On This Day in Criminal History: Billy the Kid

14 Jul

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.

About Billy The Kid



Posted by on July 14, 2009 in On This Day


6 responses to “On This Day in Criminal History: Billy the Kid

  1. Pat Browning

    July 14, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    I have a brother who’s convinced that the Kid survived and lived out his life as “Brushy Billy.” Be that as it may — do you know what finally happened to the scheduled exhumation and DNA testing to be done by Dr. Henry Lee of OJ fame? Did it ever take place, and if so, what were the results?

    Pat Browning


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      July 14, 2009 at 3:45 pm

      As far as I know it’s still up in the air. I know there was a law suit filed a year or so ago because apparently the evidence that Dr. Lee collected—blood from the bench where Billy bled to death–wasn’t made public. And then there were arguments over whether Billy’s body could be exhumed–to see if it really is Billy’s body. I’ll see if my friend Dr. Cyril Wecht knows anything about this.


  2. Robert W. Walker

    July 14, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    Peckinpah’ fiilm was indeed the best. This photo of the Kid I have seen before and it looks to me like Jerry Seinfeld in a bad cowboy outfit….

    rob walker


  3. Colleen Collins

    July 15, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    My father always claimed his father (who’d been in his early 20s in 1881–he’d been elderly when he fathered my father, which is why I have a grandfather who lived back then) had been one of the posse waiting outside the Maxwell Ranch the night “the Kid” was murdered by Pat Garrett. Who knows if that was true, but my father always claimed it was.

    Thanks for the post. Interesting info as always, Colleen Collins


  4. carl brookins

    July 17, 2009 at 9:27 am

    There’s a 1930 film directed by King Vidor, purported by some film historians to be based on extensive research, that is often cited as the most factual illustration of William Bonney’s life. More than one contemporaneous newspaper report pretty well documents that he did indeed kill at least 20 men, although a couple happened during fire fights so direct attribution is difficult at best. In any case, it pretty clear he was one nasty individual with a hair trigger temper.


  5. Patrice

    July 22, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    I read, somewhere years ago, he was from Hell’s Kitchen in NYC. Also that look on his face was due to adenoid/tonsil problems. He was described as a mouth-breather. He was no Paul Newman or a Kris Kristofferson. Some even described him as learning disabled (retarded), by today’s standards. New Bonnie and Clyde movie coming soon. They were also romanticized.



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