Sunday, February 21, 2010

Knocking On Heaven's Door: A Brief Biography of Billy the Kid

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below is a brief biographical sketch of the outlaw Billy the Kid.

In Western communities that lacked deeply established social institutions, outlaws often became admired anti-heroes who would enjoy a second life as counterculture icons in the Twentieth Century. In Lincoln County, in the New Mexico Territory, a teenager named Henry Antrim (who already went by the alias Billy Bonney) was well on his way to becoming both famous and infamous as Billy the Kid. A drifter and horse thief, Billy became a “soldier” in the so-called Lincoln County War, a bloody battle between two rival criminal rings that sought monopoly control of trade and political dominance in South Central New Mexico.

As historian and Billy the Kid biographer Robert Utley notes, this region “excelled in habits of violence. The combination of whiskey and guns so prevalent in the West seemed particularly volatile in Lincoln County.” Racist tensions simmered between Anglos and the local Mexican population, and pitted white residents against “nigger soldiers” stationed at the Fort Stanton army base, even as all these groups feared and hated the native population at the nearby Apache reservation. “Casual law enforcement and ineffective courts imposed the weakest of formal restraints on the drunken killings and maimings that had grown routine,” Utley noted.

One gang led by Lawrence J. Murphy, called “The House” because it operated out of a store that resembled a home, dominated local commerce and held a lucrative contract providing beef for the United States Army obtained when gang members, called “the Boys,” stole local livestock. “The Boys” also ruthlessly enforced contracts and terrorized opponents of “The House.” A wealthy Englishman, John Henry Tunstall, challenged the power of The House, and won backing by the powerful cattle baron John Simpson Chisum, who had tired of The House’s cattle rustling.

Tunstall opened a bank and a store to compete with The House’s businesses, finding customers among small ranchers and farmers in the area, and winning a monopoly of his own on all livestock feed grown in Lincoln County. He then secured agreements with local landowners that won him near-total control of local water rights. At the instigation of The House, a sheriff’s posse, while attaching cattle as part of a lawsuit between the two rival gangs, shot Tunstall to death on February 18, 1878. One of Tunstall’s henchmen, Alexander McSween, gathered an army of local outlaws to retaliate, a force called “The Regulators,” that would include the 18-year-old Billy the Kid. The Regulators hunted down men they blamed for the Tunstall killing and eventually assassinated Sheriff William Brady, thought to be a puppet of The House.

Billy Bonney would be implicated not only in the death of Brady but also the killings of two of his deputies. Eventually Bonney would be blamed for more than 20 murders, though he likely killed no more than four men. Just a teenager, Bonney already displayed a charismatic personality and physical courage that impressed his partners in crime. “The Kid was as active and graceful as a cat,” Utley quotes one of his sidekicks as later remembering. “At Seven Rivers he practiced continually with a pistol or rifle, often riding at a run and dodging behind the side of his mount to fire, as the Apaches did. He was very proud of his ability to pick up a handkerchief or other object from the ground while riding at a run.”

In mid-July, a sheriff’s posse eventually trapped several of The Regulators in McSween’s house, starting a siege known locally as the Five Day Battle that ended on July 19 when the building was set on fire, and five members of the Regulators attempted to escape. McSween died in a blaze of gunfire but Billy the Kid and other members of the gang successfully slipped away. With McSween’s death, the Lincoln County War basically ended. In an attempt to dampen further violence, newly appointed Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace proclaimed a general amnesty for anyone involved in the Lincoln County War who was not already under indictment.

Bonney fled to Texas, where he assumed the alias Henry McCarty. Under indictment for murder, he wrote to Gov. Wallace requesting amnesty in return for his testimony on a Lincoln County War-related trial. The two met in Lincoln County, where Bonney greeted the governor holding a rifle in one hand and a revolver in the other. Nevertheless, a deal was struck and Bonney was granted amnesty in return for his court appearance. As part of the deal, Bonney was supposed to be held in the local jail for a short time and released, but District Attorney John Dolan (affiliated with The House) reneged, forcing Bonney to escape with the help of friends. Bonney later allegedly killed a man named Joe Grant while playing cards in a Fort Sumner, New Mexico saloon. Newspaper coverage by this point already elevated Bonney to national celebrity status.

Pat Garrett won election as Lincoln County sheriff in November 1880, running on a law-and-order platform. He quickly formed a posse to pursue Bonney, who was captured near Fort Sumner on December 24. On April 9, 1881, a jury found Bonney guilty of murdering Sheriff Brady. A judge sentenced the 21-year-old to be hanged. Transferred to Lincoln for his May 13 execution date, Bonney escaped with help from local friends, hiding out in the vicinity of Fort Sumner. The daring escape again captured headlines nationwide and added to the Kid’s mystique. Garrett and two deputies were interrogating a local resident, Pedro Maxwell, about the Kid’s whereabouts when Bonney unexpectedly showed up at the residence. Witnesses and friends of Garrett and Bonney later told different stories about the encounter, but Garrett shot Bonney just above the heart, killing the outlaw at age 21.

Five wildly inaccurate and florid biographies of Billy the Kid reached readers within a year of his death, but the legend of this outlaw received its biggest boost with the publication of Pat Garrett’s book (co-written with M.A. “Ash” Upson), The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, which appeared in 1882. This book, also consisting of many fabrications about Billy’s early life, established the two main features of the outlaw’s legend. As biographer Utley puts it, Garrett and Upson portrayed Billy Bonney as a divided soul, “happy, likeable youth who was also a merciless killer.”

During another period of flamboyant gangsters and seemingly unchecked crime, the 1920s, newspaperman Walter Noble Burns’ bestseller The Saga of Billy the Kid permanently fixed the gunman’s image in popular culture as a latter-day Robin Hood, a good-hearted thief motivated to commit his crimes by his frontier sense of justice and fair play. In a society that sanctioned mass murder against Native Americans and the lynching of African Americans, and in which corrupt politicians and infamously greedy business tycoons seemed to rob the public with impunity, such poor and working class outlaws hardly stood out as villains. Instead, they seemed glamorously rebellious and comparatively honest not just to 19th-century reading audiences, but to 20th-century book buyers and fans of radio, television and movie Westerns.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.


Robert R said...

Having traveled quite a bit in Lincoln County's Hondo Valley, I can say its a beautiful Garden Spot in the midst of the Desert Southwest. Apple, Pear and Cherry orchards blanket the hillsides, and many residents have signs at the end of their driveways indicating the availability of ciders for purchase.

It's really quite lovely, and I'd recommend anyone visit. Former ABC News Sam Donaldson has retired here to farm mohair, and on any given evening you may find him holding court at the Silver Dollar Steak House in nearby Tinnie.

Several historical buildings in the tiny town of Lincoln serve as mini-museums to Billy the Kid aficionados, but they are insubstantial.

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