Young Gun

Cover of Pat F. Garrett's "An Authentic Life of Billy the Kid." 1882. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Cover of Pat F. Garrett’s “An Authentic Life of Billy the Kid.” 1882. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1882, Sheriff Pat Garrett published his account of the apprehension and death of Billy the Kid, whom he shot and killed on July 14, 1881.

“‘The Kid’ had a lurking devil in him; it was a good-humored, jovial imp, or a cruel and blood-thirsty fiend, as circumstances prompted. Circumstances favored the worser angel, and ‘The Kid’ fell,” Garrett wrote in “The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid.”

Marshal Ashmun Upson, a friend of Garrett who was also a newspaper journalist, actually ghostwrote the book.

In the fifth version of the book it was noted in an introduction by J. C. Dykes: “Garrett and Upson became very close friends, and this friendship endured until Upson’s death at Uvalde, Texas, in 1894. He was buried there in a cemetery lot owned by Pat Garrett. Garrett and Upson – friends and a writing team that produced a remarkable book.”

According to Garrett in the introduction to his book, “I am incited to this labor, in a measure, by an impulse to correct the thousand false statements which have appeared in the public newspapers and in yellow-covered, cheap novels.”

Historians have criticized Garrett’s account as inauthentic and biased, suggesting that he wrote the book to improve his image. However, while the book sold few copies when it was published, it remained an important reference for future historians and would turn the Kid into a legendary figure of the West. The Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division holds one of the rare copies of Garrett’s book.

Statue of Billy the Kid in the arts district of little San Elizario, near El Paso, Texas. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, Feb. 15, 2014. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Statue of Billy the Kid in the arts district of little San Elizario, near El Paso, Texas. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, Feb. 15, 2014. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Billy the Kid – also known as William Henry McCarty (his actual name), William H. Bonney and William (or Kid) Antrim – was born in New York City about 1859. As a young teenager, he moved with his family to New Mexico, by way of Kansas and Colorado. Following the death of his mother, McCarty was soon displaced and began his descent into a life of crime.

In 1875, the Kid was arrested for the first time for being caught with a stolen basket of laundry. He later broke out of jail – his first jailbreak of several. On the lam, the fugitive continued to steal his way through Arizona and Mexico, including thieving horses and cattle.

In 1877, Billy the Kid joined up with a rough gang and became a key figure in the 1878 Lincoln County (New Mexico) War, which was essentially a feud between established town merchants and competing business interests. During the war, he and his gang, The Regulators, killed Sheriff William J. Brady and Deputy George W. Hindman.

Francisco Trujillo, one of the Lincoln County Regulators, gives an account of his encounters with Billy the Kid in a collection of manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project at the Library of Congress.

In addition, this account of Ella Bolton Davidson goes further into the final battle of the Lincoln County War and murder of Sheriff Brady.

The young gunslinger’s crimes earned him a bounty on his head, and he was eventually captured, convicted of murder and sentenced to hang before he made his dramatic escape from the Lincoln County jail on April 28, 1881. In the process he killed two prison guards, Bob Ollinger and J.W. Bell.

Newspapers reported him making his escape saying, “I am fighting the whole world for my life, and I mean business.”

Old Lincoln County Courthouse and Jail, where Billy the Kid was held. Photo by James Rosenthal, 2005. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Old Lincoln County Courthouse and Jail, where Billy the Kid was held. Photo by James Rosenthal, 2005. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Billy the Kid was reported to be responsible for the murder of 21 men by the time he was 21 years old (the actual number was likely around 10). Newspaper articles of the time recounted his crimes, with the body count anywhere from 11 to 19 to 36. Such papers as the Las Vegas Gazette often carried news of his exploits.

He avoided capture until July 14, when he was ambushed and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett at a ranch house. Billy the Kid is buried in Fort Sumner, N.M.

This article from the July 26, 1881, issue of the Omaha Daily Bee gives an account of the night Garrett shot Billy and includes Garrett’s report to the governor of New Mexico.

Some papers aggrandized the exploits of the young gunslinger, such as this article, reprinted from the Pennsylvania Times. The “correspondent” allegedly made an acquaintance with someone who had a “wonderful experience with the celebrated bandit.”

In response, other papers ran stories criticizing the Times article.

“He needs no bogus silver spurs stuck on his heels by a Philadelphia scribbler to send him galloping down to a bloody and dare-devilish immortality in the annals of this strange, wild territory.”

Sources: history.com, pbs.org, “Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life,” by Robert Utley

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