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Billy the Kid: Criminal or Misunderstood Hero?

When Kitty was a little girl she dreamed of being a museum curator or archaeologist. Now she studies and writes all about history.

Some say Billy the Kid was nothing but a criminal...but he lives on in history criminal or not.

Some say Billy the Kid was nothing but a criminal...but he lives on in history criminal or not.

I'm not afraid to die like a man fighting, but I would not like to be killed like a dog unarmed.

— Billy the Kid in a letter to Gov. Lew Wallace, March 1879.

The Infamous Kid's Beginnings

I have an never-ending interest in the history of the American Wild West, and one of my favorite historical characters of all time is Billy the Kid. I have had people ask me, "Why do you like Billy the Kid? He's just a glorified criminal, that's all" or "There are more interesting and influential American figures in history to study."

Well, that's all fine and dandy, but there has always been something thrilling to me when I read books detailing Billy the Kid's likeable yet rebellious nature and his many Wild West adventures. I feel like I can smell the brus-fire emanating from the pages and I can hear the horses' freshly-shoed hooves vigorously thumping against the desert ground.

Take a journey with me, into the New Mexico desert, to relive William H. Bonney's suspense-filled and no-holds-barred cowboy life in the Old West.

Billy the Kid was born sometime between the years of 1859 and 1862, though scholars and historians have not found the exact date, and was named William Antrim. Because there is no real proof of a birth date, there is also no real proof of the birthplace of Billy the Kid. Debates are ongoing as to whether he was born in the state of New York or possibly Indiana.

The stronger side of this debate points towards New York, as Billy's mother Catherine arrived in New York after migrating from Ireland. Billy grew up with a younger brother and his mother looking after him. There are rumors that Billy killed someone when he was only 13 years old, but historians have put these rumors to bed.

Billy never knew his real father, but he did have the privilege of having a very loving and tender mother. Marriage came a second time for Billy's mother, to a man named William Antrim. He was a miner and was not around the family much, but seemed to be a decent man.

These claims turned out to be somewhat untrue as proven by William's actions following the death of Catherine (she lost her life to tuberculosis).

Immediately following Catherine's death, Billy's stepfather kicked he and his brother out of their home and put them in separate foster homes. Billy began his descent into a life of crime during these tumultuous teenage years. Apparently he left the foster home that he was in when he was only 14 years old (due to the family's financial problems) and began stealing in order to survive.

Stealing food and other small items opened the doors to larger crime. A man by the name of John Mackie took Billy under his wing and schooled him in the fine industry of horse-thieving. In his new career of horse-thieving, Billy traveled extensively back and forth over the New Mexico-Arizona line, stealing horses and selling what he could to get by.

Trouble seemed to follow Billy, as he was teased and bullied by large and older men in the same business, who he also knew indirectly through his other means of survival—gambling.

The first man on Billy's laundry list of killin's: Frank Cahill, who simply put was a gruff man who found pleasure in inflicting pain and misery upon the young, energetic Billy. At this time, Billy began running with a crew known as "The Boys," whose leader was actually Jesse Evans (another troublesome tumbleweed of the West).

Surprisingly and rarely told in stories of Billy the Kid, The Boys were friends with a man named James Dolan; James was actually a part of the Santa Fe Ring. The Santa Fe Ring was a corrupt political and authoritative group of men who ran the county of Lincoln, New Mexico.

As a quick side note, If you have ever had the privilege to watch the late '80s Western movie Young Guns, you will notice that the antagonist in the flick is obviously the Santa Fe Ring, which included corrupted and greedy merchantmen, government officials, and local police enforcement.

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The Boys knew James Dolan to be a friend and supporter of the quest for riches, so not-so-shockingly they decided to implore Mr. Dolan for financial assistance. Apparently that didn't go over so well and The Boys turned against Mr. Dolan and the Santa Fe Ring.

Specifically, Billy began to turn away from The Boys and began working for Doc Skurlock and Charlie Bowdrie in a cheese factory, in the year of 1877. As side jobs, he also worked on two local Lincoln County ranches: one owned by Frank and George Coe and another by Richard Brewer.

That same year, a rancher by the name of John Tunstall and John's lawyer Alexander McSween hired all of these men to act as cattle guards on Tunstall's prominent ranch. Billy's life seemed to be looking up...he seemed to be working well on the ranch as a cattle guard and learning from his co-workers and employer.

Unfortunately, the perverted politics and the immense level of control that the Santa Fe ring held over the county of Lincoln came into a very real and bloody way.

Pretend Wanted Poster

Pretend Wanted Poster

One proven Picture of Billy the Kid, And Another Supposed Picture

One proven Picture of Billy the Kid, And Another Supposed Picture

People thought me bad before, but if ever I should get free, I'll let them know what bad means.

— Billy the Kid to a reporter from the Daily New Mexican after his capture at Stinking Springs.

Billy and The Lincoln County War

In February 1878, the somewhat quiet merchant battle between Dolan and Murphy (Santa Fe Ring members) and John Tunstall and Alexander McSween came to an unsightly head. While John Tunstall was on a cattle run towards the town of Lincoln, Murphy and Dolan's crew outright murdered Tunstall with a string of bullets.

To spite Tunstall and to ultimately make the event even more depraved, they gunned down Tunstall's prized horse alongside of him. One could say that this is the occurrence that opened the floodgates of Billy's rebellious, anti-authority mentality and his talented trigger finger.

Immediately following the murder of John Tunstall, the cattle guards (including Billy) were deputized and given warrants for the murderers' arrests. Tunstall's boys were given the rightful, authoritative name of The Regulators (which is a term that you will hear a lot in the Young Guns movie).

With warrants in hand, and guns in holsters, the Regulators went scouting for the cruel men who shot down their friend and employer, John Tunstall. Local newspapers claimed that Billy was somewhat of the leader of the gang of deputies, but their good reputation turned sour quickly as they began killing off the Santa Fe men, instead of serving the warrants and bringing them in to be tried and imprisoned.

There was even word that Billy had shot and killed one of their own men, a man named McCloskey. Billy sniffed him out as a traitor and the other Regulators believed his theory. This unsettling yet entertaining scene can be watched in full Western glory in the movie Young Guns, as well.

Amongst Murphy and Dolan's men that were sent to their graves by Billy and the Regulators were Sheriff Brady and his Deputy George Hindman; this particular battle of iron shook the single-paned windows of downtown Lincoln's businesses and homes.

Buckshot Roberts was also shot by the Regulators, but not before taking out Richard Brewer in the bloody process. Nearby witnesses of these rowdy events began pondering the true motives of the government officials and Billy's Regulators, but I believe that they were just used to these occurrences. After all, it was called the "Wild" West for a reason.

Some Lincoln County residents reportedly claimed that both sides (the Ring and the Regulators) were greedy and worthless to the community's welfare. To Billy, it was about waging and winning the war against the Santa Fe Ring and against the men who blatantly slayed his employer and friend.

While Billy and the remaining members of the Regulators were hiding out and partying it up in a town in Texas, the corrupt Governor Axtell was replaced by Governor Lew Wallace. This governor proved to be one that genuinely wanted to see the Lincoln County War put to rest and offered pardons to men who were involved in the War.

Billy decided to return to Lincoln, upon hearing that the town was beginning to settle down under this new governor's influence, in an attempt to possibly settle down himself. The Kid offered a parley between the Regulators and James Dolan's crew and the parley technically turned out to be a success, as both sides met and talked out their differences.

After celebrating the supposed success of the parley, one can guess what happened next. That's right, another shootout...this time started by the Dolan crew towards Tunstall's lawyer's wife, Mrs. McSween and her lawyer.

She was in the town and trying diligently to bring down the rest of the men responsible for her husband's death (yes, McSween was murdered in the midst of the Lincoln County War, as well). Billy was enraged but "skinned out" of Lincoln with his only remaining Regulator and friend, Tom O'Folliard.

Being a key witness to this newest murder, Governor Wallace put a warrant out for Billy's arrest. "This would be a good time to compromise with the governor," Billy thought, and so he decided to write to the governor and offered to testify against Dolan's men in exchange for a full pardon for his crimes.

Governor Wallace agreed to Billy's terms and the two men met in Lincoln. Billy's arrest was staged and over a period of a couple of months, Billy testified against Dolan's men, one by one. Sadly, most of the men were not found guilty and let off of their charges, as many of the judicial affiliates in Lincoln still contained some of the old Santa Fe Ring's members.

Billy felt used and left out in the cold, as the Governor Wallace skipped town to leave Billy to fend for himself amongst a depraved judicial system.

Billy escaped and went back to his wanted and wild ways, partying, stealing, and even killing. One of the men Billy was known to have shot during this period in time was an obnoxious drunk named Joe Grant. Apparently the man was hounding Billy in a bar one night, and we all know how Billy took to people hackin' on him...well, he didn't take it at all.

He shot a round into Joe's gut and left the bar to clean up his mess. At this point, Billy had about 20 men's blood on his hands. He wandered the Southwest states, gambling and thieving...just like he always had. Billy was a wanted man and ended up in jail again, due to the efforts of Sheriff Pat Garrett.

And again, Billy escaped. The story as to how he escaped is debated, but many believe that a friend hid a gun in the outhouse or somewhere within the jail to aid Billy's breakout.

Of course Billy's escape angered Sheriff Garrett and immediately Garrett set out to hunt down Billy the Kid. Billy was staying out of law enforcement's sight by skipping from one friend or lover's house to the next but according to history, one night he would meet his end. Riding out of Fort Sumner and paying a visit to one of his lovers, Paulita Maxwell, the Kid paid a visit to the house of Pete Maxwell (Paulita's brother).

What Billy wasn't aware of was that Pete gave word to Sheriff Garrett that Billy would be heading that way to visit Paulita. During the visit, one of his friends mentioned that Pete had killed a calf and that it was Billy's for the taking. Billy sneaked out of the friend's house and towards Pete's place in search for some grub.

Two of Garrett's accomplices were sitting outside of Pete's bedroom's window and Billy happened to come across them. When he noticed them, he began backing into Pete's dark bedroom, and according to Pat Garrett, Billy whispered into the dark, "Pete, who are those fellows outside?" Pat Garrett was hiding in the dark bedroom of Pete Maxwell, and of course Pete was nowhere in the vicinity.

The supposed last words that Billy the Kid ever uttered were, "Quien es?...Quien es?" At this point, the Sheriff fired his gun and shot Billy straight through his heart. Garrett and his accomplices fled the scene and Maxwell and friends found Billy, lying dead on the floor with a gun in one hand and a knife in the other hand.

This marks the untimely fate of Billy the Kid...or does it?

'There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip.

— Billy the Kid

Brushy Bill

Brushy Bill

Brushy Bill Roberts: Billy the Kid?

In 1949, an old man known as Brushy Bill Roberts came into the Texas media's eye due to the fact that he claimed to be "Billy the Kid." He was seeking a full pardon for his crimes and had contacted a lawyer by the name of Morrison in order to assist him in his goals.

The lawyer had to find ways to prove to the New Mexico judicial system that Brushy Bill Roberts was indeed Billy the Kid. Morrison and Roberts were able to acquire at least three written affidavits from living friends of the young Billy the Kid, people who knew personally knew Billy during the Lincoln County War.

Two others said that they believed Brushy Bill to be one hundred percent Billy the Kid; however, they declined to sign an affidavit for fear of being overwhelmed by the public eye and the media.

Some of the confirmations for these friends/acquaintances of the young Billy the Kid stated that Brushy Bill looked exactly like an old version of Billy the Kid, even his distinctive eye color. Brushy Bill also had all of the scars that Billy the Kid was known to have had and then some.

Against what Brushy Bill was trying to accomplish, one of his family members denied Brushy Bill's claims by showing Bill's birthdate in an old family bible as being the year of 1879. Bill Roberts claimed that the person whose birthdate was recorded in the Bible was in fact not his, but a dead cousin's.

Apparently Brushy Bill had adopted his cousin's name as a cover-up, once the cousin had passed (the cousin's name was Oliver Roberts, which Brushy Bill went by for many years of his life). If indeed Brushy Bill was actually born in 1879, that would have made him an infant by the time the real Billy the Kid was riding around the state of New Mexico as a teenager.

Brushy Bill fought these statements to the bitter death and was insistent that his birth year was actually 1859...which is supposedly the same year that historians say the real Billy the Kid was born.

Do I believe that Brushy Bill Roberts was indeed Billy the Kid? Actually, yes I do. My gut tells me that he was, but unfortunately Bill Roberts was never acquitted of Billy the Kid's crimes because he was not able to convince the courts that he was in fact William H. Bonney.

I believe it was unfair for them to deny his claims, as they based it on the fact that Bill Roberts could not remember some of Billy the Kid's antics and documented experiences. Here's the thing, though...Brushy Bill had suffered a stroke at this point in time and was knocking on heaven's door, and if one has had the experience of knowing a loved one who has suffered a stroke, many of the times they do not recall events that occurred the day before...let alone 70 years ago.

My other argument in Brushy Bill's favor: why was he so adamant to be acquitted of these crimes if all he was searching for was fame? Maybe he would have just had a book written and forgotten about the trouble of dealing with a lawyer and the court system. To me it just seems like WAY too much trouble just to claim to be someone infamous that supposedly died 70 years before.

Do you believe that Brushy Bill Roberts was in fact Billy the Kid and he had escaped Pat Garrett's attempt of murder? Isn't it possible that the body that Maxwell and his friends thought was Billy the Kid's might have been someone else that looked similar to Billy? What if Pat Garrett just wanted to claim the fame of being Billy's killer and would go to any means in order to make the public think he killed him?

There are many people in America and across the world that do not believe that Brushy Bill was the Kid and most historians reject the idea. I say anything is possible—why not let us dream that Billy the Kid lived a long and happy life?

Billy the Kid was a criminal, yes. I will not deny that fact. However, I do not believe that Billy was evil and I would not call him a cold-hearted murderer. I believe that Billy was misunderstood and that he killed in order to survive. Like I said, we don't call it the "Wild West" for no reason.

Billy the Kid Landmarks

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