Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Henry McCarty: The Wild West's "Billy The Kid"

American Quiltwork

"...Across that wide and rolling river. Away - we're bound away 'Cross the wide Missouri!"


"Next to Jesse Woodson James, no other outlaw of the American Old West still captures the imagination and near-obsession of the public than Billy the Kid," writes Jay Robert Nash in Western Lawmen & Outlaws. " (He was) a lethal phenomenon who killed, according to legend if not record, twenty-one men before his twenty-first birthday."

But, according to the special edition Time-Life Book, The Wild West, which states "When it comes to the gunfighting legends, truth is usually much less sensational and romantic than fiction," much of Billy's trigger-nerve reputation may have been exaggerated. The West in the last quarter of the 1800s was occupied by slippery-inked blue journalists who traveled the iron horse locomotive to the burgeoning frontier beyond the Mississippi to add a little more color to an already colorful scenery. Billy's notches may not have passed a total of four.

Henry McCarty, alias Billy the Kid, circa 1879 (Culver Pictures)
Henry McCarty, alias Billy
the Kid, circa 1879 (Culver

The number of men he dropped with his Colt revolver or Remington shotgun, however, does not constitute the total sum of the Billy the Kid legend. It is to his credit, not the journalists who fancied him, that even though he was born as far as one can get from the cacti in New York City he became the epitome of the rambunctious, stirrup-strapped cowpoke who rode to the sound of the guns. While doubt lingers over how many times he drew a bead on a man, there is no doubt that young Henry McCarty alias William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid charged to action like a wolverine to fresh blood.

In his grave before he would have turned age 22, Billy witnessed enough blazing gunfire and took part in enough savage fighting in his lifetime as many other Western pillars who lived much longer, including Wyatt Earp or "Wild Bill" Hickok. Caught smack-dab in the eye of the hurricane called Manifest Destiny, he found himself center stage in the turbulence of New Mexico's cattle wars and, as a result, always on the run from lawmen who supported the other faction. Relentlessly pursuing his enemies, or he himself relentlessly pursued, his life was chronically on open throttle.

In his "Foreword" for The Wild West, Dee Brown describes the American character that came to life along with the new, raw country it was shaping...comprised of "a people audacious and self-reliant and nave, generous and stubborn, righteous but forgiving, humorous in a folksy way, violent, hospitable, contradictory."

These traits become, as one reads more and more about the taming of the West, obvious in most men and women, large and small, who settled there. A juxtaposition of personalities, maybe, but of a mandatory flexibility indeed.

Such was the fiber of the American West, those good and bad men, both, who took Horace Greeley's advice to "Go West, young man, and seek fame and fortune."

Such was the tone of men like Billy the Kid.


History is an ongoing series of human interest stories. In my opinion, whatever it's worth, the mistakes teachers often make in teaching history is forgetting to underscore the human relevance. The food our forefathers ate, the clothes they wore, the songs they sang...these are what makes history interesting to learn, and fun, and come to life. With this in mind, permit me to open every chapter with a few lines from a song that Billy the Kid, while traveling the West of the 1870s, undoubtedly heard 'round the campfire, in the saloons or played on a honky-tonk piano in a vaudeville.

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