A Robin Hood of the West. And a punk cop-killer. An Irish American who sided with an Englishman in a turf war—against other Irish Americans.
An East Coast urbanite who quickly adapted to the rural ways of the Hispanic Southwest.
Who are these people? No, actually, not plural; we’re talking about a single he. But not just any figure from America’s past. He’s Henry McCarty. And Henry Antrim. Also William H. Bonney.
But you may know him as Billy the Kid.
And if you don’t know much about his story except the outlaw ways, the death at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett, and the larger-than-life legacy, you might not know how much New Mexicans have embraced him as part of the state’s Wild West past. Or at least some of them.
Billy the Kid (or BTK, as the History Nerd will sometimes refer to him for brevity’s sake), is something of a historical icon here in the Land of Enchantment. Visitors stopping at the I-40 tourist center just over the Texas border are greeted by a life-sized cut-out of the Kid, a blow-up of the only photo of him known to exist. BTK was the subject of sensational newspaper accounts during his lifetime and pulpy dime novels after, and the star of countless books and films since. The 1973 Sam Peckinpaugh version of his life might be the best-known movie, though hardly the most accurate. That title would have to go to Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. (Ha ha, despite what you may have heard, this history nerd does have a sense of humor.) Now there’s another contender for the definitive story—as definitive as a legend’s life gets: the American Experience documentary Billy the Kid.
Apropos of BTK’s life and death in New Mexico, filmmaker John Maggio turned to several scholars and writers based in New Mexico to try to get at the heart–and soul–of this orphaned youth-turned-coldblooded killer. Maggio and American Experience executive producer Mark Samels then went to Albuquerque and Santa Fe to give a sneak preview of the film and take part in a panel discussion of the work and its mythic subject.
To Samels, one intriguing part of the Kid story is its international scope. Henry McCarty, as he was known at birth, was the son of an Irish immigrant, Catherine McCarty (father unknown). Later in life he was befriended by the Englishman John Tunstall, and he blended easily with the Hispanic population of his adopted home of New Mexico, where he settled with his mother and stepfather. There, he quickly learned Spanish, favored wearing a sombrero, and took at least one Hispanic girlfriend. (He also won the support of the Hispanic community for challenging the Anglos who had stolen their land.) Once the legend spread, BTK became a symbol of the American West for many foreigners. His obituary appeared in a London newspaper, and Lincoln, NM, the site of his last days, is a popular tourist attraction with European visitors.
To Maggio, BTK was an underdog, an actual kid who was dealt bad breaks and made some mistakes. By 15, he was on his own, with his mother dead and his stepfather casting him off. Henry/Billy turned to petty theft, was arrested, and escaped. During his time as a fugitive he tried to go straight—briefly—but soon turned back to a life of crime. He became a murderer when a card game turned violent, though the killing might have been in self defense.
BTK killed again as he took part in the Lincoln County War, a bloody affair that pitted John Tunstall against “the House,” a local outfit that controlled the county’s politics and economics. Dozens–hundreds?–of people died during the war, which began with Tunstall’s death in 1878 and lasted, on and off, until 1884. By then, Billy was in the ground, shot down by Pat Garrett after one more escape from the law.
Billy once joked that despite his reputation, he was not responsible for all the murders that occurred during the war. His actual death toll was in single digits. But as Mark Lee Gardner pointed out, there’s no escaping that some of those victims were officers of the law, merely trying to do their duty. In Santa Fe, Gardner joined Samels, Maggio, and writer Hampton Sides for a discussion of the film and BTK. Gardner, author of a book on the Kid, was one of the consultants for the film. He called Billy smart and passionate. He had a way of ingratiating himself with people that put them at ease. Though territorial governor Lew Wallace was not impressed when the Kid wrote to him from jail, seeking a face-to-face meeting. BTK told the governor in 1879, “I have no wish to fight again.” Wallace—a former Union general and author of Ben-Hur—made a deal with the Kid, promising him his freedom if the outlaw informed on other participants in the Lincoln County War. Billy kept up his end of the deal, but Wallace didn’t. Despite Billy’s obvious local popularity, the governor put a $500 bounty on the Kid’s head.
If Wallace was a contemporary un-swayed by the growing BTK legend, Hampton Sides considers himself a modern-day Kid “contrarian.” Sides stirred up local controversy in 2010 when he came out against the idea of departing New Mexico governor Bill Richardson’s granting him a pardon (Richardson eventually demurred). Sides ran up against the many New Mexicans—and other Americans—who see BTK as a lovable antihero, or at least a symbol of part of America’s Western heritage. And of course, Sides also inflamed the folks in these parts who make money off the tourists who embrace the symbol.
Michael Burgan studied history at the University of Connecticut before embarking on his career of writing about history, current events, geography, science, and more for children. He worked at Weekly Reader for six years before becoming a freelance author. He is a member of Biographers International Organization and edits its monthly newsletter, The Biographer's Craft. A produced playwright, he is also a member of the Dramatists Guild.
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