Billy the Kid went by several different names throughout his life. The year he was born, the places he lived and the year he died have all been disputed over the years. Billy the Kid participated in the Battle of Lincoln in 1878 and ended up being a witness to a murder. Governor Wallace wrote a letter to Billy with instructions for his arrest to ensure his safety. They agreed that Billy would allow himself to be arrested to remove suspicion and he would testify in court. Billy held up his end of the deal, but Governor Wallace refused to free him as the deal was fake. Billy the Kid escaped from jail, but couldn't seem to stay out of trouble. He murdered another man and a $500 bounty was posted for his capture. Billy the Kid was eventually shot and killed at the age of 21. He was given a wake by candlelight and buried the next day. It seems that the story would end here, but what if he didn't actually die? Many legends claim that the death was staged and Billy actually escaped and lived a long life under another name.
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Billy the Kid also went by the name William H. Bonney, Henry Antrim, and his given name was Henry McCarty. There is a theory that he could be Ollie L. (Brushy Bill”) Roberts and He was born in 1859 on September 17th or November 23rd in New York, New York and was one of the most notorious gunfighters of the American West. Billy claimed to have killed 21 men, one for each year of his life.
When Billy was a kid, his father died and his mother took her two sons and moved to Indiana. She met someone new and they moved to Kansas and then to New Mexico later on. This is where Billy began a career in his early teens as a thief. He was an orphan at age 14 when his mother died from Tuberculosis and he wandered through Southwest and northern Mexico and was often with gangs. The owner of a boarding house gave him room and board in exchange for work. Billy's first arrest was for stealing food at the age of 16, in 1875. Ten days later, he robbed a Chinese laundry and was again arrested, but escaped a short time later. Billy was able to locate his stepfather and stayed with him until he was thrown out for stealing clothes and guns from him.
Billy traveled to Arizona Territory, where he worked as a ranch hand and gambled his wages in nearby gaming houses. In 1876, he was hired as a ranch hand and ended up meeting John R. Mackie, a Scottish-born criminal. The two men began stealing horses from local soldiers and this is where Billy became known as the kid because of his youth, build, clean-shaven appearance, and personality.
In 1877, Billy was at a saloon and he got into an argument with Francis P. “Windy” Cahill, a blacksmith who bullied Billy on more than one occasion and called him a pimp. Billy called the blacksmith a son of a bitch and the blacksmith threw Billy to the ground. Billy ended up murdering the blacksmith and he became a wanted man in Arizona and ended up fleeing. Billy stole a horse and headed for New Mexico, but the Apache Native American tribe took the horse from him and he had to walk. Billy was starving along the way and had to stop at a friend's home to be nursed back to health. After Billy was better, he went to a former army post and joined a band of rustlers who raided herds. He was eventually spotted and his gang involvement was mentioned in the local newspaper. This is when he actually began referring to himself as William H. Bonney, but to avoid massive confusion, we will still call him, Billy the Kid.
After returning to New Mexico, Billy worked as a cowboy for an English businessman and rancher, John Henry Tunstall. Tunstall and his business partner and lawyer, Alexander McSween were opponents of an alliance formed by Irish-American businessmen Lawrence Murphy, James, Dolan, and John Riley. The three men had an economic and political hold over Lincoln County since the early 1870s and this was due to their ownership of a beef contract.
There are a lot of names that come up in this part, but I'll get you through it. By February 1878, Mcsween owed $8,000 to Dolan, who obtained a court order and asked Lincoln County Sherriff William J. Brady to attach $40k worth of Tunstall's property and livestock. Tunstall put Billy in charge of nine prime horses and told him to relocate them to his ranch. Sheriff Brady was assembling a posse to seize Tunstall's cattle. On February 18th, 1878, Tunstall found out the posse was on his land and he decided he would take care of things himself. One member of the posse shot Tunstall in the chest, knocking him off his horse. Another member of the posse took Tunstall's gun and killed him with a shot to the back of the head. This murder ignited a conflict between two factions and this became known as the Lincoln County War.
After Tunstall was killed, Billy the Kid and Brewer swore affidavits against Brady and those in his posse, and obtained murder warrants from Lincoln County justice of the peace. On February 20th, 1878, while attempting to arrest Brady, the sherriff and his deputies found and arrested Billy and two other men. Deputy US Marshal Robert Widenmann who was a friend of Billy's, and some soldiers, captured the jail guards, put them behind bars, and released Billy and Brewer. Now, Billy was able to join the Lincoln County Regulators. By March 9th, they had captured two people involved in Tunstall's murder and they both tried to escape and were killed.
On April 1st, the Regulators ambushed the Sheriff and his deputies. Billy was wounded during the battle and the Sheriff and two others. Warrants were issued for several participants on both sides, and Billy and two others were charged with killing the three men.
BATTLE OF LINCOLN
On the night of July 14th, 1878, a group of fifty to sixty men, including the Regulators, went to Lincoln and stationed themselves in town among several buildings. At the McSween residence was Billy and several others. Another group was on the roof of a saloon. Two days later, a newly appointed Sherriff sent sharpshooters to kill the people at the saloon. On July 19th, supporters of McSween, gathered inside his home and a shooting war broke out. The Deputy Sheriff set fire the the building and everyone started shooting and trying to flee. During the confusion, Alexander McSween, the one everyone was protecting, was shot and killed and Billy the Kid ended up killing that person in return.
On November 13th, 1878, an amnesty proclamation was issued, pardoning all people involved in the Lincoln County War. It specifically excluded persons who had been convicted of or indicted for a crime, which meant Billy the Kid was excluded.
In February 1879, Billy and a friend were in Lincoln and watched as attorney Huston Chapman was shot and his corpse was set on fire. According to eyewitnesses, the two men were forced at gunpoint to watch the murder and had nothing to do with it. Billy wrote to the Governor with an offer to provide information on the murder in exchange for amnesty. Two days later, he received a reply, agreeing to a secret meeting to discuss the matter further. During the meeting, the governor promised Billy protection from his enemies and lenience if he offered his testimony to a grand jury.
Governor Wallace wrote to Billy and said, “to remove all suspicion of understanding, I think it better to put the arresting party in charge of Sheriff Kimbrel who shall be instructed to see that no violence is used.” Billy responded to this agreeing to testify and confirming that he could be arrested to ensure his safety. On March 21st, Billy the Kid let himself be captured. As agreed, he provided a statement about Chapman's murder and testified in court. After the testimony, the local district attorney refused to set him free. Several weeks later, Billy was beginning to suspect that the deal was fake and he escaped from jail on June 17th, 1879.
Things were fine for awhile, but on January 10th, 1880, Billy shot and killed Joe Grant at Hargrove's Saloon in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The Santa Fe Weekly New Mexican reported, “Billy Bonney, more extensively known as the Kid, shot and killed Joe Grant. The origin of the difficulty was not learned.” According to witnesses, Billy had been warned that Grant intended to kill him. He walked up to Grant, told him he admired his revolver, and asked if he could examine it. Grant handed it over. Billy noticed that there were three cartridges, he positioned the cylinder so the next one would land on an empty chamber. Grant grabbed the pistol, pointed it at Billy's face and pulled the trigger. When it failed to fire, Billy was able to shoot Grant in the head. A reporter quoted Billy as saying the encounter “was a game of two and I got there first.”
On December 13th, 1880, Governor Wallace posted a $500 bounty for Billy's capture. He was eventually found and taken into custody. Billy sent governor Wallace several letters and Wallace refused to intervene. In April 1881, Billy went to trial and was found guilty for murder and he was sentenced to hang. According to the legend, the judge famously told Billy he was going to hang until he was dead, dead, dead. Billy said, you can go to hell, hell, hell.
On April 28th, 1881, the deputy took five prisoners across the street for a meal. Another deputy, James Bell, was left alone to watch Billy at the jail. Billy asked to be taken outside to use the outhouse that was behind the courthouse. As they were heading back inside, Billy, who was walking ahead of Bell on the stairs, hid in a corner, slipped out of his handcuffs, and beat bell. Billy was able to grab Bell's revolver and fatally shot him in the back of the head.
Billy's legs were still shackled and he broke into the office and stole a loaded shotgun. He was waiting at the upstairs window for Deputy Olinger. He called out to him, “Look up, old boy, and see what you get.” When he looked up, Billy shot and killed him. Then, he found an axe and was able to free his legs from the shackles, grabbed a horse and took off. Some people even say he was singing when he left.
ON THE RUN
So now Billy is on the run and Governor Wallace, placed a new $500 bounty on his head. About three months later, there were rumors that Billy had made his way back to Lincoln and deputies started questioning his friends. Pete Maxwell, Billy's friend, was sitting in a dark room with Garrett who was there for the bounty. Billy unexpectedly entered the room and couldn't see due to the poor lighting. Garrett fired the revolver twice and the first bullet struck Billy in the chest just above his heart and the second missed. The local justice of the peace assembled a coroner's jury of six people. The jury interviewed Maxwell and Garrett and they certified the body was Billy's. He was given a wake by candlelight and buried the next day.
Five days after the murder, Garrett traveled to New Mexico to collect his $500 reward, but the governor refused to pay it. Over the next few weeks, residents raised over $7k in reward money for him. A year later, the New Mexico territorial legislature passed a special act to grant Garrett the $500 he was owed. At this time, people were beginning to say that Garrett unfairly ambushed Billy and he ended up having a book written so he could tell his side of the story.
This may sound like the end of the story, and maybe it is, but over time, legends claim that Billy the Kid wasn't killed that day. Many people believe that Garrett staged the incident and death because he and Billy were friends. Over the next 50 years, several men claimed they were Billy the Kid. Most claims were easy to disprove, but two of them weren't.
In 1948, a man in Texas named Ollie P. Roberts, also known as Brushy Bill Roberts, began claiming he was Billy the Kid and he went before the New Mexico governor to seek a pardon. The claims were dismissed and Robers ended up dying shortly after this at the age of 90.
Let's dive into this a bit deeper though. Sue Land, director of the Billy the Kid museum, says that the best piece of evidence that Billy the Kid escaped Fort Sumner and wasn't killed, is Pat Garrett's own deputy. At the time the body was rolled over, the deputy US Marshal that was with Pat Garrett looked up at Garrett and it's recorded in the Marshal's office in New Mexico that he said, You've killed the wrong man.
It was a shot in the dark and a mistake could have happened. The man that Garrett killed, had a full beard and Billy only had peach fuzz. Garrett identified the man as Billy the Kid and they buried him. A former associate of Billy's actually hired an investigator named William Morrison. Morrison said he believed Billy was still alive and lived in Texas. Could Billy really have escaped death? Morrison traveled to Texas to meet with Brushy Bill who told him he was Billy the Kid and wanted to help prove it so he could get the pardon he was promised so long ago by the governor of New Mexico
They had Brushy Bill's body examined for wounds and scars and they matched every known wound that Billy the Kid had. One of the main problems with this story, was that Brushy Bill's family bible listed his birth year as 1879. If that is accurate, it's impossible for him to be Billy the Kid. Brushy Bill and Morrison continued to correspond with each other and he told stories that if true would fill in many undocumented gaps of the life of Billy the Kid. He showed his ability to slip out of handcuffs and he said that Garrett had actually shot and killed another gunslinger named Billy Barlow and passed the body off as the Kid's so he could escape to Mexico. Brushy Bill claimed that he was a member of the Jesse James Gang so Morrison attempted to track the members down. He located a few of them, all of whom knew Billy the Kid and signed affidavits that they believed that Brushy Bill was in fact, Billy the Kid.
Another man, John Miller from Arizona claimed he was Billy. He was a farmer and horse trainer who lived in a small village in New Mexico near the Arizona border and died in 1937. He had few possessions, but he did have a pistol with 21 notches on the grip, which is the amount of people Billy the Kid killed. Long after the man had died, his body was exhumed and examined, without permission from the state. In May 2005, Miller's teeth and bones were examined and DNA samples from the remains were sent to a lab. They intended to test and compare Miller's DNA with blood samples that were obtained from floorboards in the Old Lincoln County Courthouse and a bench where Billy's body was allegedly placed after he was shot. Unfortunately, the lab results were useless. Researchers have been trying to get the remains of Billy's mother exhumed so they can test DNA, but this still hasn't happened, because there's a problem.
The only real way to solve this whole thing is by doing a DNA test on the remains of Brushy Bill and the body that was buried in Billy the Kid's New Mexico grave. Scientists would be able to take the results from both and match them with DNA samples from Billy the Kid's mother, Catherine Antrim. In 2003, Texas and New Mexico officials decided to move forward with the test, but the grave markers in Fort Sumner cemetery were washed away in a flood in 1904. No one knows where the the body of Billy the Kid was buried and they also don't know where his mother's body is.
So that's the story of the outlaw, Billy the Kid. His life remains a mystery, including the name he was born with and he may or may not have died at the age of 21.
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