Atkins’ saloon is a typical crusty den of hard drinking and hard gambling in Arizona territory, where locals belch and grunt away their evenings after a day toiling on ranches or at the nearby military fort of Camp Grant. It’s where young ranch hand and small-time horse-and-saddle thief Henry Antrim – who could be no older than 16 or 17 – often rides with his wages jangling in his pockets in the hopes of getting lucky at poker.


It is a parched and dusty 17 August 1877 when ‘Kid Antrim’ steps inside old George Atkins’ place, but his usually friendly and cheerful mood sours when he spots Frank ‘Windy’ Cahill, the big, burly blacksmith who has taken to picking on him for his youthful, scrawny looks. Windy takes particular pleasure in throwing the Kid to the floor, calling him names and smacking him around in front of everybody.

Trouble erupts when Windy calls Antrim a “pimp”, before he gets violent when called a “son of a bitch” in return. He wrestles his much smaller opponent to the ground, pinning him down with his knees, and gleefully slaps the boy in the face. But the Kid has been humiliated for the last time. He squirms and frees his arm, reaches for his .45 pistol and sticks the barrel into the bully’s gut. Onlookers hear a “deafening roar”, then see Windy slump over as his shirt reddens with blood. The Kid leaps to his feet and bolts, stealing a prized horse to make his escape. It takes a day for Windy to die.

Despite being found guilty of a “criminal and unjustifiable” killing, Antrim hightails it all the way to New Mexico so never faces arrest, jail time and possibly worse. Instead, the shooting of Windy Cahill marks the explosive start of his short but spectacular life as an outlaw – under the moniker Billy the Kid.

Why is Billy the Kid famous?

In a time of lawlessness and celebrity criminals, Billy the Kid’s notoriety towers over other train-robbing, pistol-twirling, posse-evading bandits of the Wild West. He appealed to writers of dime novels and editors of newspapers, thanks to his blue-eyed youth and silky sharpshooting skills. He continues to capture our imagination through countless depictions in film and television.

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Yet – despite his erroneous boast at the age of 21 of killing a man for every year of his life – he can hardly be described as the period’s most merciless and immoral outlaw, particularly when compared to men like Jesse James, Butch Cassidy or John Wesley Hardin.

It could be argued that Billy, more reckless than ruthless, was dragged from a law-abiding life by the old staples of falling in with bad crowds and unfortunate circumstances, beginning with his mother’s death.

By all accounts, the strong and independent Catherine McCarty had been a loving mother to her two sons, Joseph and Henry (Billy became known by several names) so her succumbing to tuberculosis in 1874 hit them hard.

Very little is known about Henry’s childhood – was he born in 1859 or 1861? In New York or Indiana? Who was his father and what happened to him? – but Catherine offered stability as they moved frequently, probably in the belief that warmer climates would benefit her health.

The family lived in Indiana, Kansas and Colorado, finally ending up in New Mexico, where Catherine died. Orphaned, the boys were all but abandoned by their stepfather, William Antrim, and left with foster families, forcing Henry to work for room and board. With his mother’s supervision gone, he took his first steps into crime by stealing food.

Was Billy the Kid left-handed?

William the Kid, stands with a rilfe in one hand and a pistol holstered on his hip

This famous photograph led some to believe that Billy the Kid was left-handed as his holstered pistol is on the left side. The image, however, has been flipped – the regular method for taking photos.

How did Billy the Kid become an outlaw?

It was another petty wrongdoing that made him a fugitive. After a friend, a drunkard nicknamed ‘Sombrero Jack’, robbed a Chinese laundry, Henry got caught hiding the loot. The local sheriff hoped a short spell in jail would teach the boy a lesson but instead, Henry escaped by shimmying up the chimney and went on the run to Arizona. He managed to eke out enough money as a roving ranch hand, and dabbling in horse rustling, but then came his fateful encounter with Windy Cahill, which secured his place on the wrong side of the law.

Henry – known as Kid Antrim, or just the ‘Kid’, and also William H Bonney – was now a murderer. Facing prison, he fled the territory (making sure to return the prize horse first) and headed back to New Mexico, where he joined a gang of violent rustlers called the Boys, led by outlaw Jesse Evans. Back in familiar Silver City, it wasn’t long before he got recognised and his connection to the gang made the newspapers. The Kid really found fame, however, when he got embroiled in the Lincoln County War.

Two powerful Irish businessmen, Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, had a monopoly in Lincoln County called ‘The House’, with the one dry goods store, a beef contract with Fort Stanton and influence over the law. Yet they were under threat from a wealthy English upstart named John Tunstall. Murphy and Dolan needed hired guns and so the Boys came to town. It was not a job much liked by the Kid. He even switched sides when Tunstall offered him work, and he took to his new community happily. He made friends and was a well-liked personality (especially with the local women if that part of his reputation is to be believed).

Before the Kid could get comfortable, though, this life was snatched away with the coldblooded murder of Tunstall on 18 February 1878. Tunstall had confronted a posse – sent by Sheriff William J Brady and including members of the Boys – as they attempted to seize some of his cattle, so they gunned him down. The Kid and his friend Dick Brewer swore affidavits against those in the posse and even managed to be deputised to issue out murder warrants. However, Sheriff Brady was having none of it, and had the Kid arrested.

How many men did Billy the Kid kill?

Billy the Kid was reputed to have killed 27 men. The actual number was probably eight.

Billy the Kid and the Regulators

When released, the Kid had just one thing on his mind – revenge. He joined a posse called the Regulators, with the aim of bringing Tunstall’s killers to justice – not by the courts but by the barrel of a gun.

The posse captured two men and executed them, allegedly as they tried to escape. Then six Regulators, the Kid among them, ambushed Brady and his deputy George Hindman, although it’s unclear who fired the fatal bullets.

The Kid proved a good shot, constantly practising with either a pistol or his trusty Winchester. He was a courageous fighter (albeit a reckless one, being clipped by a bullet in the leg) and loyal. “One of the best soldiers we had,” said his friend Frank Coe. But though he is by far the most famous name involved in the feud, he never led the Regulators. He was also on the losing side. Murphy and Dolan were always more powerful and eventually finished off the Regulators with a five-day siege of the home of Alex McSween, Tunstall’s partner and lawyer. The Kid and a handful of others barely made it out with their lives when the house was set on fire.

Having survived the Lincoln County War, the Kid did a number of things that belie his reputation as a “vulgar low life cutthroat”, as one newspaper described him. He desired peace with the Murphy and Dolan faction and sought clemency from the new governor, Lew Wallace, which seems to suggest he wanted an end to his lawless days. On both occasions, he was left disappointed, even betrayed.

Along with four other men, the Kid met with Dolan and a small group to discuss a truce on 18 February 1879, a year to the day following Tunstall’s death. Jesse Evans nearly ruined the meeting as he wanted to kill the Kid then and there, but an agreement was eventually reached and the two sides shook hands. They went out to celebrate but bumped into Huston Chapman, a lawyer working with McSween’s widow, who they taunted and shot, before dousing the body with whiskey and burning it. The Kid had been forced to watch.

The Kid wrote to Governor Wallace on 13 March, offering to give information on Chapman’s murder in exchange for amnesty. “I have no wish to fight any more,” he said. The two met in person, where Wallace confirmed that if the Kid testified in court, “I will let you go scotfree with a pardon in your pocket for all your misdeeds”. For it to work, the Kid had to be ‘arrested’ so he could tell everything to the sheriff while staying safe. Yet when the time came for Wallace to hold up his end of the agreement, he backed out, leaving the Kid behind bars. He had no option but escape or face Dolan’s wrath.

Pleas for a pardon: Billy the Kid's letters to Governor Wallace

In the volatile aftermath of the Lincoln County War, Billy the Kid began the most unlikely of correspondences – with the new governor Lew Wallace. In his letter, dated 13 March 1879, he offered to give information concerning a murder in exchange for a pardon from the charges against him. “If it is in your power to Annully those indictments I hope you will do so so as to give me a chance to explain,” he said, signing off “your Obedeint Servant”.

Wallace, an American Civil War general, confirmed he had the "authority to exempt you from prosecution" and arranged a meeting, during which they agreed to stage an arrest so the Kid could be taken to safety and tell everything he knew. It all went as planned, but then Wallace went back on his word. As the Kid sat in jail, with his enemies closing in, the governor was in Santa Fe working on his latest manuscript – Ben Hur.

That wasn’t the end of their communication, however. In late 1880, the Kid wrote several more times following his capture, pleading for Wallace to visit him. One letter read: “I have done everything that I promised you I would and You have done nothing that You promised me.”

The Kid, unable to escape his life of lawlessness, stayed in New Mexico rustling cattle and staying out of sight of the authorities alongside fellow Regulators Charlie Bowdre, Tom O’Folliard and Doc Scurlock. In January 1880, he added another murder to his rap sheet by shooting Joe Grant in a saloon.

According to some sources, the Kid discovered that Grant was there to kill him so, in a daring move, approached him and asked to see his revolver. The Kid then skilfully span the cylinder so the next shot would be on an empty chamber. Sure enough, when Grant later took aim, there was a harmless click, giving the Kid time to draw his own pistol and fire. He later described the killing as a “game of two and I got there first”.

Billy the Kid leans over a saloon bar to shoot dead Joe Grant as two men watch on
Billy the Kid shoots down his Joe Grant in a saloon bar. (Photo by Bettmann, Getty Images)

By late 1880, the law was closing in. A posse cornered him in November, which resulted in the death of deputy sheriff James Carlyle – pinned on the Kid, although it was unlikely he fired the shot. The places he could hide grew few and far between outside of Fort Sumner, made all the worse by the election of a new Lincoln County sheriff. His name was Pat Garrett and he was bent on capturing the nation’s most wanted outlaw, placing a $500 bounty on his head.

It was on 23 December, after a tense standoff at Stinking Springs, that Garrett got his man, having also killed Bowdre and, earlier at Fort Sumner, O’Folliard. His posse trapped the Kid and a few others in a cabin, blocked the door, and removed the outlaws’ best hope of escaping – they shot the horse tied there. The Kid surrendered and was taken to Santa Fe for trial. Three further letters to Wallace seeking clemency went unanswered, so in April 1881, he was found guilty of murdering Sheriff Brady and sentenced to hang. It was the only conviction to come out of the Lincoln County War.

That seemed to be the end of the Kid, but he had other plans. Having escaped from several jails already, he learned the routines and waited for the ideal opportunity. When there were only two guards watching him, he asked to be taken to the outhouse, slipped his cuffs and swiped Deputy James Bell’s revolver. Bell turned to run so the Kid shot him in the back. There were just a few moments for him to grab a shotgun and position himself at an upstairs window to take aim at the second deputy, Bob Olinger. Before firing, he got his attention by calling out, “Hello Bob!”

How did Billy the Kid die?

The Kid was free once again, but an infuriated Garrett was fast on his tracks. This time, Garrett was more subtle. He didn’t form a posse, knowing the Kid could be warned before they reached him, but quietly pursued the outlaw and questioned anyone who may know his whereabouts. That’s what led him to the home of the Kid’s acquaintance, Pete Maxwell, on 14 July 1881.

A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasped for breath, and the Kid was with his many victims

Although the details of what happened next are strongly disputed, Garrett claims he was talking to Maxwell at around midnight when the Kid himself stalked into the room. With no boots on, he had been making his way to get something to eat, butcher knife in hand, when he saw two strange men – Garrett’s deputies – on Maxwell’s porch. He backed into the room asking who they were, only to see the silhouette of another man sitting on the bed.

When he called out “Quien es? Quien es?” (‘Who is it?’) Garrett recognised his voice and supposedly saw the Kid raise his pistol (there are some who question whether he was armed at all). He fired two shots, the first piercing the Kid’s heart. “He never spoke,” Garrett later wrote in his controversial account of the events that took place that night. “A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasped for breath, and the Kid was with his many victims.”

Billy the Kid stands barefoot as he is fatally shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett, as another man looks on and three dogs run between them
Billy the Kid meets his end at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

In just four years of being an outlaw, the Kid established his name as one of the most infamous gunslingers of the Wild West, despite being no older than 21 when he died – and that’s without robbing trains, holding up banks or challenging everyone he met to a duel. Despite his fearsome reputation, it’s thought he killed eight men, several in self-defence.

Did Billy the Kid survive?

Sheriff Pat Garrett shot and killed Billy the Kid on 14 July 1881. Or did he? It’s been claimed that Garrett staged the whole thing, either to help the Kid escape or as a ruse to collect the $500 reward. In the mid-20th century, Ollie P Roberts, nicknamed ‘Brushy Bill’, declared he was the outlaw, backing it up with some impressive details about the Kid’s deeds and showing off his handcuffs-slipping skills. He even petitioned the governor for the pardon sought by the Kid decades earlier. Brushy Bill’s claims have been rejected by most historians, and his niece, but there’s still a Billy museum in Brushy’s hometown.

There were far more brutal and terrorising outlaws, but there was something about him and his story that contemporary journalists latched on to, so he got more newspaper ink. The coverage in the popular press was followed by Garrett’s highly sensationalised biography, a key reference for historians in the 20th century. Yet the enduring image of the Kid they created – an all-shooting, callous killer – is suited to cheap Western fiction. “I don’t blame you for writing of me as you have,” he said in an interview after being caught in 1880. “You had to believe other stories, but then I don’t know as anyone would believe anything good of me anyway. I wasn’t the leader of my gang, I was for Billy all the time.”


Greatest gunfights of the Wild West

Beyond the dusty streets at high noon, tin stars, the clinking of spurs, and calls of DRAW! of Hollywood westerns, here are the real gunfights that made this lawless time so iconic

OK Corral 26 October 1881

The most-legendary Wild West gunfight – although it didn’t actually take place at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona – saw the three Earp brothers (including the now-famous Wyatt) and friend Doc Holliday stand against a band of outlaws – the Cowboys. The shooting lasted just 30 seconds and, when the dust cleared, three Cowboys lay dead, while Wyatt and his buddies survived with a few injuries. The shootout has been immortalised in several films, notably Tombstone (1993).

Wild Bill Hickok VS Davis Tutt 21 July 1865

Quickest-draw duels were much rarer than the films suggest. On this occasion, Tutt and Hickok had fallen out over a gambling debt, for which Tutt had taken Wild Bill’s gold pocket watch as ransom. The duo stepped outside into the town square of Springfield, Missouri, and each shot a single bullet. Tutt missed and Hickok blasted him in the ribs.

Davis VS The Sydney Ducks 19 December 1854

While trekking along a miner’s trail, Jonathan R Davis and his two partners were ambushed by a 14-strong gang – almost half of which were Australian criminals, known as the Sydney Ducks. His friends were gunned down, but the army veteran kept his cool, pulled his guns and dropped seven in quick succession. He killed or fatally wounded a further four with his Bowie knife.

Wild Bill and the Dead Man's Hand 2 August 1876

The infamous Dalton Gang got more than they bargained for when they tried to rob two banks on one street in the same day. A quick-thinking clerk convinced them that the safe had a time lock, giving the townspeople time to arm themselves. Four of the gang were shot dead but, despite being hit 23 times, Emmett Dalton survived. After serving 14 years in prison, he played himself in a Hollywood movie.

Coffeyville Bank Robbery 5 October 1892

The infamous Dalton Gang got more than they bargained for when they tried to rob two banks on one street in the same day. A quick-thinking clerk convinced them that the safe had a time lock, giving the townspeople time to arm themselves. Four of the gang were shot dead but, despite being hit 23 times, Emmett Dalton survived. After serving 14 years in prison, he played himself in a Hollywood movie.

Frisco shootout 1 December 1884

This is a true David-and-Goliath gunfight. The 19-year-old lawman Elfego Baca was holed up in a small house and withstood a 36-hour siege by as many as 80 shooters. According to legend, 4,000 rounds hit the building, but none touched Baca. The attackers gave up when they ran out of ammo.

Long Branch Saloon 5 April 1879

Frank Loving had been quarrelling with Levi Richardson – who he caught making advances on his wife – for a while. Guns were finally drawn in the notorious Long Branch Saloon in Kansas’s even more notorious Dodge City, with the two men standing right in front of each other. Richardson went down with three extra holes but, despite the very close range, Loving somehow walked away with nothing more than a graze.

Four dead in five seconds 14 April 1881

When El Paso’s marshal Dallas Stoudenmire heard a gunshot coming from a saloon, he burst in with his two .44 Colts raised and started firing. As the name of the shootout suggests, four men died in the flash of chaos, one of them an innocent bystander. And it was only Stoudenmire’s first week in the job.

This content first appeared in the April 2017 edition of BBC History Revealed


Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.