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Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid

William H. Bonney, known as Billy the Kid (1859-1881), was the prototype of the American western gunslinger. He was the youngest and most convincing of the folk hero-villains.

On Nov. 23, 1859, William Bonney was born in New York City but moved as a young lad to Kansas. His father soon died, and his mother remarried and moved west to New Mexico. Having killed a man for insulting his mother, Bonney fled to the Pecos Valley, where he was drawn into the cattle wars then in progress. He became a savage murderer of many men, including Sheriff James Brady and a deputy, and scorned Governor Lew Wallace's demand that he surrender. "His equal for sheer inborn savagery," wrote journalist Emerson Hough, "has never lived." Such statements sent Bonney's reputation soaring and won him the nickname Billy the Kid.

Enjoying such notoriety, Billy the Kid gave no quarter to a hostile world. Condemned to hang, he heard a Las Vegas, Nev., judge say: "You are sentenced to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead!" "And you can go to hell, hell, hell!" Billy spat back for an answer.

There are few facts about Billy the Kid's career that can be verified. It is known that women found him attractive. To Native American woman named Deluvina, who pulled off her shawl and wrapped it around him when he was a handcuffed prisoner, Billy gave the tintype of himself which remains the only authentic likeness. Sally Chisum, chatelaine of a large ranch, reported: "In all his personal relations he was the pink of politeness and as courteous a little gentleman as I ever met."

Sheriff Pat Garrett and a large posse vowed to track Billy down and destroy him. In the fall of 1881 they trapped him at Pete Maxwell's house in Fort Summer, N.Mex., ambushed him in a pitch-black room, and shot him to death. The next day he was buried in a borrowed white shirt too large for his slim body. Admirers scraped together $208 for a gravestone, which was later splintered and carried away by relic hunters. Billy had lived exactly 21 years 7 months 21 days.

From the first Billy's fame was part of a folkloric, oral tradition; it had more to do with western chauvinism than with literal history. If his crimes are dated, his appeal is not, as attested to by the many books and movies based on his life.

Further Reading

An important source for material on Billy is Jefferson C. Dykes, Billy the Kid: The Bibliography of a Legend (1952), which lists and evaluates all the earlier material. Writers and publicists most responsible for Bonney's fame include Charlie Siringo, History of "Billy the Kid" (1920), and Walter Noble Burns, The Saga of Billy the Kid (1926).

Additional Sources

The Capture of Billy the Kid, College Station, Tex.: Creative Pub. Co., 1988.

Cline, Donald, Alias Billy the Kid: the man behind the legend, Santa Fe, N.M.: Sunstone Press, 1986.

Fable, Edmund, The true life of Billy the Kid, the noted New Mexican outlaw, College Station, Tex.: Creative Pub. Co., 1980.

Garrett, Pat F. (Pat Floyd), The authentic life of Billy the Kid: the noted desperado of the Southwest, whose deeds of daring and blood made his name a terror in New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico, Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980.

Priestley, Lee, Billy the Kid: the good side of a bad man, Las Cruces, N.M.: Arroyo Press, 1989; Las Cruces, N.M.: Yucca Tree Press, 1993.

Tuska, Jon, Billy the Kid, a bio-bibliography, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Tuska, Jon, Billy the Kid, a handbook, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986, 1983.

Tuska, Jon, Billy the Kid, his life and legend, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Utley, Robert Marshall, Billy the Kid: a short and violent life, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. □

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Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid

Born: November 23, 1859
New York, New York
Died: July 14, 1881
Fort Sumner, New Mexico

American criminal and murderer

William H. Bonney, known as Billy the Kid, was the youngest and most famous example of a gun-fighter from the American West. His legend survived and grew long after his death.

Beginning of a short life

On November 23, 1859, Henry McCarty was born in New York City but moved to Kansas with his family when he was very young. His father died soon after the move and his mother remarried and moved west to New Mexico. Henry took his stepfather's name, Antrim, and eventually changed his name to William H. Bonney.

There are very few facts about Bonney's career that can be verified. His problems with the law began at age fifteen, when he was thrown in jail for theft in Silver City, New Mexico. After escaping to Arizona, he shot and killed an older man who had bullied him into a fight. Bonney then fled back to New Mexico.

Reputation grows

Back in New Mexico, Bonney became involved in the Lincoln County War (187879), a violent struggle between rival groups of cattle ranchers and merchants. He proved to be a fearless fighter and an excellent shot. However, two of those shots ended up killing Sheriff James Brady and a deputy. As a result, Bonney was wanted for murder. "His equal for sheer inborn savagery," wrote journalist Emerson Hough, "has never lived." Such statements sent Bonney's reputation soaring and won him the nickname Billy the Kid.

Billy struck a deal with Territorial Governor Lew Wallace. He agreed to testify against other murderers in return for having the charges against him dropped. However, after gaining his freedom, Billy returned to his criminal ways. He led several other men in stealing cattle from some Texas ranchers. Wallace then ordered him arrested. Sheriff Pat Garrett soon took the Kid into custody. A judge told Billy that "You are sentenced to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead!" Billy the Kid's reply was "And you can go to hell, hell, hell!"

A violent end

Billy the Kid was somehow able to overpower and kill his jail guard, shoot another deputy, and escape. This time the lawmen would take no chances. In July 1881 Sheriff Garrett and his posse (a group of men organized by the sheriff to assist him) trapped Billy at a house in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. They ambushed him in a dark room and shot him to death. The next day he was buried in a borrowed white shirt that was too large for his slim body. Admirers scraped together $208 for a gravestone, which was later broken into pieces and stolen by souvenir hunters. Billy had lived exactly twenty-one years, seven months, and twenty-one days.

Over the years, the legend of Billy the Kid grew as a result of several books and movies made about his life, many of which exaggerated the facts. For example, he did not kill twenty-one people; he killed four men and participated in the killing of several others. Far worse than the inaccuracy of the stories were their attempts to make a hero out of a thief and murderer.

For More Information

Cline, Donald. Alias Billy the Kid: The Man Behind the Legend. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press, 1986.

Utley, Robert M. Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

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Brady, Diamond Jim

Diamond Jim Brady (James Buchanan Brady), 1856–1917, American financier and philanthropist, b. New York City. He was a bellboy and messenger and then worked for the New York Central RR in various capacities. He later was employed by a railroad supply company, and his selling ability rapidly brought him a fortune. He began collecting diamonds and other jewels and amassed 30 complete sets of jewelry estimated as worth well over $1 million. He was famous for his appetite and elaborate meals and was one of the best-known men in New York's Broadway nightlife. In 1912 he gave funds to Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore (where he had received treatment) to found the James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute.

See biography by P. Morrell (1934, repr. 1970).

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"Brady, Diamond Jim." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid. Ballet in 1 act, mus. by Copland, to lib. by Kirstein, choreog. Loring; comp. for Ballet Caravan 1938 (Chicago). Subject was ‘Wild West’ gunman ( William Bonney). Concert Suite for orch., and pf. suite, 1938.

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