Within days of New Year’s 1872 typesetters at the New York daily newspaper Pomeroy’s Democrat, owned by eclectic businessman and journalist Marcus M. “Brick” Pomeroy, put the finishing touches on the January 6 edition. One brief item, just 32 words in length, was a personal ad placed by a woman of Irish heritage living out West:
Catherine McCarty, at Nevada-
ville, Colorado Territory, is anxious to
hear of her sister, Margaret McCarty,
who, when last heard from, was in Am-
boy, N. J., and her two brothers,
Matthew and Barnard.
Could the woman seeking family members back East have been Catherine McCarty-Antrim, mother of William Henry McCarty (aka Billy the Kid)? If so her innocuous personal ad provides a clue for researchers and historians as to the lineage and birthplace of one of America’s most infamous Old West legends.
The personal ad provides a clue for researchers and historians as to the lineage and birthplace of one of America’s most infamous Old West legends
Nevadaville, Colorado Territory, lay a mile or two from Central City in the eponymous mining district some 30 miles west of Denver. As a gold mining boom camp, it was just the sort of place Catherine McCarty and soon-to-be husband William Antrim would have been drawn to. Catherine would have appreciated the earning potential of services she could provide for miners, mainly laundry and baking, vocations she was known to have successfully pursued in Wichita, Kansas, and later in Silver City, New Mexico. Antrim was an avid prospector, often to the exclusion of his family obligations. He would disappear for months at a time, even when his wife fell desperately ill. His obsession for gold may have taken hold of Antrim before his arrival in Silver City. Nevadaville was not far from Denver, a place to which both he and Joseph McCarty, Billy’s younger brother, recalled the family had moved after leaving Wichita in the late summer of 1871 and where they stayed until the latter half of 1872. A search of U.S. Census records in 1870 and 1880 reveal no other McCartys in the area to whom this Catherine McCarty might have been related.
By 1872 Catherine McCarty was already suffering from the tuberculosis that would take her life only two years later. She may have sought to reconnect with family back East so she and her young sons would have someone other than the unreliable William Antrim to turn to should her illness render her unable to care for them or for herself. If she did in fact place the ad, but didn’t receive a favorable reply, that would explain why she remained the companion of and later married William Henry Harrison Antrim. With no one else to depend on, she might have felt compelled by circumstances to stay with Antrim and hope for the best.
The ad provides other interesting clues. A search for the McCarty surname in the greater New York area in the 1860s and ’70s turns up many Matthews, Margarets and Catherines, but few Barnards or Barneys (a common nickname for Barnard), which makes that end of the search somewhat easier. As the newspaper ad listed Margaret as a McCarty but gave no surname for her brothers, Matthew and Barnard, the logical deduction is they were all named McCarty. And if Catherine McCarty-Antrim was the sender, it is almost certain the ancestral family surname was McCarty. There’s a chance Catherine and Margaret both married men named McCarty, but that seems unlikely. Further genealogical research in Ireland may connect the dots, as there cannot have been many family groups with siblings named Margaret, Matthew, Barnard and Catherine.
A search of the 1860 and ’70 U.S. Census returns, as well as city directories for Perth Amboy and South Amboy, N.J., reveal a Margaret McCarty in the area (Bridgewater Township, in Somerset County) that may be the woman mentioned in the newspaper ad. Born in Ireland circa 1834, she was a resident of Bridgewater Township by 1860, living and working as a servant in the home of Henry A. Herder, the sheriff of Somerset County. By 1870 she had left Bridgewater, or at least her name is absent from that year’s census, which might dovetail with the missing Margaret that Catherine McCarty of Nevadaville was seeking in 1872. Herder lost a re-election bid a couple of years after the 1860 Census and died at home of a heart attack in 1867. By 1870 none of his family were recorded living at his address. Either of these major changes in the Herder household in the 1860s may have lost Margaret her position. She may have sought employment in one of the Amboys, where Catherine McCarty of Nevadaville last knew her sister to be.
How about Billy? The newspaper ad gives good reason to look for him in the archival records of the Garden State, a locale presumably not considered or searched before for traces of the future outlaw. New Jersey birth and census records from the target years 1859 to ’71 turn up several boys who could be our man.
The 1860 Census turns up a number of newborn McCarty boys. Three records lack the names of both parents, as well as a first name for the newborn. One boy of interest was born in Somerville, Bridgewater Township, on July 29, 1860, a few days after the 1860 Census listed Margaret McCarty in the household of Sheriff Herder. Oddly, the record omits the name of the boy’s mother. While the census lists few newborns by first name, it consistently lists the full names of both parents. The father in this particular record is identified as John McCarty, a laborer. A check of census returns in 1860 and ’70 for Somerville and Bridgewater Township (Somerville, where Margaret McCarty was living in 1860, wasn’t incorporated until 1863 and prior to that was part of Bridgewater) shows two men named John McCarty, but by 1870 they were either no longer in the area or had no male children living in their homes. (One John McCarty who moved away from Bridgewater appears in the 1870 and ’80 Census returns for South Amboy, N.J., one of the towns in which Catherine McCarty of Nevadaville suspected her sister, Margaret, might be living. Coincidence?)
If the Margaret McCarty who appears in the 1860 Census returns for Somerville was the sister of Catherine McCarty-Antrim, it is reasonable to surmise that Catherine, if pregnant and unmarried, may have sought out Margaret when due to deliver in the summer of 1860. As the live-in servant of the Somerset County sheriff, Margaret may have had enough sway to keep sister Catherine’s name off the books when the child was born. As for the father’s name being recorded as John McCarty, that may have been a ruse to keep the baby from being branded as illegitimate, and/or possibly to keep his real father’s name out of official records.
Where did baby McCarty of Somerville pop up next? A search of the surrounding area reveals one possible lead. The 1870 Census returns for Lebanon—in Hunterdon County, some 15 miles due west of Somerville—record a family named McCarty. The father, Michael McCarty, born in Ireland around 1828, identified himself as a track worker on the Central Railroad of New Jersey. Listed in the household are his wife, Ellen, and six children—four girls and two boys. The eldest boy, Willy McCarty, was approximately 8 years old at the time of the census. Yet a search of New Jersey records has yet to discover a birth record for Willy as a child of Michael and Ellen McCarty.
Though there is an 18-month age difference between the unnamed McCarty boy listed in the 1860 birth record from Somerville and the Willy McCarty listed in the 1870 Census returns for Lebanon, this doesn’t eliminate the two from consideration, given the inaccuracies in period records. Indeed, if census takers were unable to speak to the head of a household, they might have sought information on the names of family members from neighbors or even young children encountered on the property. As a result census records often list incorrect names, ages and places of birth. Familiar with such discrepancies, genealogists have learned to crosscheck the records against other primary sources, such as census returns from prior and later decades, birth and death records, marriage records, military records and other documents.
Another possible explanation for the discrepancy between the two McCarty records: Most contemporaries who knew Billy the Kid noted he was undersized and younger in appearance than his actual age. At 10 years old Billy the Kid may just have looked like an 8 year old, and if he and Willy McCarty of Lebanon were one in the same, the census taker may have appraised him to be younger than his appearance. Perhaps the census taker even spoke directly with Willy himself and didn’t believe the boy’s claim to be 10 years old.
If Willy McCarty of Lebanon was indeed Billy the Kid, Catherine must have left him to be raised with Michael and Ellen for the better part of a decade, reclaiming him just after the 1870 Census—around the time she bought property and set up residence in Wichita. A year later Catherine, after learning she had tuberculosis, sold her Wichita property and moved farther West for the drier climes.
Catherine McCarty’s personal circumstances may have kept her from raising the boy herself until her move to the frontier and acquisition of property made it possible for her to financially support him. In that scenario the act of reclaiming Willy from the Lebanon McCartys may have been a source of anguish for all concerned, perhaps opening a rift with that part of her family, one Catherine never managed to bridge. Alternatively, young Willy, perhaps feeling abandoned and unwanted, might have been a handful, and when Catherine showed up to claim him, the McCartys might have pushed him out the door, bag and baggage. Either scenario would explain why Catherine didn’t mention Michael McCarty in the 1872 ad in Pomeroy’s Democrat. We will likely never know the specifics.
Even the boy’s first name may have been in flux at that point. The 1870 Census lists the Lebanon McCartys’ eldest son as Willy. Catherine McCarty reportedly insisted on calling her son Henry, perhaps as a way of differentiating between Bill Antrim and her son. But if Billy the Kid and Willy from New Jersey were the same boy, Catherine could just have easily differentiated him from her husband by calling the boy Willy. It may be that her name for him was Henry all along, and Willy, Billy or William were names given him by his New Jersey family, names Catherine may not have wished to continue using.
The discussion brings up family lore to the effect that Catherine was actually Billy and Joe’s aunt, an assertion allegedly borne out by notes in the Antrim family bible and accepted by some researchers. However, if Willy McCarty of Lebanon was born to Catherine McCarty, and she did place her baby son with Michael and Ellen McCarty, the boy may have grown up believing his aunt and uncle were his biological parents and that Catherine was his aunt—that is, until she returned to reclaim him, thus exposing the family secret. A garbled retelling of such events might be the source of the Aunt Catherine rumors.
It turns out the name Willy is actually another reason Willy McCarty of Lebanon is a good candidate for Billy the Kid. William Henry McCarty was not generally known to identify himself publicly as Willy McCarty, either as his real name or as an alias. In his time out West he typically used some combination of the first names William or Bill/Billy and the surnames McCarty, Antrim or Bonney. That said, someone close to him did refer to him as Willy.
Among Billy the Kid’s known love interests was Sally Chisum, daughter of New Mexico cattle baron John Chisum. Long known as a source of information on the years Billy spent in the Southwest, Sally was friendly with the Kid and journaled of her encounters with him. Apparently smitten with Sally, Billy often called on her, bringing such tokens as candy or pastries. Sally diligently recorded “Willy’s” visits and gifts in her diary. Was it coincidence or perhaps personal affectation that led Sally Chisum to refer to him as “Willy” rather than Billy? Or had Billy asked Sally to refer to him as Willy, a name he may have associated in memory with a kind and loving couple who raised him? It seems likely a young man would share a favorite nickname with the girl he was sparking and encourage her to use it when they were together. It’s a good possibility William Henry McCarty called himself Willy in safe social surroundings, and it may be the name he grew up with—perhaps as a boy in Lebanon, N.J.
Is the 1872 newspaper ad a smoking gun in the continued search for the origins of Billy the Kid? Perhaps. Researchers have long sought a solid lead to the McCarty branch of his family tree. Might the Willy McCarty listed in the 1870 Census returns for Lebanon, N.J., be the young man recorded in Western lore as Billy the Kid? It warrants consideration and further study. Hopefully these clues will shed more light on the puzzle and give researchers a clearer picture of the early life of William Henry McCarty. WW