The Legend of Billy the Kid

Henry McCarty, better known as Billy the Kid, was one of our countries most notorious and legendary outlaws. He became an infamous gunman in 1877 when he killed his first victim Frank Cahill. The legend says that he killed one man for every year of his life, 21 murders in total. However, the 1988 film Young Guns, directed by Christopher Cain and starring Emilio Estevez as Billy the Kid, depicts a different more idealistic and cheerful version of Billy the Kids life and adventures. This fictional film is actually strongly based off factual evidence, however it portrays Billy as a righteous young man who embarks on his violent journey simply to revenge the death of his boss. The main premise of the film is that Billy the Kid is taken under the wing of a British business man named John Tunstall, where he meets a group of fellow young ruffians and they form a posse called the Regulators. When John Tunstall is brutally murdered by rival business owners the Regulators take up arms against his killers and become honorary deputies by the county and are given warrants to bring the murderers in. The myth with the film is that Billy the Kid is shown to drive himself almost to the brink of insanity in his quest to avenge his boss, it is his love and respect for Tunstall that causes Billy to continuously put himself in harm’s way until justice is served. Throughout the film you almost feel as if Billy is the victim, which is not accurate when compared with the first-hand accounts written in the newspapers of his day. According to author Michael Wallis the newspaper articles called him a homicidal maniac and a “young demon urged by a spirit hideous as hell.”1 The news article that was written in the Las Vegas daily a mere 4 days after he was killed really painted a picture of what the public opinion on Billy the Kid during that time period was. The film represents Billy the Kid as the type of person that only kills when he is put in a tough position and it is his only choice, and that it was only people who deserved it. On the other hand the article talks about how much of a hero the man who killed McCarty, Pat Garrett, was and how he forever rid “Lincoln County of the intrepid outlaw.”2 Which shows that Billy the Kid was a danger to all citizens of Lincoln County and not just the men he was out seeking vengeance on. The film also attempts to indicate that Billy the Kid and the rest of the Regulators were only committing their crimes to bring down the crime ring, known as the Santa Fe Ring,  that involved Sheriff William Brady, local business men Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, the governor Samuel Beach Axtell, and even the United States Attorney Thomas Benton Catron.

In the film Billy the Kids character says “The more stories they write, the more troops the send out after us, the more President Hayes is gonna have to raise an eyebrow. Come down and see for himself what’s going on here.”3 He says this to show that he wants national attention to focus on Lincoln County and force the President to step in and arrest all the parties involved in the legal actions. This shows that the Billy the Kid in the film has a genuine interest in the town of Lincoln and that he does not only want blood, but he also wants a permanent solution to the problem. This is in direct contradiction to the documentary Billy the Kid – The True Story that shows that after Sheriff William Brady and his deputy were murdered that Billy fled from Lincoln County to the state of Texas where he continued to hide until the new Governor, Lewis Wallace, offered him a plea bargain. 4 The film also ends with Billy the Kid riding off on his horse, like a classic happy ending. The narrator of the film goes on to say that Billy the Kid was later shot in the dark by Pat Garrett. While this is technically correct, the film never mentions the fact that Billy the Kid was the only person who was convicted of murder during the Lincoln County War. The governor pardoned everyone except Billy the Kid. Although the film is surprisingly mostly factual, surprising because of the fact that most of the things done by Billy the Kid seem impossible, it does have its myths. Billy the Kid was a misunderstood kid who was blamed for a lot of problems that he never started, nonetheless after doing some further research and digging more into the past it seems clear that Henry McCarty, also known as William Henry Bonney, but better known as Billy the Kid was not a victim. He was a cold blooded killer that may have started for good reasons but certainly took it to a level beyond where a normal person would go. Ultimately, I now understand why Billy the Kids name will forever live on in infamy, even though he was only on this planet for a measly 21 years.

-Daniel Lympus

  1. BillykidWallis, Michael. Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2007.
  2. “How “The Kid” Died.” Las Vegas Daily, July 18, 1881.
  3. Young Guns. Directed by Christopher Cain. Twentieth Century Fox, 1988. DVD.
  4. Billy The Kid – The True Story. Directed by Cynthia Helmer. Performed by Bob McCubbin, Drew Gomber, and Bob Boze Bell. 1988. DVD.
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