Gunslinger Biography William H. Bonney or Billy the Kid

About the famous gunslinger William H. Bonney or Billy the Kid, history and biography, description and crimes, famous fights, favorite weapons, and how he died.


Name: BILLY THE KID or William H. Bonney, alias for Henry McCarty, born in New York City on Nov. 23, 1859; died at Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory, July 15, 1881.

Description: About 5 ft. 8 in. tall, slender, strong. Light hair, blue eyes, and prominent front teeth, with a short, fuzzy upper lip (almost a harelip) that gave him a perpetual smile. The Kid dressed neatly and had both a disarmingly good-natured manner and a vindictive temper. He was noted for his nerve.

Resume: Mystery surrounds the early life of the West's most celebrated juvenile delinquent. After his widowed mother, Catherine McCarty, married William H. Antrim in Santa Fe, young Henry ran the streets of lawless Silver City, New Mexico Territory, listening to the colorful talk of the drifters and prospectors who poured into town. Somewhere along the line he learned to read and write.

After his mother's death in 1874, Henry was involved in a robbery and fled to Arizona Territory. There, in 1877, he killed his first man in a brawl and emerged shortly afterward as the reckless boy gambler and gunslinger known as William H. Bonney, dubbed "the Kid" because of his youth and size. "William H." was borrowed from his stepfather; "Bonney" was the name of a man reputed to be his father.

Billy earned a precarious living, in and out of trouble, until he was hired by J. H. Tunstall, a leader in New Mexico's notorious Lincoln County War. This bloody political fracas involved such notables as John Chisum and Gen. Lew Wallace and required action by Pres. Rutherford B. Hayes to put down civil disorder. Appointed territorial governor, Wallace issued an amnesty proclamation, but the Kid was charged with murder for the fatal shooting of a lawman and became the fugitive leader of a gang of rustlers and killers. He was captured by Sheriff Pat Garrett, tried, and sentenced to hang, but he made a Houdini-like escape from two armed deputies while chained hand and foot. Billy killed both men.

Favorite Weapon: A Colt .41, which Pat Garrett described as a "self-cocker," was the constant companion of the Kid, who was also skilled with a Winchester.

Speed on the Draw: Billy's proverbial fast draw was no sham; observers marveled at shots that found the mark before a gun was even seen to leave his holster.

Victims: According to tradition, Billy the Kid killed 21 men, one for every year of his eventful life. The real total was probably much smaller, for by the time of his death he was being blamed for every murder in New Mexico. He seldom missed, and aimed to kill with no regrets. "Ghosts never bothered Billy," remarked an old friend.

Leading Fight: In July, 1878, the Lincoln County War exploded. Tunstall had been murdered, and the opposing forces besieged the town of Lincoln for several days. Alexander McSween, a Tunstall partisan, was shot down, and the Kid led the attack on his killers from McSween's burning house. The Kid's band was heavily outnumbered; when the enemy closed in, Billy escaped in the dark and began his career as a rustler and hunted outlaw.

Earnings: Like most gunfighters, Billy the Kid was usually hard up. His family was poor and he never had much money, except from an occasional lucky gambling streak. As an outlaw he was not a financial success.

How Died: After the Kid killed the two deputies and escaped, Garrett went after him again. Slipping quietly onto Pete Maxwell's ranch late one night, Garrett was questioning Maxwell in a darkened room when the barefoot Billy, who was visiting a local girl friend, spotted two deputies on the porch and advanced armed with his Colt and a butcher knife to ask Maxwell who they were. Recognizing the voice, Garrett fired twice in the dark and the Kid collapsed, fatally wounded. The real adventures of Billy the Kid were over; the legend had just begun.

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