Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 103

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 103


This is the grave of Henry McCarty, aka, William Bonney, aka, Billy the Kid.

Billy the Kid was a murderous thug who achieved the Old West fame that eastern urban Americans were just eating up in the late 19th and early 20th century. Born in Manhattan, of all places for a western murderer to be birthed, in 1859, his father died at some point early in his life and his mother moved to Indianapolis. Why anyone chooses to move to Indianapolis without a really good reason, in the 1860s or 2010s, is unknown to modern scholars. Anyway, his mother remarried in 1873 and the family moved to Wichita, then Santa Fe, and then Silver City, New Mexico Territory. It was there that Billy began his life of violence. His mother died in 1874 and his stepfather evidently didn’t want him around. In 1875, the poor kid, who really never had a chance, as was so common for 19th century impoverished children, was caught stealing food. But this was no regular poor kid. A mere ten days later, he robbed a Chinese laundry in Silver City and stole some guns. He was caught and jailed, and then escaped.

Thus began a life of criminality. He moved to Arizona Territory, became a cowhand, and ran with rough people. He was known for spending a lot of time gambling. He first killed a man in 1877, during a fight in a saloon in Bonita, Arizona. He escaped the prison again and rode back into New Mexico, but heading toward Pecos, his horse was stolen by the Apaches. He nearly died before getting to Pecos, but was nursed back to health.

The post-Civil War American West was a violent mess. Even leaving aside the genocide against Native Americans, many Civil War veterans suffering from PTSD moved out to the West where they continued the war in what my undergraduate advisor Richard Maxwell Brown called “The Western Civil War of Incorporation.” Despite the clunky name, it makes sense in describing what was going on. Basically, northern thugs were largely Republicans and taking advantage of the fact that Republicans controlled the federal government in an age of patronage to gain control of western land and resources. Largely, southern Democrats were out of luck. So if you examine the famed incidents of western violence, it’s almost always northern Republicans on the side of law and order and southern Democrats as the outlaws. In reality, both sides were staffed with violent thugs. Billy the Kid was far too young to fight in the Civil War but he as a poor kid with a murder rap, he fit in well with the violent Texans he got to know.

The intricacies of the Lincoln County War are too convoluted to bother explaining here and who really cares anyway. In any case, Billy started working as a cattle rustler. At first, he offered to rustle cattle for John Chisum, a Tennessee-born cattle rancher attempting to build an empire in central New Mexico. That was fine for awhile, but Billy and the gang he developed got out of control and Chisum turned on him. Eventually, Billy came under the employ of Alexander McSween, a Scottish immigrant also attempting to be a cattleman but who found himself locked out by the Republican machine in Santa Fe. McSween hired Billy and a bunch of Texans to be on his side. A lot of violence ensued and Billy killed a whole mess of people, at least 8 men and quite likely more. McSween was killed in 1878 but Billy escaped and continued his violence. The killings continued for another 3 years. He was finally caught and convicted of killing a sheriff in 1881, but escaped before he was to hang after killing a couple more people in Lincoln, New Mexico, where he was to die. He went to Fort Sumner, and word got out that he was there. By this time, Governor Lew Wallace, who was a political hack appointee when he wasn’t writing Ben Hur, a novel mysteriously seen as a brilliant piece of literature in the Gilded Age before people acquired decent taste, offered a bounty on Billy’s head. Finally, Pat Garrett shot him in Fort Sumner, New Mexico on July 14, 1881.

The number of media portrayals of Billy the Kid is totally out of control. Among the better versions in film are Kris Kristofferson’s role in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, although that movie isn’t really all that great, even without Bob Dylan pointlessly floating through it. And then there is Young Guns, which is best not discussed. I haven’t seen The Left Handed Gun with Paul Newman, which I should alleviate. There are some pretty good songs about him, from Marty Robbins’ version of the song by his name to the Buddy Tabor song that uses his name. Joe Ely’s “Me and the Billy the Kid” is like my least favorite of his songs, but I like the origin, which is the fact that the Billy the Kid museum in Fort Sumner has nothing to do with the actual person, so Ely figured he could write whatever he wanted. But for a complete and utter thug, this kind of media attention is ridiculous.

Billy the Kid is buried at Old Fort Sumner Cemetery, Fort Sumner, New Mexico, on the land of the Navajo genocide at the Bosque Redondo.

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