Who was the Real Billy the Kid? Historian Richard W. Etulain Says It’s Complicated.

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Historian Richard W. Etulain is a specialist in history and literature of the American West, and the author of Thunder in the West: The Life and Legends of Billy the Kid (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020).

Etulain says Billy the Kid was a hero—and a villain.

How did Richard W. Etulain become fascinated with Billy the Kid?

Richard W. Etulain: Soon after I arrived to teach at the University of New Mexico, I learned about Billy the Kid.  My natal Pacific Northwest knew virtually nothing about Billy—in fact had hosted no demigods such as Billy, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, or Calamity Jane.  We knew about Lewis and Clark, the Oregon Trail, and Chief Joseph, among others, but not about gunslingers or outlaws like Billy the Kid.

But Senor Billy was—and is—the most written-about New Mexican.  My colleagues, students, and friends wanted to know what I thought about the Kid. 

So, in the 1980s, I went to work to find out who this daring desperado was. Over the next couple of decades, I examined the major books on Billy, visited manuscript archives, read a few novels, and watched several films.  I sometimes even included a lecture on Billy in my western history and literature courses. For me, the Billy the Kid fascination had sprouted–and was close to blooming.

How did Richard W. Etulain prepare to write Thunder in the West?

Richard W. Etulain: In 2014-15, I published two books on the well-known Old West woman, Calamity Jane, one a biography and one a reader’s guide to the histories, biographies, and novels about her and films in which she was featured. 

I decided I would do the same with Billy the Kid.  I would read every important book, essay, novel about him and watch numerous Billy films.  More than 1,000 books, essays, and novels have been written about the Kid, and I read more than half of them, and watched nearly 50 Billy films.

“Thunder in the West: The Life and Legends of Billy the Kid” is the latest book by historian Richard W. Etulain.

My opinions changed over time as I continued my research journey and dug deeper. 

At first, I was attracted to Billy in the same way I was to other Old West demigods and earlier frontier figures like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.  They were dramatic, controversial characters, and I wanted to write a book on Billy that would draw general readers. 

Over time, Billy became more and more complex.  He was not only a gunslinger—and even a murderer—but he was also a much-relished buddy, companion, and friend.  Women, young and old, and many Hispanics were attracted to him.

Gradually, in my mind, the Kid became what I call a “bifurcated Billy,” meaning that he was something of a Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Hyde.  His personality embodied both repugnant as well as attractive features. 

I became convinced that the fullest, most accurate portrait of Billy was this complex figure of the evil and the good.  It surprised me to realize how much my favorite “both-and” rather than “either-or” historical approach to ideas and writings fit so well in dealing with Billy.

Who Was Billy the Kid?

Richard W. Etulain: This question begs two kind of answers.  Where did Billy come from, his origins, for one; and, second, what was his identity as a human being?  Both questions are important for understanding the young outlaw.

Portrait of American gunman Billy the Kid (1859–1881). This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.

First, we know very little about the first years of Billy’s life, roughly the years from 1859 to 1873.  And really not much about him in his final years from 1873 to 1881.

We are not sure when or where he was born, but most conclude he was born in New York City in November 1859.  Those conclusions are based on rumor.  We do know that he (with the name of Henry McCarty), his mother Catherine, and his brother Joe (younger or older, we’re not sure) were in Indiana, Kansas, and New Mexico in the 1870-73 period.  Along the way, they were joined by William Antrim who became the boys’ step father in 1873. (Who their biological father was is not clear.)  The McCarty-Antrim family, after the Catherine-William marriage in Santa Fe in 1873, moved to Silver City in southern New Mexico.  

Tragedy struck when Catherine died from tuberculosis in 1874, when William turned reluctant father, and Henry got into trouble with stealing.  Off to Arizona he went for a couple of years where he floated around among mining camps and ranches and got into deeper trouble shooting a blacksmith who was pummeling him in a saloon.  Another quick trip back to New Mexico, but this time to the eastern end of the territory in Lincoln County.

In the next years, from 1877 to his death in 1881, he often changed his name from Henry Antrim to Kid Antrim and then on to Billy Bonney and finally on to The Kid and Billy the Kid. 

Billy’s name changes were as mysterious as his character. 

As noted above, he was both villain and relished friend. The best way to understand Billy is to embrace his complex character and to comprehend him as an ambivalent person, sometimes taking the lives of others and at other times saving the lives of his friends.

Why did they call him Billy the Kid?

Richard W. Etulain: He was not called Billy the Kid until the last seven months or so of his life, 1880-81.  Before that his names derived from his changing family situation.

First, he went by his mother’s name, Henry McCarty; when Catherine married William Antrim, the young man became Henry or Kid Antrim; then, for unknown reasons (but perhaps to cover up his killing of an opponent in Arizona in 1877) he became Billy Bonney. 

Then, soon, he was just Billy or the Kid. 

Finally, a New Mexico journalist labeled him Billy, the Kid in December 1880, and the name stuck—for the last months of his life and thereafter.

Was Billy the Kid a hero or a villain?

Richard W. Etulain: He was both hero and villain.  Most early essays and books on Billy, especially from his death in 1881 to the late 1920s, portrayed him as a killer, a villainous young man. 

But journalist Walter Noble Burns’s romantic and supportive biography, The Saga of Billy the Kid (1926), depicted a young man with heroic qualities. That portrait caught on and remained on scene until the 1970s and 1980s when such Kid specialists as Frederic Nolan and Robert Utley painted more ambivalent pictures of the Kid, part positive, part negative. 

That meant Billy was a New Gray character, who could be both appealing and repugnant in his actions.  For nearly a half century, these more ambiguous and realistic descriptions have rightly held sway.

How have films featuring Billy the Kid evolved?

Richard W. Etulain: Westerns about Billy evolved parallel to biographies and novels about him, save for the missing early villainous portraits since the first well-known films about him did not appear until about 1930. Influenced by Walter Noble Burns’s positive biographical treatment of Señor Billy in the late 1920s, the earliest films about Billy, just as sound movies began appearing, portrayed an attractive young outlaw. 

Such was the case in Billy the Kid (1930), directed by noted director King Vidor and starring former football great Johnny Mack Brown. 

But Billy the Kid (1941), with Robert Taylor as protagonist, veered away from the positive Billys to depict a Billy too addicted to villainy to free himself from it.

Then the low-budget Producers Releasing Corporation movies burst on the scene with dozens of Billy films (1940-43) starring Bob Steele and then Buster Crabbe as Billy and Al St. John as his fumbling, bumbling sidekick Fuzzy Jones. Historically inaccurate and poorly acted, the films nonetheless helped to make Billy the Kid a very popular cinematic star. 

More realistic were Four Faces West (1948, Joel McCrea, Frances Dee, Charles Bickford), The Kid from Texas (1950, Audie Murphy), and The Left Handed Gun (1958, Paul Newman), with more complex, believable cinematic Kids.

Some think that Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson) is the premier of all Kid movies.  Coburn and Kristofferson were first-rate in their depictions of Garrett and the Kid. 

Other Kid fans think the Young Guns duo (1988, 1990) are even better. 

Starring the famed “brat pack,” these two movies, reflecting a rising youth culture of the 1980s and 90s, featured created persons of varied ethnic backgrounds and several young starlets.  No films about the Kid since these two have attracted much attention.

What are the challenges with writing about a “bifurcated Billy the Kid”?

Richard W. Etulain: Answers to this question are likely to vary a good deal, but my largest challenge was writing about a young man who was a murderer. 

There were the positive parts: Billy’s love for his mother, his friendship with dozens of men, and his standing against crooked politicians and legal authorities; but he also killed at least four men and was involved in several other shootings.  How was I to deal with his killing an unarmed man assaulting him, the Lincoln town sheriff whom he hated, and two deputies who were holding him in jail, one a bully he hated but the other a deputy who treated him fairly?

Once I concluded that Billy was not “all bad” or “all good,” I was able to view him as a human with conflicting murderous and gregarious sides.  I never found it easy, however, to deal with the scenes where Billy killed people.

Plus, I am a moralist and reacted negatively when strong evidence indicated that Billy became involved sexually with married women or young girls to whom he was not married.

Where and when did Billy the Kid die?

Richard W. Etulain: Nearly all biographers and historians agree that Pat Garrett killed Billy the Kid at the Maxwell house in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, late on 14 July 1881 or early the next morning.  The bits and pieces of evidence gathered from those on scene or near at hand attest to this conclusion. 

But there are some shaky, unanswered questions about the death scene.

The murky evidence has led others, especially supporters of Texan William Henry “Brushy Bill” Roberts, to assert that he was the real Billy the Kid and escaped when Pat Garrett shot another man, Billy Barlow.  This counter story lacks sufficient evidence, counters so many well-known facts about the Kid, and flies in the face of numerous testimonies the next day that the corpse on display was indeed the body of William McCarty—Henry Antrim—Billy Bonney—Billy the Kid.  Equally indefensible are the stories attempting to make New Mexican John Miller the real Billy the Kid.

Why do new legends about Billy the Kid continue to appear?

Richard W. Etulain: Most Americans, present and past, never completely let go of the past, and often change their views of the past when large, moving changes invade their present.  Reactions to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, for example, shift as we experience new information and attitudes on race, slavery, sexuality, and many of other social-cultural perspectives. 

Recently, for example, energetic writer Gale Cooper makes Billy into an exaggeratedly vigorous, honest, and heroic upholder of justice who fought against the crooked Santa Ring and in-league legal officials in New Mexico. Others wish to portray Billy as an admirer of women, young and old, who loved him and a friend of Hispanics across southern New Mexico. 

Both portrayals are true—in part. 

But as our more recent attitudes about American history have shifted, the roles of women and minority groups have received increasingly positive attention.  And with those attitudes, mounting celebration of Billy for his friendships with these two groups.

Such sharp shifts may blind us, however, to the facts that Billy murdered, was clearly immoral in some of his actions, and often acted in ways to benefit himself more than others.

Thus, I am convinced that the complex portrait of the Kid—the bifurcated Billy—is the most helpful conclusion one should reach on this western demigod.

If you could go back in time and observe any event in Billy the Kid’s life, what would it be?

Richard W. Etulain: First of all, not events but to uncover more of his unknown past.   Where was he born, who was his father, what did he experience in the first decade and half of his life? What were his relationships with his mother and brother?  What did he think and say about crucial events in his life? 

His early, sudden demise leaves us with so little of what he experienced, thought, or said.  I’d like to uncover some of these missing pieces.

If I could have been an eavesdropper or eyewitness, I would have preferred watching his step-by-step jail break in April 1881.  How did he set the scene to escape? No one likes to see murder—and Billy killed the two deputies—but his actions and stealth would tell us much about the Kid. 

And for clarity’s sake (and because I am a biographer wanting to visualize key moments of my subject’s life), I would not have enjoyed—but would have profited from nonetheless—seeing how the Kid’s death unfolded on the historic night of 14-15 July 1881.

Seeing those events would add even more drama to an already dramatic story.

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