By Robert Wilson,
editor of the American Scholar and author of "The Explorer King," which will appear in paperback in the fall
Thursday, March 15, 2007
BILLY THE KID
The Endless Ride
By Michael Wallis
Norton. 328 pp. $25.95
After Sheriff Pat Garrett shot Billy the Kid to death on a hot July night in 1881 in Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory, the Santa Fe Weekly Democrat reported that the moment Billy died "a strong odor of brimstone" filled the air, accompanied by the appearance of "a dark figure with the wings of a dragon," which hovered over the body and let loose a fiendish, proprietary laugh. As Michael Wallis points out in his new biography of the infamous outlaw, the fictionalization of the Kid's life and death was well underway.
Wallis estimates that hundreds of works have been written about Billy the Kid, most of them "exaggerated or embroidered with sensational lies." The yellow press came up with the enduring nickname only eight months before his death at the age of 21, and a combination of the press and the dime novels of the day quickly turned his short brutal life into myth. Wallis, who has written a book about Route 66 and a biography of another American outlaw, Pretty Boy Floyd, sets himself the difficult but worthwhile task of separating the truth from the fiction.
Nobody knows for sure when and where Billy was born or who his parents were. Most reliable historians, Wallis says, believe he was born in 1859 in New York City to an Irish woman named Catherine McCarty. His name was Henry, and he had a brother named Joseph, but who his father was is less clear. The mother and two sons probably moved to Indianapolis at the end of the Civil War, and there Catherine met William Antrim, a man 12 years her junior. The two were together for eight years before they married in 1873 in Santa Fe, having moved with the boys to Wichita, then possibly to Denver in search of a cure for the tuberculosis Catherine had picked up somewhere.
The four of them ended up in Silver City, N.M., where Catherine died of her illness in 1874. Henry and Joseph, who had taken their stepfather's surname, were placed with families in the town while William went off to mine for riches. Henry, only 15, went to school before and after Catherine's death and was remembered as a mischievous, fun-loving boy who liked to dance and sing; he was good looking but almost girlishly slight of build, a reader and a student of Spanish. But he fell in with a group of boys with whom he developed a taste for petty theft and gambling at cards.
Before long, he was jailed for larceny and escaped by wriggling up a chimney. The first of several dramatic escapes, it made the local newspaper, so that his legend and his life on the lam began at the same time. Henry soon became known as the Kid or as Kid Antrim. By 1877, he had picked a new name altogether -- William H. Bonney. The William probably came from his stepfather and the H from Henry, but although there are theories about where the Bonney name arose, Wallis concludes that it "has never really been explained."
Billy graduated from larceny to horse theft, a capital offense often punished without benefit of judge or jury. As he kicked around New Mexico and Arizona, he inevitably killed a man in a bar fight, and in the last few years of his life he shot other men dead with no sign of remorse. During the infamous Lincoln County War, Billy rose from gang member to gang leader, as others around him either died or wisely slunk away.
He was a violent man in a violent time and place, and yet one aspect of his myth is that of an Old West Robin Hood, a man who stood up to corrupt commercial interests. He was a hero among many Hispanics because of his love of their language, culture and people -- especially their young female people. But based on the facts that can be known, it's hard to romanticize the real man.
"Billy the Kid" reads in places like a first draft, which is a shame, because Wallis seems to have put in the time on his research. He never loses his determination to separate Billy from the smell of brimstone, and yet he never forgets that the myths contain truths that go beyond the facts.