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(BILLY the KID – continued)

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LAW and DISORDER (4 of 4)

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End of "The Kid"

Lincoln County Courthouse

Lincoln County Courthouse. Billy made a speech from the balcony.

Billy was hanging out at a popular Fort Sumner drinking and gambling establishment: Beaver Smith's. There he gambled with a 6'6" tall Patrick Garrett. Garrett had grown up on a prosperous Louisiana plantation – age fifteen when the Civil War ended. At the age of nineteen, Garrett had migrated to Texas. He became a trail driver and buffalo hunter and, in 1878 when he was twenty-eight, moved to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. In 1879 he married Juanita Gutierrez. She died within a year, and in 1880 he married her sister, with whom he was to have nine children.

The sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, George Kimbrell, resigned, and Pat Garrett ran to succeed him, leaving the Republican Party to run as a Democrat. Property owners wanted an end to thievery and lawlessness, and Garrett promised to restore law and order. Billy had favored Kimbrell as sheriff, Kimbrell not having bothered him.

As sheriff, Garrett assembled bands of armed men who went on the hunt through the county for the thieves. They confronted Billy and his associates at a ranch house on November 27, 1880, four days after Billy's twenty-first birthday. One of the posse, Carlyle, felt secure enough to enter the house to discuss terms of surrender. Apparently he lost his sense of security. He departed the house through a window and was shot and killed.

Billy escaped capture and was on the run again, with Garrett in pursuit along with close to 200 men. The editor of the Las Vegan Gazetter (of Las Vegas, New Mexico) wrote an editorial on December 3 describing a gang as "terrorizing the people of Fort Sumner and vicinity," and it described the leader of the gang as "Billy the Kid." The phrase caught on. Billy was no longer just the Kid, or Billy, or Bonney. He was now "Billy the Kid."

Billy sent another letter to Governor Wallace. He claimed that Carlyle had been shot by the posse by mistake. Why Carlyle had felt obliged to leave the house through a window Billy didn't say. Governor Wallace was unmoved. He viewed Billy as an unrepentant troublemaker defying his offer of amnesty. In newspapers across the state, Governor Wallace published a notice that offered a $500 reward for the delivery of "Billy the Kid" to any sheriff in the state.

Pat Garrett

Pat Garrett

Pat Garrett tracked Billy down. Billy surrendered, and Garrett put him in jail in Santa Fe. Billy was still entertaining the idea that he might get some justice or amnesty. On January 1 1881, he wrote to the governor again, saying, " I would like to see you for a few moments if you can spare the time." Wallace was in the east, pursuing his interests in his book, Ben Hur.

Billy was tried for the murders of Sheriff Brady and one of Brady's associates, Andrew "Buckshot" Roberts. On April 9, after two days of testimony, he was found guilty, becoming the only convicted combatant in the Lincoln County War, and on April 13 he was sentenced to hang.

The hanging was scheduled for May 13. With that in mind, Billy was moved to the Lincoln County jail, on the top floor of the town courthouse. There he was guarded by two of Garrett's deputies. On April 28, while Garrett was out of town, Billy retrieved a gun apparently placed for him in the privy he was using. He killed one of the guards, James Bell. He took a shotgun from Garrett's office and waited at an upper floor window for the arrival of the other, Robert Olinger, a big man who had taken pleasure in tormenting Billy. As Olinger approached the building, Billy said "Hello Bob" and then killed him. Billy had a terrorized caretaker knock the shackles from his legs. From the balcony he spoke to some people who had assembled below, saying, according to Wallis, "that he had not meant to kill Bell, or for that matter anyone else, but that he would kill anyone who tried to prevent his escape." note69

Billy rode off on somebody's horse, and his escape became news sensationalized with exaggerations of "bloodthirsty exploits and criminal outrages." note70   Perhaps Billy's best chance for survival was a lonely run across the border into Mexico and perhaps beyond. But Billy stayed with his habit of seeking refuge with his friends.

Weeks passed. Reports described Billy in Denver and in Texas. Garrett received a tip that the kid was in the Fort Sumner area again. He and a couple of deputies received word that Billy was at a farm house where old friends, Pete Maxwell and Paulita, lived. It was around midnight when Garret and his two deputies left a nearby orchard and approached the house. Garrett entered the house through Pete's bedroom window. Billy was outside taking meat for a snack from a recently slaughtered yearling. He was startled to see Garrett's deputies and ran back into the house. He stepped into Pete's darkened room and said something about the men he had seen outside. He realized someone was in the room with Pete and asked who it was. Garrett answered with two shots. Billy died with a groan.

A crowd gathered around the house. A woman sobbed and hit Garrett in the chest with her fists. Paulita was inconsolable. Garrett and his deputies took refuge in the house for the rest of the night. The next day a coroner's jury convened and ruled Billy's death a justifiable homicide.

Billy was buried in the Fort Sumner cemetery. News of Billy the Kid's death reached London, where the Illustrated London News ran a summary of his life and times. The New York Daily Graphic reported that Billy the Kid "had built up a criminal organization worthy of the underworld in any of the European capitals." The Santa Fe Weekly Democrat wrote of Billy dying with "a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other," with a "strong odor of brimstone in the air, and a dark figure with the wings of a dragon, claws like a tiger, eyes like balls of fire, and horns like a bison [that] hovered over the corpse for a moment." note71

That same year, small books were quickly published capitalizing on the story of Billy the Kid. In 1882 a ghostwritten ninth book, titled The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, was published with Pat Garrett claiming to be the author. It didn't sell well.

In December 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Pat Garrett as a customs collector in El Paso, Texas. Garrett lost that job and his friendship with Roosevelt by exercising poor judgment. Garrett then tried raising race horses. He had financial difficulties, drank heavily and gambled. He was involved in a land dispute regarding goat grazing and was gunned down in February 1908, at the age of fifty-seven, near Las Cruces New Mexico. It is written that while his body was at the undertaker's, people arrived to have a look at the man who killed Billy the Kid.

Following Billy the Kid's death, lawlessness in New Mexico continued without much abatement. The Texas Rangers were enforcing law and order in Texas while New Mexico held back from copying a similar law enforcement agency. In New Mexico it continued to be the responsibility of the county sheriff to track down and put lawless individuals and gangs out of business. That legislators in New Mexico did not create an aggressive organization has been attributed to many of them being wealthy cattlemen who feared that such an organization "might interfere with their own shady practices of cattle rustling, wrongful branding and illegal land grabs." note72

Billy the Kid (3 of 4) | The United States, 1871-1900

Video

Billy the Kid, PBS Documentary (American Experience)

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