Billy The Kid
Facts, information and articles about Billy The Kid, famous outlaw, and a prominent figure from the Wild West
Billy The Kid Facts
November 23, 1859
July 14, 1881
Famous Outlaw And Bank Robber
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Billy The Kid summary: William Henry McCarty, Jr. was only twenty-one years of age when he died of a gunshot wound at Ft. Sumner in the New Mexico Territory. He had several aliases but is best known as Billy the Kid. He was only eighteen when he killed his first man.
No one knows for certain where Billy the Kid was born. Some place his birth in New York, but this is largely unsubstantiated. His mother came to the United Stated during the great famine in Ireland. Her name was Catherine McCarty and there is some debate whether this was her married name or her maiden name. She died in 1874.
William was apparently a very honest fourteen year old when he became an orphan. He worked for his room and board for a hotel owner who took him in after his mother died. The hotel owner was impressed with his honesty and diligence, as were others. A year later he was forced to seek new lodgings through no fault of his own. He promptly got into trouble for the theft of some food. Five months later, he was in trouble with the law once more, stealing clothing and firearms. After two days, he escaped from jail and began a life as a fugitive from the law.
This began a time of increased criminal activities for Billy the Kid. He tried to stay out of trouble but it seems he made friends in the wrongs crowds. It has been said that he killed almost two dozen men but eight or nine is probably much closer to the truth.
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The Hunting of Billy the Kid
In the fall of 1879, after his attempts to negotiate a pardon through New Mexico Territorial Governor Lew Wallace had come to nothing, William H. Bonney, a k a “the Kid” (and best known today as Billy the Kid), decided to put some psychological distance between himself and Lincoln County and made old Fort Sumner his base of operations. By the following year, he had become a full-time rustler. His methods, like the men who rode with him, were rough and ready. The Kid and his gang would steal horses up and down the Pecos Valley and drive them to a ready market in Tascosa, the newest, rowdiest cow town in the Texas Panhandle. When their money ran out, they would steal stock on the open Panhandle range and drive it across into New Mexico Territory for sale, with no questions asked, to the self-styled “King of Tularosa,” rancher Pat Coghlan, who had a contract to supply beef to the Mescalero Apache reservation adjacent to Fort Stanton beginning July 1, 1880. When there were no horses to steal, they rode over to the Panhandle anyway and stole the big ranches there — such as the LX and LIT — blind. It’s more than possible that Pat Garrett, who would be elected sheriff of Lincoln County on November 2, 1880, and his close associate Barney Mason accompanied the Kid and his men on some of these raids.
Within a year the Kid’s depredations had reached such a level that in the fall of 1880 the newly formed Panhandle Stockmen’s Association hired a range detective, a former LX cowboy who called himself Frank Stewart (although what his qualifications were and how he got them are a matter for conjecture), to take some men with him to New Mexico Territory and identify the rustlers and whoever was purchasing their stolen cows. The party consisted of Garrett H. “Kid” Dobbs, Lon Chambers and Lee Hall from the LX, plus Charlie Reasor, who was half Cherokee, from LIT.
At Coghlin’s Tularosa ranch they found LIT hides in the coral, but when they questioned the butcher, former Lincoln County Sheriff George Peppin, he told them he had a clean bill of sale and it was going to take a lot more than a verbal notice to get him to quit. When on top of that someone told the Texans that Billy the Kid was in the area, and that if he ran into them he would wipe them out, Stewart decided discretion was the better part of valor and led his men back to the Panhandle. Cowboy Charlie Siringo takes up the story in his 1885 book A Texas Cowboy:
This made [LX foreman Bill] Moore mad, so he concluded to rig up an outfit of his own and send them over after the cattle, hence he sending out after me. My outfit, after getting it rigged up, consisted of a chuck wagon with four good mules to pull it, a cook and five picked men, named as follows: James East, Lee Hall, Lon Chambers, Cal Pope (Polk) and last but not by any means least “Bigfoot” Wallace [Frank Clifford]…. On starting, Moore gave me these orders. “Stay over there until you get those cattle or bust the LX company. I will keep you supplied in money just as long as they have got a nickel left, that I can get hold of. And when you get the cattle, if you think you can succeed in capturing “Billy the Kid,” do so. You can hire all the men you need; but don’t undertake his capture until you have first secured the cattle.”
At Tascosa we met Stuart [Stewart], who had succeeded in raising a little crowd to join us. Mr. [W.S.] McCarty, boss of the LIT ranch, had furnished five men, a cook and chuck wagon; and Torry [Ellsworth Torrey] shoe [TS] ranch was further up the [Canadian] river, a wagon and two men, while a man named Johnson furnished a man and a wagon. The LIT outfit was in charge of a fellow by the name of Bob Robertson, whose orders were to get the stolen cattle before trying to capture the Kid, but in the meantime to be governed by Stuart’s orders.
“We left the LX ranch, went by Tascosa and got enough grub to last us to the Pecos,” Jim East later recalled. “We went right up the [Canadian] River past Sperling’s [ranch] where we camped one night, to San Hilario above Fort Bascom and cut across to the Pecos. Charley [Siringo] said, ‘Now, I’ll go on to Las Vegas, buy grub, and you fellows can go straight across to Anton Chico and wait there until I get back. That would save about seventy-five miles driving for us.’” In Cal Polk’s freewheeling account of the trip. Siringo “started on ahead to Las Vegas with the male [mail] carrier to get corn [for the horses]. He told us to go to Antion Cheeko on the Pacos River and there wait until he came with the corn. We went ahead and got there on Sunday [November 27, 1880] at 12 oclock. Just as we all rode up into town the cathlick church broke and the Mexacans coming out of it. They all stoped and gazed at us, and wondered what was the matter. We all had 2 belts full of cartridges a peace around us and was armed to the teeth with six shooters Bowie knives and Winchesters on our saddles.” Polk went on to tell of a close encounter with the Kid:
While we was there Billy the Kid come in town one night and stole 3 good horses from Mexacans. He then rote a letter to Frank Stuart telling us to not come no further, that he did not want to fite us. But if we came to come a shootin. This was strate goods but we had it to face. As you will see later we had all went deeply in debt while we was there and expected Charley to come with a picket full of monnie from Las Vagas. But when he come we was broke. He got to gambling up there and lost all the monnie the LX firm started him with and he had to give a check on them for the corn, so we had to give checks here they same way.
Cal Polk’s hairy tales of what the posse was up to in Anton Chico have been published elsewhere. Whether they are true or not, we will probably never know, although an unpublished memoir, Deep Trails in the West, dictated to a friend in 1942 by Frank Clifford, the man known to his fellow possemen as “Big Foot Wallace,” suggests that even if Polk was stretching the truth, he wasn’t stretching it very far:
The morning we left Anton Chico, it was snowing. There was already about five inches of snow on the ground. By the time we stopped at noon, snow was from eight to ten inches deep. We made a dry camp, and melted snow to water our horses. Before we could get started again, Pat Garrett, sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, and Frank Stewart, cattle detective for the Canadian Cattle Association, and another man [Barney Mason] rode into camp. Pat told us that the “Kid” was down by Fort Sumner, and had a large bunch of Canadian River cattle that he was aiming to start for Old Mexico with in the morning. This couldn’t be true, as nobody could go any distance through a snowstorm like that with a big bunch of cattle. There would be nothing for them to eat. Bob Boberson and Charley Siringo immediately told Pat so. They demeaned him, and didn’t mince words either.
Pat insisted he was telling it straight, and after a long argument, Bob and Charley agreed to leave it to their men personally to decide who would go with Pat. We split up exactly even, seven went, and seven wouldn’t go. I was one who didn’t. We took the wagons and went on to White Oaks, reaching there on the day before Christmas. I remember the date, because just at midnight Christmas Eve, a lot of us slipped out of the saloon and turned loose our artillery, firing two or three salvos in to the air by way of saluting the new Christmas morning. When we went back into the saloon the first thing we saw there was Pinto Tom (Longworth), the lanky, red-headed Marshall of White Oaks, crawling out from under a billiard table, which cost Pinto Tom several rounds of drinks before morning. He thought the “Kid” and his gang had come in and were shooting up the town, as he dived under the table for safety. I never heard of the “Kid’s” shooting up a town just for fun, but folks always seemed to be afraid he was going to!
The hunt for Billy the Kid would get results in December 1880, culminating in his capture by a Sheriff Garrett-led posse on the 23rd at a rock house (once used as a forage station) at Stinking Springs (Ojo Hediendo) east of Fort Sumner near Taliban. Among those who set down their versions of the pursuit and capture of the Kid were Siringo, Polk and another Kid chaser, Louis “The Animal” Bousman. All stick pretty close to Garrett’s account. Jim East, however, adds telling detail that appears in none of the others. Although one or two writers have cited it, this is the first time his account of the hunting of the Kid has been published in its entirety.
We crossed to the Piedrenal Springs where we struck the breaks of the Pecos. We left our camp at daylight, rode all day without anything to eat, rode that night and next day about five o’clock we got to Puerta [Puerto] de Luna on the Pecos…. I remember how good chuck tasted there…after we had been without for so long. We spent the night there, and as our horses were played out we stayed there the next day…. We slept in a house that night, as it was very cold. Our party was made up of James East, Lee Hall and Lon Chambers from the LX; and Emory, Bausman and Williams from the LIT.
Garrett got word by a Mexican runner who came up that the Kid and his gang were at Fort Sumner and if we would hurry we might get them. It was forty two miles from Puerta de Luna to Sumner. About dusk we pulled out. It snowed all the way down, and there were about four inches on the ground when we got there just before day. When we left the wagons we had to cut ourselves out of all our bedding except one blanket apiece, as we could not carry more. We had one six-shooter, a Winchester and a blanket apiece. We packed no horses, and we had only the ones we rode. I slept on the one blanket and rode the one horse all that winter.
We got to Sumner a little before daylight and went to Beaver Smith’s store….Garrett asked him when he had seen the boys last. He said that they were there about sundown and that after they had drunk some whiskey and shot up the store they had gone to a vacant house just across the street and he thought they were still there. We slipped across to the house. It was still snowing. There was a little fire flickering in the fireplace and when it flared up a little we could see the form of a man before the fireplace. We thought that the whole bunch was there. Garrett told us to take no chances and to begin shooting when we went in. Garrett kicked the door open and we all jumped in with our Winchesters ready, and it was only [Mike Cosgrove] the mail carrier from Las Vegas. We came mighty near shooting him, not knowng who he was as there was not much light. He said: “My God, don’t shoot, boys.” And he was scared to death. He said that he did not know anything about the Kid and his gang and he did not want to….
We found that the Kid was out of town then and we did not know where. We went over to a long adobe building, the old hospital building of the Fort, and built a fire in the fireplace, rustled a little chuck, and stayed there all day. It snowed all the time. The next night Garrett told everybody to stay in Fort Sumner and for no one to leave on pain of death. He was afraid someone would slip out and tell the Kid. During the morning a Mexican came to Garrett and said that his wife and baby were at home and they had no milk for the baby. He said that his cow had got out and…asked permission to go after her and said he would be right back. Instead of going after his cow he slipped over near to Taiban to Wilcox’s ranch where the Kid and his bunch were and told him where we were…and that our horses were in Pete Maxwell’s stable. Nearly all the Mexicans were friendly to the Kid.
That night [December 19] about eleven o’clock they came in. Lon Chambers and Lee Hall had been placed on guard over our horses. I was rolled up in my blanket trying to get a little sleep before going on second guard, and Garrett, Barney Mason, Tom Emory and Bob Williams were playing poker. The Kid’s idea was, as he told us after we captured him, to slip in and steal our horses, put us afoot, and then take his time in killing us. A man on foot in that country was almost helpless.
Chambers, who was on guard, heard them coming, slipped up to the door and said: “Get your guns, they are coming.” The boys threw down their chips and cards, got their guns, and we all went out. Just then they turned around the end of the hospital building. The only light was from the snow. Garrett hollered at the bunch to throw up their hands, but they jerked their six-shooters and the fight commenced. All of them wheeled and left with the exception of one. Garrett said: “Throw up your hands; we’ll shoot you down!” He [the rider] said “Don’t shoot any more, Pat; I am dying.” His horse jogged right on up to us and it was Tom O’Phalliard, shot through near the heart. We took him inside and laid him down on my blanket. The boys went back to playing poker and I sat down by the fire. O’Phalliard commenced to cuss Garrett.
He said: “God damn you, Garrett; I hope to meet you in Hell.”
Pat said: “I would not talk that way, Tom. You are going to die in a few minutes.”
He said: “Ah, go to hell, you long-legged sonofabitch.” (Pat w as six feet, five inches tall).
The game went on and the blood began running inside Tom. He began groaning and asked me to get him a drink of water. I did. He drank a little, lay back, shuddered and was dead. The poker game went on. It was a thing to get the minds of the men off the fight and keep them from growing morbid.
The next morning at daylight, Bausman and another man were sent out as scouts to see where they had gone. They went up towards the Taiban and found a dead horse, one that Dave Rudabaugh was riding. They had gone about a mile before his horse, which had been shot, died on him, and he had to dismount and get up behind another of the boys. It kept snowing. The winter of 1880 was an exceptionally cold one, and there was a heavy loss of cattle along the Canadian.
We lay over that day, got a Mexican to bury Tom O’Phalliard. We got a Mexican to make a box for him. The next day about twelve o’clock a man by the name of Wilcox who owned a ranch about three miles from the Taiban and about fifteen miles east of Fort Sumner, on what they called the Texas Road but which was not traveled much, came in and said: “Boys, the Kid and his bunch had supper at my house and have gone over to that rock house on the Taiban.” This was a one room house with one door and a little window next to the arroyo near which it stood. It had probably been a sheep ranch. The snow was pretty deep and we had to travel slowly.
We started up there and got to this house just before daylight. Garrett took Tom Emory, Lon Chambers, Jim East and Lee Hall and crawled up the arroyo until he was within about thirty feet of the house. Their horses were tied to the vega poles and we could see them. We crawled up by the low bank of this dry arroyo which was covered with snow to keep under cover.
It was some time before news of the Kid’s capture reached the possemen who had stayed in White Oaks. One of them, the man who called himself Frank Clifford, tells the story:
The boys came in from Fort Sumner, telling us that the “Kid” had been captured, and from there I must tell the story as they told it to us. The only hearsay about this story is from the lips of the men who were actually present at the occurrences, and told to me and the other boys by these men immediately after the event took place.
Garrett and his deputy, Kip McKinney [he means Barney Mason], and five men, together with Frank Stewart and six of our men, formed a posse and went to Fort Sumner. Pat hired a Mexican for one hundred dollars to go to the “Kid’s” hideout on the edge of the Staked Plains and tell the “Kid” that “the Texans,” that was us, had turned back home, and that it was now safe for him to come on in to Fort Sumner, which the “Kid” told the Mexican he would do that evening. When Pat Garrett got that word, he placed his posse out of sight, where they could cover the road which the “Kid’s” gang would ride in on. There were in the gang, the “Kid” (whose name was “William Bonney”), Dave Rudabaugh, Charley Bowdre, Tom O’Phalliard (they have spelled his name O’Folliard on the tombstone which has been put up for these three, as I notice in a photograph which I saw, but we always called him O’Phalliard), and one other whose name I cannot be sure of. I think it was “Wilson”.
When they got opposite to where Pat’s men were hiding, Pat opened fire on them without calling to them to surrender, according to the definite words of these men who told us about it, men who were in the posse, Lon Chambers, Tom Emory, Jim East, “the Animal,” Cal Polk, and Lee Hall, all men who were from our expedition. Well, O’Phalliard was killed, and the rest of the “Kid’s” gang turned back and headed away from there, but with eight or ten inches of snow on the ground they were easily tracked. They went out to their hideout, which was a crude rock shanty at the edge of the Staked Plains. Pat’s men placed themselves just under the edge of a draw where they had full view of the shanty, but were out of sight themselves, and waited for daylight.
From this point on, Clifford’s account becomes much like all the others, so it was exciting to discover a version of these events that has never been published. In 1942, Amarillo newspaperman John L. McCarty interviewed Garrett H. “Kid” Dobbs at Farmington, N.M., and elicited the following information:
Garrett and his men had some letters from Wallace, Chisholm [Chisum] and Capt. Leech [Lea] offering Kid amnesty if he would surrender. Pat sent a Mexican to Billy and Charley [Bowdre] telling them of these letters and asking them to meet him one at a time at a cross fork near by [Punta de la Glorieta above Fort Sumner]. Bowder sent word back he would meet Pat at 10 o’clock the next morning. He did and he and Garrett shook hands and Garrett showed him the letters. Bowder said he would go back and tell Billy and whatever Billy decided to do he would do.
Bowder told Billy about the letters and Billy offered $100 to [Thomas] Wilcox for a bottle of strychnine. He said he could get the Mexican woman cook at Fort Sumner to poison [the meals she cooked for] Garrett and all his deputies. Wilcox wouldn’t sell him any poison. That night Billy and his men slept in a stack lot and [Billy] made his last resolution for the next day which was to meet Garrett and feint a surrender and kill Pat. Leech, Wilcox’s partner [Manuel Brazil] slipped out that night to Sumner and told Garrett of Billy’s plans. Garrett got ready. But Billy didn’t meet Garrett that morning. That evening a bad blizzard and snow storm came up and Billy thought Pat wouldn’t follow them, but he did. Billy was in a deserted rock house 15 miles East; Garrett’s men surrounded the shack during the night.
Billy and his men had tied their horses to a vegas [viga] on the south side of the shack….Charley Bowder got up first the next morning before good daylight. He picked up the Kid’s Mexican hat by mistake. This was a $200 hat and had more silver on it than any hat I ever saw. Bowder put on this hat and stepped outside. Pat was 50 feet away. One of his men recognized the hat and said “That’s Billy.” Pat shot Bowder under the heart. Bowder knew it was Pat and said, “Don’t shoot any more, Pat, you’ve got me.” Garrett said “Is that you Charley” and he said “yes.”
Pat told him to crawl on down where they were and Bowder did. He told Pat he didn’t blame him for shooting and said he had a will in his pocket he wanted Pat to carry out. Pat told him he would. Bowder lived 40 minutes. He left his horse, saddle and blankets and $118 in cash to the Mexican woman cook in Fort Sumner. She got every bit of it that day, too.
Knowing the element of surprise was gone, Garrett decided to wait the Kid out. After a while they saw the tie ropes of the horses tethered outside the cabin move and figured the Kid and his men were trying to get the horses inside so they could mount up and come out running. Without compunction he shot one of the horses dead; it fell across the doorway, blocking it. After a while Garrett called to the Kid that he had them surrounded and there was no chance of escape. The Kid told him to go to hell. About sundown, according to Jim East, this is what happened:
A white handkerchief was stuck up through the chimney tied to a Winchester barrel. Garrett asked them what they wanted and Billy said they wanted to surrender, but they wanted the condition that we would give them safe conduct to Santa Fe….So Garrett promised them safe conduct through Las Vegas. The Kid and his men came out with their hands up. Barney Mason said: “Kill the S — B — he is slippery and may get away.” Mason had been one of the Kid’s gang at one time, had deserted him and now was afraid of him. He leveled his gun at the Kid and Lee Hall and I threw our guns down on him and said “If you fire a shot we will kill you.” Mason lowered his gun.
The posse and their prisoners spent the night at the Wilcox ranch, bout four miles west of Stinking Springs. Next day, December 24, they headed for Fort Sumner, where the prisoners were put in shackles, and from there to Puerto de Luna, arriving in time to eat Christmas dinner at Alexander Grzelachowski’s store. They reached Las Vegas the following day, December 26, and a day later the Kid was taken by train to the jail in Santa Fe.
The Panhandle posse had done its job: They had captured Billy the Kid and put him in jail, where most cattlemen firmly believed the belonged. In March 1881, the Kid was taken to La Mesilla, New Mexico Territory, where he was tried for and found guilty of the murder of Sheriff William Brady almost exactly three years earlier during the Lincoln County War. The date for his execution was set as Friday, May 13, in Lincoln. But as the Kid was wont to observe, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. He would write another bloody chapter in the history of the West before Pat Garrett wrote finis to his career. Ww
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English author Frederick Nolan is considered one of the foremost authorities on Billy the Kid, as well as many of the Kid’s friends and enemies. His books The West of Billy the Kid, The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History and The Life and Death of John Henry Tunstall are recommended for further reading, along with Leon C. Metz’s Pat Garrett: The Story of a Western Lawman.
This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Wild West magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!
Billy the Kid: The Great Escape
In Western frontier history, you might call it ‘the Great Escape.’ After all, Davy Crockett didn’t escape the Alamo, George Custer didn’t escape the Little Bighorn, and Nez Perce Chief Joseph didn’t escape the U.S. Army. But Billy the Kid did escape the Lincoln County Courthouse! New Mexico Territory’s Lincoln County War boosted the Kid into the national spotlight in the late 1870s, but it wasn’t until his dramatic escape from the courthouse in April 1881 that he secured his place near the top of the all-time badmen heap. Getting shot down by Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner less than three months later certainly cemented Billy’s legend — which might have suffered had he not died so young — but the Kid didn’t exactly go out in a blaze of glory. And Garrett never would have gotten his chance at the gutsy, if not heroic, gunman had it not been for Billy’s great — well, not so great for two Lincoln County lawmen — escape.
Actually, Garrett had a role — albeit in absentia — in Billy’s April 28, 1881, breakout. Running on a law-and-order platform, Garrett had been elected sheriff of Lincoln County in November 1880 and had captured Billy the Kid at Stinking Springs the next month. Then, in Mesilla on April 13, 1881, Billy had been convicted of the murder of Sheriff William Brady, one of the casualties of the Lincoln County War, and sentenced to hang. The execution was to be carried out in Lincoln on Friday, May 13, and seven guards had transported the prisoner there in the middle of April. So on April 28, the Kid was very much Garrett’s responsibility. And the sheriff did not take his responsibility lightly. Garrett did not keep Billy in Lincoln’s old cellar jail, which he knew would never hold a cunning prisoner whose very life depended on getting out. Instead, Garrett kept the Kid shackled hand and foot and guarded around the clock in the room behind his own office at the county courthouse, which had been the old Murphy-Dolan store (commonly referred to as ‘the House’) during the Lincoln County War.
That bitter feud was fresh in everybody’s mind. Lawrence Murphy had aligned himself with James J. Dolan for economic control of the region, and when an Englishman named John Tunstall came along and proved himself to be competition, trouble followed. Tunstall’s murder on February 18, 1878, and Sheriff Brady’s subsequent refusal to arrest the men responsible led to ‘war.’ Teenager Billy the Kid (born Henry McCarty in 1859, probably in New York) had been employed by Tunstall. After Tunstall’s death, Billy and several other so-called Regulators killed three members of the Dolan faction and then assassinated Brady and Deputy George Hindman. Additional killings followed, but it was the killing of Brady that now had the Kid cooling his heels in the makeshift ‘death row’ at the Lincoln County Courthouse.
On Thursday, April 28, 1881, Sheriff Garrett was collecting taxes in White Oaks — a sheriff still had to carry out his duties even when he had a celebrated outlaw in his custody. Garrett had assigned deputies Bob Olinger and James W. Bell to guard Billy. The Kid’s room was on the second story, across the hall from the room where Garrett kept his more ordinary prisoners. Ironically, the room where Billy the Kid was awaiting his execution day had once been the bedroom of his old enemy, Lawrence Murphy.
If Billy the Kid didn’t have reason enough to free himself, Olinger gave him another reason by continually harassing him. A woman who had seen Olinger guarding Billy was interviewed more than 50 years after the fact (see They ‘Knew’ Billy the Kid: Interviews with Old-time New Mexicans, edited by Robert F. Kadlec). She said of the guard: ‘He was a big burly fellow, and every one that I ever heard speak of him said he was mean and overbearing, and I know that he tantalized Billy while guarding him, for he invited me to the hanging just a few days before he was killed. Even after he was killed I never heard any one say a single nice thing about him.’ Garrett himself said that Olinger and Billy the Kid had a ‘reciprocal hatred.’ Olinger and the Kid had supported opposing factions during the Lincoln County War, and Olinger had killed Billy’s friend John Jones in August 1879.
Billy’s guards supposedly drew a deadline in chalk across the middle of the room — should Billy ever step over it, he would be shot. If true, it was no doubt Olinger’s idea. The other guard, Bell, apparently treated the prize prisoner well; Garrett said that the Kid ‘appeared to have taken a liking’ to Bell. Garrett, by his own account, also treated Billy fairly. In his The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, Garrett said that Billy acknowledged that the sheriff had only done his duty ‘without malice, and had treated him with marked leniency and kindness.’ But based on how the Kid treated Bell on April 28, it’s hard to imagine that he would have shown any ‘leniency’ toward Garrett had the sheriff been in Lincoln instead of out collecting taxes that fateful day.
Between 5 and 6 p.m. on the 28th, Olinger took the five other prisoners across the street to Sam Wortley’s hotel for dinner. Billy remained in his room, with Bell keeping watch. It is commonly accepted that the Kid asked Bell to take him to the outhouse in back of the courthouse. Bell obliged. The men went outside, Billy still in his leg-irons and chains and with handcuffs still on. Once back in the building, Billy the Kid made his move.
Godfrey Gauss, who had cooked for Tunstall and was living in a house behind the courthouse with Sam Wortley, happened to be outside at the time. He heard a shot, and when he looked up, he saw Bell burst out of the courthouse’s back door. ‘He ran right into my arms, expired the same moment, and I laid him down dead,’ Gauss later said. Bell had been shot through the body.
Olinger, still dining at the hotel, heard the shot and came outside with the five prisoners. Gauss called out to him, asking him to hurry back across the street. Olinger did so, without the prisoners. As he entered the courthouse yard, Olinger heard his name called by somebody else — somebody from above. When Olinger looked up, he saw his own double-barreled shotgun pointing down at him from an upstairs window on the courthouse’s east side. Somehow, Billy had been able to get the shotgun out of Garrett’s office. ‘I stuck the gun through the window and said, ‘Look up, old boy, and see what you get,” recalled Billy. ‘ Bob looked up, and I let him have both barrels right in the face and breast.’ Olinger died instantly.
Billy then spotted Gauss behind the courthouse, but Billy wasn’t after any more blood. Both men who had been guarding him were dead, and Gauss was a friend. Billy asked him to throw up a pickax, and Gauss did not hesitate in coming to the aid of a friend in need. The Kid then requested a saddled horse as he worked the pick on the chain connecting his shackles. Gauss brought the horse. By then, the Kid had quite an audience — the five other prisoners and many of Lincoln’s fine citizens. Nobody tried to interfere with Billy’s plans. No doubt some of them had nothing against Billy. According to some accounts, the Kid shook hands with a lot of folks before riding out of town. Even more of them may have been paralyzed by fear. Garrett thought so. In any case, Billy found no reason to rush. One of the witnesses said that by the time Billy finally rode off, Bell and Olinger had been dead for more than an hour.
One of the big questions afterward was how Billy the Kid had managed to get a revolver and shoot Bell. Sheriff Garrett, who learned of the escape the next day (April 29), certainly wanted to know. After returning from White Oaks, he examined the building and interviewed Gauss and other witnesses. Garrett said he found that the room serving as the armory had been broken into; he also discovered a bullet in the wall of the stairwell. The bullet had apparently ricocheted off the right-hand wall, passed through Bell’s body and lodged in the opposite wall. From that evidence, he surmised that Billy had obtained the revolver from the armory.
But how had Billy been able to get away from Bell and reach the armory? Garrett’s explanation was that Billy — with leg shackles and all — had somehow hurried ahead of Bell on the way back from the outhouse, gone inside the courthouse well ahead of the deputy, rushed up the stairs and broken into the armory. Breaking into the armory would have been easy, Garrett said, because even when the door was locked, it could be opened with a push. One of the men watching from the street said that when Billy appeared on the upper porch in front of the building, he ‘had at his command eight revolvers and six guns [rifles]‘ — weapons undoubtedly filched from the armory. Of course, Billy would have only grabbed one loaded gun at first, which was all he needed to dispatch Bell as the deputy came up the stairs. But more questions arise. Was there time for Billy to do all that? Why did Bell dawdle so? If the Kid had managed to get so far ahead, wouldn’t Bell have drawn his gun and shot him?
Another possibility is that Billy found the revolver in the outhouse. Maurice Fulton, a tireless researcher of New Mexican history during the 1920s and 1930s, liked the version in which Sam Corbet, who had been Tunstall’s clerk, aided Billy. According to that version, Corbet had visited Billy every day and, despite the watchful eyes of Olinger and Bell, had managed to slip him a note on which one word was written — ‘Privy.’ Not much of a clue, but Billy was a sharp youth, and he somehow got the message — there would be a revolver waiting for him in the outhouse. The revolver had been wrapped in a newspaper and planted in the outhouse by another friend, José Aguayo. The outhouse was open to the public, so somebody else could have found the weapon. But nobody else did. On his trip to the outhouse in the early evening of the 28th, Billy had retrieved the gun and hid it in his clothes. Once back inside the courthouse, the Kid had then pulled the revolver from its hiding place and shot the unsuspecting Bell.
Another version involves Billy’s handcuffs and is offered by Robert M. Utley in Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. Utley contends that ‘Bell carelessly lagged behind’ when he and Billy were returning from the outhouse, and that after Billy reached the top of the stairs, he slipped one hand out of his cuffs. When Bell made it up the stairs, Billy’swung the loose cuff in vicious blows that laid open two gashes on the guard’s scalp’ and knocked him down. Then, according to Utley’s version, Billy wrestled Bell for the deputy’s gun. Billy got the gun and fired it as Bell fled down the stairs. The bullet hit the mark, and Bell staggered outside before he died in Godfrey Gauss’ arms. Billy, meanwhile, took Olinger’s shotgun from Garrett’s office and went to the window in the northeast corner room to deal with other threats. Soon, he eliminated the only immediate threat — Olinger.
Most likely the Kid would have been able to free a hand from the handcuffs. Pat Garrett said that Billy had large wrists that tapered into slender hands. And other people who knew the Kid mentioned his small, almost feminine hands. While under house arrest at the Lincoln home of Juan Patron in March 1878, Billy supposedly had greeted each visitor by slipping his hand out of the cuffs to shake hands. Garrett also learned, presumably from eyewitnesses, that Billy had removed his handcuffs in the same manner after killing Bell. According to Garrett, Billy threw the cuffs at Bell’s body and said, ‘Here, damn you, take these, too.’
Early in May 1881, the territorial newspapers began to receive letters regarding Billy’s escape, and the handcuffs were usually mentioned. The Santa Fe Daily New Mexican printed one such letter on May 3. ‘Quick as lightning he [Billy] jumped and struck Bell with his handcuffs, fracturing his skull,’ said the anonymous correspondent. ‘He immediately snatched Bell’s revolver and shot him.’
Another letter reported, ‘Bell lay dead in the back yard with two gashes on his head, apparently cut by a blow from the handcuffs.’ Still another correspondent wrote, ‘[Billy] said he grabbed Bell’s revolver and told him to hold up his hands and surrender; that Bell decided to run and he had to kill him.’ The Kid himself may also have mentioned the handcuffs. Not long after escaping Lincoln, Billy spent one night at friend John P. Meadows’ cabin on the Penasco River. According to Meadows, who was interviewed by Maurice Fulton in 1931, Billy told him that he had hit Bell with his handcuffs and then had shot the deputy with his own gun.
All the details of Billy’s great escape will never be known, of course. Bell didn’t live long enough to say anything to anyone, not even to old Godfrey Gauss. Officials could never question the Kid about it because he remained a fugitive until Garrett killed him on the night of July 13, 1881, at Fort Sumner. But every detail was not needed to stir up the newspapers and the public. If Billy had left the town of Lincoln stunned, he also left the territory in shock. The Daily New Mexican of May 3, 1881, called the April 28 killings and escape ‘as bold a deed as those versed in the annals of crime can recall. It surpasses anything of which the Kid has been guilty so far that his past offenses lose much of heinousness in comparison with it, and it effectually settles the question whether the Kid is a cowardly cutthroat or a thoroughly reckless and fearless man.’ Billy, according to the newspaper, had exhibited ‘a coolness and steadiness of nerve in executing his plan of escape.’
‘Newspapers across the country went wild,’ writes Joel Jacobsen in his book Such Men as Billy the Kid. ‘The impossible had happened: Billy the Kid, the outlaw king of the frontier, had lived up to his reputation.’ Utley concurs. In his Billy the Kid, Utley says that the Kid was famous before his Lincoln escape thanks to the territorial press, but that despite his deeds during the Lincoln County War, he had not done enough in his 21 years to justify his fame. ‘The sensational bolt from Lincoln, however, transformed him into the territory’s foremost outlaw in fact as well as in name,’ Utley suggests.
At the courthouse today, two plaques mark the spots where Bell and Olinger fell. A large hole in the wall at the bottom of the stairs may have been made by one of the Kid’s bullets. Billy the Kid probably took some pleasure in killing ‘mean’ Bob Olinger, and he might have regretted killing the much more pleasant James Bell — well, maybe not too much regret. Garrett had repeatedly cautioned his guards about the ‘daring and unscrupulous’ Billy because he ‘knew the desperate character’ of a man who ‘would sacrifice the lives of a hundred men who stood between him and liberty, when the gallows stared him in the face, with as little compunction as he would kill a coyote.’
This article was written by Barbara Tucker Peterson and Louis Hart and originally appeared in the August 1998 issue of Wild West magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!
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