The American West is filled with romantic figures, each adding to the legend of the lawless frontier perpetuated by historians and banked on by Hollywood. Perhaps the brightest star of them all, Billy the Kid, met his end on July 14, 1881 at Fort Sumner in New Mexico. Tracked to the sleepy town in the southwestern desert, he was shot by Pat Garrett and buried the next day.
Born William Henry McCarty, Jr., Billy the Kid has frequently been referred to as William H. Bonney and Henry Antrim. Hired to fight in the Lincoln County War between rival property owners in 1878, his personal myth holds he killed over 20 men. Evidence places the actual number at less than ten, but the legend of the young man has not allowed the higher tally to die.
For the most part, Billy the Kid moved along the frontier without much in the way of attention. According to various accounts, he could be an amiable guest and outgoing company. Known for particular attention to his clothing, he often wore a plain sombrero, giving him a relaxed air – something that, in conjunction with his skill with a pistol and rifle, added to his reputation as a folk hero while he ran from the government of New Mexico in the wake of the Lincoln County War of 1878.
Later that year, Lew Wallace was appointed governor of New Mexico Territory by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Intent on bringing peace to his new responsibility, Wallace offered amnesty to those men who had fought in Lincoln and were under indictment. Billy the Kid sent a letter to the new governor, asking for immunity in exchange for his testimony before a Grand Jury. Six months later, he arrived with a Winchester rifle and pistol to meet Wallace and negotiate terms for his surrender. Agreeing to share his story for the state’s case against John Dolan, Billy the Kid would spend the duration of the trial in jail and be released after it concluded.
The district attorney in the area – connected to the rival property owner during the Lincoln County War – refused the governor’s order to release Billy the Kid. He would soon escape in the company of Tom O’Folliard, an old friend, spending much of the next 18 months on the run from the law. In November 1880, the newly-elected Sheriff Pat Garrett led a posse out into Lincoln County in pursuit of the outlaw, who now had a $500 bounty placed on his head. With the story picked up in the Las Vegas Gazette (New Mexico) and New York Sun, amongst other newspapers, his exploits had become infamous overnight.
Garrett and his men finally cornered Billy the Kid and his running mates in mid-December, trapping them in an abandoned structure outside Stinking Springs. Surrounded, the outlaws gave up in the hopes of enjoying a warm meal with their captors. On April 13th, after a two-day trial, Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang by Judge Warren Bristol for the murder of Sherriff William Brady. A month later, he would be executed in Lincoln – a plan that changed when he escaped on April 28th.
Garrett tracked him down once again on July 14th, arriving in Fort Sumner with two deputies to question one of Billy the Kid’s friends. While the Sherriff asked Pete Maxwell for details, Billy the Kid wandered into the room and, unable to see who was within it, he drew his pistol – and took a bullet to the chest from Garrett.