Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Billy the Kid in fact and fiction 1



The Kid as kid


Well, we’ve delved on this blog into quite a bit of Earpiana recently. Later, we may try some Custerology or a bit of Hickokism. But now I thought it might be time for some Billy the Kiddery.


And where better to start than at the beginning?


Having said that, the beginnings are a bit murky. Countless diligent researchers have trawled through marriage and baptismal records, census returns, city directories and so on, to track down the Kid’s origins. The best guess is that he was born in New York City, in the fall of 1859, and named Henry. He had a brother, older or younger we are not sure, Joe. His mother was Catherine, who declared at one point that she was the widow of Michael McCarty. So Henry McCarty is probably the best name for the boy who became Billy the Kid.


If we are right about his birth, he would have been 21 when he was killed by Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner, New Mexico on July 14, 1881.


And straight away we have an issue about portrayals on the screen. He was nineteen at the time of the so-called Lincoln County War, and what is more, looked young for his age. Several people who knew him remarked on his slight build and youthful mien. One of his schoolteachers called him “a scrawny little fellow” and a boyhood friend said, “He was very slender. He was undersized and was really girlish looking.” Yet the actors who played him in movies were far from that. Kris Kristofferson was 36 and quite stocky when he was the Kid for Sam Peckinpah, Buster Crabbe and Bob Steele were 34 when they starred in their versions, Paul Newman and Michael J Pollard were 33 when they were in theirs, Robert Taylor, Val Kilmer and Scott Brady were 30, Emilio Estevez 28 and Johnny Mack Brown 26. Franklyn Farnum in 1925 was a geriatric 47! Jack Buetel was 25, but that was in the worst Billy film of all. Bizarrely, probably the most accurate Kid physically was Edith Storey, then 19, in the 1911 silent Billy the Kid.


We have actually never seen on the screen (as far as I am aware) the Kid as a young child. Yet that would make quite a good picture. The family was in Indianapolis in 1868, when the Kid was nine, where Catherine met William Antrim, who would, in 1873 in Santa Fe, become the Kid’s stepfather. When the boy was eleven, though, in 1870, the family turned up in Wichita, Kansas, and remained there till 1871. This was actually three years before Wyatt Earp, aged 26, arrived there, and joined the police force, but that would have been a bagatelle for film makers and they surely could have had Wyatt meeting the boy and teaching him how to shoot or something. An opportunity missed there.


The Kid was not a juvenile delinquent. In fact he was noted as being quite well behaved, studious, musical, had a solid education and he read a lot. Movie Kids were often illiterate, and you might get paternal rancher Tunstall teaching him to read (using a bible) but in fact the boy was clearly a capable reader before he ever got to New Mexico.


The family left Kansas for Colorado, then New Mexico, almost certainly because Catherine was suffering from TB, and like many, she felt the high, dry climate would help. They went first to Santa Fe, where Catherine officially became Mrs Antrim on March 1, 1873, and then settled in Silver City, hoping to profit from the silver strike there. The Kid (he was universally called that) sometimes thenceforth used his stepfather’s name, and Antrim seems to have been a decent fellow, though a little footloose and also, when Catherine finally died in September 1874, when the Kid was about fifteen, Antrim seems to have had a very relaxed approach to parenting Henry and Joe, leaving them pretty well to their own devices.


It was at this time that the first signs of criminality appeared. Sheriff Harvey Whitehill recalled that his first offense was the theft of several pounds of butter from a man named Webb. The boy fell in with a slightly older youth known as Sombrero Jack and the two decided to rob a local Chinese laundry. But though Jack “skinned out”, as the local paper had it, Henry was caught. He escaped custody by crawling up a chimney and out, which his slight physique and nimbleness allowed him to do. This would not be the last daring escape.


There have been many claimed photographs of Billy the Kid


But the most likely one is the tintype of c 1880


This is probably Billy


But the Kid now all but vanished from recorded history for two years.


Where exactly Henry McCarty, aged 15, went after he had escaped from the Silver City jail by shimmying up a chimney, is unknown. There are plenty of theories, though.


Ash Upson, who ghost-wrote for Pat Garrett The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, published in 1882, and who himself, Upson, probably wrote all the first part on his own, recounts a plethora of picaresque adventures the youth had, for none of which, however, does he provide any evidence. Thomas Dwyer, a New York policeman, writing in The New York Sun in July 1881, in other words right after the Kid’s death, was convinced that the Kid had gone back to NYC and under the name of Michael McCarty had stabbed a man to death there in 1876. This was taken up by writer Donald Cline who in his 1987 book Alias Billy the Kid told of the Kid’s violent time in the big city. According to Cline he was never in Indianapolis or Wichita. But it is almost certain that this Michael McCarty was not the New Mexico outlaw.


It is highly probable that ‘Kid Antrim’, as he was usually called at the time, worked on Henry Hooker’s ranch in the Sulphur Springs Valley, and learned there the skills with a horse, rope and gun, and handling livestock, that would serve him well. But his slight physique seems to have been a handicap, and he was discharged.


Late in 1876 he turned up in the area that had mushroomed around Camp Grant, with its store, saloon, hotel and inevitable ‘hog ranches’ frequented by the soldiers. The hotel owner, a Mr Miles Wood, was also the JP and he later said that the Kid got in with a group of cattle rustlers and horse thieves. Henry stole one horse too many and was arrested by Wood, and imprisoned. But he escaped again. He next appeared in the Globe area and Wood sent constables there but again the Kid slipped away.


Back around Camp Grant in the summer of ’77, Henry got into it with a certain Francis P Cahill, known as Windy, a local blacksmith, who had evidently taken to bullying the boy, and on the night of August 17, in George Atkins’s saloon, Henry shot Windy in the stomach, from which wound he died the next day. It was the first authenticated ‘kill’ of the famous outlaw. A coroner’s inquest said that the shooting was “criminal and unjustifiable, and that Henry Antrim, alias Kid is guilty thereof.” Given the abuse he had suffered at the hands of Cahill, if the case had gone to trial Henry would almost certainly have been acquitted, especially if Cahill too was armed, but typically, Henry did not wait around to find out.


We shall find out how he re-appeared in our next thrilling installment. I bet you can’t wait.


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