming his way up the jailhouse chimney. From that point on, McCarty was more or less a fugitive. He is known to have stolen horses. He eventually found work as an itinerant ranch hand and shepherd in southeastern Arizona. In 1877, he became a civilian teamster at Fort Grant Army Post in Arizona with the duty of hauling logs from a timber camp to a sawmill. The civilian blacksmith at the camp, Frank P. “Windy” Cahill, took pleasure in bullying young McCarty. On August 17, Cahill attacked McCarty after a verbal exchange and threw him to the ground. McCarty retaliated by drawing his .45 pistol and shooting Cahill, who died the next day. Once again McCarty was in custody, this time in the Camp’s guardhouse awaiting the arrival of the local marshal. Before the marshal could arrive, however, McCarty escaped. It has sometimes been reported that the encounter with Frank Cahill took place in a saloon.
Again on the run, McCarty, who had begun to refer to himself as “William H. Bonney,” next turned up in the house of Heiskell Jones in Pecos Valley, New Mexico. Apaches had stolen McCarty’s horse, which forced him to walk many miles to the nearest settlement, which was Mrs. Jones’s home. She nursed the young man, who was near death, back to health. The Jones family developed a strong attachment to McCarty and gave him one of their horses.
Lincoln County Cattle War
In the autumn of 1877, Bonney (McCarty) moved to Lincoln County, New Mexico, and was hired as a cattle guard by John Tunstall, an English cattle rancher, banker and merchant, and his partner, Alexander McSween, a prominent lawyer.
A conflict, known later as the Lincoln County Cattle War, had begun between the established town merchants and the ranchers. Events turned bloody on February 18, 1878, when Tunstall, unarmed, was caught on an open range while herding cattle. Tunstall’s murder enraged Bonney and the other ranch hands.
They formed their own group called the Regulators, led by ranch hand Richard “Dick” Brewer, and proceeded to hunt down two of the members of the posse that had killed Tunstall. They captured Bill Morton and Frank Baker on March 6 and killed them on March 9. This occurred near Agua Negra. While returning to Lincoln they also killed one of their own members, a man named McCloskey, whom they suspected of being a traitor.
On April 1, Regulators Jim French, Frank McNab, John Middleton, Fred Waite, Henry Brown and McCarty ambushed Sheriff William J. Brady and his deputy, George Hindman, killing them both. McCarty was wounded while trying to retrieve a rifle belonging to him, taken from him by Brady in an earlier arrest.
On April 4, they tracked down and killed an old buffalo hunter known as Buckshot Roberts, whom they suspected of involvement in the Tunstall murder, but not before Roberts shot and killed Dick Brewer, who had been the Regulators’ leader up until that point. Two other Regulators were wounded during the gun battle, which took place at Blazer’s Mill. McCarty took over as leader of the Regulators following Brewer’s death. Under indictment for the Brady killing, McCarty and his gang spent the next several months in hiding and were trapped, along with McSween, in McSween’s home in Lincoln on July 15, 1878, by members of “The House” and some of Brady’s men.
After a five day siege, McSween’s house was set on fire. McCarty and the other Regulators fled, Henry McCarty killing a “House” member named Bob Beckwith in the process and maybe more. McSween was shot down while fleeing the blaze, and his death essentially marked the end of the Lincoln County Cattle War.
Lew Wallace and Amnesty
In the autumn of 1878, former Union Army General Lew Wallace became the new territorial governor of New Mexico. In order to restore peace to Lincoln County, Wallace proclaimed an amnesty for any man involved in the Lincoln County War who was not already under indictment. McCarty, who had fled to Texas after escaping from McSween’s house, was under indictment, but Wallace was intrigued by rumors that the young man was willing to surrender himself and testify against other combatants if amnesty could be extended to him. In March 1879 Wallace and McCarty met in Lincoln County at the home of justice of the peace Squire Wilson to discuss the possibility of a deal. True to form, McCarty greeted the governor with a revolver in one hand and a Winchester rifle in the other. After taking several days to consider Wallace’s offer, McCarty agreed to testify in return for amnesty.
The arrangement called for McCarty to submit to a token arrest and a short stay in jail until the conclusion of his courtroom testimony. Although McCarty’s testimony helped to indict John Dolan, the district attorney—one of the powerful “House” faction leaders—disregarded Wallace’s order to set McCarty free after testifying. Instead, Billy was returned to jail in June 1879. McCarty slipped out of his handcuffs and fled with friend Doc Scurlock.
For the next year and a half, McCarty survived by rustling, gambling and killing. In January 1880, during a well-documented altercation, he killed a man named Joe Grant in a Fort Sumner saloon. Grant was boasting that he would kill the “Kid” if he saw him, not realizing the man he was playing poker with was “Billy the Kid.” In those days people only loaded their revolvers with five bullets, since there were no safeties and a lot of accidents. The “Kid” asked Grant if he could see his ivory handled revolver and, while looking at the weapon, cycled the cylinder so the hammer would fall on the empty chamber. McCarty then let Grant know who he was. When Grant fired, nothing happened, and McCarty then shot him three times. When asked about the incident later, he remarked, “It was a game for two, and I got there first.”
In November 1880, a posse pursued and trapped McCarty’s gang inside a ranch-house (owned by friend James Greathouse at Anton Chico in the White Oaks area). A posse member named James Carlysle ventured into the house under white flag in an attempt to negotiate the group’s surrender, with Greathouse being sent out as a hostage for the posse. At some point in the night it became apparent to Carlysle that the outlaws were stalling, when suddenly a shot was accidentally fired from outside. Carlysle, assuming the posse members had shot Greathouse, decided to run for his life, crashing through a window into the snow outside. As he did so, the posse, mistaking Carlysle for one of the gang, fired and killed him. Realizing what they had done and now demoralized, the posse scattered, allowing McCarty and his gang to slip away. McCarty later wrote to Governor Wallace claiming innocence in the killing of Carlysle and of involvement in cattle rustling in general.
During this time, the Kid also developed a friendship with an ambitious local bartender and former buffalo hunter named Pat Garrett. Running on a pledge to rid the area of rustlers, Garrett was elected as sheriff of Lincoln County in November 1880, and in early December he put together a posse and set out to arrest McCarty, now known almost exclusively as Billy the Kid, and carrying a $500 bounty on his head from Governor Wallace.
The posse led by Garrett fared much better, and his men closed in quickly. On December 19, McCarty barely escaped the posse’s midnight ambush in Fort Sumner, during which one of McCarty’s gang, Tom O’Folliard, was shot and killed. On December 23, he was tracked to an abandoned stone building located in a remote location called Stinking Springs.
While McCarty and his gang were asleep inside, Garrett’s posse surrounded the building and waited for sunrise. The next morning, a cattle rustler and good friend of McCarthy named Charlie Bowdre stepped outside to feed his horse. Mistaken for McCarty, he was killed by the posse. Soon afterward somebody from within the building reached for the horse’s halter rope, but Garrett shot and killed the horse. (The horse’s body then blocked the only exit.) As the lawmen began to cook breakfast over an open fire, Garrett and McCarty engaged in a friendly exchange, with Garrett inviting McCarty outside to eat, and McCarty inviting Garrett to “go to hell.” Realizing that they had no hope of escape, the besieged and hungry outlaws finally surrendered later that day and were allowed to join in the meal.
Escape from Lincoln
McCarty was jailed in the town of Mesilla while waiting for his April 6, 1881 trial and spent his time giving newspaper interviews and also peppering Governor Wallace with letters seeking clemency. Wallace, however, refused to intervene. McCarty’s trial took one day and resulted in his conviction for killing Sheriff Brady—the only conviction ever secured against any of the combatants in the Lincoln County Cattle War.
On April 13, he was sentenced by Judge Warren Bristol, a longtime foe of McCarthy, to hang. The execution was scheduled for May 13, and he was sent to Lincoln to await this date, held under guard by two of Garrett’s deputies, James Bell and Robert Ollinger, on the top floor of the town’s courthouse. On April 28, while Garrett was out of town, McCarty stunned the territory by killing both of his guards and escaping.
The details of the escape are unclear. Some historians believe that a friend or Regulator sympathizer left a pistol in a nearby privy that McCarty was allowed to use, under escort, each day. McCarty then retrieved this gun and after Bell had led him back to the courthouse, turned it on his guard as the two of them reached the top of a flight of stairs inside. Another theory holds that McCarty slipped his manacles at the top of the stairs, struck Bell over the head with them and then grabbed Bell’s own gun and shot him.
However it happened, Bell staggered out into the street and collapsed, mortally wounded. Meanwhile, McCarty scooped up Ollinger’s ten-gauge double barrel shotgun and waited at the upstairs window for Ollinger, who had been across the street with some other prisoners, to come to Bell’s aid. As Ollinger came running into view, McCarty leveled the shotgun at him, called out “Hello Bob!” and shot him dead. The townsfolk supposedly gave him an hour that he used to remove his leg iron. The hour was granted in thanks for his work as part of “The Regulators.” After cutting his leg irons with an axe, the young outlaw borrowed (or stole) a horse and rode leisurely out of town, reportedly singing. The horse was returned two days later.
Responding to rumors that McCarty was still lurking in the vicinity of Fort Sumner almost three months after his escape, Sheriff Garrett and two deputies, John Poe and John C. “Kip” McKinney, set out on July 14, 1881, to question one of the town’s residents, a friend of McCarty’s named Pedro Maxwell. Near midnight, as Garrett and Maxwell sat talking in Maxwell’s darkened bedroom, McCarty unexpectedly entered the room. There are at least two versions of what happened next.
One version says that as the Kid entered, he could not recognize Garrett in the poor light. McCarty drew his pistol and backed away, asking “¿Quién es? ¿Quién es?” (Spanish for “Who is it? Who is it?”). Recognizing McCarty’s voice, Garrett drew his own pistol and fired twice, the first bullet hitting McCarty just above his heart and killing him instantly.
In a second version, McCarty entered carrying a knife, evidently headed to a kitchen area. He noticed someone in the darkness, and uttered the words “¿Quién es? ¿Quién es?,” at which point he was shot and killed in ambush style.
A markedly different theory, in which Garrett and his posse set a trap for McCarty, has also been suggested, most recently being investigated in the Discovery Channel documentary “Billy the Kid: Unmasked.” The theory contends that Garrett went to the bedroom of Pedro Maxwell’s sister, Paulita, and tied her up in her bed. Paulita was an acquaintance of Billy the Kid, and the two had possibly considered getting married. When McCarty arrived, Garrett was waiting behind Paulita’s bed and shot the Kid.
Henry McCarty, alias Henry Antrim, alias William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, was buried the next day in Fort Sumner’s old military cemetery, between his fallen companions Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre. A single tombstone was later erected over the graves, giving the three outlaws’ names and with the word “Pals” also carved into it. The tombstone has been stolen and recovered three times since being placed in the 1940s, and the entire gravesite is now enclosed by a steel cage.
Notoriety: Fact vs. Reputation
As with many men of the old west dubbed gunfighters, McCarty’s reputation outweighed the actual facts of gunfights in which he was involved.
Despite being credited with the killing of 21 men in his lifetime, William H. Bonney is only known to have participated in the killing of nine men. Five of them died during shootouts in which several of the “Regulators” took part, therefore making it unknown whether it was Bonney’s bullets that did the killing. Of the remaining four Bonney victims, two were in self-defense gunfights and the other two were the killings of Deputies Bell and Ollinger during his jail escape.
Left-Handed or Right-Handed?
For most of the twentieth century, it was widely assumed that Billy the Kid was left-handed. This belief came from the fact that the only known photograph of McCarty, an undated ferrotype, shows him with a Model 1873 Winchester rifle in his right hand and a gun belt with a holster on his left side, where a left handed person would typically wear a pistol. The belief became so entrenched that in 1958, a biographical film was made about Billy the Kid called The Left Handed Gun starring Paul Newman.
Late in the twentieth century, it was discovered that the familiar ferrotype was actually a reverse image. This version shows his Model 1873 Winchester with the loading port on the left side. All Model 1873s had the loading port on the right side, proving the image was reversed, and that he was, in fact, wearing his pistol on his right hip. Even though the image has been proven to be reversed, the idea of a left-handed Billy the Kid continues to widely circulate.
Perhaps because many people heard both of these arguments and confused them, it is widely believed that Billy the Kid was ambidextrous. Many describe him as such, and the fact is still widely disputed.
Claimants to the Title
In 1950, a lawyer named William Morrison located a man in West Texas named Ollie P. Roberts, nicknamed Brushy Bill, who claimed to be the actual Billy the Kid, and that he indeed had not been shot and killed by Pat Garrett in 1881. Almost all historians reject the Brushy Bill claim. Among other problems, the real Billy the Kid spoke Spanish fluently and could read and write, whereas Brushy Bill apparently could not speak Spanish at all and was in fact, illiterate.
Despite this and discrepancies in birth dates and physical appearance, the town of Hico, Texas (Brushy Bill’s residence) has capitalized on the Kid’s infamy by opening the Billy The Kid Museum.
Another claimant to the title of Billy the Kid was John Miller, whose family claimed him posthumously to be Billy the Kid in 1938.
Miller was buried at the state-owned Pioneers’ Home Cemetery in Prescott, Arizona. Tom Sullivan, former sheriff of Lincoln County, and Steve Sederwall, former mayor of Capitan, disinterred the bones of John Miller in May 2005. DNA samples from the remains were sent to a lab in Dallas, Texas, to be compared against traces of blood taken from a bench that was believed to be the one McCarty’s body was placed on after he was shot to death. The pair had been searching for the physical remains of McCarty since 2003, beginning in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and eventually ending up in Arizona. To date, no results of the DNA tests have been made public.
Little known in his own lifetime, Billy the Kid was catapulted into legend in the year after his death when his killer, Sheriff Patrick Garrett, published a wildly sensationalistic biography of the outlaw called The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid. Beginning with Garrett’s account, Billy the Kid grew into a symbolic figure of the American Old West. Since he does not appear to have had any concept of engaging in a Robin Hood type of crusade to take money off the unjustly rich and to give it to the poor, or to have had an anti-authoritarian philosophy, it is difficult to understand why his memory has attracted so much interest, why so many books have been written about him and films made of his exploits. Possibly, the age in which he lived is remembered as one where on the Western frontier of American life, there was always a thin line between law and order. An outlaw such as Billy the Kid pushed at that line until it broke.
- Richard W. Etulain, “From Billy the Kid: Thunder in the West,” in With Bullets & Badges: Lawmen & Outlaws in the Old West, eds. Richard W. Etulain and Glenda Riley (Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 1999), 124. The birth name, place, and date of McCarthy are unknown for certain, as is much about his early life and childhood.
- Philip J. Rasch, Trailing Billy the Kid, ed. Robert K. Dearment (Harper Heights: National Association for Outlaw & Lawman History, Inc., 1995), 126.
- The term “American Old West” refers to the stories, myths and legends about life in the American West from about 1865 until the end of the nineteenth century, sometimes extended into the start of the twentieth
- Letter from Rev. James B. Roberts, Church of St. Peter, New York City, to Jack DeMattos, March 24, 1979.
- Floyd D. P. Oydegaard. Shadows of the Past, Inc., Looks at Billy the Kid, Shadows o the Past, Inc., looks at Billy the kid Retrieved August 29, 2017.
- Richard W. Etulain, “Billy the Kid: Thunder in the West.” In With Bullets & Badges: Lawmen & Outlaws in the Old West, edited by Richard W. Etulain and Glenda Riley, (Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 1999), 123-138.
- William “Billy The Kid” Bonney FindaGrave. Retrieved August 29, 2017.
- Fact vs Myth Aboutbillythekid.com. Retrieved August 29, 2017.
- Eric Moreno, The Old Man Who Claimed to Be Billy the Kid Atlas Obscura, March 30, 2017. Retrieved August 29, 2017.
- Leo W. Banks, A New Billy the Kid? Tucson Weekly, April 13, 2006. Retrieved August 29, 2017.
- Aboutbillythekid.com. Fact vs. Myth. Facts v Myth. Retrieved September 3, 2019.
- Banks, Leo W. “A New Billy the Kid?.” Tucson Weekly, April 13, 2006. A New Billy the Kid? Retrieved September 3, 2019.
- Burns, Walter Noble. The Saga of Billy the Kid. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
- Etulain, Richard W. “From Billy the Kid: Thunder in the West” in With Bullets and Badges: Lawmen and Outlaws in the Old West, edited by Richard W. Etulain and Glenda Riley, 123-138. Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 1999.
- Garrett, Pat F. The Authentic life of Billy the Kid. Skyhorse Publishing, 2011.
- Rasch, Phillip J. Trailing Billy the Kid. Edited by Robert K. Dearment. Harper Heights: National Association for Outlaw & Lawman History, Inc., 1995.
- Tuska, Jon. Billy the Kid: A Handbook. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
- Trachtman, Paul. The Old West: The Gunfighters. Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1974.
- Utley, Robert M. Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
- Wallis, Michael. Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride. NY: W. W. Norton, 2007.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 09.03.2019, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.