Born William Henry McCarty on November 23, 1859 in New York City, the boy who would become Billy the Kid was living in Silver City, New Mexico when his mother died of tuberculosis in September 1874. Since his step-father was busy searching for gold, McCarty drifted into petty crime. After shooting a local bully during a bar fight at Fort Grant, Arizona in 1877, he changed his last name to Bonney, and ended up in Lincoln County, New Mexico, working for an English rancher named John Tunstall. Tunstall and his partner Alex McSween, supported by powerful rancher John Chisum, had challenged businessman James Dolan, who dominated Lincoln County. When legal pressure failed to scare off Tunstall, he was killed by a sheriff’s posse loyal to Dolan on February 18, 1878.
Both Tunstall’s supporters and Dolan’s faction claimed legal authority, and the death toll mounted on both sides until a five-day-long battle in Lincoln Town in mid-July ended both the Lincoln County War and McSween’s life. Settling at Fort Sumner, just outside of Lincoln County, Bonney joined a group of rustlers but was captured by Sheriff Pat Garrett on December 20, 1880. Sentenced to be hung, Bonney killed two deputies and escaped. Returning to Fort Sumner, Bonney hid with friends until Garrett found him by chance and killed him on July 14, 1881. Billy the Kid was only twenty-one-years-old.
William H. Bonney, famous as Billy the Kid, was born William Henry McCarty, on November 23, 1859 to Irish immigrants in New York City. The fate of McCarty’s father is unknown, but McCarty moved with his mother and younger brother to Indianapolis, Indiana in 1868. McCarty’s mother married William Antrim, and the family settled in Silver City, New Mexico in 1873. His mother died in September 1874, likely from tuberculosis, which had probably fuelled the decision to leave Indianapolis, and his step-father was too busy searching for gold to look after two boys. McCarty committed a number of small crimes but managed to stay out of jail until he was caught stealing from a Chinese laundry on September 23, 1875. Escaping from jail by climbing a narrow chimney, McCarty left Silver City, and drifted down to Fort Grant in Arizona, where he stole saddles, and sometimes horses, but he was arrested, escaped, then was arrested again, and escaped once more. McCarty’s life took a turn for the worse on August 17, 1877 when he got into a fight with Frank “Windy” Cahill, a blacksmith who had bullied him on a regular basis. Cahill inflicted a particularly severe beating on McCarty, who reached for his gun. The blacksmith tried to grab the gun but Billy shot him in the stomach. Whether it was accidental or deliberate is unknown. Since he had run away immediately after the incident, the coroner’s jury declared McCarty to be guilty of murder, which meant that he had to leave Arizona.
When McCarty stopped running he was in Lincoln County, seventeen-years-old, lean, 135 pounds, 5 feet seven, and using a new name, William H. Bonney. Having become fluent in Spanish while living in Silver City, Bonney was able to charm his way into free meals from the Hispanic residents. A friendly nature was balanced by a very short temper. Lincoln County was the size of North Carolina, but Lincoln Town had only 400, mainly Hispanic, residents, while roughly 2,000 people lived in the county. It was not a stable, orderly place. The law received little respect, many people were armed, consumption of whiskey was high, and there was a wide range of ethnic conflicts that regularly led to violence: Anglo/Hispanic, Texans/Mexicans, whites/black soldiers, and everyone/Apache reservation. Fort Stanton was located nine miles from Lincoln, and the fort’s purpose was to ensure that the Apache stayed on the reservation. The most powerful rancher in New Mexico was John Chisum, the “cattle king of New Mexico,” and he had 80,000 cows roaming the public domain grasslands in the south-east corner of New Mexico. Upstart ranchers had built up their own herds in the Seven Rivers area near the border with Texas. Angered that his cattle had been used as the initial core of those herds, Chisum attempted to impose his dominance and both sides had resorted to guns by 1876.
In such a violence-prone area, it should come as no surprise that Bonney did not settle down and start counting his pennies. Instead, he joined up with up a notorious group of outlaws led by Jesse Evans, and was friends with John Kinney, whose ranch was a drop-in center for outlaws. These were dangerous men. When they were beaten up by soldiers in a dance hall, they went back and shot up the place, killing a couple of soldiers and a civilian. Calling themselves “The Boys,” the outlaws had a fluctuating number of members that ranged from ten to thirty, often operating as several loosely connected bands over southern New Mexico. When they were not committing robberies or rustling, they rode around the small communities scattered throughout the territory, stopping at roadhouses for food and drink, telling the owners to put it on their tabs, which they never paid. Evans had first learned his trade riding with Chisum’s men on retaliatory raids against the Mescalero Apache, who had helped themselves to horses from Chisum’s herds, from 1872-75. Bonney was known to be riding with them in September and October 1877.
Lincoln County was dominated by the House, a clique of businessmen led by James Dolan and Lawrence Murphy, and the faction was called the House because their headquarters was based in the only two-storey building in the town. Murphy and Dolan ensured that they received favorable government contracts while squeezing local farmers and herders. A key source of income for the Boys was rustling cows from Chisum’s herds, which were sold to Dolan, who then used the stolen cattle to fill government contracts for beef for the fort and the reservation. Dolan had started as a clerk in Murphy’s store, learned his mentor’s tricks, and as Murphy grew too old for active leadership, took control of the House with his partner John Riley. Dolan and Murphy were Irish immigrants, who had survived the Irish Famine, an experience that did not make people nice.
The only people willing to stand up to the House were John Chisum, a twenty-four-year-old English rancher named John Tunstall, and his friend Alex McSween, a Scotsman ten years older than Tunstall, who had arrived in New Mexico in 1875. Chisum resented the House for buying beef that had been rustled from his herds, and Dolan’s connections to the Santa Fe Ring, powerful politicians in the state capital, including Samuel Axtell, Thomas Catron and William Rynerson. As the local district attorney, Catron had frequently prosecuted Chisum in court, giving the cattleman the impression that Catron’s goal was to weaken his claim to his extensive grazing lands, which would then be occupied by ranchers friendly to Catron. Tunstall was motivated by a desire to make money, not improve people’s lives. In fact, he wrote letters to his parents where he said that he intended to gain enough control of the local economy that he would receive half what everyone earned. Tunstall and McSween had opened a store to compete with the store owned by the House, and a bank, which had Chisum as its president. Having worked hard to push the original Hispanic residents off their land and gain control of the business in the area, Dolan and Murphy would die before they let an upper-class English Protestant take everything away from them, since they felt that the English had kept the Irish down for generations and blamed them for the Great Famine.
Evans and three other members of his gang were arrested on October 17 by a posse led by Sheriff William Brady in response to a complaint made by Dick Brewer that Evans had stolen horses and mules from Brewer’s ranch. Bonney was one of about thirty Boys who gathered together to free Evans from the Lincoln jail. They were supported by Dolan, who had instigated the raid on Brewer’s ranch as a form of intimidation against Brewer and his employer Tunstall. In fact, Dolan had a standing arrangement where he would recruit members of Evans’ gang whenever he needed additional gunslingers. Brady had followed the law and arrested Evans but he did not make a serious effort to keep the ringleader of the county’s largest gang in jail, so the Boys were able to ride into town early in the morning of November 17, 1877, disarm the sole guard, free the prisoners and ride out without any organized pursuit.
Bonney remained in Lincoln when the Boys rode south to the Seven Rivers area because he had became good friends with some slightly more law-abiding men, including Tunstall’s foreman, Dick Brewer, as well as Charley Bowdre and Doc Scurlock, a couple of farmers who had married Hispanic women, and the Coe cousins, Frank and George. Bonney’s charm and friendly nature ensured that he quickly came to know all of the small ranchers in the area around Lincoln, and was well-liked by everyone, especially during the regular dances, where he excelled as a dancer and a ladies’ man.
Most of Tunstall’s cowhands were simply cowhands, but several were hired for their skill with a gun, men like John Middleton, Henry Brown, and Frederick Waite, because Tunstall had realized that the stakes were life and death. Bonney was hired by Brewer for Tunstall’s ranch in December 1877, and since he was always practicing with guns, he was clearly hired as a gunman. These hard gunmen ensured that other ranchers did not add to their herds at Tunstall’s expense. While none of his acquaintances were model citizens, they were not outright outlaws, and they showed eighteen-year-old Billy that it was possible to live within the law. However, he was still young and impressionable, so it would take time to fully transform his personality.
The already tense situation escalated on February 8, 1878 when Dolan’s friend Sheriff Brady obtained a writ to impound McSween’s property, and tried to impound Tunstall’s property as well in the mistaken belief that they were partners. After a series of armed confrontations, Tunstall decided to give in and fight in the courts. When the sheriff’s posse arrived at his ranch on February 18, Tunstall and his men had already left, but the posse still pursued Tunstall and his men, thinking they were hiding additional horses. The posse was far from an impartial instrument of justice, since it was led by Billy Mathews, a silent partner in Dolan & Co, and four other members of the posse were Dolan employees, while Evans and several of his men had also joined the posse, as well as a number of Seven Rivers cowboys, making it a total of twenty-two men. Several members of the posse, Dolan’s employee Billy Morton, Jesse Evans and Tom Hill, one of Evans’ men, found Tunstall on his own and killed him, supposedly in self-defence. Several of his ranch hands had been riding with him when the posse appeared. Realizing that they meant trouble, Tunstall’s men, including Bonney, had ridden towards a more defensible position but Tunstall himself had ignored their calls to come with them, either frozen in panic or incapable of recognizing that his life was in danger. To be honest, there was no reason to pursue Tunstall, and the posse did not have a warrant. Aware that a large number of supporters were waiting for Tunstall in Lincoln, the posse members may have decided to eliminate Tunstall while he was still out in the open and vulnerable.
Lincoln County War
Tunstall’s death changed everything, and McSween became the reluctant leader of Tunstall’s supporters, who refused to allow Dolan to get away with murder. There were many supporters, since roughly forty to fifty men had already gathered at McSween’s house to back up Tunstall, and leadership naturally passed to McSween when Brewer, Middleton, Waite, and Bonney arrived with news of Tunstall’s death. Squire John Wilson, the local justice of the peace, was persuaded to swear out warrants for the arrest of Tunstall’s murderers, essentially the whole posse and James Dolan. The town constable, backed up by Tunstall’s supporters, was to enforce these warrants. The town constable was reluctant to try to arrest the twenty-three men on the list of warrants, but he was even more reluctant to openly refuse to cooperate with the very angry and armed forty men with McSween. One of the first things the posse did was retake possession of Tunstall’s store. Bloodshed was avoided because Captain George Purington had come down from Fort Stanton to investigate the matter, realized immediately that McSween’s men were a bloodthirsty mob, and left thirty cavalrymen in town to prevent the two sides from slaughtering each other.
Determined to arrest Sheriff Brady, the mob forced the constable to go into the Dolan store and read out the warrants. Believing that it was death to stay, and death to go, the constable chose the later option and took Bonney and Waite along as insurance. Unsurprisingly, the sheriff and his men in the store arrested all three men. Expressing contempt for Squire Wilson’s authority, Brady released the constable, but kept Bonney and Waite. Learning that the situation had managed to worsen, Purington sent a detachment of infantry to bolster the cavalry. Brady released Bonney and Waite thirty hours later, but a humiliated Bonney had developed a hatred of Brady.
Learning that he would have to stay in jail while he awaited trial for embezzlement, since the district attorney refused to accept his bail, McSween fled Lincoln in late February. McSween believed that he would be killed trying to escape, correctly since Dolan planned to bring in Evans to end the problem. Tunstall’s foreman, Dick Brewer, was made a special constable on February 24 because the town constable had failed to execute the warrant, and his posse became the Regulators. Technically, they were not vigilantes because there was still a working legal system, it had simply been taken over by the other side. The core members were Tunstall hands John Middleton, Fred Waite, Bonney, Henry Brown, Bonney’s friends Charley Bowdre, Frank and George Coe, Doc Scurlock, as well as Big Jim French, John Scroggins, Steve Stanley, and Sam Smith. Actually, the Regulators did not have a fixed number, they varied from ten to thirty, and sometimes included Hispanics. However, the core group was the dozen Anglos who developed intense bonds of loyalty. The sheriff’s posse was mainly made up of Dolan’s men and cowboys who supported Dolan in order to get back at Chisum, since he was linked to Tunstall. Bonney was now put into a situation where he would kill for a cause.
The Regulators tracked down and captured Billy Morton, head of the group that had killed Tunstall, on March 6. According to the Regulators, Morton was being taken in when he tried to escape and was shot, along with two companions, Frank Baker (a member of Evans’ gang) and William McClosky (a former employee of Tunstall who was considered to be too friendly to Dolan’s supporters). Given the holes in the story, and the fact that they were the only witnesses, no one believed the Regulators’ story. At the same time, New Mexico Governor Samuel B. Axtell dropped by Lincoln for three hours, enough time to announce that Squire Wilson was not a legal Justice of the Peace, only Judge Warren Bristol and Sheriff Brady were legal authorities, therefore the Regulators had no authority. This surprising turnaround can be explained by Nolan’s extensive political connections.
Sheriff Brady was an ex-soldier and Indian fighter, and pillar of the community. He supported Nolan because of his friendship and debt to Murphy, who shared a similar background. They were both Irish immigrants, former sergeants in the regular army, officers in the New Mexico volunteers during the Civil War, and they had helped build Lincoln during the early days. However, he was not Nolan’s flunky, and he did not aggressively pursue McSween even though he had an arrest warrant. Nor did he take back Tunstall’s store once Squire Wilson’s authority had been removed. McSween had been joined by his wife at Chisum’s ranch, and he met the core Regulators there in late March to discuss the Brady problem. McSween and several of the Regulators, including Bonney, viewed Brady as almost as great a danger as Nolan, and it is believed that McSween had offered a reward for Brady’s death. McSween feared that if he was arrested, Brady would look the other way, and let Nolan arrange his death. While the assassination of a public official should have seemed madness, McSween had likely been hit hard by the criminal charge, the death of his partner Tunstall, the destruction of most of his finances and his status as a fugitive from the law, so his thinking had probably been transformed.
Bonney, Frank McNab, John Middleton, Fred Waite, Jim French and Henry Brown ambushed Brady on April 1 when he was walking past Tunstall’s corral with his deputies Billy Mathews, George Hindman, George Peppin and John Long. Brady and Hindman were killed. Justice of the Peace Wilson was hit in the buttocks by a stray bullet while working in his garden. The surviving deputies were too few to prevent the Regulators from calmly riding away.
McSween reached Lincoln shortly after the shooting, accompanied by his wife and John Chisum. Captain Purington had also arrived with a detachment of cavalry in response to a message from deputy Peppin. The court was supposed to convene on April 1, but unknown to McSween and the Regulators, it had been postponed until the following week. Acknowledging that McSween did not have a long life expectancy if he was placed in the Lincoln jail, Purington agreed to keep McSween in custody at the fort until the court convened.
The cold-blooded murder of a lawman destroyed the townspeople’s sympathy for the Regulators. They lost most of what little public support they had left when they killed Buckshot Roberts, one of the names on Brewer’s arrest list, when he ran into the Regulators at Blazer’s Mills on April 4. Aware that the Regulators were looking for him, Roberts had sold his ranch in preparation to move somewhere safe, and was waiting at Blazer’s Mills for a letter with the payment for his ranch. Frank Coe knew Roberts, and spent thirty minutes trying to persuade him to surrender, but Roberts refused, saying that Bonney would kill him. Out of respect for Blazer’s rules, Roberts had left his pistol belt on his saddle, and only had his Winchester. Brewer tried to take Roberts by force, but despite being outnumbered and receiving a stomach wound, he managed to wound George Coe, Middleton and Doc Scurlock, pumping his Winchester so fast he even scared off Bonney. Roberts then barricaded himself in Blazer’s office. Brewer chose a position where he could shoot into the office from far away, but Roberts had found Blazer’s Springfield rifle and picked him off first. Brewer’s death took the fight out of the Regulators, and they rode off with their wounded, but Roberts died of his wound the next day.
However, things began to look up for the Regulators when the new sheriff, John Copeland, began listening to McSween, who had been found innocent by a jury, despite District Attorney Ryerson’s blatant allegiance to Dolan and Judge Bristol’s browbeating of the jurors to convict McSween. Even better, Dolan had gone bankrupt, while Evans had been wounded while trying to rob a sheep drovers’ camp, and was locked up in Fort Stanton after going to the fort for medical treatment. McNab had been elected Brewer’s replacement as captain, and the Regulators celebrated the election of the new sheriff by getting drunk repeatedly, often with Sheriff Copeland, who ignored the arrest warrants he carried for several of the men he was drinking with.
Unfortunately for the Regulators, Brady’s surviving deputies Mathews and Pepin said they still had legal authority, and they organized a posse, mainly made up of twenty Seven Rivers cowboys, who had ridden in the posse against Tunstall. On the afternoon of April 29, they ambushed Regulators McNab, Frank Coe and Coe’s brother-in-law, Abe Saunders, killing Saunders and McNab, while capturing Coe. The next day, there was a four-hour-long battle between the posse and the Regulators in Lincoln, but only one person was wounded. Realizing the situation was a bit beyond his means, Sheriff Copeland summoned the cavalry, who arrested the posse. With thirty men from both factions in a very small jail, Copeland gave up, and let everyone go.
Doc Scurlock was elected captain of the Regulators, and was made a deputy by Copeland. He then led the Regulators, reinforced by a number of Hispanics, to arrest the Seven Rivers cowboys who were currently taking a herd to the Indian Agency. When they found the cowboys’ camp on May 15, the only one there was the camp cook, Manuel Segovia, who told Francisco Trujillo, a Hispanic member of the Regulators, that he would probably be murdered since he was believed to have killed McNab. He was right, since as soon as Trujillo moved away, Segovia was shot trying to escape.
Dolan’s store and ranch had become the property of Thomas Catron, U. S. District Attorney and the most powerful politician in New Mexico, and he was not amused that the Regulators’ raid on the Dolan camp on May 15 had resulted in the scattering of the herd of cows intended to be sold to the Indian Agency. Catron’s support enabled Dolan to persuade the governor to remove Copeland as sheriff, and replace him with George Peppin, who was loyal to Dolan. A posse led by Peppin, made up of Dolan supporters, a cavalry troop, and a dozen deputized gangsters led by Evans’ old partner Kinney drove the Regulators out of Lincoln on June 19. The two groups fought two more battles, one at Chisum’s ranch on July 4, which ended in time for the Regulators to enjoy the Independence Day feast, leaving before reinforcements arrived. Nobody had been killed in these battles but the conflict had entered the stage of open warfare. The Regulators praised Bonney’s ability, but new recruit Tom O’Folliard worshipped him, and became his sidekick.
Battle of Lincoln
Tired of the guerrilla life, McSween returned to his home in Lincoln on July 14, bringing along sixty men to ensure his safety, including a large contingent of Hispanics, and fortified several buildings. A five-day-long battle for Lincoln commenced on July 15 when Peppin’s posse returned, including veterans of Mathews’ posse and Kinney’s outlaws. Evans was back as well, having been freed on bail by Judge Bristol. The Regulators were too well-entrenched to be charged by Peppin’s posse, so both sides confined themselves to sniping at each other and anything that moved, while the terrified residents barricaded themselves in their homes.
Surprisingly, Lt. Colonel Nathan Dudley, the new commander of Fort Stanton, refused to interfere for five days until repeated pleas from innocent bystanders drove him to lead a force of troopers into Lincoln on July 19. The trigger-happy Regulators had not helped themselves by firing on suspicious riders on two occasions, who both turned out to be cavalrymen. Dudley was not entirely impartial, since he had been successfully defended in a court martial by a key figure in the Sante Fe Ring and a backer of the Dolan-Murphy clique. Despite vocal claims of neutrality, he aimed a howitzer at one McSween-controlled building, which prompted the Regulators into evacuating that building for a store occupied by McSween supporters. When the howitzer was turned towards that building, all of the Regulators and supporters left Lincoln. When they tried to reach the McSween house, they were discouraged by the sight of a Gatling machine gun pointed in their direction. As a result of Dudley’s aggressive neutrality, the remaining McSween people in the house were outnumbered by Peppin’s posse. Later that day, Peppin’s men succeeded in setting the McSween house on fire, which had been a challenge since it was an adobe structure with few flammable materials. Only O’Folliard, Jose Chavez y Chavez, Jim French and Bonney made it out, the rest had to give up. However, when McSween shouted that he would never surrender, shooting broke out, and McSween and several of his supporters were gunned down.
Sheriff Peppin had made almost no decisions, other than ordering that the house be set on fire, which was done by others. Dolan had also stayed out of the fight, while McSween had not provided much leadership, allowing his much larger posse to be divided into smaller groups that were easily pushed out of the town. The official captain of the Regulators, Doc Scurlock, was one of the men who had fled Lincoln, abandoning those who had stayed. While most leaders on both sides were looking incompetent, Bonney became more respected for leading several Regulators to safety.
Post-Lincoln County War
The war should have ended with McSween’s death since Doc Scurlock was captain and wanted to return to his family, while there was no longer anything to fight over. A total of twenty-two people had died on both sides, including both Tunstall and McSween, while Dolan was bankrupt, so the struggle for economic domination of Lincoln County had destroyed everyone involved. However, the Regulators were the only family Bonney had, and the previous five months had forged solid bonds among the core members of the Regulators, so they did not immediately drift apart. Since the posse had disbanded and Peppin was staying at Fort Stanton in an attempt to avoid Brady’s fate, the Regulators were able to strut around Lincoln and threaten any Dolan supporter they found. After rustling some horses from the Indian agency, the Regulators rode to Fort Sumner to hook up with part of the Chisum clan on August 13. A few days after facing down a Mexican posse, the Coe cousins announced that they were leaving to find their fortune in Colorado. Bonney became the leader of the Regulators, and decided to rustle Dolan supporters as revenge. Tired of the danger, Doc Scurlock and Charley Bowdre moved with their families in mid-September to Fort Sumner to work for Pete Maxwell. Only Tom O’Folliard, Henry Brown, Fred Waite and John Middleton were still with Bonney when he sold the stolen horses in the Texas Panhandle, and only faithful Tom O’Folliard went with Bonney when he rode to New Mexico.
Bonney returned to Lincoln in November 1878, hoping to start his own ranch. However, the dying embers of the Lincoln County War were flaring up again due to the arrival of Sue McSween with a lawyer named Huston Chapman, determined to bring Colonel Dudley to justice for his role in the death of her husband. Governor Lew Wallace had granted a general pardon to anyone involved in the Lincoln County War who had not already been indicted on criminal charges, which was no help to Bonney since he was already indicted for the murders of Sheriff Brady and Buckshot Roberts. Aware that the new sheriff, George Kimball, elected in November, was competent, Bonney arranged for himself, Folliard, Scurlock and several other former Regulators to meet with Dolan, Evans and their supporters on February 18, 1879. After a tense beginning, the two sides agreed to a truce, including a promise to not testify against each other. The drunken celebration that followed resulted in the accidental death of McSween’s lawyer Huston Chapman, and the outcry forced Governor Wallace to come to Lincoln in person in March 1879, where he replaced Dudley with Captain Henry Carroll. Carroll’s patrols were aggressive and a dozen participants in the Lincoln County War were in jail by the end of March.
Realizing that the locals were too terrified to testify against any of the prisoners, Governor Wallace welcomed a letter from Bonney offering to testify in exchange for an amnesty. The two men met and agreed that Bonney would be arrested for his own protection and then testify against Dolan and his friends for Chapman’s murder. Scurlock had also been arrested in Fort Sumner, although Bowdre had eluded capture. Unfortunately for Bonney, Wallace did not stay for the trial, and the prosecuting attorney, William Ryerson, was a Dolan supporter, who ignored Wallace’s offer of amnesty. Although the jury was filled with McSween partisans, and indicted many Dolan supporters, they all managed to be acquitted except for Bonney and Doc Scurlock. Kimball allowed them to roam around Lincoln, and after they realized that their chances of earning a pardon were miniscule, they rode out of town on June 17, 1879, with Sheriff Kimball somehow not noticing their departure. Apparently, he also felt they were not getting a fair deal. Scurlock followed the Coes to Texas, in pursuit of a more peaceful existence, but Bonney returned to Fort Sumner, where Charley Bowdre lived, the Hispanic sheep herders liked him, and he could deal monte in the saloons. Most important, Bonney was extremely popular with the local women, and it is believed he fathered a number of children there.
However, given the numerous outlaws that congregated at Fort Sumner, it was not the best place to lead a law-abiding life. Bonney and friends began to rustle Panhandle beef, and sell it at the mining town of White Oaks. Aside from O’Folliard and Bowdre, David Rudabaugh, Thomas Pickett, and William Wilson often rode with Bonney. Rudabaugh was twenty-six-years-old, and an experienced cattle thief, as well as robber of trains and stagecoaches. The gang rustled ranches located on both sides of the New Mexico-Texas border, since the ranches rarely had enough cowhands to monitor all of the herds, so the ranchers increasingly viewed Bonney and his friends as pests that needed to be exterminated. Bonney’s rustling activities made him a number one suspect when the Panhandle Stock Association hired a detective named Frank Stewart to lead a posse of ranchers after the gang. Bonney’s reputation as a dangerous man was strengthened on January 10, 1880 when he killed a drunken bully named Joe Grant after having first smoothly borrowed Grant’s gun to admire it, spun the cylinder so that the hammer would fall on an empty chamber.
The ranchers and farmers at Fort Sumner and the nearby Pecos Valley were fed up with the plague of robbery and violence, which would only end when the numerous outlaws were either dead or gone. Since Sheriff Kimball liked to play cards with Bonney and had let him escape, it was unlikely that he would arrest Bonney, so Chisum and Lincoln County Commissioner Joseph Lea convinced Pat Garrett to move from Fort Sumner, located just outside Lincoln County, and run for sheriff against Kimball. Lea had convinced most of the leading men in the county to back Garrett. Bonney had often met Garrett during local dances at Fort Sumner, since they both liked to dance. However, they were not friends, just acquaintances who respected each other’s skill with firearms and ability to remain calm when the shooting started. Bonney tried to persuade Hispanics to vote for Kimball, but Garrett won 320-179. Although Bonney probably limited himself to rustling, he hung around with men suspected of robbing stagecoaches, so he was the target of two separate investigations. Actually, witnesses had identified him as one of the robbers of a stagecoach where mail sacks filled with pay sent home by soldiers was stolen. Moreover, the U.S. Secret Service had sent an operative to investigate the increasing appearance of counterfeit bank notes in Lincoln and White Oaks, and Bonney’s fellow rustlers were suspected of spreading counterfeit money.
While Bonney liked White Oaks as a place to dispose of stolen merchandise, the people of White Oaks did not return the affection, partially because he and his friends often neglected to pay for things. On November 22, Sheriff William Hudgens heard that Bonney was camped near town, and led a posse to find him, eventually tracking them down at Jim Greathouse’s ranch and store on November 27. The outlaws stayed inside drinking and out-waited the posse, who rode off to meet reinforcements, giving the outlaws a chance to escape. A popular member of the posse who had gone into the bar to talk to Wilson was killed, possibly by the posse, but since the men of the posse were naturally unwilling to admit to screwing up, it definitely killed what little goodwill he had in White Oaks. When the posse returned, they burnt Greathouse’s store to the ground out of frustration, fuelled by the widely-held suspicion that Greathouse routinely bought stolen goods from Bonney and his friends. At the same time, the newspapers were blaming all lawlessness in the area on a gang led by Bonney. Even the New York Sun carried a story on Billy the Kid on Dec. 27, 1880. He had become a symbol of everything done by the forty to fifty outlaws in the area, who had only loose connections to each other.
Garrett had been made a deputy marshal as well as sheriff, and he cooperated with deputy marshal Bob Olinger to organize a posse to hunt down Bonney and his friends. Despite high expectations, he found the outlaws hard to catch, and he disbanded the posse on December 9 after arresting several wanted outlaws, but missing all of the key targets. Bonney. Wilson, Rudabaugh and the others knew that Garrett was hunting them, and talked about moving to another region but they never actually did it, instead they just followed their usual routine of drifting from ranch to ranch, imposing themselves on the hospitality of the ranchers, whose patience began to wear thin. However, the situation had become more dangerous. Garrett had convinced Barney Mason, an acquaintance of the gang, to be a paid informer, while Governor Wallace had become fed up with the growing chorus of public complaints about Bonney, and offered a reward of $500 on December 13. When Garrett encountered Stewart’s posse, he tried to persuade the posse to join the hunt for Bonney by agreeing to share the reward, but most of the men had joined up to track down stolen cattle and wanted no part of shooting, so only Stewart and six men agreed to work with him. Garrett finally enlisted the aid of local ranchers who hosted Bonney more out of fear than friendship, and laid a trap in Fort Sumner on the night of Dec. 19. Bonney, Rudabaugh, Wilson, Bowdre, Pickett and O’Folliard rode into the trap at 8pm, but most of them escaped into the foggy darkness, although O’Folliard was captured and died of his wounds forty-five minutes later.
The same rancher who had betrayed them was sent by Bonney to scout out the situation, and once the remaining outlaws rode off, he warned Garrett in time to follow their trail. Garret’s posse found the outlaws at 3AM, when they were asleep in an abandoned house made from rock and adobe. The outlaws had finally resolved to leave New Mexico but it was too late. Garrett believed that Bonney would never surrender, but the rest would once Bonney was dead. When a man wearing a Mexican sombrero like Bonney’s went outside to feed the horses in the early morning before daybreak, the posse shot him, but it turned out to be Charley Bowdre. Bonney tried to pull a horse into the house in preparation for an escape attempt, but Garrett simply shot the horse so that it blocked the doorway. Garrett then had supplies brought in as preparation for a long siege but the outlaws surrendered at 4pm. When the posse arrived in Fort Sumner, Bowdre’s wife started beating Garrett, and had to pulled off. The posse passed through Las Vegas to catch the train to Sante Fe, and Garrett and his men had to face down a mob led by the local sheriff who wanted to lynch Rudabaugh for killing a local jailer while trying to break out a friend from jail months earlier.
After three months in Santa Fe, Bonney and Wilson were moved to Mesilla, the county seat, where none of the members of the jury had been involved in the Lincoln County War. Judge Bristol had connections to Dolan’s group, and had a record of sentencing men to be hung, which likely did not fill Bonney with cheer. Bonney publicly expressed the hope that the governor would pardon him, and even threatened to blackmail the governor, but the governor made it clear that an amnesty would not happen, most likely because Bonney’s increasing involvement in crime had made amnesty impossible. Bonney did have cause to be bitter since he was the only one among fifty indicted during the Lincoln County War, but then again, many of those fifty were already dead. Bristol’s instructions to the jury seemed a deliberate attempt to ensure that Bonney received a guilty sentence, since the jurors were told to give guilty sentence if Bonney was present when Sheriff Brady was murdered, regardless of whether it was proven that he had fired at Brady or not. Unsurprisingly, the jury found Bonney guilty and he was sent to Lincoln to be held until May 13, when he would be hung by the neck until dead.
Escape from Lincoln County Jail
Since Lincoln did not have a proper jail, Bonney was locked up in handcuffs and leg irons in a room next to the sheriff’s office, guarded by deputy US marshal Bob Olinger and deputy James Bell. Olinger had a mean streak and constantly taunted Bonney, but Bell treated him well. Olinger and Bonney genuinely hated each other, and the two men had fought on opposing sides during the Lincoln County War. Fellow law officers considered Olinger a bully, and even Garrett did not trust him, viewing the deputy marshal as a man with a badge who liked killing. Realizing that Bonney was an extremely dangerous man who was always looking for a way to escape, Garrett warned the two deputies to not underestimate Bonney, but was ignored.
Garrett’s job included the collection of taxes, and he was at White Oaks performing his duty when Bonney made his escape on April 28, 1881. When Olinger had taken the other prisoners out of the jail to be fed at the hotel, Bonney managed to slip one hand out of his handcuffs, and hit Bell with the heavy iron cuffs. After a struggle, he took Bell’s gun, and shot Bell as he was trying to run away. Olinger had heard the shots and ran from the hotel back to the jail, but Bonney had already found Olinger’s shotgun. It seems probable that during the millisecond before Bonney pulled the trigger, Olinger began to regret constantly taunting Bonney with the shotgun loaded with 36 heavy buckshot that was now pointed at his chest. With the only two deputies in town lying in puddles of blood, Bonney had time to break his chains with a pickaxe, take the dead men’s guns and saddle a horse. Bonney made his way to Fort Sumner, where he quickly made himself comfortable.
Bonney had already been notorious but the daring escape immediately made him a national celebrity. After arranging the burial of his two deputies, Garrett prepared to once again hunt Bonney down, although there would be no arrest this time. A posse was quickly organized but Bonney had hidden his trail well. After a period of time, Barney Mason discovered that Bonney had returned to Fort Sumner, where many of the locals still liked him, and he roamed among the sheep herder camps and ranches, staying with friends or people who hosted him out of fear, which made it extremely difficult to find him. The Hispanics idealized Bonney not just because he spoke Spanish and was not patronizing, but also because he was killing the Anglo establishment that had gained power by taking their land and the land of friends and family. Even though Garrett now had a good idea of where Bonney was hiding, the sheriff made no effort to organize another manhunt, which earned a great deal of criticism from county residents who wanted the outlaw brought in. Garrett likely found it hard to believe that Bonney was willing to risk death by staying in one place, but then again Bonney had demonstrated a contempt for playing it safe and probably had a young man’s belief that he was immortal.
John Poe was a former buffalo hunter and well-regarded law officer, who was hired by the Panhandle Stock Association to replace Stewart. While investigating rustlers, Poe got to know Garrett, who made him a deputy sheriff of Lincoln County. Poe, Garrett, and deputy sheriff McKinney rode to Fort Sumner on July 13 after receiving a tip that Bonny was there. Garrett realized that a large posse would simply warn Bonney, and he would become even harder to find. Poe went into town for information, but none of the Hispanics would trust a stranger. They planned to find Pete Maxwell to see if he knew anything, since he was the leading man in the town. Garrett was waking up Maxwell around midnight when Bonney came by to cut some meat from a freshly butchered cow hanging from Maxwell’s porch. Noticing Poe and McKinney outside, Bonney backed into Maxwell’s bedroom, and he began backing out when he saw another shape in the room, but Maxwell said “That’s him,” and Garrett started shooting. Garrett survived because Bonney was startled enough to hesitate. To be honest, Garrett found Bonney by accident. If he had not happened to wander over to Maxwell’s place, the little posse would probably have given up.
In the end, Bonney refused to break with the past and move somewhere new where he could make a fresh start by ranching not rustling, preferring to stay where he was comfortable and known. The restless, dangerous nature of the lifestyle did not seem to bother him, otherwise he would have left. Maybe he would have tired of being hunted in a year or two, but given his actions, it did not seem probable. Like many young people, he preferred to enjoy life today, rather than think about tomorrow’s problems. It should not be surprising that he chose to rob and steal what he wanted, since he constantly saw everyone around him doing the same. The law as represented by judges, prosecuting attorneys, marshals, army officers and even governors had been far from impartial, siding with the more powerful faction that sought to control trade in the territory. However, he could have made the same choice as Scurlock, the Coes and Middleton, and simply left the area to start over.
Pat Garrett’s Later Years and Death
News of Bonney’s death spread through the nation, with the majority of newspapers treating Garrett as a hero and Bonney as a demon, so Garrett became famous as the man who had shot Billy the Kid. Not everyone believed that he was a hero, and some commented that he had killed an unarmed man. Aside from the $500 reward, Garrett also received private rewards from gratified citizens and wealthy ranchers that would total thousands of dollars.
Marshall Ashmun Upson had become friendly with Bonney when he was postmaster of Roswell. With many people unhappy about Garrett shooting Bonney in the dark, Garrett decided to ask Upson to help him write a book on Bonney to clear his name. “The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, the Noted Desperado of the Southwest, Whose Deeds of Daring and Blood Have Made His Name a Terror in New Mexico, Arizona and Northern Mexico” did not actually sell many copies, but quickly became a valued reference for pulp writers due to the straightforward account of the hunt for Bonney’s gang, their capture, his escape and death at Maxwell’s house. The book concluded with Garrett’s response to his critics, including the obvious admission that he had been scared, since anyone hunting a dangerous outlaw should be scared, and the understandable and blunt rejection of the suggestion that he should have offered Bonney a fair fight.
After completing his term as sheriff, Garrett failed to win election to a seat on the Territorial Council, so he started a ranch. When rustling became problematic in the area again in 1884, the owners of the largest ranches hired Garrett to end the rustling problem, and he became head of the Southwest Livestock Detective Agency a year later. Unfortunately, he had invested in too many businesses and lost control of the farm he had founded. He then led the hunt for the murderers of Albert Fountain and his son. Fountain had been a thorn in the side of Albert Bacon Fall, a power-broker in the Democratic Party in New Mexico, but despite Garrett’s relentless investigation, the suspects were acquitted when they were finally brought to trial. Garrett successfully lobbied President Theodore Roosevelt to win nomination as collector of customs at El Paso in 1901, but he was not renewed after the four-year term ended. Having run up huge debts due to his love of drinking and gambling, his life spiralled downwards. Garrett was killed by Wayne Brazel on February 29, 1908 during a dispute over a ranch that Brazel had leased from Garrett. Despite Brazel’s claim of self-defence, Garrett’s family and friends believed that he had been assassinated. Although he found enough evidence to indicate that powerful people were involved in Garrett’s death, the New Mexico Attorney General lacked the budget for a full investigation. Brazel’s defence lawyer was Albert Fall, and his influence in the state ensured that a non-guilty verdict was quickly delivered.
The Legend of Billy the Kid
Bonney only became known as Billy the Kid after his death, until then he was just the Kid. He survived because he constantly practiced with guns, and because he would remain cool regardless of the situation. Although he was thought to have killed twenty-one men, he is officially known to have killed only four men: Windy Cahill, Joe Grant, Bob Olinger, and Jim Bell. However, he was definitely involved in the shooting of five men: Billy Morton, Frank Baker, William McCloskey, Sheriff Brady and Manuel Segovia. Despite the legend, Bonney did not stand out. He was violent in a violent time, when killing was common and rarely led to prison. He was a small-time rustler but while he was charismatic, he never officially led a gang. Given the corruption he saw around him, it was natural that he would think nothing of breaking the law. However, unlike the other survivors of the Lincoln County War, Bonney never realized it was time to become respectable and stop openly rebelling against society.
Left or Right-Handed
Sometime in 1878, a traveling photographer had appeared in Fort Sumner, and Bonney had decided to have his picture taken, paying for four tinypes, which were made by a camera with four separate lenses. The resulting photo would have four images, which would be cut by the photographer to produce four photos. Camera technology was still relatively limited at the time, so the tintype was actually a mirror image of the subject, which resulted in the mistaken belief that Bonney was left-handed.
Bonney’s legend continued past the turn of the century through infrequent newspaper articles but it exploded again when Walter Noble Burn wrote The Saga of Billy the Kid in 1926, which became the basis of the 1930 movie Billy the Kid. The myth of Billy the Kid continued to grow steadily through the Depression, while Hollywood has found Billy the Kid a rich source for movies, usually portraying him as a social bandit who strikes on behalf of the poor and oppressed.
Billy the Kid (1930)
Directed by King Vidor, starring Johhny Mack Brown and Wallace Beery
William Bonney becomes involved in the Lincoln County War when his boss is killed, and finds himself hunted by his friend Sheriff Pat Garrett.
Billy the Kid (1941)
Directed by David Miller, starring Robert Taylor and Brian Donlevy
Persuaded to give up his life as a gunslinger by peaceful rancher Eric Keating, Billy the Kid seeks revenge when Keating is murdered. (full review)
The Outlaw (1943)
Directed by Howard Hughes, starring Jack Beutel and Jane Russell
The friendship between Pat Garrett, Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid is strained by competition for a woman. (full review)
Return of the Bad Men (1948)
Directed by Ray Enright, starring Randolph Scott and Robert Ryan
A number of outlaws, including the Sundance Kid, the Younger Brothers, the Daltons and Billy the Kid, gather to prey on settlers during the Oklahoma Land Rush.
The Kid from Texas (1950)
Directed by Kurt Neumann, starring Audie Murphy and Gale Storm
William Bonney becomes involved in the Lincoln County War after a rancher who had given him a chance is murdered. (full review)
The Left Handed Gun (1958)
Directed by Arthur Penn, starring Paul Newman and John Dehner
William Bonney becomes involved in the Lincoln County War after his employer is murdered.
Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, starring John Wayne and Geoffrey Deuel
Cattle baron John Chisum finds himself drawn into the Lincoln County War when he helps Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett try to stop Lawrence Murphy from taking over the county. (full review)
Dirty Little Billy (1972)
Directed by Stan Dragoti, starring Michael J. Pollard and Richard Evans A young William Bonney rejects the hard work assigned by his parents, and begins hanging out with a local criminal.
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah, starring James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson
Pat Garrett is hired to hunt down Billy the Kid.
Young Guns (1988)
Directed by Christopher Cain, starring Emilio Estevez and Keifer Sutherland
When their employer John Tunstall is killed by Lawrence Murphy, a rival rancher, his cowboys are sworn in as deputies by the local justice of the peace to arrest Tunstall’s killers. (full review)
Young Guns II (1990)
Directed by Geoff Murphy, starring Emilio Estevez and Keifer Sutherland
The survivors of the first movie are hunted down by Pat Garrett, Billy’s former partner, as Billy tries to lead them to Mexico and safety. (full review)
To Hell on a Fast Horse: The Untold Story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett-Mark Lee Gardner, New York: Harper, 2011.
It is a very good book. Gardner spends little time on the Lincoln County War or Bonney’s past before arriving in Lincoln County, preferring to focus on the manhunts for the outlaw. Having performed an impressive amount of research, the author provides brief biographies of all of the major participants, even the deputy marshals who paid with their lives for their lax attitude when guarding Bonney. The last 70 pages (out of a total of 276 pages) deal with Garrett’s life after killing Bonney.
Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life-Robert Utley, University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
An absolutely excellent book with detailed research that is both informative and a pleasure to read. Utley’s familiarity with the post-Civil War history of the West enables him to make insightful observations on Bonney and the environment that shaped him, especially the widespread violence, lack of impartial authority and constant struggle of powerful factions to dominate the territory. The book is about Bonney, so it deals with Garrett only when he enters Bonney’s life.