Notorious Gunslinger Remembered 130 Years Later

This month marks the 130th anniversary of the death of Billy the Kid. Like many gunslingers of the 19th century Old West, his notoriety was partly based on exaggerated accounts of his exploits.

His reputation continued to grow as his story was told and re-told in novels, songs, theater and film.

Legend says Billy the Kid shot 21 men, one for each year of his life.

American legend

There are more than 65 movies which tell the story of the charismatic outlaw. Legendary American folk singer Woody Guthrie immortalized him in a song.

“Billy the Kid,” a 1938 ballet written by American composer Aaron Copland remains one of Copland’s most widely performed pieces. And artist Thom Ross has created more than 200 paintings which he thinks reflect a universal theme.

“There is so much murder. There is so much of midnight riding, the thundering hooves, the guns going off, these grim men dressed in boots and spurs and hats and guns,” says Ross. “So all those horrible, horrible moments have just been fabulous in terms of inspiration for doing paintings.”

One of Ross’s favorite works shows Pat Garrett and two deputies riding along the Pecos River at nigh, which recalls the three wise men of the Christmas story.

“So you take that same story, you change the camel to a quarterhorse, you change the turban to a Stetsonand you have the same story,” he says. “Three men, the Magi going to see baby Jesus bringing gifts of life. And for Pat Garrett and his two deputies, riding to see the Kid, they are bringing gifts of death: bullets, knives and guns.”

The real story

The real story is as hard to come by as the Kid’s real name; at times he was William H. Bonney, William McCarty, Henry McCarty and Henry Antrim.

Billy the Kid’s life of crime began when he was a teenager in New Mexico, roaming the streets, stealing and hanging out with the wrong crowd.

“He flees to Arizona where he kills his first man at the age of 17,” says Mark Lee Gardner,  a storyteller, musician and scholar of the old American West.

Gardner recounts the story in his book, “To Hell on a Fast Horse: The Untold Story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett.”

According to Gardner, the baby-faced outlaw did some honest work, but made his mark stealing cattle and horses. Along the way, Billy murdered several men. Scholars say it’s more like nine, rather than the 21 of legend.

Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett

When he was captured by Sheriff Pat Garrett, Gardner says Billy made the most famous jailbreak in the history of the West.

“He kills his two guards, a broad daylight escape and Pat Garrett then has to track Billy down a second time, and 130 years ago, in July 14 around midnight, he shot him in this darkened room and Billy’s been a legend ever since.”

Over time, Billy the Kid became a folk hero while the sheriff was painted as a villain, a reputation which Gardner believes is not deserved.

“To me, Pat Garrett was a hero. Pat Garrett went after Billy, something that no other lawman had been willing to do,” he says. “He was successful. He captured Billy the Kid twice. He deserves to be better known and better appreciated as an upstanding sheriff.”

The History Channel is adapting Gardner’s book for a four-hour television miniseries, written by Cyrus Nowrasteh.

“I think the attraction to this new book is it is a really accurate, well-researched account of these two fascinating characters of American legend,” Nowrasteh says. “I think we may be attacking the story from the Garrett perspective while at the same time telling the Kid’s story, and sort of cross-cutting back and forth between them.”

While Billy the Kid has been pictured numerous times on screen, in books, on stage and on canvas, the only authentic image of the young outlaw – that scholars can agree on – is a small photograph taken sometime in late 1879 or early 1880.

It was sold at auction in June for $2.3 million, the most ever paid for a historic photo.