July 14th, 1881 – Farewell to Billy the Kid

Today-In-History

Henry McCarty, better known as Billy the Kid, and also as William H. Bonney, was a 19th-century gunman who participated in the Lincoln County War and became a frontier outlaw in the American Old West. According to legend, he killed twenty-one men, but it is now generally believed that he killed eight. He killed his first man on August 17th, 1877, but on July 14th, 1881 it was he who was killed.

billy the kid

McCarty was 5 ft 8 in (173 cm) tall with blue eyes, blonde or dirty blonde hair, and a smooth complexion. He was described as being friendly and personable at times, and as lithe as a cat. Contemporaries described him as a “neat” dresser who favored an “unadorned Mexican sombrero“. These qualities, along with his cunning and celebrated skill with firearms, contributed to his paradoxical image as both a notorious outlaw and a folk hero. He was actually relatively unknown during most of his lifetime but was catapulted into legend in 1881 when New Mexico’s governor, Lew Wallace, placed a price on his head.

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Sheriff Pat Garrett

Sheriff Pat Garrett responded to rumors that McCarty was lurking in the vicinity of Fort Sumner almost three months after his escape. Garrett and two deputies set out on July 14th, 1881, to question one of the town’s residents, a friend of McCarty’s named Pete Maxwell (son of land baron Lucien Maxwell). Close to midnight, Garrett and Maxwell sat talking in Maxwell’s darkened bedroom when McCarty unexpectedly entered the room.

There are at least two versions of what happened next. One version suggests that, as the Kid entered, he failed to recognize Garrett in the poor light. McCarty drew his revolver and backed away, asking “¿Quién es? ¿Quién es?” (Spanish for “Who is it? Who is it?”). Recognizing McCarty’s voice, Garrett drew his own revolver and fired twice, the first bullet striking McCarty in the chest just above his heart, although the second one missed and struck the mantel behind him. McCarty fell to the floor, gasped for a minute, and died.

In the second version, McCarty entered carrying a knife, evidently heading for a kitchen area. He noticed someone in the darkness, and uttered the words, “¿Quién es? ¿Quién es?” at which point he was shot and killed. The popularity of the first story persists and portrays Garrett in a better light, although some historians contend that the second version is probably the accurate one.

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Billy the Kid (September 17th, 1859 – July 14th, 1881)

Garrett allowed the Kid’s friends to take his body across the plaza to the carpenter’s shop to give him a wake. The next morning, a Justice of the Peace, Milnor Rudulph, viewed the body and made out the death certificate, but Garrett rejected the first one and demanded that another one be written more in his favor. The Kid’s body was then prepared for burial, and was buried at noon at the Fort Sumner cemetery between O’Folliard and Bowdre.

In his book Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life, Robert Utley told the story of Pat Garrett’s book effort. In the weeks following the Kid’s death, Garrett felt the need to tell his side of the story. Many people had begun to talk about the unfairness of the encounter, so Garrett called upon his friend Marshall Ashmun (Ash) Upson to ghostwrite a book with him. Upson was a roving journalist who had a gift for graphic prose. Their collaboration led to a book entitled The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid, which was first published in April 1882. The book originally sold few copies; it eventually proved to be an important reference for historians who would later write about the Kid’s life.


 

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