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Life and death of Billy the Kid

A NUMBER of years ago, there was a western series on RTÉ called Alias Smith and Jones, which told the story of two outlaws who wanted to reform and who arranged a secret deal with the Governor of their state, whereby he would pardon them if them did not commit any crimes. At the end of each episode, they were on the run again.

This reflected an incident in real life where Lew Wallace, the Governor of New Mexico, arranged a similar amnesty with Billy the Kid. The Kid was the only one who kept the bargain. As well as being a politician and former army general, Wallace has another claim to fame – he was the man who wrote the book Ben Hur, which was adapted for stage and screen.
Billy the Kid was also known as William H Bonney but his real name was Henry MacCarthy. He also used the alias Henry Antrim. By the age of 18, he was supposed to have committed 17 murders. Historically, the final number might have been as low as four. He was comparatively unknown during his lifetime but the man who shot him, Sheriff Pat Garrett, later wrote The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, which made Billy famous and, of course, did no harm to Garrett’s reputation.
Billy was born in an Irish section of New York and when his father died, the family drifted westwards, ending up in New Mexico. Along the way, Billy had a number of brushes with the law for minor offences but eventually got work from a rancher named Turnbull. Turnbull was one of those involved in a battle for control of the new territory and his murder, in an ambush by a sheriff’s posse, started what became known as the Lincoln County War.
Turnbull had been good to Billy and vowing to avenge his death, he joined a group known as the Regulators. One of their victims was the sheriff involved in Turnbull’s murder – Sheriff Brady. Billy went on the run for two years but was eventually captured and sentenced to be hanged but escaped.
The new Governor, Wallace, announced an amnesty for all those involved. Billy and Wallace met and Billy returned to give evidence. The lawmen reneged on the deal and Billy once again escaped from jail. Pat Garrett, a buffalo hunter, was elected sheriff of Lincoln County and he assembled a posse to capture Billy. Eventually, they tracked him to a friend’s house and Garrett shot him in a bedroom, having tied up the occupant and waited for the Kid to some in.
The reports of the shooting of Billy the Kid were all written by Pat Garrett, so naturally there are no other versions. Garrett had previously shot three others thinking they were Billy and some people maintained the final shooting was also an error and that Billy, though seriously wounded, managed to escape and lived out his life. When Garrett went to the new Governor, he was refused the reward on the grounds that it was a personal reward offered by Wallace.
Henry MacCarthy or Billy the Kid, son of Irish Famine emigrants, was shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, New Mexico on July 14, 1881 – 129 years ago this week.


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