The Legendary, Short, And Violent Life Of Billy The Kid
Since about as long as I can remember, Americans have loved the idea of the Wild West, from real old tales to fictional modern ones. Something about the idea of the open range and (well, sort of) unclaimed land keys into the classic, if increasingly antiquated, idea of the American trailblazer. Among the cowboys of the Wild West, one of the favorite figures, maybe because it leans even further into the idea of the unchainable independent spirit, is the outlaw. It’s not surprising it’s taken hold, especially with most people’s day to day life now being spent bent over a desk, cowed by a CEO’s son on the accuracy of reports he’ll probably barely read. The word outlaw itself has taken on a very specific meaning, evolved from simply the dictionary definition of a criminal, into sort of a folk hero archetype. It even bleeds over into the online frontier, with hackers now being designated with nomenclature of “white hat” for good guys and “black hat” for bad guys, etymology taken directly from old Wild West films.
One of the most famous outlaws of all time when it comes to the Wild West is Billy the Kid. For a man who only spent a brief 21 years drawing breath, his legacy has taken on mythic proportions. As mostly a cattle rustler who murdered some drunks and sheriffs, he’s not exactly a Robin Hood figure of any sort of proportion, but that’s the power and charisma of the cowboy legend. He’s racked up more IMDB credits than he did years on this earth, showing up, often as the protagonist, of over 2 dozen movies and television shows. He even achieved one of the greatest honors any historical figure can hope for: joining Bill & Ted on their Excellent Adventure. Weirdly for all that fame, there’s a pretty stark lack of public knowledge about his actual life or crimes. He’s almost just become a figurehead for the Gunslinger in general.
Henry McCarty, the boy who would later become the Kid, was born in 1859 not in the West in a plume of gunsmoke, but on the East Side of New York City. He spent the first 6 years of his life there before moving West with his mother, from Indiana to Kansas, finally ending up in New Mexico. A bit different from what the legend might inspire of an infant as comfortable in a saddle as a diaper. Even more surprising, by all accounts, a young Billy was a delightful and honest child, leading up to the death of his mother from tuberculosis in 1874. He even handled the death of his mother with, by all accounts, much more aplomb than anyone should expect from a 14-year-old, even during a time when death was omnipresent because doctors couldn’t cure pretty much anything that couldn’t be amputated. He got a job working at a hotel in exchange for lodging at a local hotel. It was when this fell through that Billy began his life of crime.
In 1875, Billy was arrested for stealing clothes and guns from a local laundry. Unclear why the laundry had guns, but I guess pistols were the forgotten pocket change of the Old West. This was in service to a criminal named “Sombrero Jack,” who I feel comfortable saying, now that he’s long too dead to shoot me about it, sounds like a bad off-brand tex-mex chain. He was arrested and put in jail, but escaped in an extremely Huckleberry Finn-ass fashion, by climbing up and out of the chimney. For the first and certainly not the last time, Henry was a fugitive. At this point, the young frontiersman went full “f**k it, I’m already on the run” and dove headfirst into a life of crime at the precocious age of 16.
No longer a lowly laundry thief but a full-fledged criminal, the Kid would catch his first body only 2 years later in 1977. He shot a man in an Arizona saloon, I assume after shooting a hole in the upright piano player’s bowler hat, as I have been led to believe these things go. As quickly as he’d dropped the disagreeable drunk, so did he drop his birth name and begin going by “William H. Bonney,” making him, finally, a kid named Billy. Now that he was demonstrably skilled in the distribution of bullets into the body of others, he became a bit of a gun-for-hire, in particular protecting a rancher named John Tunstall. He and a couple other revolver-toting roustabouts were on Tunstall’s payroll as a very violent form of insurance against a group known as “The House,” who were the many-fingered right hand of two Irishmen, James Dolan and Lawrence Murphy.
Tunstall was eventually killed, which is one of the number one worst things that can happen to someone you’re protecting. The Kid and some of the other Tunstall guns formed their own group which they called “The Regulators” and spent the next months exchanging a couple dozen pounds of lead with The House in vengeance for Tunstall. Billy himself killed (the admittedly less than clean-handed) Sheriff William Brady, a murder that would have his mug decorating lawmen’s walls for the rest of his life. This wasn’t a small controlled showdown, either. The goddamn Army had to get involved. Somehow, Billy and Co. managed to make it out alive, only growing his legend.
He’d spend a couple years stealing cattle and committing the occasional saloon murder, until the supposedly long arm of the law finally got a hold of him. He was captured and sentenced to hang in the year 1881, but managed to make his second jailhouse escape. This one wasn’t nearly as cute as his reverse Kris Kringle maneuver as a (literal) kid, though. There were no climbed chimneys, sleepy prison guards, or hungry dogs tricked into bringing over a cartoonish key ring. He just stole a gun from one of the jail guards, killed two deputies, and dipped post-haste. His second escape would net him 3 more months of freedom, until he was finally tracked down by Sheriff Pat Garrett. This time, he’d had just about enough of the legal system and what seems to have been incredibly ineffective jail regulations and architecture, and shot Billy the Kid in the chest, hoping that maybe Satan would keep a closer eye on his inmates.
That’s how the shockingly short story of Billy the Kid ends, and where some of the confusion on his modern-day glow-up begins. The guy might have been a fun drinking buddy and a damn good shot, but his life doesn’t contain any of the daring train robberies or bank heists you might expect. In fact, Billy the Kid, by all accounts, never committed either. Most of what his real-life rap sheet was made up of was a number of murders and rampant cow theft. Though I’ll admit, it makes a hell of a vehicle for Val Kilmer.