(Part 1 of a series: See continuing link at end of article)
Who Was He Really?
Although Billy the Kid is firmly established as an American icon, it has taken researchers more than a century to unearth details of his life, and even now some facts remain sketchy. A biography was published only two years after his death 1, but the authors were his killer, Pat Garrett, and an alcoholic postman named Ash Upson who ghost-wrote much of it. Deconstruction of this book has revealed the first 15 chapters (the part Upson wrote) to be a mish-mash of fantasy studded with the occasional fact. The latter part, detailing Billy's last days, was written by Garrett -- and a large question mark still hangs over what exactly happened when Billy was killed. The picture it paints is sensationalist, of a young man who was bad through and through and whose only destiny was to be killed by Sheriff Garrett.
Billy was born William Henry McCarty in New York City. In Authentic Life, Upson gave Billy's birthdate as November 23, 1859, which date has perpetrated itself all the way into the Encyclopedia Britannica. But research has revealed that November 23 is actually Ash Upson's birthday! Utley examined birth records for New York City in 1859 and came up with two most likely dates for Billy's birth to a Catherine McCarty: 17 September or 20 November. The latter date is more probable, since it more accurately identifies Billy's brother, Joseph Bonney McCarty.
The first indisputable records place Catherine McCarty and her sons in Kansas City, where she married William Henry Antrim at a Presbyterian church, with the boys as witnesses. At this point, Billy began to be called Henry in order to distinguish him from the elder William Henry. Not long after the marriage, the new family decamped to Silver Springs, New Mexico. The step-father absented himself for much of the time, being up in the nearby hills prospecting for silver. Catherine, by now ill with TB, took in lodgers and laundry. The boys attended grammar school and ran in the streets with other boys.
Billy was remembered by his teacher as having an artistic nature, as intelligent and eager to please; visibly smaller than other boys his age, he was delicate and girlish looking. He also showed talent as singer and dancer, and performed as Head Man in a black & white minstrel show that performed to appreciative audiences at the Silver City Music Theater.
But within 18 months Catherine was dead of TB. Antrim put Joseph with a saloonkeeper's family and 14-year-old Henry (Billy) with a hotelier's family, and each boy began to work to pay their bed and board. Antrim then dissolved what remained of Catherine's estate and went back to the mining camps.
At first Billy was obedient and spent most of his spare time escaping into novels and "detective gazettes", but within the year he started to get in trouble, culminating with the theft of some clothes from a Chinese laundry. Billy didn't steal the clothes, but hid them for an older boy and was turned in by the hotelkeeper's wife. Before two days were past, Billy had escaped from jail (where he was put only to frighten him a little) by scrabbling up the chimney and was gone from Silver City for good.
Not too much is known of his whereabouts over the next two years, but when he reappeared he could speak Spanish fluently and he was riding on the fringes of an outlaw gang. It was the final three years of his short life that formed the basis of his legendary status.
Legends and Lies
The launching of the legend took place in Billy's lifetime; he was aware of it, and was reportedly both thrilled and disconcerted. Even when Billy was on the run, the Hispanic shepherds, most of whom liked and respected Billy, regularly brought him newspapers, which he read avidly.
A Santa Fe journalist, writing about the problem of cattle rustling, seems to have decided to give color to his story by making 19-year-old Billy the "desperate cuss" who led a vast outlaw gang of thieves, rapists, rustlers and counterfeiters. The story was picked up by Eastern newspapers, and by mid-November of 1880, the name of Billy the Kid was known from coast to coast. His capture and arrest by Garrett on Christmas 1880 was therefore a national media event of which Billy himself was quite aware. Not long after his death in July 1881, the dime novels began to proliferate. If he had indeed committed every crime for which he was given credit, he would never have slept.
Many now regard Pat Garrett's biography of Billy to be an attempt at self-justification. Garrett made 2,500 dollars from the killing, which he used to grubstake a ranch. Although he continued in the office of sheriff for many years, and enjoyed fame for this single act, he was not particularly competent, drank heavily, and slid into debt. In February 1908 he was shot in the back of the head whilst relieving himself. His killer, a young cowboy named Wayne Brazel, was later acquitted on grounds of self-defense!
In 1928 Walter Noble Burns wrote The Saga of Billy the Kid2. This was the first revision of Billy's story, and it established a more romantic image of Billy as a put-upon social outcast. But it perpetrated many of the lies embedded in Upson's opus. Still, the book is of value today because it contains transcriptions of interviews with men and women who knew Billy personally. Between Garrett/Upson and Burns, a highly inaccurate image of Billy Bonney took root in American culture.
About 10 years after Burns's book, a medical doctor and hobbyist-historian named Philip Rasch began patiently combing through old newspapers, museums and court records in towns throughout the southwest for data about Billy. As he unearthed new information he published his results in essays which have just recently been collected and re-published in a single book, Trailing Billy the Kid3. Rasch's life work constituted a major breakthrough in tracing the true course of Billy's early years.
Robert M. Utley, a noted academic historian and author of books on the history of the American West, produced a definitive and exhaustively-researched biography of Billy in 1989, titled Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life4. Building on the research of Philip Rasch and other 'Kidologists' such as Robert N. Mullin5, Richard Weddle6 and collector Maurice Fulton, Utley produced a scholarly but readable biography complete with photographs, maps, and extensive notes. He shows how Billy's life played out against a backdrop of economic and political corruption, and how Billy became enmeshed in a struggle that ultimately destroyed him.
Since then, two more notable biographies have been published. Fred Nolan, British historian, has written The West of Billy the Kid7, an oversize and profusely illustrated tome that puts Billy's life in the context of the times. Bob Boze Bell has written what must be the most original and entertaining (but still accurate) biography of the lot, The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid8. In addition to including true anecdotes which the more academic writers must have considered too frivolous, Boze Bell, a prolific artist, has drawn from imagination and studded his book with paintings and scratchboard illustrations. This book ought to be in every high school library.
Much, much more has been written about Billy, but the above-named sources constitute the most reliable and interesting of the genre.
Next section: Billy the Kid: His Photograph.