On August 17, 1877, two men wrestled on the floor of a saloon in Bonita, Arizona. A young man named Henry McCarty had answered back when Frank “Windy” Cahill, a blacksmith and notorious bully, labeled him a “pimp.” Now the pair were grappling for McCarty’s gun. Then a shot rang out; Cahill was fatally injured. And McCarty, who was 17 years old and had never murdered anyone before, went on the run…
Historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously claimed that American democracy was forged in the westward expansion of the American frontier; he also suggested that the western U.S. may very well have helped forge a core American identity. And the Wild West itself was a place of hardy pioneers, settlers, cowboys and entrepreneurs that has now become synonymous with notions of adventure and rugged individualism. The period is arguably best known for its outlaws, however, with the likes of Jesse James, Curly Bill, the Dalton brothers and Butch Cassidy still infamous today. But perhaps none of these legendary criminals have become as iconic as Billy the Kid.
And according to psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, who scrutinized the myth of Billy the Kid in 1951, the gunslinger’s legend has taken on an epic stature comparable to those of King Arthur or Robin Hood. Indeed, most artistic portrayals of the gunslinger tend towards one of two basic archetypes: romantic anti-hero or cold-hearted villain. However, a new historical analysis asserts that the Kid may have had a hidden talent, suggesting a more nuanced view of the fabled outlaw.
The Kid’s story is certainly a compelling one. The future gunfighter is thought to have been born Henry McCarty in late 1859 in an New York City slum. McCarty and his Irish mother Catherine eventually upped sticks to Wichita, Kansas, however, before the pair finally settled in New Mexico in the 1870s. But tragedy would hit McCarty at a young age. In 1874 Catherine succumbed to tuberculosis, making her then-14-year-old son an orphan.
After his mother’s death, then, McCarty bounced between boarding houses and foster families. In time, though, he would befriend some local miscreants, with one of the troublemakers – who went by the name of “Sombrero Jack” – apparently roping him into thieving from a Chinese laundry. Subsequently, McCarty’s boarding house landlord informed the police of the teenager’s antics, and McCarty was arrested for the first time. However, the boy never went to court for the alleged crime; after climbing up the jailhouse chimney, he made a clean getaway.
Two years later, McCarty shot Frank Cahill in Bonita, committing the first of what is said to be several murders. But while McCarty originally bolted from the scene of the crime, he returned to town within a matter of days. After that, he was captured by Justice of the Peace Miles Wood and incarcerated at Camp Grant (now Fort Grant). Yet again, though, McCarty escaped before he could be punished. Shortly thereafter, he assumed the alias of “William H. Bonney” – although others dubbed him “Billy the Kid.”
And Bonney secured his gunfighting credentials during the so-called “Lincoln County War.” On one side of the conflict was Irishmen James Dolan and Lawrence Murphy, who held sway over all business in cattle and dry goods in the county; on the other, Englishman and rancher John Tunstall, who employed Bonney as a security guard. Violence flared in February 1878 after a posse led by local sheriff William Brady murdered Tunstall.
Bent on revenge, Tunstall’s one-time employees, including Bonney, formed a makeshift militia called “The Regulators.” And the ensuing “war” – which claimed the life of Sherriff Brady among several others – reached a head in July 1878. Now numbering as many as 60 men, the Regulators holed themselves up in various buildings around the community of Lincoln and shot it out with Dolan and Murphy’s allies over several days. However, the Regulators were eventually driven out when Colonel Nathan Dudley brought reinforcements from Fort Stanton.
The Regulators subsequently disbanded, and a $500 bounty was given for Bonney’s head. But while legend holds that Bonney was responsible for around 21 deaths during his criminal career, historical experts believe that the real figure is realistically no more than nine. In fact, the Kid’s reputation as a violent outlaw has been somewhat exaggerated. He never partook in robberies, for one, apparently preferring instead to engage in cattle rustling.
Nonetheless, Bonney did not flinch when threatened. In one well-known incident that took place in January 1880, the outlaw reportedly approached a belligerent drunk in a New Mexico saloon on the pretense of admiring his gun. Bonney is then said to have taken the weapon, deftly revolved its cylinder so that the chamber was empty then returned it. Later that night, when the drunk attempted to shoot Bonney, his gun did not fire – so Bonney shot back and killed him.
Still, there is evidence to suggest that Billy the Kid may have had another talent than mere gunslinging. In fact, historian Chuck Usmar thinks that Bonney could very well have taken on a role as an interpreter. In particular, Usmar has suggested, the outlaw translated for a Gaelic-speaking Irish immigrant who was unable to understand English.
As evidence for his claim, Usmar cites an interview given by one Clark Hust in 1954. Hust was an employee of an Irish immigrant called Pat Coughlan, who had managed a cattle ranch in Tularosa, New Mexico. And according to Hust, Coughlan and his wife had a niece called Mary. However, Mary could not converse in English and so needed an interpreter to speak with the ranch workers. That interpreter, moreover, was Billy the Kid.
In a 2015 article for True West magazine, Usmar added, “In examining all the extant territorial newspapers from this period, I came across a mention in a Mesilla newspaper that stated the Coghlans and their niece had been in town visiting. The homesick niece ended up back in Ireland… Coghlan, who died in 1911, bequeathed in his will what was left of his ranch to his nephew and two nieces.”
And since Bonney is thought to have grown up surrounded by Irish immigrants in New York, it is possible that he did indeed learn to speak Gaelic – probably from his mother. Indeed, it is still very common for second-generation immigrants to speak their parents’ language as well as that of their birth country.
In fact, Bonney may even have been trilingual, as he likely rubbed shoulders with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. After all, New Mexico was part of Mexico’s national territory until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded it to the United States. And, indeed, Bonney’s famous last words were in Spanish.
In 1880 the Kid was brought to heel by Pat Garrett, the sheriff of Lincoln County, who found him hiding out in Stinking Springs in New Mexico. Bonney was then incarcerated in Lincoln’s courthouse after a guilty verdict was returned for his involvement in the murder of Sheriff Brady. But while a date was set for his execution, that event would not take place. On April 28, 1881, Bonney made an audacious escape, killing two guards and stealing a horse to do so.
Then Bonney fled to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where he remained under the protection of locals for a few months. However, during the evening of July 14, 1881, he made the fateful mistake of visiting local rancher Peter Maxwell. Why was this a mistake? Well, unknown to Bonney, Garrett himself had just arrived to ask questions of Maxwell. “¿Quién es? (Who is it?)” Bonney asked, upon seeing a silhouetted figure in the darkness of a bedroom. Recognizing Bonney’s voice, Garrett responded with his gun and shot the outlaw in the heart.
But despite the widespread acknowledgement that Garrett had slain the Kid, rumors later emerged that Bonney was in fact alive. Some of the more outlandish theories suggested that Garrett had assisted in faking his demise. And in the 1940s, a man called “Brushy Bill” Roberts even contended that he was the Kid himself – although his claim was subsequently disproved. Today, then, most historians accept the conventional narrative that Garrett did indeed kill Bonney.
Meanwhile, no single outlaw in the history of the West has received more attention than Billy the Kid, with dozens of books, films and TV programs dedicated to his life. Furthermore, the media even went so far as to begin romanticizing the figure immediately after his death, with newspapers publishing over-embellished obituaries and accounts of his life.
But disentangling the Kid from his legend is not an easy task, particularly as the outlaw was given to roam. In fact, there is only one photo of him that is not considered to be either fake or inaccurate. Still, the work of historians such as Usmar continue to reveal intriguing new dimensions to the Wild West icon: gunfighter, cattle rustler… and interpreter.