Hollywood westerns distill the old west into an assortment of good guys wearing white hats and bad guys wearing black hats. The reality was more nuanced. Some of the more unsavory characters vacillated between being lawmen and being outlaws. Some were outlaws wearing a badge.
Viewing the history of New Mexico’s lawmen and outlaws through a simplistic paradigm dilutes the complexity of the individuals involved and diminishes the story. Law and justice often didn’t go hand in hand. There is no better example of this than Billy the Kid. His brief criminal career included theft and murder, leading to his subsequent death at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett. Billy cemented his legacy as New Mexico’s most infamous outlaw; however, the circumstances surrounding his life and death provide insight into the murky waters of being an outlaw in the American West.
The Early Years
“He is about five feet eight or nine inches tall, slightly built and lithe, weighing about 140; a frank, open countenance, looking like a school boy, with the traditional silky fuzz on his upper lip; clear blue eyes, with a roguish snap about them; light hair and complexion. He is, in all, quite a handsome looking fellow, the only imperfection being two prominent front teeth slightly protruding like squirrel’s teeth, and he has agreeable and winning ways.”
Las Vegas Gazette | December 27, 1881
Of the many outlaws that roamed the New Mexico territory in the late 1800s, none are as infamous as William Henry McCarty, commonly known as Billy the Kid. He adopted many aliases during his brief life.
Billy was born in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan in 1859 or 1860. Hell’s Kitchen was an Irish slum at a time when discrimination towards people of Irish descent was common. A quote by Davy Crockett in 1835 provides insight into how the Irish inhabitants of Manhattan were perceived and how Hell’s Kitchen received its name:
“In my part of the country, when you meet an Irishman, you find a first-rate gentleman; but these are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab hell’s kitchen.”
Henry had a younger brother, Joseph, but there are no records reflecting the identity of their biological father. They may have been born out of wedlock, which would explain their mother’s decision to move west, first to Indiana, then Kansas, then New Mexico.
Catherine McCarty met Henry’s step father, William Antrim, in Indiana in 1867. Though they moved to Wichita, Kansas together in 1870, they initially maintained separate residences. Catherine started a laundry service in town and dabbled in real estate, eventually purchasing a plot of land adjoining Antrim’s property for $200 cash.
Doctors diagnosed Catherine with tuberculosis in 1871. The only remedy was to live in a dry, warm climate. She promptly sold her laundry business and moved to Denver before heading south to New Mexico. She married William Antrim in Santa Fe in 1873. They moved to Silver City based on the climate and the economic prospects associated with the mining boom in the Black Range.
Catherine was a pragmatic parent. She purchased a small house and resumed her laundry service, augmenting her income by taking in boarders and baking pies, cakes and bread to support her sons. Her husband was rarely at home, spending most of his time prospecting (unsuccessfully) and gambling. There was no extra money for a gun. The family didn’t need one. Their small cabin was a few hundred yards away from Sheriff Whitehall’s office on Hudson Street. On the rare occasion that she had a few extra coins to splurge on her boys, she spent it on books and periodicals.
From Bookworm to Bandit
Henry was an avid bookworm, borrowing books from his neighbors, haunting the library, and salvaging newspapers out of the trash. Contrary to his depiction as a hardened, bloodthirsty outlaw by his detractors after his death, those who know him describe a man who was more of a gunslinging geek than a savage murderer. He enjoyed dancing and singing, but he didn’t have a carefree childhood. In his stepfather’s absence, he was the man of the house, helping his mother bake, taking care of his younger brother, and, tending to his ailing mother as her health declined. The stress associated with working multiple jobs accelerated Catherine’s deterioration. By 1874 she was bedridden. She passed away in September of that year. Catherine was concerned about her sons before she died, concerns that would prove to be well founded.
William Antrim didn’t show up for the funeral. When he finally returned to Silver City, he sold the family’s cabin, placed his stepsons into foster care with separate families and moved to Arizona. Henry was 14. He was arrested for stealing cheese a year later, the inauspicious launch of his criminal career. A few months after that he was jailed for stealing clothes and a gun. He escaped through the chimney and fled to Arizona to find his stepfather.
Running with the Wrong Crowd
The New Mexico Territory, which encompassed Arizona, was an unruly, violent, sparsely populated place in the late 1800s. Author Michael Wallis noted that, “the homicide rate in the New Mexico Territory was 47 times higher than the national average, with gunshot wounds as the leading cause of death.” The region was responsible for “at least 15% of all murders in the nation.” Men, traumatized and hardened by the Civil War, migrated west. Shooting someone based on an argument was not unusual. It was in this environment that Henry Antrim came of age.
Henry tracked his stepfather down in Globe City, Arizona, but their reunion was short lived. Antrim didn’t want anything to do with the kid and kicked him out. They never saw one another again.
Henry found work as a sheep herder and ranch hand outside of Fort Grant and, absent positive male role models, he gravitated to a gang of horse thieves led by John R. Mackie. Mackie and Henry were arrested for stealing horses from a nearby camp. Henry ended up in jail and, once again, managed to escape. After laying low for about five months, he returned to Fort Grant where his criminal charges took a turn for the worse after an altercation with Windy Cahill turned deadly on August 17, 1877.
Murder or Self Defense?
The conflict between the two men started shortly after Henry was hired as a teamster at the Camp Grant Army Post. Frank “Windy” Cahill was the blacksmith. Cahill was 6’2”, 225 pounds, with a surly demeanor. Henry was 16, affable, popular, and witty. Whereas most people at the post liked Henry, Cahill was not a member of his fan club and availed himself of every opportunity to abuse and belittle the scrawny teenager. Cahill was a bully. Henry, at 5’8” and 135 pounds, was his favorite prey.
They got into heated exchange during a poker game at a saloon, with Cahill looking for a fight. After hurling insults at one another, Cahill threw Henry to the ground. Henry drew his gun and shot him. According to witnesses, Henry “had no choice; he had to use his equalizer.” However, law and justice were two separate matters at that time. Cahill didn’t pull his gun so there was a distinct possibility that the murder would have been deemed unjustified in court. Henry wasn’t willing to take that risk. He opted to return to New Mexico where he met Jesse Evans, briefly joining his gang of cattle rustlers and thugs before making his way to Lincoln. Ironically, the two ended up playing major roles on opposite sides of the conflict that would seal Henry’s fate.
Feuding Factions in Lincoln
Henry arrived in Lincoln in 1878 as a wayward teenager, with one murder on his rap sheet, hanging out with a rough crowd of young miscreants, engaged in petty crimes and livestock theft. All of them would become pawns in the conflict between powerful, wealthy factions seeking to exploit and control the economy of the nation’s largest county.
Two Irishmen, James Dolan and John Riley, were on one side of the dispute, owners of Jas J. Dolan & Company (aka The House), a mercantile and banking operation that had existed as a monopoly prior to the arrival of Englishman John Tunstall. Tunstall partnered with a local lawyer, Alexander McSween, to open a competing mercantile and bank in Lincoln. He had a ranch about 28 miles outside of town. Tunstall and McSween had the backing of cattle baron John Chisum, who, like many ranchers in the region, resented the House for their unethical business practices.
Prior to Tunstall’s arrival, The House fully exploited their monopoly. They employed cattle rustlers to steal cows to fulfill their beef contract with nearby Fort Stanton. Prices on supplies were high. Prices paid to ranchers for cattle was low. They would lend money to aspiring ranchers, with exorbitant interest rates. When ranchers couldn’t keep up with payments, often due to the cattle rustlers dispatched to steal their property, the House foreclosed on their land and seized their remaining cattle. No one could do anything about it, because law favored the people who paid for it. Justice was not part of the equation.
Tunstall was no angel. He intended to wrest control of the monopoly from Dolan and Riley. Tunstall was aware of the hazards and had built his store like a fortress, with adobe walls that were 3-feet thick and steel plates built into the shutters. He knew that directly challenging Dolan and Riley was dangerous, but mistakenly assumed that he would be able to navigate the conflict through law and the courts. Alexander McSween, his partner, was an attorney.
By the time Henry rolled into town, Tunstall was already putting a dent in The House’s business by undercutting their prices and offering local ranchers higher prices for their cattle. Dolan and Riley resented the Englishman and leveraged hired guns, like the Jesse Evans gang and Seven Rivers Warriors, to steal Tunstall’s cattle and vandalize the store. In response, Tunstall’s hired ranch hands who served as his “muscle.” The feud between the two factions was escalating before Henry arrived on the scene.
Henry and John Tunstall met under dubious circumstances. Initially, Henry was working at Sheriff Brady’s ranch and supplementing his income with a livestock rustling on the side. Brady was an ally of The House. Tunstall’s ranch foreman, Richard “Dick” Brewer, caught Henry stealing horses from the Tunstall ranch in 1877 and had him thrown in jail. Tunstall visited the teen while he was incarcerated and was surprised to find that Henry was self-educated, well read and witty.
Rather than press charges, Tunstall offered him a job, which Henry readily accepted. Evidently Tunstall was so impressed with his work ethic that he gave Henry a horse, a Winchester ’73, and a saddle as gifts, which was an unusual act of generosity at the time. Normally employers expected you to have your own equipment . This gesture of friendship made a lasting impression on Henry. He was intensely loyal to those who treated him well. He decided that his new job and new life required a new name. William H. McCarty became William H. Bonney.
On the Tunstall ranch, Henry found “big brothers,” people who treated him with respect, people he would defend to the death. His relationship with Tunstall motivated the actions that followed. Those actions led to the legend of Billy the Kid.
Lincoln County War
The catalyst for the Lincoln County War was a legal dispute over disbursement of an insurance policy associated with one of Dolan’s former business partners, Emil Fritz. Alexander McSween was the executor of the estate and wouldn’t turn over the funds without reviewing Dolan’s claim. Dolan accused McSween of embezzlement and leveraged his judicial allies to seize all of McSween’s assets and Tunstall’s assets. The latter was implicated based on his partnership with McSween, though their partnership didn’t extend beyond the store and the bank. Dolan didn’t care. He intended to take everything and eliminate the competition.
On February 18, 1878, Sheriff Brady formed a posse to forcibly seize Tunstall’s remaining livestock. Sheriff Brady didn’t accompany the posse, though it was later revealed that James Dolan did. The posse included hired guns, including several members of the Jesse Evans gang. When they arrived at his ranch, they realized that Tunstall was on his way to Lincoln with several of his horses and a few of his ranch hands, including Dick Brewer, Henry, John Middleton, Henry Newton Brown, Fred Waite, and Robert A. Widermann, a Deputy US Marshall. Several men were dispatched to catch up with them, including Jesse Evans, William “Buck” Morton, George Hindmann, Frank Baker, and Tom Hill.
The Murder of John Tunstall
They caught up with Tunstall’s group in a canyon near Glencoe, with Henry sounding the alarm as they approached. Tunstall’s men scrambled for cover. Tunstall lingered with the horses, possibly intending to negotiate, but the posse’s intentions were made clear when they charged towards him with guns blazing. He fled, but he didn’t get far. They shot him once in the chest and once in the head, staging the crime scene to make it look like he had drawn a weapon.
Brewer and Henry filed affidavits with “Squire” John Wilson. The judge was sympathetic and issued warrants for the men responsible. Constable Martinez deputized Henry and Fred Waite to help him serve the warrants on the men, who happened to be hanging out at Dolan’s store. When they arrived Sheriff Brady interceded, refusing to acknowledge the warrants. Instead, he arrested the trio and confiscated their weapons, including the Winchester rifle that Tunstall had given to Henry. Brady released Martinez within a few hours, but he kept Henry and Fred locked up for a several days and they missed Tunstall’s funeral. Additionally, he refused to return Henry’s gun. When asked later why he arrested the trio, Brady responded “because I had the power.”
Sheriff Brady eventually released Fred and Henry, but both men were determined to exact revenge. Led by Dick Brewer, Henry, Jose Chavez y Chavez, John Middleton, Tom O’Folliard, Fred Waite, Doc Scurlock, Charlie Bowdre, George Coe, Frank Coe, Jim French, Frank McNab, and Henry Newton Brown, the posse rode out of Lincoln, with warrants in hand, determined to deliver frontier justice to those involved. They were joined by other men, sympathetic to their cause. The group referred to themselves as “the Regulators” and the core group referred to themselves as “the Ironclad.”
They caught up with Buck Morton and Frank Baker near Rio Peñasco on March 6, 1878. After a prolonged gunfight, both men surrendered on the condition that they would be taken into custody and returned to Lincoln. Brewer agreed to those terms, but, with the exception of William McCloskey, who was Buck Morton’s friend, the Regulators didn’t believe justice would be served back in Lincoln. On the third day of the journey, the Regulators killed McCloskey, Morton and Baker.
In response to the murders of Morton and Baker, Sheriff Brady called on Territorial Attorney General Tom Catron for assistance. Tom Catron was a member of the Santa Fe Ring, a corrupt group of powerful and wealthy men who controlled the politics and law throughout the territory. He held the mortgage on Dolan’s assets and, therefore, had a vested interest in eliminating Tunstall and McSween.
Catron got his cohort in crime involved, Governor Samuel Axtell. Axtell traveled to Lincoln to apprise the situation, but he never met with the Regulators. He declared that the judge who had issued the warrants had been illegally appointed and removed him from the bench, negating the warrants and invalidating the deputy status of the Regulators. He also revoked Widenmann’s status as a Deputy U.S. Marshall. The only law left in Lincoln was Sheriff Brady, a corrupt man beholden to The House. Brady promptly secured warrants for Alexander McSween and the Regulators.
Billy the Kid Murders Sheriff Brady
On April 1, 1878, a group of Regulators, including French, McNab, Middleton, Waite, Brown and Henry hid out in a corral behind Tunstall’s store, ambushing Sheriff Brady and his deputies on the main street of Lincoln while they were on their way to arrest Alexander McSween. Brady died immediately, shot at least a dozen times. One of his deputies, George Hindman was also fatally wounded.
French and Henry ran over to Brady’s body to retrieve the Winchester at his side, the one that he had confiscated during Henry’s prior arrest and, possibly, looking for the arrest warrant for Alexander McSween. One of the remaining deputies, Billy Matthews, shot both men. A single bullet grazed both of them. Henry later told Mrs. McSween that he didn’t intend to shoot Sheriff Brady. He was aiming for Matthews, who he blamed for sending the posse after Tunstall.
On April 4, the Regulators caught up with Buckshot Roberts at Blazer’s Mill. A gunfight ensued. Roberts managed to hold them off, killing Dick Brewer, but he was fatally wounded in the process and died a few days later. The Regulators elected Frank McNab as their new captain, but he didn’t last long, shot at Fritz’s Ranch, about 8 miles outside of Lincoln on April 28. Throughout May and June, attacks and revenge killings continued unabated, leading up to the showdown in Lincoln in mid-July, 1878.
The Final Shootout
Dolan solicited help from Colonel Dudley at Fort Stanton. The Posse Comitatus Act made it illegal for soldiers to be used for police actions against American citizens. The troops were supposed to “keep the peace” rather than “tilt the scales.” That is not what happened. They arrived with a Gatling gun and a howitzer, surrounding the town and separating the small groups of Regulators who had taken up positions around town from those who were stuck in houses. Dolan’s men embedded with the troops, firing on the Regulators to get them to return fire, providing a reason for the soldiers to join the fray. It worked. The troops fired on the Regulators, scattering them with a barrage of bullets. Henry was trapped in Alexander McSween’s house with Alexander and Susan McSween, Henry Brown, Jim French, Tom O’Folliard, Jose Chavez y Chavex, George Coe, and a dozen Mexican cowboys.
The troops from Fort Stanton watched as men from Dolan’s crew set the McSween house on fire on July 19, 1878. Dolan’s men allowed women and children to leave, surrounding the house to kill anyone who tried to escape. The house was engulfed in flames by 9 pm. Jim French and Henry came up with a plan to shoot their way out, providing a diversion for the others, who were unarmed, to escape. French and Henry led the charge out the back door. Dolan’s men started firing on them, with the troops from Fort Stanton moving in to capture them. Three men were gunned down, including McSween, Harvey Morris and Bob Beckwith. The rest of the Regulators escaped.
With Tunstall and McSween dead, Dolan and his corrupt cabal celebrated their victory by getting drunk and looting the Tunstall store. The Regulators were on the run.
Consequences of Lincoln County War
“Billy was a brave, resourceful and honest boy; he would have been a successful man under other circumstances. I loved the youngster in the old days, and can say now, after the passing fifty years, that I still love his memory.
When Billy was killed in 1881 by Pat Garrett, I was in Rio Arriba County. Though I heard the news with sorrow, it was by no means a surprise. His opponents were constantly on his trail, making his capture and killing merely a question of time. It was impossible for him to work or make an honest livelihood; otherwise many of his friends would gladly have hired him and given him a chance to settle down under Governor Wallace’s’ terms of pardon. But the Kid was never permitted to halt his career. His enemies were determined to have his life and would not stop until they had taken it. He was compelled to live the life of an outlaw, though his outlawry consisted more of stealing cattle than of killing.
Cattlemen were organizing their associations and employing men to rid the country of thieves, of which Billy the Kid was by no means the most outstanding. But because he was so well-known, he became the target of the officers. The motive behind Pat Garrett’s relentless pursuit of the Kid was that his death meant money and the office of sheriff of Lincoln County. The Kid was a thousand times better and braver than any man hunting him, including Pat Garrett.”
George Coe, one of the Regulators and a close friend
The Battle of Lincoln
The Battle of Lincoln ended the Lincoln County War, though there were related skirmishes through 1881, culminating in the death of Henry and the remaining Regulators at Fort Sumner in July, 1881. At least 19 people were killed during the altercations in 1878.
A federal investigator, Frank Angel, wrote to President Rutherford B. Hayes, criticizing the New Mexico governor’s role in the conflict. He asked the President to intercede. Judge Angel determined that Tunstall was murdered in “cold blood” by Sheriff Brady’s Posse, specifically Jesse Evans, William Morton, and Tom Hill. His report to the Secretary of the Interior included these words: “The Territorial Government has more “corruption, fraud, mismanagement, plots and murder than any other….in the history of the United States and this has contributed to the lawlessness that prevailed in much of the territory.” His observation was accurate, but it was too little, too late.
President Hayes replaced Governor Samuel Axtell with Lew Wallace in September, 1878. Wallace was a celebrated Union general who was pursuing a career as an author. In November,1878, Wallace called for a halt to violence and granted amnesty to everyone involved, with one exception…Billy the Kid.
Life on the Run
Many of the Regulators left the New Mexico territory. They asked Henry to join them, but he chose to stay with his friends in New Mexico. His hopes for a legitimate job and a normal life died in the embers of McSween’s home.
Henry spent the next three years on the run, usually with Pat Garrett on his heels. He became the scapegoat and was the only one convicted. Given the preponderance of well known criminals involved, like the Jesse Evans Gang and the Seven Rivers Warriors, how did a teenager become the scapegoat?
Corruption in the New Mexico Territory
To understand that, you have to examine the power of the Santa Fe Ring in the New Mexico territory at that time. Most of the people directly involved in the Lincoln County War were little more than puppets and pawns. Behind them was the puppet master, an odious creature by the name of Thomas Catron.
U.S. Attorney Tom Catron appropriated over 3,000,000 acres of land illicitly from Hispanic farmers and New Mexico’s native people. He was one of the largest land owners in the history of the United States based on decades of unfettered corruption and cruelty. The Santa Fe Ring specialized in theft, fraud, forgery and murder. They stole land through taxes, debt and lawsuits.
Spanish land grants were given by the King of Spain to Hispanic settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Catron and his corrupt cronies would sell land belonging to Spanish ranchers and homesteaders to new settlers at a high price or with high interest rates. A disproportionate number of those people would fall behind on their payments while waiting on the harvest. When that occurred, the Santa Ring would pounce, seizing the land, livestock and crops, a process expedited by corrupt judges and DAs. Then they would turn around and resell the land to a new settler. Rinse and repeat. They had huge herds of cattle and massive quantities of produce. They never had to lift a finger or pay a penny to laborers.
The Santa Fe Ring
Catron’s cohorts in crime included Samuel Beach Axtell, the territorial governor, Warren Bristol, the territorial judge, and district attorney William Rynerson, who got away with murdering the Chief Justice of New Mexico, John P. Slough. The group relied on Judge Bristol to assist with fraud and to eliminate anyone who opposed them. Bristol authorized the seizure of Tunstall and McSween’s assets and acquitted Dolan of all charges related to ordering and orchestrating Tunstall’s murder by suppressing evidence at the behest of Dolan’s attorney, Rynerson. He sentenced Henry to death on May 13th, 1880. Bristol was the enforcer on behalf of The Santa Fe Ring in Lincoln, but Catron was the mob boss.
Catron held the mortgage on Dolan’s assets. By April 28, 1878, Dolan and Riley suspended all business at the Dolan Store. Prior to the final battle in Lincoln, on May 3, 1878, Catron sent his brother-in-law, Edgar Walz, to take over the House Store. As the owner of the store, he had a vested interest in eliminating McSween and the Regulators. His accomplices in that endeavor were Dolan, Rynerson, and Bristol, with the support and approval of Governor Axtell. Catron was determined to exact revenge on Henry for having the audacity to defy him.
When Henry was captured in Stinking Springs in 1881, he was interviewed by a reporter from the Daily New Mexican. In reference to Judge Bristol, he said “At least two hundred men have been killed in Lincoln County during the past three years, but I did not kill all of them.”
Trying to Leave the Past Behind
On February 18, 1879, on the one-year anniversary of Tunstall’s murder, Billy rode into Lincoln with the remaining Regulators hoping to resolve matters with Dolan. He was hoping for a truce. Huston Chapman, an attorney, was there to mediate on behalf of the Regulators. The two groups met and agreed not to testify against one another. Then, the rival factions celebrated the agreement by getting drunk. Fortunately, Billy had the foresight to remain sober. One of Dolan’s men, William Campbell, demanded that Chapman do a jig. When he refused, Dolan and Campbell killed him and Billy fled the scene.
Negotiating a Pardon
On March 13, 1879, Lew Wallace received a letter from Billy the Kid, recounting the events that led to Chapman’s death. He wrote:
“I have no wish to fight any more. Indeed, I have not raised an arm since your proclamation. As to my character, I refer to any of the citizens, for the majority of them are my friends and have been helping me all they could. I am called Kid Antrim but Antrim is my stepfather’s name. Waiting for an answer I remain your obedient servant.”
Wallace responded on March 15, asking Billy to meet with him in Lincoln.
“Come to the house of Squire Wilson (not the lawyer) at nine o’clock next Monday night alone. I don’t mean his office, but his residence. Follow along the foot of the mountain south of the town, come in on that side, and knock on the east door. I have authority to exempt you from prosecution, if you will testify to what you say you know.
The object of the meeting at Squire Wilson’s is to arrange the matter in a way to make your life safe. To do that the utmost secrecy is to be used. So come along. Don’t tell anybody -not a living soul- where you are coming or the object. If you could trust Jesse Evans, you can trust me.”
Billy met secretly with Governor Wallace on March 17, 1879. Wallace asked him to voluntarily surrender and to testify to a Grand Jury investigating the murders of Tunstall and Chapman in exchange for a full pardon. Billy agreed. A few days later he surrendered to Sheriff Kimbrell and his posse.
Going to Court
The courts filed more than 200 criminal indictments against Dolan and 50 of his men, including Campbell in April, 1879. The charges encompassed the murders of Tunstall, McSween, and Huston. Many of the men indicted took advantage of the governor’s offer of amnesty. Billy testified that Dolan and Campbell had killed Chapman. The court, with Judge Bristol presiding and Rynerson representing those charged, suppressed physical evidence and eyewitness testimony, securing acquittals for everyone involved. Bristol and Rynerson were supposed to release Henry after the trial, but Rynerson refused to do so.
Governor Wallace never followed through with the pardon. He left Henry sitting in a jail cell in Lincoln. Wallace’s decision was influenced by rampant political corruption. Whereas he wasn’t a member of the Santa Fe Ring, he did nothing to impede their corruption and they wanted Henry dead. They used their political clout and influence over the judiciary to arrange that. Wallace’s decision to renege on his deal sealed Henry’s fate. After waiting for Wallace to come through with a pardon for three months, Henry realized that he had been betrayed. With the help of Tom O’Folliard, he escaped.
Dolan later acquired all of Tunstall’s property. The Tunstall family got nothing. They became resentful towards everyone involved. Dolan died on the Tunstall ranch in 1898 at the age of 49.
Captured by Pat Garrett
The citizens of Lincoln elected Pat Garrett as sheriff in November, 1880. Though he ran on an anti-corruption platform, he fully supported the interests of the Santa Fe Ring. On December 15, 1880, Governor Wallace put a $500 reward on Billy the Kid’s head and Garrett became the most persistent bounty hunter.
Pat Garrett captured Henry and several of the remaining Regulators on December 23. They were incarcerated in Santa Fe. Henry spent the next four months writing letters to Lew Wallace while he waited for his trial. Wallace never responded, because he was busy promoting his book, Ben Hur, back east. In April, Henry was transported to Mesilla to appear in front of Judge Bristol.
The trial in Mesilla was no coincidence. Catron, Rynerson and Bristol moved the court proceedings to Mesilla, because they knew they wouldn’t be able to convict Henry in Lincoln. Too many people knew the truth. They weren’t seeking justice. They were determined to silence Henry permanently. Mesilla was the home of Tom Catron, with many residents working as share croppers on his land. They knew if they defied him that he would take everything they had or kill them.
Bristol selected a jury that didn’t speak English and he barred Henry’s attorney, Ira Leonard, from representing him. Instead, he appointed Albert Fountain to Henry’s case. Fountain wasn’t familiar with the details of Henry’s case and he wasn’t given time to familiarize himself with the case. Though everyone agreed that Henry had not fired the shot that killed Sheriff Brady, Judge Bristol’s jury instructions made it clear that he wanted a conviction and the death penalty. Bristol got the verdict he wanted and Henry was taken to jail in Mesilla to await his hanging.
Escape from Mesilla
They scheduled Henry’s hanging for May 13, 1881. He was transported to the Lincoln County jail, where he was guarded by two of Garrett’s deputies, Bob Olinger and James Bell. On April 28, while Garrett was in White Oaks buying lumber for the scaffold to hang him, Billy retrieved a gun, apparently placed for him in the bathroom he was using. He killed Bell, took a shotgun from Garrett’s office, and waited by a window for Olinger to arrive. Olinger was a big man who had taken pleasure in tormenting Henry and who was more of an outlaw than a legitimate lawman. Olinger was part of the posse that killed Tunstall and had been charged, and acquitted, for multiple murders.
As Olinger approached the building, Henry greeted him, “Hello Bob,” and then killed him. Henry coerced a caretaker to knock the shackles from his legs and addressed some people who had assembled in the plaza below, saying he had, “not meant to kill Bell, or for that matter anyone else, but that he would kill anyone who tried to prevent his escape.” With those, he rode out of Lincoln for the last time.
Death of Billy the Kid
Pat Garrett and his posse tracked Henry down at Fort Sumner on July 14, 1881. He was staying with a friend, Pete Maxwell, the son of Lucien Maxwell, because he was dating Pete’s sister, Paulita Maxwell. Garrett and his posse approached the house around midnight and Garrett furtively entered through Pete’s bedroom window. Henry was outside getting a snack. Startled to see Garrett’s deputies, he ran back into the house to warn the others. He stepped into Pete’s darkened room and realized someone was in the room with Pete. When he asked who it was, Garrett responded with two shots. Paulita was pregnant with a daughter when Billy died, presumably his child.
The local sheriff deemed Henry’s death justifiable homicide the following day. They buried him next to Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre at Fort Sumner cemetery. Fort Sumner replaced the wooden cross with a carved tombstone in the 1940s. The Old Fort Sumner Museum is adjacent to the cemetery and provides a wealth of information about Henry’s brief life and tragic death. There is also a privately-owned museum, the Billy the Kid museum, dedicated to Billy’s life at Fort Sumner. Among the many treasures in their collection is the rifle that Billy was holding in the famous tintype portrait, the one given to him by Tunstall.
“Billy is said to be the master of the use of a revolver. He is a dead shot and can shoot quicker than any man in New Mexico…his aim with a revolver in each hand, shooting simultaneously, is unerring. With a Winchester rifle he can shoot as well with the gun at his side, without apparently taking any aim…His equal for the quick and unerring use of fire-arms has never been known in New Mexico.” The Denver Tribune | 1881
The Birth of a Legend
The mythos of Billy the Kid is interesting. History remembers him as an outlaw, but the circumstances of his crimes resulted in folk hero status. He stood up to corruption, but the men he opposed were powerful and eventually found a way to legally murder him. He would probably be surprised at his legacy, though it seems likely that he would have foregone the infamy in lieu of a full pardon.
Though the powerful men who wanted Billy dead celebrated the news, Pat Garrett received scorn from the local population rather than accolades. After Henry’s death, both Pat Garrett and Lew Wallace had tried to capitalize on their role in his death. Both men wrote sensationalized accounts of Henry’s life and death. They accused him of countless crimes that he didn’t commit and exaggerated their roles in bringing him “to justice.” Henry was portrayed as a sadistic killer, a rapist, and a demon. It was good fodder for national and international newspapers, but New Mexico citizens recognized the lies. They knew the character of the men involved.
In death, Billy the Kid became famous, a folk hero to many, whereas Pat Garrett symbolized the corruption that plagued the New Mexico Territory throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. Fittingly, Governor Wallace never paid Garrett the bounty. The citizens of Lincoln didn’t re-elect Garrett as Sheriff, perceiving him as unscrupulous and complicit with the Santa Fe Ring. Pat Garrett was gunned down in February, 1908 near Las Cruces at the age of fifty-seven.
Unfortunately, Henry’s death didn’t have an impact on the egregious abuse of power in the New Mexico territory. Catron, Bristol and Rynerson continued to profit by exploiting and corrupting the legal system. They continued to steal land from poor Hispanic ranchers and farmers and killed anyone who stood in their way. The legislature selected Thomas Catron to be the first U.S. Senator when New Mexico became a state in 1912. He was the richest of the rich and most corrupt of the corrupt. Justice was never served. Governor Bill Richardson considered a posthumous pardon in 2010. Unfortunately, he changed his mind after talking to the descendants of Pat Garrett so Henry is still waiting on that pardon.