Wednesday’s Book Review: “Billy the Kid”


Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. By Robert M. Utley. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

There are no fewer than 180 biographies, memoirs, and the like available concerning Bill the Kid (1859-1881), the rustler, gunman, and sometime cowhand. This is one of the best. Born Henry McCarty, the Kid lived, as historian Robert M. Utley states, “a short and violent life.” He was rumored to have killed 21 men, but the best evidence is that he probably only killed eight between 1877 and his death at the hand of lawman Pat Garrett in 1881.

Although a petty rustler and highwayman beforehand, the Kid, who also went by the alias William H. Bonney, gained notoriety in the “Lincoln County War” in New Mexico. This “war” emerged out of a contest for the political and economic future of Lincoln County, New Mexico. For many years three Irish immigrants had cooperated to control the county, Lawrence G. Murphy (1830-1878), James Joseph Dolan (1848-1898) and John Henry Riley (1841-1916). They held a contract to provide beef to the Army at Fort Stanton, and gained a monopoly in their general store and bank in the county seat of Lincoln by freezing out other would-be merchants. They also had political backing in Santa Fe, ensuring that legal action to overturn their stranglehold on the area would run amiss.

The Murphy-Dolan-Riley group was challenged by Alexander A. McSween (1844-1878) and John Henry Tunstall (1853-1878), with some support from major stock grower John Chisum (1824-1884). Their attempt to put a rival store in Lincoln, as well as a bank, prompted a response. Soon Tunstall’s ranch experienced raids by rustlers and he hired men to defend the spread, among them Billy the Kid. While there were earlier altercations, the start of the Lincoln County War may be dated at the murder of John Tunstall on February 18, 1878. Violence escalated on both sides, with the Kid engaging on the McSween-Tunstall-Chisum side. Murders took place on both sides, including Lincoln County’s sheriff, William Brady, who took his orders from Santa Fe and the Murphy-Dolan-Riley group. The “Battle of Lincoln” on July 15-19, 1878, was the most dramatic event of the war; and if he was not already considered the leading combatant in the war Billy’s escape from a burning McSween store with his lieutenants sealed it.

Thereafter the New Mexico governor, Lew Wallace, intervened and ended the violence. Billy fled the area and engaged in rustling and petty thievery for a while but was soon came back to Lincoln County. He sought amnesty, received a pledge, fell back into thievery, and was captured. News reporters found that his exploits made good copy and they set about building a legend; all the while they were aided by seemingly impossible feats by the Kid when he escaped from jail and went on the lam. It took some time but eventually Pat Garrett caught up with the Kid on July 14, 1881, and shot him dead in a dark bedroom.

Robert M. Utley, who for many years was the Senior Historian of the National Park Service, offers in this superb book a fine, well-researched, and elegantly written account of the Kid’s life. He sifted through the tall tales, embellishments, and the outright lies to construct the best portrayal of Billy the Kid written thus far. We might debate that there are better accounts that built on Utley’s but I’m not aware of one that goes as deeply into the sources and as exhaustively into the details. As one has come to expect from Utley, the book it filled with extensive notes and an exhaustive list of sources.

What Utley does not seek to do is come to grips with the mythology of the Kid after his death in any systematic manner. He does offer a few asides, such as the point that the Kid encapsulates “an enduring national ambivalence toward corruption and violence” (p. 207). For studies of the legend of Billy the Kid I recommend such books as Inventing Billy the Kid: Visions of the Outlaw in America, 1881-1981 (1997 edition), by Stephen Tatum, and Jon Tuska’s Billy the Kid: His Life and Legend (1994).

 

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