Billy The Kid was born in the slums of New York City in 1859. After the death of his father, he traveled west with his mother ending up in Silver City, New Mexico Territory in 1873. Little of substance is known about Billy’s life during this period, and myth has replaced fact to shroud the early years of Billy the Kid in folklore. What is known for sure is that he arrived in Lincoln County, New Mexico in 1877 using the name William Bonney. His life would last only four more years, but in that short period he became embroiled in the events that made him a legend.
Lincoln County was in a state of near-anarchy in 1877. The native Apache had recently been subdued and the local cattlemen divided themselves into two camps in a fight for local power. Unfortunately for Billy the Kid, he allied himself with the losing side in this “Lincoln County War.” Billy worked as a ranch hand for John Tunstall a leader of one faction seeking control of the county. Tunstall befriended the Kid acting in many ways as a surrogate father. Tunstall’s ambush and murder in 1878 by a sheriff’s posse set the Kid off on a path of revenge. His first victims were the sheriff and his deputy, killed from ambush on the streets of Lincoln. On the run for two years, the Kid was eventually captured, tried, convicted and returned to Lincoln to hang for the murders. However, Lincoln’s makeshift jail was no match for Billy the Kid.
On the evening of April 28, 1881 as he was climbing the steps returning him to his cell, the Kid made a mad dash, grabbed a six-shooter and shot his guard. Hearing the shots, a second guard ran from across the street only to be gunned down by the Kid standing on the balcony above him. Mounting a horse, William Bonney galloped out of town and into history.
Pat Garrett was elected Sheriff of Lincoln County in 1880 on a reform ticket with the expectation that he would reinstate justice in the area. One of his first acts was to capture Billy the Kid, sending him to trial for the murder of the Lincoln sheriff and his deputy. Garrett was away from Lincoln on county business when the Kid made his escape.
While Bonney was on the run, Governor Wallace placed a new $500 bounty on the fugitive’s head. Almost three months after his escape, Garrett acted in response to rumors that Bonney was in the vicinity of Fort Sumner. Garrett and two deputies left Lincoln on July 14, 1881, to question one of the town’s residents, a friend of Bonney’s named Pete Maxwell.Maxwell, son of land baron Lucien Maxwell, spoke with Garrett the same day for several hours. Around midnight, the pair sat in Maxwell’s darkened bedroom when Bonney unexpectedly entered the room.
Accounts vary as to the course of events. The canonical version states that as Bonney entered the room, he failed to recognize Garrett due to the poor lighting. Drawing his revolver and backing away, Bonney asked “¿Quién es? ¿Quién es?“, Spanish for “Who is it? Who is it?”. Recognizing Bonney’s voice, Garrett drew his revolver, firing twice. The first bullet struck Bonney in the chest just above his heart, killing him.
A few hours after the shooting, a local justice of the peace assembled a coroner’s jury of six people. Maxwell and Garrett were interviewed by the jury members and Bonney’s body was examined along with the place of the shooting. After the jury certified the body as Bonney’s, the jury foreman was put on record by a local newspaper as stating, “It was ‘the Kid’s’ body that we examined.Bonney was given a wake by candlelight. He was buried the next day and his grave was denoted with a wooden marker.
Five days after Bonney’s killing, Garrett traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to collect the $500 reward offered by Governor Lew Wallace for his capture, dead or alive. William G. Ritch, the acting New Mexico governor, refused to pay the reward. Over the next several weeks, the citizens of Las Vegas, Mesilla, Santa Fe, White Oaks, and other New Mexico cities raised over $7,000 bounty reward money for Garrett. A year and four days after Bonney’s death, the New Mexico territorial legislature passed a special act to grant Garrett the $500 bounty reward promised by Governor Wallace.
Because people had begun to claim that Garrett unfairly ambushed Bonney, Garrett felt the need to tell his side of the story. In response, Garrett called upon his friend, journalist Marshall Upson, to ghostwrite a book for him. The collaboration led to the book The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid,which was first published in April 1882. Although only a few copies sold following its release, the book eventually became a reference for historians who later wrote about Bonney’s life.