1. he was orphaned as a teenager.
Little is known about the early days of Billy the Kid, but he was probably born Henry McCarty in the Irish slums of New York City in late 1859. Raised by a single mother, he moved to Wichita, Kansas, as a child before migrating west to New Mexico in the early 1870s. Henry quickly adjusted to life in the rugged country and became fluent in Spanish, but his ailing mother died of tuberculosis in 1874, leaving him an orphan. at the age of only 14 years. Left in the care of an absent stepfather, the gunslinger-to-be spent the next year living in foster homes and boarding houses. Before long, he ran into a rough crowd and turned to petty crime and robbery.
2. the boy’s first arrest was for stealing clothes from a laundromat.
Henry McCarty’s first run-in with the law came in 1875, when he helped a street thug known as “Hat Jack” steal clothes from a Chinese laundromat. Henry hid the loot at his boarding house, but was arrested after his landlord turned it over to the sheriff. the crime carried only a lesser sentence, but rather than face punishment, the wiry young man escaped from jail by climbing up a chimney. McCarty then fled the city and embarked on a career as a traveling laborer, gambler, and gang member. He became handy with a Winchester rifle and a Colt revolver, and in August 1877 killed his first man during a dispute in an Arizona saloon. That same year, he adopted the alias “William H. bonney” and became known as “billy the kid” or simply “the kid”.
3. played a prominent role in a border dispute.
Billy the Kid first earned his reputation as a gunslinger in 1878, when he participated in a bloody frontier war in Lincoln County, New Mexico. The conflict centered on a business rivalry between British rancher John Tunstall and a pair of Irish magnates named James Dolan and Lawrence Murphy. The Dolan and Murphy team, known as “The House,” had long held a monopoly on the dry goods and cattle trade in Lincoln County. When they attempted to intimidate Tunstall’s upstart operation, the Englishman recruited the boy and several other armed men to guard his property. Tensions finally boiled over in February 1878, when Tunstall was murdered by a posse organized by House supporter Sheriff William Brady.
After Tunstall’s death, the boy and several former employees organized themselves into a vigilante group called “The Regulators” and swore revenge. In what became known as the “Lincoln County War,” the Regulators assassinated Sheriff Brady and spent the next several months shooting him with House forces. In July 1878, the feud reached its climax with a five-day deadly shootout in the city of Lincoln, after which the Regulators disbanded and the two sides sealed a flimsy peace agreement. The boy came out of the war with a reputation as one of the most skilled gunslingers in the West, but he was still wanted for the murder of Sheriff Brady. he would spend the rest of his life running from the authorities.
4. the boy never robbed a train or a bank.
Unlike other old west outlaws like Jesse James, Cole Young, or Butch Cassidy, Billy the Kid didn’t make a living as a bandit. the young gunslinger stole the occasional horse, but he never held up a bank, a train, or even a stage. Outside of his days fighting with the Regulators, his main criminal enterprise was cattle rustling on the New Mexico plains.
5. he was involved in at least nine murders.
The boy was known for his calm personality, but he wasn’t afraid to pull out his six-shooter when provoked. In a four-year span between 1877 and 1881, the baby-faced outlaw was involved in the shooting deaths of some nine men, at least four of whom he single-handedly killed. One particularly legendary shootout unfolded in January 1880 in a New Mexico saloon. As the story goes, a drunk named Joe Grant was terrorizing the bar patrons and threatening to kill someone before the night was out. Sensing trouble, the boy casually approached Grant and commented, “That’s a pretty cool looking six shooter.” He then removed Grant’s gun from his holster, rotated the barrel so that his next shot was an empty chamber, and returned it to him. It turned out to be a smart move. Later that night, Grant pointed the same pistol at the boy and tried to shoot him in the back. When he didn’t fire, the boy drew his own gun and shot Grant.
6. the boy made a famous jailbreak.
in the late 1880s, lincoln county sheriff pat garrett tracked the boy down to a cabin in stinking springs, new mexico, and forced him to surrender. the outlaw was convicted of the murder of sheriff william brady and confined to the lincoln courthouse. he was scheduled for an appointment with the executioner, but on the night of April 28, 1881, he engineered the most daring escape from his criminal career. during a trip to the latrine, the boy removed his handcuffs, ambushed a guard and shot the man with his own pistol. he then armed himself with a double-barreled shotgun and fired at a second guard who was crossing the street. once he was in control of the courthouse, the boy gathered a small arsenal of weapons, severed his leg shackles with a pickaxe, and fled the city on a stolen horse. news of the brazen escape was soon reprinted in newspapers across the country, making the boy the most wanted man in the west.
7. she was only 21 at the time of his death.
After escaping from death row, the boy spent several months hiding at the border and taking refuge with sympathetic locals in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. However, he forgot to lay low, and it wasn’t long before Sheriff Pat Garrett and two deputies arrived in town. On the night of July 14, 1881, Garrett went to the home of rancher Peter Maxwell to question him about the whereabouts of the outlaw. As soon as he woke Maxwell up, the boy came over to the house too, stopping nearby to buy meat for a late dinner. When he noticed the silhouette of one of Garrett’s helpers on the porch, the boy drew his gun and backed toward the door, yelling, “Who’s that?” in Spanish. As he entered Maxwell’s darkened room, he saw Garrett’s shadowy outline and once again asked, “Who is he?” recognizing the boy’s voice, sheriff garrett drew his revolver and fired two shots in his direction. a bullet struck the 21-year-old near his heart, killing him instantly.
read more: how did billy the kid die?
8. some believe the boy was not murdered in 1881.
pat garrett became a legend of the old west for killing kid billy, however, over the years, rumors circulated that the sheriff had shot the wrong man or helped fake the outlaw’s death . In the late 1940s, an elderly Texas man known as “Brushy Bill” Roberts even claimed to be Billy the Kid himself, but his story was largely discredited after family records revealed his date of birth to be 1879. Other researchers have since theorized that the boy lived to be an old man under the alias “John Miller.” Miller’s alleged remains were exhumed in 2005, but a plan to match his DNA to the child’s never materialized. Despite the controversy, historical records show that the boy’s body was positively identified by several different people the day after the shooting, leading most historians to conclude that Sheriff Garrett found the right man.
9. it has been the subject of more than 50 films.
The boy was a celebrity in his day, but his legend only grew after his death thanks to dime novels, TV shows, and Hollywood movies. Beginning with the 1911 silent film “Billy the Kid,” the story of the one-armed outlaw has graced the big screen more than 50 times. Some of the most famous actors who played the boy include Roy Rogers, Paul Newman, Val Kilmer, and Emilio Estevez.
watch: jeans & Outlaws: The Real Billy the Kid in the Vault of History