This undated photograph shows who is thought to be the famed gunslinger Billy the Kid near the age of 18. Credit Associated Press
William Henry McCarty Jr. was said to have been born in Manhattan in 1859 before birth certificates were routinely issued. He died in 1881 in New Mexico, which was still only a territory and did not yet furnish official death certificates. And, by the time he was dubbed Billy the Kid, just a few months before his death, he had already reached his majority and barely qualified for the moniker anymore.
But the nickname stuck.
The Kid, a son of Irish immigrants who had fled the potato famine and then took Horace Greeley’s advice and went west, entered the pantheon of frontier folklore.
The first mention of the slim, beardless, blue-eyed desperado’s death in The Times was a one-paragraph article on July 19, 1881, under the headline “A Notorious Outlaw Killed”: A fugitive “terror of New Mexico cattlemen,” identified only by his nickname, had been shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett of Lincoln County in a cabin at Fort Sumner five days earlier.
Also known as William H. Bonney and Henry Antrim, he had escaped from the county jail on April 28 while awaiting his hanging for murdering Garrett’s predecessor.
According to one version, his mother had moved with her two sons to the Midwest, then to New Mexico to recover from tuberculosis. A Times article on July 31 said The Kid had been abused by his stepfather, Bill Antrim, and left home in Silver City at 15.
He became a hotel waiter, then a helper to a blacksmith, who “undertook to impose upon Billy,” and finally insinuated himself into the violent rivalry over beef contracts between Lincoln County cattlemen.
He killed at least a half-dozen people, but claimed to have murdered 21 during what The Times described as “his worse than worthless life.”
Still, as recently as six years ago, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico considered a posthumous pardon — to redeem a promise by Lew Wallace, the 19th-century territorial governor (and later the author of “Ben-Hur” ) of amnesty if The Kid would testify about a murder he had witnessed. He testified, but Wallace reneged, and Governor Richardson ultimately decided against a pardon.
“Best to leave history alone,” said Susannah Garrett, a granddaughter of the sheriff.