On This Day – 23 September 1875 – Billy the Kid is arrested for the first time


While he has Irish connections of his own it is the involvement of William Henry McCarty in an Anglo-Irish war that is of most Irish interest. Not THE Anglo-Irish war, also known as  the War of Independence, you understand but AN Anglo-Irish war – of sorts. This one was fought out in New Mexico in the 1880s.


So who is William Henry McCarty? Well he also went under the name of William Bonney. And if that doesn’t ring any bells his nickname probably will. He was best known as Billy the Kid.  It’s hardly unusual in the USA that a violent antihero and probable psychopath should be viewed with reverence. But the Kid has had more books written about him,  more films made about him, and more porkies told about him – some by himself –  than any other Western outlaw.


He was born in New York City, probably in 1859, to an Irishwoman, Catherine McCarty, whose maiden name was Devine. No other parent’s name is listed on his birth certificate though his father may have been a Patrick McCarty.  Billy was brought up in the lower east side of the city in the area known as the Five Points – made famous in the Martin Scorsese movie Gangs of New York.


By 1873 Catherine McCarty and her new husband, William Antrim were living in New Mexico. In 1874 Catherine Antrim died. The following year her son became involved in petty crime. In September 1875 he robbed a Chinese laundry in Silver City, New Mexico, was arrested, escaped from jail and went on the run. He was fifteen years old. He didn’t have long left.


The most celebrated and persistent myth about the Kid is that he killed a man for every year of his short life (he was dead by the age of twenty-one). This tall tale may have come from the Kid himself to counteract his youthful appearance and enhance his aura of invincibility but it is well wide of the mark. He is known to have been personally responsible for the deaths of four men and was complicit in the killing of four more.


His first victim was a thirty-two-year-old Irishman, Frank Cahill, a native of Galway.  The two men met, and fought, in Arizona. Cahill came off worse. The Kid was immediately arrested but, once again, displayed his knack for escaping custody. Facing a murder charge in Arizona, he returned to New Mexico. There he became involved in what is known today as the Lincoln County War. This was a power struggle for economic and political domination of southern New Mexico fought out between a group of dodgy Irish businessmen, farudsters and rustlers, Lawrence Murphy, John Riley and Jimmy Dolan on the one side, and an equally dubious young English opportunist  John Henry Tunstall as well as his Scottish-American partner Alexander McSween. The Kid enlisted on the ‘British’ side of the conflict when he took a job as one of Tunstall’s hired thugs.


His career as a practicing psychopath reached new depths in February 1878 when Tunstall was murdered by members of a posse sent out by the Sheriff of Lincoln County, William Brady from Cavan. The Kid claimed his second Irish victim a few days later when he, and at least two more of Tunstall’s former employees, gunned down Sheriff Brady in Lincoln.


The Kid went on the run again but after numerous brushes with the law, and a lot more violence, he was captured by the new Lincoln County Sheriff, Pat Garrett. He was tried and found guilty of the murder of Brady in April 1881. He was taken to Lincoln jail to await hanging but escaped yet again, this time killing two of Garret’s deputies, Bob Ollinger and James Bell as he made his getaway.


New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace, the author of Ben Hur, put a $500 reward on Billy the Kid’s head and Garrett went in pursuit again. He tracked the Kid down in July 1881 and shot him dead in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Later Garrett, who had been a friend of McCarty – or Bonney, or Antrim – capitalized on their association by writing a suitably self-serving biography, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. As with Jesse James, Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley, there were many reports of sightings of the Kid after his apparent demise. As he would now be more than one hundred and fifty years old we can be fairly confident that he is actually dead. But his legend lives on. So far he’s been played by Audie Murphy, Roy Rogers, Paul Newman, Kris Kristofferson and Emilio Estevez, among many others.


Billy the Kid was arrested for the first time after robbing a laundry one hundred and forty one years ago, on this day.