Henry McCarty: The Wild West's "Billy The Kid"
Sounds of the Guns
"I jumped in the saddle and grabbed holt of the horn, Best damn cowboy that ever was born."
The Old Chisum Trail
Little is known about Billy the Kid's genesis, except that he came into this world (according to his own testimony) in an Irish section of the Bowery slums of New York City sometime (it is estimated) between September and November, 1859. Since he was born in the days before documented record-keeping, both his parentage and real name remain unsettled. For years, scholars generally agreed he was christened William Henry Bonney, his parents being William and Kathleen (nee McCarty) Bonney. More recent research, though, unearths clues that point to his having been born with the name Henry McCarty, to a Patrick and Catherine (nee Bonney) McCarty.
The confusion stems from Billy the Kid's later use of the name William H. Bonney as his legal name but it now appears that he may have simply created that alias from by blending his mother's maiden name (Bonney) with the first name of the man with whom his mother lived (William Antrim) after his natural father either died or abandoned the brood.
Conjecture and presumption continue. The best we can do at this point is to trace a woman named Catherine McCarty who moved with a William Antrim to Indianapolis, Indiana, during or immediately after the Civil War (probably about 1865). She brought with her a child named Henry and another son named Joseph. (What became of the latter is not known, but census records and other official documents citing a lad called Joseph support the belief that the boy who was to become Billy the Kid had a brother.)
Catherine McCarty shows up again five years later (1870) in Wichita, Kansas. Here, she operated an Irish laundry service. The mysterious William Antrim evidently came with her. His occupation during this period is unknown, although he undoubtedly had capital, plus a savvy for real estate as his name appears on documents as holder of some valuable property in town.
Their heels barely cooled, the tribe journeyed forth again, this time to a settlement called Coffeyville, springing up along the Kansas cattle trail. The first police report attesting to young Henry's mischievousness appears in town hall files. A constable's log cites 13-year-old Henry McCarty and a huckleberry as the two thieves of various minor items pilfered from a merchant's shop. Punishment, no doubt, was light probably the boxing of ears by a local judge for teenage Henry regarded the incident with no more sobriety than a paper cut. This is judged from his committing of subsequent surface infractions that surely left Mama Catherine worried.
Perhaps that is why she and William decided to move on after only a year in Coffeyville or could it have been that the Coffeyville women's tea discovered the couple was yet unmarried? Whatever the reason, a legally united William and Catherine Antrim reappear on record in the territory of New Mexico by March, 1873. They opened a boarding house in the booming mining town aptly named Silver City, stretching in the late afternoon shadows of the Gila Mountains. Their boarders were chiefly transients who had braved the Apache hunting grounds to "try their luck" in the silver fields. Intrigued by the lure of millions at his fingertips, Antrim himself often accompanied the prospectors, pan in hand, on their expeditions. While he was gone, Catherine and her sons remained behind to tend to the demanding chores of the lodging house.
Another reason the ever-traveling Antrims may have ultimately chosen the God-forsaken remoteness of New Mexico could have been that its dry climate promised a hopeful cure for Catherine's chronically ailing health. If that was the case, then her husband should have concentrated less on visions of silver and more on the workload he dumped on his wife. The McCarty boys lost their mother to lung disease in September, 1874, while their step-dad was out mining.
Here is where history loses track of the Antrims and follows singularly Henry, then not quite 15 years old, as he commences on a career that labels him "Billy the Kid". This article, then, for clarity, will henceforth refer to the subject as "Billy," the name prosperity gave him.
After his mother's death, Billy strayed from school and loitered in Silver City's billiard halls, much to the chagrin of Antrim who never really did get along with the boy even when Catherine was alive. Together with a pug-faced confederate, Sombrero Jack (real name George Shaffer), Billy bounced in and out of scrapes with the law. After the duo was caught red-handed stealing garments from a Chinese laundress, Antrim laid down the law: Either return to school or get a job, he told the delinquent. But, Billy found both prospects bland. He fled home, most likely never to see William Antrim or his brother again.
Billy escaped willy-nilly from all obligation. Roaming, the New Yorker-turned Midwesterner-turned-sagebrusher discovered the ways of the mesa. A stranger in a land that, away from the Anglo settlements, predominantly spoke Spanish, he learned the language quickly. Hanging with whatever vagabond he encountered in the saddle, all ruffians, Billy's wide-eyed curiosity soon faded engaged in the life of a cowpoke. New-found buddies whether Anglo or Hispanic taught him how to shoot and how to toss a Bowie knife and how to use a riata and how to rustle cattle. Bright and eager, he learned the tricks well. As he did so, he became a familiar Gypsy under the expansive dome of a Southwestern sky. Few knew his name; they called him the Wandering Kid or, simply, the Kid. The Billy was soon to be provided.
Billy is supposed to have killed his first men near the Guadalupe Mountains in 1876 when he mistook a couple of reservation Apaches for (as he said) "unfriendlies". American tempers were singed over the recent eradication of George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn; the white man, brooding the loss, hated anything Indian. Incited by the massacre that spilled across the nation's headlines, and taking the two wandering Apaches as nomads, Billy learned later that the soldiery was looking for the man who shot the peaceable people at a time when the district representatives were trying hard to keep the Southwestern border blood-free of racial animosity. Eluding arrest, Billy hightailed out of New Mexico.
But, the life that awaited the boy had already foreshadowed him a life of violence. On August 17, 1877, he is supposed to have, according to legend, first heard himself called "Billy the Kid," a name that would forever brand him and unite him with the zenith players in the saga of the Old West. The anecdote goes unproven it is tongue-in-cheek but it is colorful and bears relating here.
Billy had drifted into the quiet plains town of Camp Grant, Arizona, that day. Burning from a hot desert sun, he sought refuge in the town's saloon. Inside, as he tried to order a beer, anvil-fisted blacksmith Frank P. Cahill, who had had a few shots of whiskey too many, began picking on the skinny visitor filmed by trail dust and wearing the whisp of a dirty goatee. Cahill, whose braggadocio reputation had earned him the nickname "Windy," wouldn't let up: "Look at this guy, he looks like a little scared billy goat Neeeigh! Bleeeeeeeat! I'm gunna call you Billy the Kid Goat!" he guffawed. The other, who remained silent due to the blacksmith's overbearing size, retaliated however when Windy shoved. Slaps turned to punches and suddenly Billy found himself overcome and on the barroom floor, being kicked face and chest-ward until Billy drew his six-shooter and blew the wind forever out of Windy.
Managing to keep ahead of the vigilantes who gathered from within the tavern, Billy during his exit heard one of them shout, "Stop him! Stop him! String up that Billy the Kid!"
Did it really happen this way? Probably not. But, in the annals of the American West, where legend outdoes fact but usually generates from fact it's best to go with the legend.