Wanted: The Outlaw Lives of Billy the Kid & Ned Kelly, by Robert M. Utley, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2015, $30
With that foundation in mind, Robert Utley’s latest book, Wanted, explores two renegades living parallel violent lives in roughly the same time period (1875–85) in similarly sparsely settled environments on opposite sides of the world. What they have most in common is a lasting place in legend in their respective countries: Billy the Kid in the United States and Ned Kelly in Australia.
Utley devotes most of his two sections to straight biographies, doing his best to separate the known and documented facts from the embellishments. He then starts comparing the young men and the cultures in transition that drove them to their respective doom—and respective immortality.
Likely born in New York, Henry McCarty (aka William Antrim, aka Bill Bonney) went west during America’s Gilded Age, when commercial corruption ran rampant, including in New Mexico Territory, where competition could still be settled by violence. He proved a quick study when it came to horsemanship and gunplay, and between his exposure to local banditry and the side he took in the 1878 Lincoln County War, the Kid made his reputation partly through his own actions—more often than not reactions. Territorial Governor Lew Wallace’s promise of a pardon for murder in exchange for Billy’s testimony to a murder he witnessed—a bargain subsequently broken—gave the Kid his ultimate grievance for a daring escape from the Lincoln gallows and his final owlhoot trail ride.
Despite its vast tracts of unexplored territory, Australia in the late 1870s was a relatively orderly place. The only exceptional case of corruption in the bush country of Victoria happened to be among the police, whose primarily English members were prone to accept bribes, plunder homes they searched, perjure themselves in court and harass the Catholic Irish “selectors” who worked the small farm parcels. Among their most frequent victims were the Kellys, from whom arose the most famous—or notorious—outlaw, or bushranger, of them all. Australia remains divided to this day over whether to regard him as a cold-blooded villain or a national hero, but from the time he met his final fate on the gallows in 1880 with the alleged words “Such is life,” Ned Kelly has come to be as outsized a character in Australian folklore as the Kid in the States.
Utley explores the legends and concludes with comparisons of his protagonists. The result is an intriguing look into widely separated characters that may leave the reader wondering why no one thought of it before.
Originally published in the December 2015 issue of Wild West.