Today is Bastille Day, marking the day in 1789 when French citizens stormed the Paris prison, a structure synonymous with the abusive monarchy and a place where horrible torture occurred. Though it housed only seven prisoners at the time, it’s destruction opened the way to the French Revolution.
This is also the day that Sheriff Pat Garrett shot dead Billy the Kid. The Kid went by various names, William H. Bonney, Henry Antrim, Henry McCarty, and many others, and is much more famous in death than he ever was in life. By most accounts he was a pleasant and friendly young man, a bit buck-toothed, with cat-like reflexes, and very skilled with a gun. He rose to contemporary fame for his part in the famous Lincoln County War, a bloody spat between ranchers and the owners of Murphy & Dolan Mercantile and Banking in Lincoln County, NM. The beef–pun intended since the war was mostly over who could raise and sell cattle in the county–resulted in 22 deaths and another 9 wounded.
Folklore says Billy killed 21 men, one for each year of his life, and that he was left-handed. He probably killed fewer than that and might have been right-handed. One of the very few, and some say only, authenticated pictures of him shows a gun on his left hip, but the photo is actually a mirror-image ferrotype. Some believe that he was ambidextrous but naturally right-handed.
In April of 1881 he was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang by Judge Warren Bristol. He escaped, overpowering and killing two of Sheriff Pat Garret’s guards, one with the guard’s own gun, the other with a 10-gauge double-barrel shotgun. Billy was off and running. Garrett organized a posse and gave chase, finally confronting and killing Billy on July 14, 1881. Even the story of this final act has remained controversial and clouded in myth.
Regardless, Billy the Kid is part of American folklore and in many respects truly bigger than life. He has been the subject of numerous books and movies. The great Paul Newman played him in the 1958 production The Left Handed Gun, but my favorite is Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, with Kris Kristofferson as Billy, James Coburn as Garrett, and a sound track to die for from Bob Dylan, who also played a memorable character named only Alias.