Billy the Kid

William H. Bonney, known as Billy the Kid (1859-1881), was the prototype of the American western gunslinger. He was the youngest and most convincing of the folk hero-villains.

On Nov. 23, 1859, William Bonney was born in New York City but moved as a young lad to Kansas. His father soon died, and his mother remarried and moved west to New Mexico. Having killed a man for insulting his mother, Bonney fled to the Pecos Valley, where he was drawn into the cattle wars then in progress. He became a savage murderer of many men, including Sheriff James Brady and a deputy, and scorned Governor Lew Wallace's demand that he surrender. "His equal for sheer inborn savagery," wrote journalist Emerson Hough, "has never lived." Such statements sent Bonney's reputation soaring and won him the nickname Billy the Kid.

Enjoying such notoriety, Billy the Kid gave no quarter to a hostile world. Condemned to hang, he heard a Las Vegas, Nev., judge say: "You are sentenced to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead!" "And you can go to hell, hell, hell!" Billy spat back for an answer.

There are few facts about Billy the Kid's career that can be verified. It is known that women found him attractive. To Native American woman named Deluvina, who pulled off her shawl and wrapped it around him when he was a handcuffed prisoner, Billy gave the tintype of himself which remains the only authentic likeness. Sally Chisum, chatelaine of a large ranch, reported: "In all his personal relations he was the pink of politeness and as courteous a little gentleman as I ever met."

Sheriff Pat Garrett and a large posse vowed to track Billy down and destroy him. In the fall of 1881 they trapped him at Pete Maxwell's house in Fort Summer, N.Mex., ambushed him in a pitch-black room, and shot him to death. The next day he was buried in a borrowed white shirt too large for his slim body. Admirers scraped together $208 for a gravestone, which was later splintered and carried away by relic hunters. Billy had lived exactly 21 years 7 months 21 days.

From the first Billy's fame was part of a folkloric, oral tradition; it had more to do with western chauvinism than with literal history. If his crimes are dated, his appeal is not, as attested to by the many books and movies based on his life.


Further Reading on Billy the Kid

An important source for material on Billy is Jefferson C. Dykes, Billy the Kid: The Bibliography of a Legend (1952), which lists and evaluates all the earlier material. Writers and publicists most responsible for Bonney's fame include Charlie Siringo, History of "Billy the Kid" (1920), and Walter Noble Burns, The Saga of Billy the Kid (1926).

Additional Biography Sources

The Capture of Billy the Kid, College Station, Tex.: Creative Pub. Co., 1988.

Cline, Donald, Alias Billy the Kid: the man behind the legend, Santa Fe, N.M.: Sunstone Press, 1986.

Fable, Edmund, The true life of Billy the Kid, the noted New Mexican outlaw, College Station, Tex.: Creative Pub. Co., 1980.

Garrett, Pat F. (Pat Floyd), The authentic life of Billy the Kid: the noted desperado of the Southwest, whose deeds of daring and blood made his name a terror in New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico, Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980.

Priestley, Lee, Billy the Kid: the good side of a bad man, Las Cruces, N.M.: Arroyo Press, 1989; Las Cruces, N.M.: Yucca Tree Press, 1993.

Tuska, Jon, Billy the Kid, a bio-bibliography, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Tuska, Jon, Billy the Kid, a handbook, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986, 1983.

Tuska, Jon, Billy the Kid, his life and legend, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Utley, Robert Marshall, Billy the Kid: a short and violent life, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.