Billy the Kid: The Wild Rapparee of Lincoln County

There's a stone covered grave on the wild mountainside.
There's a plain wooden cross on which this is inscribed:
Kneel down, dear stranger, say an Ave for me
I was sentenced to death being a wild rapparee
-- From an old Irish folk song

Pat Garrett shivered as he felt a bead of cold sweat drip down the small of his back. It was nearly midnight on July 14, 1881. It was a typically hot, humid night in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, but Garrett had other reasons to be perspiring. Somewhere in the neighboring houses, he believed, was the very dangerous man he was hunting. He knew him as William Bonney, an alias, but he was better known as "Billy the Kid." The Kid had broken out of jail less than three months earlier, about two weeks before he was scheduled to be hanged. He killed two of Garrett’s deputies in the process. Brave man or not, he had good reason to fear for his life.

(Left: The only photo of Billy the Kid that all experts agree is him.)

Garrett was sitting in the dark in the bedroom of his Mexican-American friend, Pete Maxwell. He’d come there to find out if Maxwell knew whether The Kid was in town, and if so, where. He’d left two men, John Poe and Tom McKinney, outside on the porch of Maxwell’s huge ranch house. He had just roused Maxwell from his sleep and had been questioning him for a few minutes when a shadowy figure emerged through the door.

As the intruder came closer to the bed, Maxwell whispered to Garrett, “it’s HIM.” The intruder jumped back, realizing there was someone next to Maxwell’s bed. “Quién es?” . . . “Quién es?” (who is it?) he asked in Spanish as he moving quickly backwards. According to Garrett, The Kid had a revolver in his right hand and lifted it to fire at the same time as Garrett drew his own and fired.

(Below: The Maxwell ranch house.)

Garrett fired one shot, and then another, lighting up the room like two flashes of lightning in the still summer air, with the accompanying thunderclap of sound. Billy the Kid dropped to the floor, having been hit with one round just above the heart. As Garrett stood above him in the cloud of gunpowder smoke hanging in the air, a short strangling sound came from Billy’s throat. The young man who would one day be arguably the best-known figure of the American West was gone. Billy the Kid the person was dead, but Billy the Kid the legend was just being born.

There is a line from a newspaperman near the end of the classic Western film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” about Jimmy Stewart’s character, Sen. Ransom Stoddard, that can surely be applied to Billy the Kid: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And in the modern world, we might also say, "Film the legend." It’s very hard to know today how much of the legend can be believed, not excluding the tale of his death as related above. It is based on Pat Garrett’s disputed account of the event.

In addition to all that has been written about Billy the Kid, there have been some 60 films that have either been about him or included him as one of the main characters, possibly more than any figure in American history. Aaron Copland even wrote a ballet about him in 1938. Actors who have portrayed Billy the Kid have included Roy Rogers, Paul Newman, Kris Kristofferson, Val Kilmer, Emilio Estevez, and many others. Few of the films about him have made much of his Irish roots or those of many of the other main figures in the “Lincoln County Wars” that figure so prominently in the "Billy the Kid" legend. “The Kid” was a 1st generation Irish-American and his legend is similar in many ways to various highwaymen of Irish history that are known as “rapparees.”

Some of the most famous of the rapparees were Michael "Galloping" Hogan, Redmond O'Hanlon, Willy Brennan (from the famous Irish trad song, “Brennan on the Moor”), and Patrick Fleming, said to be the inspiration for the song “Whiskey in the Jar.”

These rapparees were often portrayed as dashing, joking, romantic heroes of the downtrodden masses, as would be indicated by the songs about some of them. The retelling of the "Billy the Kid" legend has much in common with that. Many of his biographers have said he was known for singing, whistling and being someone people enjoyed being around. And his Irish roots were deeper than the cinematic history has depicted. Whether most of those Irish rapparees deserved their romantic legends is up for debate, and that is certainly true of Billy the Kid as well.

“The Kid” was born Henry McCarty possibly on November 23 or September 17, 1859, and probably in New York. No one is certain of much regarding his birth. His parents are believed to be Patrick McCarty and Catherine (Devine) McCarty. It is thought Patrick either died or abandoned the family while Henry was very young.

One of the most intriguing bits of recent research, done by Chuck Usmar, a writer, historian, and scholar on the life of Billy the Kid, is the amazing possibility that Billy the Kid was conversant in the Irish language. Though that might seem odd at first blush, both his parents were born in Ireland, so it might have been spoken in their home. And if he did, indeed, spend his childhood in New York City in the 1860s, perhaps in the Five Points area, he would have heard it spoken on the streets.

During part of his final years in New Mexico, Billy sold what were no doubt rustled cattle to a rancher named Pat Coghlan. Coghlan himself was another of the numerous Irishmen that are part of Billy’s Lincoln County story. Coghlan was born in Clonakilty, County Cork in 1822. Usmar has discovered that a man who worked for Coghlan gave a newspaper interview in 1954. In it, he stated when Coghlan’s niece, who spoke only Irish, visited from Ireland, Billy was one of the few people who was able to communicate with her. And, though Billy did not get to the Southwest until his early teens, nearly every account of his last years say he was fluent in Spanish. Thus, it would seem that he had an aptitude for languages.

While Henry was still a boy Catherine moved the family to Indianapolis, where she met and became involved with William Antrim, who served in the 54th Indiana Volunteer Infantry during America's Civil War. They moved to Wichita, Kansas, and from there to Santa Fe, and then Silver City, New Mexico. Catherine married Antrim in Santa Fe in 1873. Unfortunately, Catherine died of tuberculosis on September 16, 1874. Antrim wanted little to do with young Henry, who would slowly drift into a life of crime. Perhaps if his mother had lived longer the name “Billy the Kid” would be unknown today.

(Left: The Five Points of New York in an 1827 painting by George Catlin.) 

Henry fell in with a petty thief named George Schaefer and ended up in jail for the theft of some clothes and pistols from Charlie Sun’s Chinese laundry in September 1875. But very shortly, and not for the last time, he escaped from the jail, shimmying out a chimney. He would one day be described as 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighing about 140 pounds. At 16 he may have been a bit smaller. He was also said to have “clear blue eyes, with a roguish snap about them, sandy blonde to light brown hair” and “two prominent teeth slightly protruding like squirrel’s teeth.” Now a fugitive, Henry took off for the Arizona territory.

(Below: Fort Grant, Arizona, circa 1885.)

Henry hunted down his stepfather, who was now mining, in the town of Clifton. William Antrim refused to help him in any way. McCarty stole some items from him, including a pistol, and headed out, never to see Antrim again. Now truly on his own, Henry would do what he had to in order to survive. Over the next two years, he became a proficient gambler, and also a successful horse thief in Fort Grant. For the first time, the “Kid” moniker was hung on the baby-faced Henry, but in this case, it was “Kid Antrim.”

In August 1877, he got into a physical altercation with a bully, something that could be an occupational hazard for a successful gambler who looked like he didn’t shave yet. Henry would have a lot of trouble with Irishmen in the last years of his life, and this was the first. Frank “Windy” Cahill, a blacksmith, was a 32-year-old Galway native. He made the mistake of beating up the smaller Henry, holding him down until Henry managed to pull his pistol. He shot Cahill in the gut, and the Irish native died that night. Still short of his 18th birthday, Henry was now a thief, a horse-stealer and a killer, and was on the run again now, on a stolen horse. According to some histories of his life, he returned to town briefly and was arrested, but once again escaped the local jail. Whether he left immediately, or after breaking out of jail, he was soon heading back to New Mexico, where he knew he was still wanted. He took the alias which some people now believe is his real name: William H. Bonney.

(Left: A photo some believe is Billy the Kid at about 18 years old.)

Back in New Mexico, now going by Billy for the first time, he would become involved in the dispute that would eventually take his life, and also make him a legend. It was during that clash that he would become “Billy the Kid.” In many ways, this dispute would be the age-old conflict between the Irish and British transferred from the Old world to the New. But in this instance, the “rapparee” would be fighting against the Irish.

Lincoln County’s commerce was controlled by Irishmen. Lawrence Murphy, who ran the L.G. Murphy & Co. store in Lincoln, was born in Wexford in 1831. Though his original partner, Emil Fritz, was a German, Fitz soon fell ill and was replaced by another Irishman, James Dolan born in Loughrea, County Galway around 1848. Sometimes called “The House,” they had contracts to supply the army with beef and vegetables and were in league with many corrupt lawmen and politicians.

Around the time “William Bonney” showed up in Lincoln County, Murphy was diagnosed with colon cancer. Murphy would sell out to Dolan and a new partner came in, yet another Irishman named John Riley, from Valentia Island, County Kerry. Their main law enforcement ally was Sheriff William Brady, who was born in Cavan town in 1829. So “The House” side of the Lincoln County War was full of Irishmen. Many of the cattle they sold to the Army were probably rustled from the local ranchers, which included the huge herds of John Chisum. It was said “The House” had an inexhaustible “miracle herd” because of the rustling.

(Right: James Dolan, co-owner of "The House.")

Early in 1877 two newcomers would challenge the hegemony of “The House” in Lincoln County in league with Chisum. With financial backing from Chisum, Alexander McSween from Scotland and John Tunstall from England set up a store, J. H. Tunstall & Co, along with a bank, in opposition to the domination of “The House.” In the modern world that would merely initiate business competition, but the frontier New Mexico territory was decidedly not the modern world. Disputes there were most often settled with the help of Samuel Colt. The territory accounted for 15 percent of the murders in the United States in the 1870s even though they had less than 3% of the population. And the fact that the Irishmen running “The House” would identify these British interlopers with the ruling class that kept their people down in Ireland only increased the likelihood the business competition would be settled with bloodshed.

Given his Irish roots and possible fluency in the Irish language, one would have expected that William Bonney would have ended up fighting for ”The House.” He nearly did, as he joined in with an outlaw group led by Jessie Evans that was allied with the Irishmen. The gang called themselves “The Boys” and it was believed that they did the rustling that continually replenished the “miracle herd.”

(Left: John Tunstall.)

Sometime in late 1877, Billy was caught rustling some horses from Tunstall’s ranch. While in jail, he was offered a deal by Tunstall to come work for him. Tunstall and McSween were not really attempting to reform the corruption of “The House” in the county, they were merely looking to supplant them in that corrupt control. In the case of young “Bonney,” Tunstall may have thought that “turning” him might provide inside information of their rivals operations and perhaps even a witness regarding their rustling operation if they could find a court that was not controlled by “The House,” but that did not come to pass.

In many fictionalized retellings of the "Billy the Kid" legend, Tunstall is portrayed as an older man who took Billy under his wing as a sort of father figure to the teenager. In fact, he was only about six years older than Billy. However, they did apparently become very good friends, so Billy may have considered him to be like an older brother. Whatever the motivation, Billy became a loyal employee and supporter of Tunstall and McSween.

The beginning of the conflict was non-violent, with “The House” getting one of their friendly judges to issue an order to confiscate property from Tunstall and McSween based on a lawsuit against McSween, though that lawsuit would eventually be dismissed. “The House” sent the sheriff who was in their pocket, Irishman William Brady, out to collect on this court order. Perhaps Brady recalled seeing British landlords and their “home wreckers” throwing Irish families out of their homes and relished the idea of taking some sort of “revenge” on rich Englishman. The stage was set for the beginning of the Lincoln County War on February 18, 1878.

(Right: Sheriff William Brady.)

Billy and some of the other Tunstall men were a short distance away and watched Brady and his posse who had come to enforce the court order confront Tunstall. They looked on in shocked disbelief as one of Brady’s men, Buck Morton, aimed and fired his shotgun into Tunstall’s chest and then another one, Tom Hill, walked up to his prostrate body and fired a round into the back of his head.

There was little Billy and his outnumbered comrades could do at the moment other than retreat, but their time would come. Standing over the body of his friend, Billy vowed, “I’ll get some of them before I die.” It was not an empty threat. The legend of Billy the Kid would begin with the carnage arising from that vow.

(Below: The Muphy-Dolan store in Lincoln, which was later the courthouse.)

McSween got the one local government official not controlled by “The House,” Justice of the Peace John B. Wilson, to put out a warrant for Sheriff Brady and his posse. McSween formed his own posse then to enforce those warrants. They came to be known as “The Regulators.” He put Tunstall’s foreman, Dick Brewer, in charge while he and his wife headed for the mountains to hideout. Now both sides of the conflict were “legal,” but naturally neither accepted the legitimacy of the other. They were really just two armed bands vying for economic control of the county.

In March the Regulators captured and then killed Buck Morton, who shot Tunstall, and Deputy Sheriff Frank Baker. The Regulators said they were shot trying to escape, but they were almost certainly executed. Shortly after that Tom Hill, who had delivered the coup de grâce to Tunstall, was shot and killed while stealing sheep. On March 9th, however, Governor Samuel Axtell removed Wilson from his Justice of the Peace post. The Regulators were no longer a legal posse, but they not ready to stop.

(Below: Tunstall-McSween Store in Lincoln.)

The man they most blamed for Tunstall’s death was Sheriff Brady, and on April 1st the Regulators got their revenge. They waited in ambush by the adobe wall of the Tunstall & McSween in Lincoln, Brady and George Hindeman died in a hail of bullets just after leaving Dolan’s store. The Kid was wounded in the thigh by the one survivor of the ambush.

They killed “Buckshot” Roberts in a fight shortly after that, but Roberts fought hard for his life. Regulator leader Dick Brewer was killed by Roberts in that fight, and several others were wounded. In mid-April, numerous men from both sides were indicted for various offenses by a grand jury. The Kid was among those indicted for the murder of Sheriff Brady and “Buckshot” Roberts.

The murder of Tunstall had been just as cold-blooded, and the animosity of the locals for “The House” had made the Regulators heroes in their eyes for a time, but after this equally cold-blooded ambush and murder, they were just seen as another group of killers.

(Left: Regulator leader Dick Brewer, who was killed by "Buckshot" Roberts.)

In spite of many Billy the Kid retellings making him the leader of the Regulators during the “war,” he never led the group until after the “war” ended After the death of Brewer, Frank McNab became the leader of the group. Men continued to die on both sides for three more months until the war culminated in one of the most famous gunfights in Western history. It’s now known as the Battle of Lincoln.

Starting on July 15, 1878, the Regulators were besieged in several buildings in Lincoln, mainly in the house of McSween, who had returned to town. For three days the two sides sniped at each other will only a few casualties. But on the 19th everything changed with the arrival of US Army troops of the 9th Cavalry, one of two regiments of so-called "Buffalo Soldiers," black troopers, from Fort Stanton under the command of Colonel Nathan Dudley. Though he claimed to go there to protect civilians, he was likely there to help the Dolan side. He did nothing when the Dolan men set fire to the McSween house around early afternoon.

(Below: The X marks the spot next to their store where McSween's house stood before it was burned.)

Luckily for them, it spread slowly but as night was approaching it became clear they had to get out. Around 9 p.m. they attempted a breakout through the back door. The Kid and several others, with six guns blazing as they ran, made it in the lead group, including fellow Irish-American Tom O'Folliard who had become the Kid’s best friend among the Regulators. Dolan’s men were ready for the second group, and McSween was killed.

With both Tunstall and McSween dead, Dolan and Riley had won the “war,” but it was a Pyrrhic victory. They had been bankrupted by the fight and lost their store. The Kid was on the loose, but still had murder warrants out on him. He and a few others, including Tom O'Folliard, continued their rustling activities but did much of it around Tacosa, in the Texas Panhandle.

In late 1878, the new governor of the New Mexico Territory, Lew Wallace, who had been a general in the Civil War and would later write “Ben Hur,” offered The Kid a pardon. Kid had witnessed the murder of a lawyer, Huston Chapman, by some of his old adversaries in Lincoln, and Wallace was willing to pardon him for his testimony. The Kid did testify to the grand jury, but Wallace did not issue the pardon. It would be another brick in The Kid's wall of grievances against the establishment.

(Left: Governor Lew Wallace.)

Many of his friends encouraged him to leave, go to Mexico or somewhere far from New Mexico, but he refused. In another link to the romantic Irish rapparees of old Ireland, it may have been his feelings for Paulita Maxwell, the younger sister of Pete Maxwell in Fort Sumner, that kept him from leaving. He and his gang continued to rustle back in New Mexico again and enrage local ranchers.

In November 1880, the ranchers were looking to put an end to the growing legend of Billy the Kid. They hired 6 foot 4-inch former buffalo hunter and storekeeper Pat Garrett. The Kid and Garrett were not good friends, as some movies have depicted them, but they had become acquainted with each other around Fort Sumner. Garrett began a serious manhunt to put an end to the wild rapparee of Lincoln County.

In December, The Kid’s gang was ambushed by Garrett’s “Panhandle Posse” and he was nearly captured. Though Garrett failed in that, they did kill O'Folliard, devastating The Kid. On December 23rd Garrett trapped The Kid and four of his gang in a house in Stinking Springs and captured him. As they came out of the house with their hands up, one member of the posse, George Mason, who once rode with The Kid, said, “Kill the son of a bitch, he is slippery and may get away.” Garrett would not allow it, but Mason would be proven right.

(Right: Sheriff Pat Garrett.)

Once in jail, The Kid wrote to Wallace asking for the pardon he had been promised. “I have done everything that I promised you I would, and you have done nothing that you promised me,” he wrote. Wallace made no reply. As an indication of how he was feeling then, he told a reporter, “People thought me bad before, but if ever I should get free, I'll let them know what bad means.” If he was ever ambivalent about being a “bad man,” he wasn’t any longer.

The Kid was found guilty in the killing of Sheriff Brady and was sentenced to hang on May 13, 1881. He was taken to Lincoln and held on the 2nd floor of the courthouse to await this death as they had no jail. He then affected one of the most famous and bloody escapes in Western history.

(Below: The Kid killing Ollinger from the 2nd floor.)

On April 28th, with Garrett away, The Kid somehow managed to slip one hand out of his cuffs. After knocking down Deputy James Bell by swinging that cuff, he got his gun and shot him in the back as he tried to run. Getting a shotgun, he went to the window and saw the other deputy, Bob Ollinger, approaching in the street. Ollinger hated The Kid, blaming him for a friend's death, and had been abusing him. Leaning out the window, the kid was reported to have said, "Look up, old boy, and see what you get.” Then the shotgun spewed fire and smoke and Ollinger fell dead, lying in the street in a puddle of his own blood. The Kid stole a horse and rode slowly out of town with no one daring to interfere. Some said he was singing, as any wild rapparee might be expected to be.

(Below: Paulita Maxwell.)

Governor Wallace added another $500 to the reward for his capture. The pull of his feelings for Paulita Maxwell again kept him from running, or so the legends say. So he was cornered and killed by Garrett on July 14, still short of his 21st birthday, in Fort Sumner. Many through the years have doubted Garrett’s story about The Kid’s death, thinking he more likely “bushwhacked” an unarmed Kid.

"Look for me by the moonlight
Watch for me by the moonlight
I'll come to thee by the moonlight
Though hell should bar the way."
-- from "The Highwayman" by Loreena McKennitt

There were even rumors later that he didn’t kill him at all, on his promise to leave and never come back, but no serious historians ascribe to that theory. As an indication of how famous The Kid had already become, his obituary appeared in The New York Times, which called him, “one of the most dangerous characters which this country has produced."

One group of people in New Mexico who revered The Kid both during and after his life was the Mexican-American community. Mexicans throughout the Southwest and California suffered decades of abuse and discrimination after the U.S. annexed the area after the war with Mexico. Their land claims were often ignored by U.S. courts, leaving them with intense grievances against the big cattle ranchers whom Kidd preyed upon. His fluency in Spanish and his penchant for Mexican girls (Maxwell’s mother was Mexican) also made them hold him in esteem.

(Left: The cover of Garrett's book.)

Billy the Kid has been so mythologized in the century-plus since his death that it’s very hard to know who the real Henry McCarty was. Less than two months after his death, “The True Life of Billy the Kid,” was written by dime novelist John Woodruff Lewis. In 1882, Garrett published his, “The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid.” That romanticized retelling of his life became the source for many later books on The Kid.

McSween’s widow, Susan, who later had one of the largest female-owned ranches in the West, said of The Kid, “a remarkable boy, far above the average of the young men of those times and he undoubtedly had the makings of a fine man in him,” though she, of course, was not unbiased. Fellow Regulator Frank Coe later said of him: “He was humorous and told me many amusing stories. He always found a touch of humor in everything, being naturally full of fun and jollity.”

Certainly, by the end, as we see with his cold-blooded murder of two deputies, he was not killing with any misguided goal of avenging this dead friend Tunstall. Still, the singing, gambling, joking, possibly Irish-speaking outlaw who died because he couldn’t bring himself to leave his lover makes the perfect Irish-American version of the wild rapparee.

Have you ever walked the lonesome hills
And heard the curlews cry
Or seen the raven black as night
Upon a windswept sky
To walk the purple heather
And hear the west wind cry
To know that's where the rapparee must die.
-- From “Ned of the Hill”


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“In the Shadow of Billy the Kid: Susan McSween and the Lincoln County War” by Kathleen P. Chamberlain

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(Right: James Dolan on the left, & Bob Ollinger, who was killed by The Kid during his final escape.)

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(Right: Newspaper notice of Governor Wallace's reward for The Kid. There was never any photo wanted poster of him.)

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Tags: Billy the Kid, Henry McCarty, Lincoln County War, William Bonny, criminals, outlaws, rapparee

Comment by The Wild Geese on December 3, 2019 at 2:10pm

The widow of Alexander McSween, Susan McSween, was one of the most fascinating female figures of the American west, and one of the staunchest defenders of Billy the Kid. As a woman in a man’s story, Susan McSween has been all but ignored. This is the first book to place her in a larger context. Clearly, the Lincoln County War was not her finest hour, just her best known. For decades afterward, she ran a successful cattle ranch. She watched New Mexico modernize and become a state. And she lived to tell the tales of the anarchistic territorial period many times. “In the Shadow of Billy the Kid: Susan McSween and the Lincoln County War” by Kathleen P. Chamberlain, a professor of history at Eastern Michigan University, tells the story of this nearly forgotten woman and her part in one of the most famous disputes in western history.

Comment by The Wild Geese on December 3, 2019 at 2:25pm

Frank Coe, a member of the Regulators in a photo taken in 1934. He is displaying the missing trigger finger on his right hand. He had it shot off during the Regulators epic gunfight that became known as, "Buckshot Robert’s Last Stand. "

Comment by The Wild Geese on December 14, 2019 at 2:10pm

"Brennan on the Moor" by Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem

Comment by The Wild Geese on December 14, 2019 at 2:27pm

"Whiskey in the Jar" by the Irish Rovers

Comment by The Wild Geese on December 20, 2019 at 1:22pm

Loreena McKennitt - "The Highwayman"

Comment by Joe Gannon on January 21, 2020 at 2:07pm

Billy The Kid | The Wild West | BBC Documentary

Comment by Muriel Stevenson on July 14, 2022 at 9:44pm

Youg Ned if the hill was written by Ron Kavana

Comment by Muriel Stevenson on July 14, 2022 at 9:45pm


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