By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
John Waelti: The story of Billy the Kid's capture, escape and death
Placeholder Image
Summer, 1879 - Henry McCarty, known as William Bonney, and also as "Kid Antrim" after his stepfather, is 20 years old and has been running from the law since he was 16. He killed his first man, a local tough who was beating him up when he was 18, in Arizona Territory (see Times column Aug. 28).

Kid Antrim escaped back to New Mexico, and rode with rancher John Tunstall's men. As a member of "The Regulators" in the Lincoln County War, he was initially on the side of the law, but later, outside the law. The Regulators gunned down Sheriff Brady and a deputy on the streets of Lincoln - this as revenge for the murder of Tunstall.

Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace had promised Kid Antrim amnesty if he testified in court. The promise proved hollow. The authorities wanted to prosecute the Kid for the murder of Sheriff Brady.

With that broken promise, the Kid leaves town. He ostensibly dines in Las Vegas, New Mexico with notorious Missouri outlaw Jesse James. Whether or not that dinner occurred, the Kid never rode with the James Gang.

In early 1880, Kid Antrim poses for the only photo ever taken of him, a rather unflattering picture. Billy's girlfriend, Paulita Maxwell, claimed that the picture did not do him justice.

For a time, engaging in small time rustling and gambling, the Kid managed to keep a low profile. Even killing a drunk in a saloon did not arouse a lot of publicity. Accounts of this incident vary, but they all involve the Kid examining the man's gun and placing the hammer so that it would fall on an empty chamber when next fired. When the man pointed the gun at the kid and fired, the hammer falling on the empty chamber, the Kid shot and killed the would-be assailant.

November 1880 - The next death had more severe repercussions. A posse had pursued the Kid and others to a ranch house in the White Oaks area. During an interlude in the shooting, the posse accidentally kills one of their own men, James Carlyle. The death is pinned on the Kid, reducing public sympathy for him.

December 1880 - J.H. Koogler, publisher of the Las Vegas (New Mexico) Gazette, publishes an editorial referring to Kid Antrim for the first time as "Billy the Kid." Further articles embellish the Kid's reputation as a notorious western outlaw.

Dec. 12, 1880 - The Kid writes Gov. Wallace, vigorously denying that his men shot Jim Carlyle. Wallace responds by publishing a notice in New Mexico newspapers with a $500 reward for "delivery of Bonney alias "The Kid' to the sheriff of Lincoln County."

Dec. 23, 1880 - Newly-elected Sheriff Pat Garrett tracks down the Kid and, with a posse, surrounds the one-room stone house. The Kid and his men surrender. With capture of the Kid, Sheriff Garrett gains fame.

April, 1881 - The Kid is tried in Mesilla and found guilty of first-degree murder. He is sentenced to die on May 13, 1881. He is the only person convicted of any crime during the Lincoln County War. The jail where the Kid was ostensibly held is now a gift shop on the southeast corner of the historic plaza in Mesilla.

The Kid is transferred to the jail in Lincoln County.

April 28, 1881 - Drama involving the Kid is not over. Of the two men guarding him, James Bell treats him respectfully. The other, Bob Olinger, torments him ruthlessly. During a trip to the toilet, the Kid manages to wrest Bell's gun away. Instead of surrendering, Bell runs, leaving the Kid no choice but to shoot him. He then grabs Olinger's shot gun, awaiting his return. As Olinger hears the shot, he crosses the street, catching a load of buckshot from his own shotgun.

The Kid chops away his shackles, grabs a horse and rides out of town. This dramatic escape inspires countless stories around the world, propelling the Kid to ever greater notoriety.

July 14, 1881: Responding to rumors of the Kid's whereabouts, including rumors that Paulita Maxwell is pregnant with the Kid's child, Sheriff Garrett arrives at Fort Sumner in early evening. From there, accounts vary.

It is generally agreed that Sheriff Garrett had two deputies posted on Pete Maxwell's porch, and that the sheriff was sitting on Maxwell's bed. Garrett asserts that the Kid, spotting the deputies, pulls his gun from his waistband and whispers, "Quien es?" as he heads towards Maxwell's door. Maxwell whispers to Garrett, "El es," and Garrett pulls out his gun and fires twice, killing the Kid.

A version less flattering to Garrett holds that the Kid was heading toward the porch with a knife in his hand, intending to slice some beef from a chunk hanging in the porch. As the Kid sees something suspicious, he backs into the bedroom where Garrett fires and kills him.

Who knows the ultimate truth? But one can surmise that the Kid would rather die by bullet than via the hangman's noose that he was slated for.

Ultimately, it seems that the whole saga of Billy the Kid is that of a neglected orphan who at an early age, through no fault of his own, lacked responsible guidance, and fell in with the wrong company. It was an age of lawlessness. Combine this with some unlucky circumstances, augmented by bad decisions and bad company, and the way was paved for trouble.

Add to this being on the wrong side of powerful financial and political interests, and broken promises by authorities, and it is easy to see why there is considerable public sympathy, and even admiration, for the Kid. He was, after all, the only man convicted of any crime during the Lincoln County War.

He single-handedly killed four men. Others were killed in gun battles involving numerous participants. That's far from being solely responsible for the 21 of the Kid's legend.

- John Waelti of Monroe can be reached at His column appears Fridays in The Monroe Times.