Billy the Kid: Truth and Myth: The Truth Behind the Old West’s Greatest Outlaw

Billy the Kid

Everyone has heard of the legendary “Billy the Kid.” But how much do you really know about this American folk hero?

The myth: Everyone has heard of Billy the Kid. Billy was a gunfighter in the old west, young, quick and ruthless. He had a quick fuse and would shoot anyone who irritated him, eventually killing twenty-one men: one for each year of his life, as he died at twenty-one. He was a heavy-drinking cattle rustler and thief. Also, some believe that he was not, in fact, killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett on July 14, 1881: he survived and lived to a ripe old age in Texas.

The Facts

As with many figures that have crossed the line between history and mythology, there is some truth and a lot of exaggeration to these commonly-held notions about Billy the Kid.

Billy the Kid – also known as William Bonney and Kid Antrim, was born William Henry McCarty sometime between 1859 and 1861: his place of birth is unknown, but many believe it to be Indiana or New York. It is known that he lived in Indiana, Colorado and Kansas before his family settled in Silver City, New Mexico. He probably never knew his father and his mother died when he was still young. With no family other than one brother and no trade, Billy began a career as a horse thief.

He shot and killed a man named Windy Cahill in Arizona and spent some time on the run before returning to New Mexico. He became a hired gun and fought for both sides of the Lincoln County War. He eventually backed the wrong horse in that war and he and his friends – known as “the Boys” or “The Regulators” – went into the hills to live as outlaws. He lived by stealing horses and cattle until his capture in 1880: he killed two men when he escaped. On July 14, 1881, Billy was shot in the dark by Sheriff Pat Garrett.

The Myths

Billy was quick-tempered, ruthless and a heavy drinker.

Not true. People who knew Billy describe him as friendly and affable. He did kill several men, but most of those were in self-defense, as part of the Lincoln County War, or to escape from jail. Friends say Billy rarely if ever drank alcohol, and there are no first-hand reports of anyone ever seeing him drunk.

Billy Killed 21 men, one for each year of his life.

First of all, no one knows exactly how old Billy was when he died. According to Marcelle Brothers, Billy only killed four men personally (including the two prison guards) and participated in the deaths of five more during the Lincoln County War. As part of a gang, it can never be known which, if any, of those five deaths Billy was responsible for. The death of Deputy James Carlyle is debated: Carlyle was part of a posse hunting Billy down when he was shot and killed. The posse blamed Billy, but evidence seems to show that there was some confusion and the posse members mistook him for Billy and shot him themselves. All in all, Billy could not have killed more than ten men.

Billy was a thief.

True, but not really by trade. Billy was more of a mercenary who stole horses and cattle when he needed to.

Billy was not killed in 1881.

This is a persistent legend, perpetuated by the “Young Guns” movies so popular in the late 1980s. The story is this: in 1949, “Brushy Bill” Roberts, an old man living in Hico, Texas, began claiming that he was Billy the Kid. He knew a great deal about the Lincoln Country War and Billy’s life, and convinced many people that he was, in fact, Billy the Kid. Marcelle Brothers, who has done an exhaustive study of the facts involved, concludes that Brushy Bill was not Billy the Kid. Brushy Bill was ignorant of many of the facts of Billy’s life, including several gunfights which certainly would have left an impression. Modern computer comparisons between known photos of the two reveal them to be different men.

Those are the facts about Billy the Kid, the Old West’s most famous outlaw. He died in 1881, but will live forever in movies, books and legends!