Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Off with the Billy the Kid Gloves: What Becomes a Legend Most?

Karen L. Mulder, guest blogger

On April 29, 1878, in the Territory of New Mexico, a violent shoot out with the Jesse Evans Gang and the Seven Rivers Warriors occurred at the Fritz Ranch in Lincoln County, in the Territory of New Mexico. It was merely one of dozens of skirmishes with the law, involving a cast of hundreds, in what came to be known as the Lincoln County War—truly, the stuff of vituperative Hollywood westerns.
William Henry McCarty, aka William Bonney, aka Henry Antrim, aka Billy the Kid, had managed to intercept a bullet in the thigh earlier in the month, but seemed hale enough to take up his Winchester rifle again by July and to escape capture, fleeing from a burning house to create a diversion.
Of all the characters in the outlaw set, Billy the Kid projects the greatest mystical allure, although many facts of his short life elude accuracy. Was he born in New York City, on Allen Street? Did he really kill only four unfortunates, or was it more like twenty-one? Boxers, or briefs? By the last year of his life in 1881, at the tender age of 22, the most established fact about the lad is the moment of his death. This is probably because his first biographer pulled the trigger. Should one trust the biography of a sheriff who exterminates his main subject? This sounds like a trend that ought to be discouraged.
You can check it out yourself in a reprint of The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, penned by Pat F. Garrett (1850-1908). Garrett’s prose rings with that kind of factual twang that one finds in Mark Twain, minus the witticisms and humor but definitely equal in the tall tale telling. On the other hand, if you want a less mythologizing, more contemporary and slightly more palatable read of the same events, with pictures thrown in, take a look at the 2010 version, To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old Westsurefire proof that HarperCollins does not charge authors by the letter for their subtitles. The author, Mark Lee Gardner, is a Southwest Studies historian and non-apologetic Western aficionado from Colorado who provides  interpretative guides for the National Park Service out west. Like Garrett’s more prosaic account, Gardner covers the standard bases of Billy’s bad behavior. Unlike Garrett’s period purplish prose, Gardner draws us into the compelling drama of Billy’s life as it unfurls by inserting narrative quips that convey a reasonable sense of authenticity and humanity. Really, one can see how making cheese and doing the drut work on a number of ranches paled in comparison to gambling, stealing horses (or chasing Apaches who stole his horses), evading posses, and enjoying the lively companionship of other felonious types.
Billy, Doc Holliday, Jesse James, Charlie Bowdre in Las Vegas, 1879--where what happens there REALLY stays there...!
versus The Blow-Dried Gang from Young Guns, 1988, some of whom are still prone to shoot off their mouths
McCarty/Bonney/Antrim first appears in print in 1875, at the age of 15, for escaping prison through a chimney flue; this is also the year of his first recorded kill. The rangy 5’8”, blue-eyed, buck-toothed Kid successfully evaded capture or death by firearms enough times to gain a reputation for invincibility, and he was a deadeye shot as well. In 1878, Kid Antrim is ‘deputized’ and paid $4 a day by a righteously-minded gang called the Regulators, who set out to avenge the death of one of their cohorts. Around this time, there’s a bounty on Billy’s head for $500 ($12,000 today, although that’s probably more like $100,000 to 19th-century folk).
Eventually, it takes both the Army’s cavalry and infantry, wielding nothing less than rapid-fire Gatling guns and 16mm Howitzers, to put a stop to the gang’s revenge spree. The newly appointed governor of New Mexico, Lew Wallace, vows to get Billy in 1880, or to pardon him if he testifies in court against his buddies. Clearly, Wallace appreciates Billy’s popularity as a legend in the public eye. In response, Billy wages a correspondence campaign with Wallace, claiming that “I have no wish to fight anymore. Indeed, I have not raised an arm since your proclamation….Waiting for an annser I remain your obedeint servant [sic].”
Billy the Kid demonstrates the meaning of 'deadeye' aim.
This is the year that the moniker “Billy the Kid” first shows up in print, in the Las Vegas Gazette, and it is a year before his justifiable homicide thanks to Garrett. [Some say “The Kid” used by itself for six of Billy’s seven wild years was a derogatory synonym for ‘juvenile delinquent.’] Unfortunately, Billy’s wayward gun gets him into trouble again, and he ends up in a jailhouse in Las Vegas, as the toast of the town, but then returns to New Mexico for trial, where he is the only gang member from the Lincoln County War convicted and sentenced to death. After one more breathless escape, he meets his biographer and, well, as they say, the rest is history. As is Billy the Kid.


  1. Seems like, if Garrett wanted to bag a foursome, he'd just have to hang a sign, "Garrett, Famous Photographer," and that early Rat Pack would turn up, preening.
    Did you hear the story about the $7 billion in gold supposedly buried somewhere by Jesse James, (meant to fund a second Civil War)?
    I must say he doesn't look the part!

  2. Doc Holiday was the dreamiest of the bunch for sure and it looks like the tallest too.

  3. All this has me thinking... Who wants to go hunting for some buried treasure?! Gioconda, you lead the way. I'll request time off now:)

  4. whoever drew that 'deadeye' pic, gave him two right hands lol