In 1881 Billy the Kid was on the run from jail and certain death. But this all ended after a three-month search led Lincoln County sheriff Pat Garrett to the town of Fort Sumner, New Mexico. And it was there that the fugitive was reportedly shot dead. But 70 years after the notorious outlaw’s death, an old man in Hico, Texas, then came forward, claiming to be the infamous criminal.
Billy the Kid’s life of notoriety was such that stories about him are still told to this day. Indeed, countless movies have portrayed the young gangster through the years. And with legends and narratives recirculating throughout history, it can be hard to distinguish fact from fiction.
The Kid was born Henry McCarty in the Irish slums of New York City. And although his birth year has been verified as 1859, the precise date has been questioned. Saint Peters’ Church in Manhattan, however, has claimed to have documents confirming that he was baptized on September 28 that year.
Meanwhile, McCarty’s father Patrick passed away when he was young. His mom Catherine then relocated with him and his younger brother Joseph several times, before marrying William Henry Harrison Antrim in 1873 in Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory. Indeed, his stepfather would eventually become the inspiration behind one of his stepson’s aliases, Kid Antrim.
Then shortly before his 14th birthday in September 1874, McCarty’s mom Catherine sadly passed away from tuberculosis. Indeed, it is believed that McCarty’s life of crime began on the first anniversary of his mother’s death. And what started as fairly innocent petty theft soon began to escalate.
McCarty, now staying in boarding houses and foster homes, first saw jail in 1875. The sentence came after he and fellow criminal George Schaefer robbed a Chinese laundry, where they stole clothes and a couple of pistols. However, he reportedly broke out of the prison after two days by climbing up a chimney and became a fugitive. A report detailing the incident was then published in the Silver City Herald, in what became the first ever story published about the outlaw.
McCarty then took refuge at his stepfather William Antrim’s home for a while, but it didn’t last. Indeed, they fell out, and after stealing guns and clothing from him, McCarty then made his way to southeastern Arizona. Here, he got work on the local ranches and spent his free time gambling his earnings.
And while working for a wealthy rancher, Henry Hooker, in 1876, McCarty met John R. Mackie. Discharged from the army, the Scottish-born U.S. Cavalry private was based near Camp Grant in Arizona. Together, the duo began stealing horses from local soldiers, and McCarty earned the nickname “Kid Antrim” thanks to his young age and personality.
Meanwhile, the number of people McCarty murdered during his crime spree is hotly disputed, with the man himself claiming to have killed 21. Nevertheless, his first murder occurred in August 1877 when, in a saloon in Bonita, Arizona, an exchange with local blacksmith Francis Cahill turned violent. The man threw McCarty to the floor, and during a struggle to reach the outlaw’s pistol, Cahill was fatally shot.
McCarty consequently went on the run after the murder, only to return several days later. Miles Wood, the local justice of the peace, then arrested the outlaw, and sent him to the Camp Grant guardhouse. However, McCarty then quickly escaped before law enforcement arrived.
McCarty subsequently stole a horse and headed to New Mexico Territory. But he had to complete the journey by foot after being robbed by Apaches. The outlaw finally arrived at Fort Stanton in the Pecos Valley, close to death, and sought the help of friend John Jones. And its here that his pal’s mother Barbara nursed an ailing McCarty back to good health.
And with McCarty later fully recovered, he then headed to the former army settlement of Apache Tejo in New Mexico. Here, the gangster hooked up with a group, and together they robbed cattle herds. McCarty then gave himself a new name in around 1877, calling himself William H. Bonney.
McCarty, now called Bonney, then began working for English rancher John Henry Tunstall in New Mexico. However, the latter, along with lawyer Alexander McSween, was in a dispute with a business opponent, Lawrence Murphy, who had formed an alliance with a number of other local magnates including James Dolan. And one day when the latter group arrived on Tunstall’s land, he confronted them and was killed.
Tunstall’s murder was the catalyst for the Lincoln County War, a conflict which pitted the two alliances against each other. Bonney and a colleague acquired murder warrants for the posse apparently responsible for Tunstall’s death, including local sheriff William J. Brady. But things backfired and the outlaw, along with those riding with him, were arrested.
Bonney, however, was released and he joined a group of local cowboys and ranch owners named The Regulators. They assembled to avenge Tunstall’s murder and oppose the perceived corruption of Dolan and his cohorts, as allegedly enabled by sheriff Brady.
It was with this posse that Bonney’s reputation grew. And as the most familiar member, his name was mentioned in all news reports of the group’s activities. Indeed, their actions were given legality by the town of Lincoln’s justice of the peace, John B. Wilson.
In April 1878 tensions came to a head between the Regulators and sheriff Brady, when the group ambushed the policeman and his deputies. Indeed, the officer was killed during the shoot-out, while Bonney sustained a leg injury. Another gun battle days later led to more deaths, and the outlaw, along with two others, was charged for these and the murder of Brady.
The Regulators now consisted of up to sixty men, and they stationed themselves in the town of Lincoln in a number of buildings. Unable to execute the order to arrest the men suspected of the murders, former army general and governor Lew Wallace then issued an amnesty. Indeed, the ruling pardoned anyone involved in the Lincoln County War, which followed the death of Tunstall.
But Bonney was out of luck. Wallace’s amnesty in November 1878 covered those involved in the Lincoln County War which followed Tunstall’s murder. But it excluded individuals who had been either indicted or convicted of a crime. This meant that Bonney remained a wanted man over the death of sheriff Brady.
In February 1879 Bonney and a friend then witnessed the gruesome murder of attorney Huston Chapman in Lincoln. The outlaw subsequently offered governor Wallace information on the death the following month, in exchange for his own amnesty. Indeed, Wallace then offered Bonney clemency and protection from his adversaries, so long as he testified before a grand jury.
Bonney then agreed to Wallace’s request that he be captured and apprehended. So in March 1879, the local sheriff’s posse arrested the outlaw and he was thrown in jail for his own protection. Bonney later appeared in court and gave his statement about Chapman’s murder, as per their agreement.
However, Bonney remained in jail after testifying. And he started to believe that Wallace had used subterfuge and would never give him amnesty. So, thinking he would never be released, Bonney broke out of Lincoln County jail in June 1879 and went on the run.
Bonney then stayed away from violence for several months until January 1880, when he shot and killed a man called Joe Grant in a saloon in Fort Sumner. But it was an incident in November that year that would lead to the outlaw’s ultimate downfall. Because when a shoot-out resulted in the death of deputy sheriff James Carlyle, Bonney and his gang became wanted men.
Weeks after the incident, Bonney and his posse rode into Fort Sumner. What they didn’t know was that a group led by sheriff Pat Garrett awaited them, eager for revenge. The cop and his company fired on Bonney and his men, killing one. But the rest of the outlaws managed to escape from the town unharmed.
Governor Wallace then offered a $500 reward for Bonney’s capture in December 1880. Meanwhile, sheriff Garrett continued hunting the outlaw, and later that same month cornered the group in Stinking Springs, New Mexico. After killing gang member Charlie Bowdre, Garrett and his men finally captured and apprehended Bonney, along with three others.
In April 1881 Bonney was tried and convicted of Sheriff Brady’s murder in Mesilla, New Mexico. In the only conviction secured over the Lincoln County War, he was sentenced to death by hanging, for the following month. But as he awaited his execution, the outlaw took a chance. While being transferred back to Lincoln, he stole a gun in the courthouse he was being kept in, and murdered deputy Bob Olinger before making his escape.
Governor Wallace then issued a second $500 reward for Bonney’s capture. However, three months after the latter’s escape, sheriff Garrett heard rumors claiming that the outlaw was staying with a friend called Pete Maxwell in Fort Sumner. And so the sheriff made his way there to investigate further.
What happened next has been debated ever since. It’s believed Garrett was questioning Maxwell as to Bonney’s whereabouts, when the fugitive himself appeared. According to History.com, Maxwell whispered, “That’s him,” as the fugitive’s figure appeared in the doorway, barely identifiable in the low lighting. He was reportedly carrying a gun and a butcher’s knife.
Not knowing the Sheriff was there, Bonney apparently shouted, “Who is it?” in Spanish. In the confusion, and having recognized the outlaw’s voice, Garrett drew his own gun and fired at him. And it only took one bullet to pierce the fugitive’s heart. Bonney’s time had come to an end – or had it?
That’s because as Bonney’s legend continued to grow in the subsequent decades, so too did doubts over whether he had indeed died that night. In fact, many questions were raised as to whether the man shot dead there was the famous outlaw at all.
One theory is that Bonney and Garrett were friends and the shooting was staged in order to allow the former to evade the law. And in the ensuing years, a number of individuals even claimed to be the fugitive. Indeed, the story of one man in particular gained enough traction to warrant its own legend.
In 1948 Ollie P. Roberts – a.k.a. William Henry Roberts or “Brushy Bill”- from Hico, Texas, claimed that he was in fact Bonney. He even requested a pardon for his supposed crimes from New Mexico governor Thomas Mabry.
Roberts said he was born on December 31, 1859, months after Bonney’s birthday. His claim to be the former outlaw started when an old man named Joe Hines told lawyer William Morrison that he was the outlaw Jesse Evans during a land custody dispute. Evans had been a member of the Murphy-Dolan posse responsible for John Tunstall’s murder, which triggered the Lincoln County War.
Meanwhile, Jesse Evans had disappeared in 1882 upon his release from prison. However, Hines told Morrison stories of his life during the Lincoln County War. In a shocking revelation, he made a claim that Bonney was living near Hamilton, Texas, under the name Ollie P. Roberts, or Brushy Bill.
Morrison then got in touch with Roberts, who finally “confessed” to being Bonney. The latter then requested help in receiving a pardon from the governor, and later even showed some of his skills: including slipping out of handcuffs. The lawyer Morrison even confirmed that the scars on Robert’s body matched those of Bonney.
Intrigued, Morrison then tried to track down some of the figures from the Lincoln County War era. He came across former gang member Jim McDaniels in Round Rock, Texas, along with several others, all of whom even signed affidavits verifying that they believed Roberts was the right man. However, questions remained over the authenticity of the claim.
Bonney is known to have been fluent in spoken Spanish. His English reading and writing skills, too, were proven in his correspondence as he sought amnesty from governor Wallace. Roberts’ own level of literacy, however, was never established, casting doubt over the whole claim.
Roberts, nearing the end of his life, agreed to reveal himself as Bonney if Morrison would help secure a pardon. After all, the outlaw was still wanted for murder, so admitting his supposed identity without a pardon from the governor could risk him being sentenced and eventually executed.
Roberts, however, then passed away in December 1950. Indeed, his story remained mostly forgotten for decades, until a movie in 38 years later rekindled it once more. That’s because when Young Guns II was released, which retold Bonney’s story from Roberts’ perspective, a sleeping dog was reawakened.
Today, numerous books tell Robert’s tale, including one by the lawyer that first investigated the claim, lawyer William Morrison. Indeed, there is even a museum dedicated to him in Hico, Texas. So the real identity of Bonney, Billy The Kid, may never be known, but the legend lives on.