Recently, a photograph purported to show both the infamous outlaw Billy the Kid and his eventual killer, Pat Garrett, came to light (see above, with Billy second left and Garrett far right). Having been verified several times, it is reported to be worth over a million dollars, after originally being bought for ten. Who exactly were these people, though? Because some of the popular history of the two men is not entirely true.
Billy the Kid was born William Henry McCarty Jr on 23rd November 1859, in New York City. History records little of Billy’s early life, but it is known that he indulged in theft from a young age, and joined a violent criminal gang, with whom he is known to have committed murder. The legend that grew up around Billy the Kid was created by Sheriff Pat Garrett. He wrote down accounts of Billy’s crimes. He was also the man who eventually brought his criminal activities to an end by shooting him dead.
Modern legend says that Sheriff Garrett was a friend of Billy’s, who became his biographer before he had no choice but to hunt him down. In fact, Garrett and McCarty were never friends. In her article about Billy the Kid, historian Marcelle Brothers says, “To have a friend-turn-lawman shoot his old outlaw buddy makes a great plot for novels and movies. Garrett and the Kid no doubt knew each other, but they were not close friends..”
Garrett was the Sheriff of Lincoln County in 1880, and wrote his first story about Billy the Kid in July of that year. In fact, it was shortly after he became Sheriff that Garrett managed to capture the Kid and send him to trial for the murder of the former Lincoln sheriff and his deputy. While Garrett was away from Lincoln attending to his ranch, however, Billy managed to escape.
Garrett was still working on his ranch when he heard that the Kid was hiding out at the abandoned Fort Sumner about 140 miles away. With the help of his two deputies, John Poe and Thomas McKinney, the Sheriff therefore set off in pursuit. On arrival at the Fort, which was now a residential area, he discovered that the home owners were on the Kid’s side, and they refused to give him up. Deciding he needed more help, Garrett went to find an old friend in the area, Peter Maxwell. However, on his way, Garrett accidentally same across Billy, and attempted to arrest him.
Garrett himself recorded what happened next. “…we unsaddled here, got some coffee, and, on foot, entered an orchard which runs from this point down to a row of old buildings, some of them occupied by Mexicans, not more than sixty yards from Maxwell’s house. We approached these houses cautiously, and when within earshot, heard the sound of voices conversing in Spanish. We concealed ourselves quickly and listened; but the distance was too great to hear words, or even distinguish voices. Soon a man arose from the ground, in full view, but too far away to recognise. He wore a broad-brimmed hat, a dark vest and pants, and was in his shirtsleeves. With a few words, which fell like a murmur on our ears, he went to the fence, jumped it, and walked down towards Maxwell’s house. Little as we then suspected it, this man was the Kid… Simultaneously the Kid must have seen, or felt, the presence of a third person at the head of the bed. He raised quickly his pistol, a self-cocker, within a foot of my breast. Retreating rapidly across the room he cried: ‘Quien es? Quien es?’ ‘Who’s that? Who’s that?’) All this occurred in a moment. Quickly as possible I drew my revolver and fired, threw my body aside, and fired again. The second shot was useless; the Kid fell dead. He never spoke…”
As with many of history’s notable characters, heroes and villains alike, the facts are often less dramatic and more exaggerated. There is something amongst the smoke of the tales of Garrett and the Kid, but in truth it is close to an ember.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.