Billy the Kid is one of the most notorious Wild West outlaws, which is especially impressive because he had to fit all his outlawing into just 21 years of life. And also because he never committed most of the crimes we associate with most Wild West bad guys: He never robbed a bank or a train or held up a stagecoach. And despite his bragging, Billy didn’t even kill many people.
But perhaps the most striking thing about the life of Billy the Kid was just how sad it was. From his birth in New York City to being orphaned at a young age to the fact that the opportunity for a different, happy, and successful life kept getting snatched away from him. The real Billy the Kid wasn’t the larger-than-life figure from the legends. No, Billy the Kid was a young guy who just could not catch a break.
His early life would have been extremely difficult
Historians know hardly anything about the outlaw’s early years. According to Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life, his mother Catherine was an Irish immigrant to New York City. That’s where Henry McCarty (the first of Billy’s many names) was born on either September 17 or November 20, 1859, or maybe neither of those dates; no one knows for sure. It’s also unknown if his parents were married, or if his father was in the picture or alive at all.
Billy probably spent the first six years of his life in the Irish slums of Manhattan or Brooklyn. The conditions would have been horrific. The Irish Times reports that in the 1860s, when Billy was growing up there, almost 300,000 people lived in one square mile. The Irish were only allowed to rent the worst of the worst tenements, and Billy easily could have lived in a 12-by-12-foot room with 20 other people. The lack of any kind of ventilation, plus the excrement from humans and animals made the smell unbearable, not to mention unbelievably unsanitary.
Billy was lucky to survive at all. Disease was rampant in the slums, and the mortality rate for Irish children was 25 percent. The fact he made it to 21 could almost be seen as a miracle considering his origins. While his later life would be characterized by Wild West violence, his childhood would’ve seen the violence of the ghetto. Anger at their situation and drinking to forget it meant people fought constantly.
His life turned around and could have gone a completely different direction
By the time the Civil War ended, Billy had escaped the slum life. His mother moved to Indianapolis around 1865, although there is no information as to how managed to get out of New York or why she headed for Indiana. Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life tells us his mother was definitely single by that point; she told the people putting together the city directory that she was widowed, but for how long is unknown. This meant she was free to find herself a boytoy 13 years younger named William Antrim, although they wouldn’t get married for almost a decade.
In 1870, the whole group moved to Wichita, Kansas. There Billy’s life really turned around. It gives us a glimpse into how differently things could have turned out for him. Years later, people remembered him as an innocent street urchin. Catherine ran her own business downtown, the City Laundry, which even got a nice shoutout in the local paper. It must have been quite successful because she was able to purchase land outside of town for her family to live on.
Boyfriend William built a cabin and storm cellar, probably with the help of Billy and his younger brother Joe. They dug a well and planted fruit trees. There was every indication that Catherine had put down roots and that Billy would grow up living a happy, secure life surrounded by family. If nothing had changed, there never would have been a Billy the Kid.
He watched his mother die a horrible death
But in 1871, Catherine suddenly sold her home and business and moved to New Mexico Territory. She’d been diagnosed with tuberculosis.
According to The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis (via Daily Beast), TB was a standout in a century rife with epidemics. But what made TB so scary was it was instead endemic, meaning "its presence was constant, pervasive, and persistent." The disease wasn’t new — it had been killing humans for thousands of years — but it exploded in the 1800s, becoming the leading cause of death in the United States.
Billy would have seen his mother suffer horribly. Catherine would have coughed constantly, often expelling blood and making a disturbing crackling sound each time she struggled to take a breath. Even though they would’ve known the white plague didn’t spare people, the whole family suffered the agony of hope. Moving to New Mexico meant Catherine was following standard medical advice, which said drier climates could cure you.
And once again, Billy was lucky to escape. The real cause of TB wasn’t discovered until 1882. When Catherine was ill, people thought it might be an inherited disease, and they didn’t worry about infecting other people. Billy was certainly in much closer contact with his mother than would be allowed just a few years later. He probably got coughed on. The fact that he didn’t catch TB himself was another piece of karma he’d eventually have to pay back.
He was orphaned at 14 and it all started to go wrong
Billy was only 14 when his mother died. While William officially became their stepfather the year before, he wasn’t interested in raising the two boys. Legends of America says he found separate foster homes for the brothers, then skedaddled.
At this point, it seems Billy was still a good, law-abiding kid. He found honest work at a hotel, where he washed dishes and waited tables. People said he was very friendly, and the manager bragged "he was the only kid who ever worked for him that didn’t steal anything." Despite earning a living, he also managed to go to school, where teachers found him "no more of a problem than any other boy," and he helped out with chores.
But something changed. HistoryNet reports that first he stole some food. A few months later, he was involved in a "prank" with a friend who took a bundle of clothes from a Chinese laundry. Accounts differ on whether Billy was an active participant in the burglary or if he just hid the stolen goods after the fact. Either way, someone turned him in. According to Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life, the sheriff didn’t want to do anything more than scare the boy straight when he put Billy in the cells for a couple days. But Billy took it very seriously. He managed to climb up a chimney and escape. Now he had no family and, in his mind at least, he was a fugitive from the law.
He fell to the "Code of the West"
Billy was now a teenager on his own in a dangerous world. The West was full of a certain kind of man, one who didn’t need the comforts and luxuries of the Eastern side of the country. Maybe in Wichita or Indianapolis things would have turned out differently, but in New Mexico, Billy was expected to follow the "Code of the West."
Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life says the Code demanded men "avenge all insult and wrong, real or imagined." Running away from a fight was for cowards; you stood your ground and fought, even if it meant someone died. And considering men were also expected to be armed virtually all the time and drink heavily, people died a lot. It was the drunken violence of the Irish slum Billy had escaped as a child, but this time with bullets.
According to Legends of America, two years after escaping jail, Billy was working at an army post with Frank "Windy" Cahill, a blacksmith who liked to bully the Kid. Finally, the insults went too far. On August 17, 1877, History reports, Cahill called Billy a "pimp." Billy retorted Cahill was a "son of a b*tch." The blacksmith jumped Billy, threw the teenager to the ground, and pinned him. Panicking, Billy pulled out his gun and shot Cahill. He died the next day. One witness said Billy had "no choice" but to use self-defense, but he didn’t stick around to make that case. Now he really was a fugitive.
He was involved in a blood feud
Billy joined various gangs and made most of his money through cattle-rustling. But one day he stole some horses and was thrown in jail again. According to About Billy the Kid, the horses’ owner, an Englishman named John Tunstall, came to see Billy in his cell. Whatever they talked about, by the end, Tunstall dropped the charges and gave Billy a job. It was the family Billy had been missing for so long; the Kid "who had nowhere to fit in since his mother’s death, now finally found his niche." Tunstall may have been the closest thing to a father Billy ever had.
But Tunstall was involved in a dangerously escalating feud over control of business territory. On February 18, 1878, a posse shot and killed Tunstall in cold blood in front of Billy. Later, they took the Winchester rifle Tunstall had given Billy and held him hostage, causing him to miss his father-figure’s funeral. The story of the Kid swearing revenge over his employer’s grave is a myth, but Billy was definitely now part of a blood feud, known as the Lincoln County War.
Over the next five months, both sides would participate in various shoot-outs and revenge killings. Billy is credited with a higher body count than he actually had, although he definitely killed at least a few people, including a sheriff. History says that by the end of the war, which his side lost, Billy was known as one of the best gunmen in the West.
A chance for respectability was snatched away
Billy was not a natural outlaw. History reports that he was "a decent young man" but it almost seemed that over and over again, he was "dragged into a life of crime by circumstances beyond his control." Contemporary accounts by his friends bear this out, with one remarking Billy was "as gentlemanly as college-bred youth" and had a "humorous and pleasing personality." Others said he was a "fine dancer" that all the ladies loved, always had a "ready smile," spoke fluent Spanish, was a "natural leader of men," and, bizarrely for his crowd, didn’t drink. So it makes sense that when given the chance to go straight, he took it.
According to Legends of America, in 1879, New Mexico Territory Governor Lew Wallace heard Billy would be willing to surrender and testify against other outlaws if his charges were dropped. The two eventually met (Billy came heavily armed because he wasn’t stupid) to discuss a deal, and the Kid agreed to be arrested for show, then spend time in jail until he testified at the trials. Billy’s evidence was enough to convict at least one major bad guy, but the district attorney refused to follow Wallace’s orders that he be released afterward. So Billy escaped again, with no pardon for his crimes.
Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life says that pardon might have meant a chance at "legitimate prosperity." Billy was hardly the worst dude in the West, but the law "singled him out for special treatment."
An old friend ended up being the one assigned to hunt Billy down
Billy should have been a free man at that point, but instead, with outstanding warrants he had little choice but to return to a life of crime. He formed his own gang of outlaws and started rustling cattle again. Legends of America says that for a year he lived around Fort Sumner. There, he happened to become friends with a local bartender named Pat Garrett. HistoryNet even reports that it’s "more than possible" Garrett joined Billy and his gang on some of their cattle raids. (It’s also alleged they’re both somewhere in the above photo.)
But the West was often one big gray area when it came to who was a good guy and who was a bad guy. So it wasn’t that shocking when possible cattle rustler Garrett was elected Lincoln County sheriff on November 2, 1880, after running on a "law and order" platform. Suddenly, Garrett was in charge of actively tracking his old friend down.
It was a complicated pursuit, and numerous bad guys were shot and killed, but not Billy. The sheriff "set-up many traps and ambushes in an attempt to apprehend Billy, but the Kid seemed to have an animal instinct that warned him of danger." That instinct didn’t last long. On December 23, just days after Governor Wallace put a $500 reward on Billy’s head, Garrett and his posse captured the Kid alive. Billy took it in stride, telling a reporter from his jail cell, "What’s the use of looking on the gloomy side of everything? The laugh’s on me this time."
He found himself with a death sentence
Billy spent months in a Santa Fe jail before his trial began in April 1881. While he’d committed plenty of crimes by then, the charges were for killing Sheriff William Brady during the Lincoln County War. According to Legends of America, the jury deliberated for exactly one day before finding Billy guilty. The sentence was death by hanging, and the execution date was set for May 13.
He had no intention of sticking around for that. Billy was under constant surveillance by two guards, James Bell and Robert Olinger, in irons on the second floor of the courthouse. Garrett, who knew the Kid’s reputation for successful escape attempts, was taking no chances. But then Garrett went out of town. Somehow, Billy got his hands on a gun. Historians have no solid proof, but it’s thought either one of his old gang members hid a pistol in the toilet or he took it off Bell himself.
The Kid took out Bell first, then grabbed a shotgun and waited at a window for Olinger, who ran toward the courthouse when he heard the shots. Billy called out, "Hello, Bob," and blasted him. Then Billy cut off his shackles and stole a horse. Against all odds, he’d escaped custody yet again, but it would be his last time. Two more people were dead at his hands. He was finally living up to the outlaw reputation he’d already become famous for across the nation. The next time, Garrett wouldn’t take Billy the Kid alive.
He died a tragic Wild West death
Garrett later wrote that people were upset he didn’t seem to be very concerned about recapturing the Kid, but the sheriff said he was "quietly at work" "maturing [his] plans of action." It’s almost unbelievable that with his head start and ability to go almost anywhere, Billy didn’t flee. He never even left New Mexico Territory. Instead he returned to Fort Sumner and didn’t bother to keep a low profile, according to History. Within three months, Garrett was on to him.
On the night of July 14, 1881, the sheriff and his posse went to rancher Peter Maxwell’s house to ask if he knew where the Kid was. Maxwell absolutely did — Billy was on his way over with some beef for dinner. Garrett was in Maxwell’s dark bedroom talking to him when Billy showed up at the door. Sensing someone else in the room but unable to see his old acquaintance-turned-adversary, Billy pulled his gun and shouted, "Who’s that?" in Spanish. Garrett wrote it was "the first time, during all [Billy’s] life of peril that he ever lost his presence of mind, or failed to shoot first and hesitate afterwards." It would be the mistake that killed him. Billy knew he was being hunted, he knew if found either he was going to die or his captors would. Garrett let off two shots; one hit the Kid right in the heart and sent him to be "with his many victims." He was 21.
He didn’t really get to rest in peace
Billy the Kid had barely spent two decades on Earth and only lived a life comparable to the one he is famous for a few months. But that didn’t stop people taking his name and image and turning it into whatever they wanted it to be.
According to Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride, within a year of his death, dozens of dime novels and nonfiction accounts very light on facts were published. Each subsequent generation used Billy to represent something different. In the 1920s, for example, with the Wild West officially in the past, books presented him as the Robin Hood of a "lost pastoral world." Other decades cast him as a "frontier superhero," "homicidal maniac," and "martyred symbol of freedom." There’ve been at least a dozen movies and a ballet devoted to him. He still makes millions for the tourism industry of New Mexico.
But a bunch of people truly refused to let Billy die because they claimed to be the outlaw himself. Vintage News says that one, Brushy Bill, was taken moderately seriously. Living in Texas in the 1940s, he managed to convince the locals, some of the Kid’s contemporaries, and a lawyer that he was in fact the supposedly dead outlaw. Brushy Bill petitioned the governor of New Mexico for a pardon, but the governor was not convinced. He stuck to the story until he died in 1950. Since Billy the Kid would be dead no matter what now, maybe he can finally rest in peace.