The Mystery of Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid
Billy the Kid

Our most noted outlaw in the West is Billy the Kid. His legend has outgrown the real facts of this sometimes hated, sometimes loved young outlaw. He’s a mystery in spite of all that has been written about him since before he was killed. Today we still do not know who his real father was. We do not know the exact date of his birth or where he was actually born. The very first documentation about this youth is the marriage record of his mother, Catherine McCarty to William H. Antrim in the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe on March 1, 1873, and lists one of her sons as Henry McCarty.

We thought we knew all the facts when we all read the book Sheriff Pat Garrett wrote in 1882, a year after Billy’s death, entitled 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. The title itself suggests to most of us the beginning of exaggeration and the exploitation of one Billy the Kid. Garrett employed a ghost-writer by the name of Ash Upson, an out-of-work, has-been newspaperman. Much of Upson’s writing is prefabrication except possibly the part that Garrett wrote about his killing of Billy the Kid. Upson is the father of the myths surrounding Billy the Kid that has been perpetuated ever since. An example: "Billy killed 21 men, one for each year of his life!" Only four documented killings can be laid at Billy’s feet, and these were in self-defense. The book to read that corrects the misconceptions in Garrett-Upson’s book and sets the record straight is Frederick Nolan’s re-print of that book that came out in 2000, entitled simply Pat F. Garrett’s The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid, an annotated edition with notes and commentary by Nolan. It is an eye-opener!

The biggest controversy concerning Billy is whether he was a good kid gone bad or just a natural-born killer. I opt for a "good kid gone bad." He lived at a time in the Territory of New Mexico when strong men made their own law, took care of their own problems, settling many of them with a gun. Even a small person, or young boy, was made equal by Samuel Colt. What made Billy different was his daring, his "devil-may-care" attitude, and a boldness and wit that older men, gunmen included, hadn’t counted on in such a youth, and paid the consequences. In many exploitative books on Billy he was put down as ignorant and uncouth. The fact is he was very intelligent, could read and right well, spoke fluent Spanish, and was not awed by those who supposedly thought they had power over him.

The Lincoln County War would have ended the same with or without Billy’s participation, yet in the end Billy was made a scapegoat by the notorious Santa Fe Ring made up of greedy and ambitious lawmakers, governors, and lawmen under their rule. Billy was the only warrior in that terrible conflict that was brought to trial and sentenced to be hung. His fame came with his daring escape from the Lincoln County jail, killing two professional guards with his hands and feet in shackles.

Billy became a romantic is the eyes of many when instead of heading south to Old Mexico to safety, he opted to go to Fort Sumner where he felt save among friends, some of them women. It was his love for Paulita Maxwell that led to his death. Her brother, Pete Maxwell, wealthy stockman and land owner, in a message to Sheriff Pat Garrett, told of Billy’s whereabouts and Billy’s attention to his young sister. There on the moonlit night of July 14, 1881, Garrett in the dark with Pete in his bedroom with his posse of two outside, came Billy in search of something to eat. Seeing the two men outside he stepped inside the bedroom door from the covered porch and asked Pete: "Quien es?" Garrett recognized Billy’s voice, drew and fired two shots, one fatal bullet struck below his heart. Billy had hesitated to fire (some believe he had no pistol at that moment) and was backing away when he was killed.

Old Fort Sumner, south of present town of Ft. Sumner established in 1906 with the coming of the railroad, is where Billy the Kid is buried, in the old military cemetery. Today, he and his two pals are surrounded by iron bars to keep souvenir hunters from stealing the small footstone and chipping away on the big tombstone. Ironically, even in death Billy is not free from iron bars.