It happened today - September 23, 2015
It’s a bit of an unglamorous start. Billy the Kid was arrested for the first time on September 23 1875 for stealing a basket of laundry. But then, he had an unglamorous life despite the weird aura that came to surround it later.
He broke out of jail after the laundry heist and went on a murderous crime spree that ended, predictably, with an early violent death that came not a minute too soon, as he had murdered some 21 people by the point Sheriff Pat Garrett gunned him down in Fort Sumner, New Mexico on July 14, 1881.
We don’t even know how old “Billy the Kid” was when he died or where he was born. We know he was named William Henry McCarty, though he also went by William Bonney as well as “Kid Antrim,” and that he had no relationship with his father, and that after his mother died in 1874 he quickly started down the path that made him notorious and dead by, at the latest, his very early 20s. And that he had bad teeth. But most of what we know is the surface stuff, the stealing, rustling, gambling and killing.
Yes, he was bold. He broke jail several times and killed lawmen as well as other thugs. But he was a bad, grubby, nasty man and he died a bad, grubby, nasty death. And while he had a difficult start in life, and lived in a bad area (one documentary I watched on the “Lincoln County War” in which he took part described the region as a place where “a man would kill you just to see if a gun worked”) he made choices that other people with tough childhoods in rough places do not make.
The weird thing is, it made him an icon. Garrett became famous for killing McCarty, but also unpopular, partly because he was thought to have shot him without warning. And when he was himself shot dead in 1908 the killer was acquitted and Garrett, who admittedly was rather a nasty character himself, only interests people today because of his association with “Billy the Kid,” who became as famous as Wild Bill Hickok or Wyatt Earp (who incidentally died in 1929 aged 80), a curiously romantic figure, with a museum near his tourist-attraction gravesite.
What for? What’s to like, admire or idealize about this cold, impulsive, vicious killer whose ruthlessness wasn’t even practical, a predictable path not to years of triumphant if amoral hedonism but a hard life and an early, richly deserved death?