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How Billy the Kid Really Died

Billy the kid
William Henry McCarty Jr., aka Billy the Kid, born in 1859, was killed in an ambush by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in 1881. Wikimedia Commons

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Lincoln County, New Mexico Sheriff Pat Garrett would later claim that on the night he shot down Billy the Kid, the notorious outlaw was holding a gun.

But the account Garrett gave of that night in his biography of Billy the Kid is odd, to say the least. The date was July 14, 1881, and Billy had been a fugitive for months. Acting on a tip, Garrett had tracked Billy to Fort Sumner, New Mexico and entered the home of his acquaintance Peter Maxwell. Garrett found Maxwell asleep. The sheriff sat down on the bed, roused Maxwell and asked him the whereabouts of Billy.

Remarkably, at that precise moment a shadowy figure entered the room, having nearly stepped on Garrett's two assistants who were lurking outside the door. It was Billy. He was carrying a butcher's knife and, allegedly, a gun. The knife was intended for carving a hunk of meat from a yearling Maxwell had recently butchered. You see, Billy was feeling peckish and in need of sustenance and had ventured over to Maxwell's to secure the meat in question.

As Billy entered the dark room and moved to the head of the bed to speak with Maxwell, his eyes adjusted enough to note the presence of Garrett who was still sitting next to the supine Maxwell on the bed. Billy jumped back nervously, aiming his gun at Garrett and saying in Spanish, "¿Quien es? ¿Quien es?" (Who is it? Who is it?) They were the last words Billy the Kid ever spoke.

Maxwell helpfully informed Garrett that this new visitor was none other than Billy the Kid, whispering, "That's him." Garrett drew his gun and fired. Billy fell, struggled to breathe for a few moments, then expired. Garrett claimed Billy was 21 at the time but nobody knows for sure if that's true. He might have been as young as 19.

Billy's Background

Billy the Kid, whose legal name was William Henry McCarty Jr. (though he sometimes also went by the name William Bonney), was an orphan who, while still a teenager, had become embroiled in a violent local dispute known as the Lincoln County War. During one confrontation, several men had been shot dead. Sheriff Garrett formed a posse and captured Billy who was tried and sentenced to hang.

While awaiting execution, he was kept under lock and key in an improvised prison in the Lincoln County Courthouse. He and two other prisoners were guarded by a pair of armed men, one of whom was an old enemy of the Kid's named Bob Olinger. When Olinger took the two other prisoners to a hotel across the street for a meal, he left Billy in the care of Deputy James Bell.

Billy the Kid was to eat in his cell, which was really just a room with a lock on the door. This room lacked amenities and when necessary the guards escorted the prisoners to the outdoor privy. While Olinger was out, Billy asked to make such a visit and Deputy Bell complied. According to the Kid's own account to a friend, this is what happened next: Having used the privy, Billy and Bell headed back inside. As they mounted the stairs back to the cell, Billy was in the lead, moving slowly because he was handcuffed and his feet were shackled. He must have been a very cool customer to do what he did next, but as Samuel Johnson once said, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully."

Billy was on the small side and it seems his handcuffs were one-size-fits-all. Going up the steps he slid one hand out of its cuff and turned his heavy iron restraint into a weapon, swinging it at the end of its chain as he swiveled and hammered Bell in the head. Dazed with pain, Bell staggered, clutching his injured head long enough for Billy to jerk the deputy's gun from its holster, point the business end at his former captor and instruct him to raise his hands. Bell unwisely chose to run. Seeing no alternative, Billy the Kid shot Bell in the back. A groundskeeper came running to the front door at the sound of the shot and Bell died in the man's arms.

Pat Garrett
Pat Garrett, sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, around 1881.
Print Collector/Getty Images

Olinger too had heard gunfire and left the hotel to investigate. But as he closed in on his partner's corpse, he heard a familiar voice call his name from the balcony overhead. Looking up, he saw Billy pointing his own rifle at him. It fired and Olinger died instantly. Billy added a few more guns to his arsenal, commandeered a horse and rode out of town with the whole town as his audience.

He had less than three months to live.

Did Garrett Really Kill Billy?

Several details about Garrett's account of Billy the Kid's death stand out as odd, the foremost being the remarkable coincidence of Billy showing up in a dark bedroom just as Garrett happened to be questioning its occupant about his whereabouts. In the wake of Billy's death, many people took a dim view of Garrett's actions, judging him to have committed an extrajudicial killing of a teenage boy. It was for this reason that Garrett published his biography of the Kid, estimating his age to be a conveniently adult 21 and insisting that he was armed and dangerous when he came into Maxwell's bedroom looking for food.

Billy the Kid scholar Marcelle Brothers also is highly skeptical of Garrett's version of events. In an interview, she outlined a different scenario: Billy the Kid was romantically involved with Maxwell's sister, Paulita. Maxwell wasn't happy about this, as he intended to marry Paulita off to a wealthy landowner.

Brothers speculates that Maxwell might have tipped Garrett off that Billy was in Fort Sumner. Garrett and Maxwell could then have planned an ambush, luring Billy into the dark bedroom, where he might have expected to find Paulita. Brothers doubts that Billy was armed. "Pat Garrett had a pattern of ambushing and killing. That's what he did to Billy's friend, Tom O'Folliard," says Brothers.

In later years, Maxwell refused to talk about the night Billy died. And so, the only account that we have of the famed outlaw's death is the one given by his killer. It's an old cliché that history is written by the victors, and in this case, it's certainly true. Garrett's story is so implausible that it's led some people to believe he never actually killed Billy, but rather allowed him to escape and concocted a tale that allowed the outlaw to live to a ripe old age. Marcelle Brothers has no time for this theory. We'll never truly know exactly what happened in Fort Sumner on the night of July 14, 1881, she says, except that one way or another, Sheriff Garrett shot and killed Billy the Kid.

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