NEW MEXICO MAVERICKS
Stories from a Fabled Past
Billy the Kid had a short life! He was only twenty-one when Sheriff Pat Garrett shot him dead at Fort Sumner, New Mexico on July 14, 1881. All of the events that made him famous were crowded into the three years preceding his death.
The boyhood of Billy the Kid, therefore, formed a major part of his life. For most of it, we have only fragmentary information, and some episodes of his youth are mired in controversy.
Some twenty years ago I was invited to Silver City to speak at the dedication of a new state historical marker for the local Pioneer Cemetery. The most noted person buried there, I observed at the time, was Catherine Antrim, Billy’s mother. She had died of tuberculosis in 1874 when he was fifteen.
The older histories acknowledged that Billy had spent his teens in Silver City, but they were fuzzy about how he got there and where he had been born. Historians have recently filled in a few of the pieces.
We now believe that Billy was born in the Irish slums of New York City, at 210 Greene Street, to be specific. He was christened Henry McCarty at the nearby Church of St. Peter.
About 1864 Billy’s father died, and his mother Catherine took him and his older brother Joe to Indiana. There she established a relationship with one William H. Antrim who was thirteen years her junior.
Together, they all moved to Wichita, Kansas about 1870 where Antrim tried his hand at farming and Catherine McCarty took in laundry. By 1871, they had gone to Denver and two years later popped up in Santa Fe.
There on March 1, 1873 Catherine McCarty finally made things legal, by marrying William Antrim at the First Presbyterian Church. Her two young sons stood up as witnesses.
Almost immediately, the family headed down to Silver City. They may have decided that the climate in that corner of the Territory could benefit Catherine, who suffered from an advanced case of tuberculosis.
They settled into a log house at the end of Main Street, and Antrim began odd-jobbing and perhaps doing a little prospecting. His youngest step-son, Henry McCarty, was now being called Henry Antrim.
For reasons not clear, a few folks referred to him as Billy Antrim, the name of his step-father. Later, others would call him Kid Antrim. And eventually out of all of this came the coining of the moniker Billy the Kid, perhaps the most celebrated outlaw name in the annals of the Old West.
Billy, it seems, always looked younger than his true age. Hence, the nickname Kid. One of his childhood chums, Anthony Conner, said years later that Billy was “really girlish looking.”
In fact, there is some reason to believe that when several Silver City schoolboys appeared in a stage production at Morrill’s Opera House, young Billy Antrim (formerly Henry McCarty) played the part of a girl.
Several of Conner’s other recollections of the future outlaw are revealing. “In those days, Billy was one of the best boys in town,” he said. “He was very slender, weighed over 75 pounds, and had coal black hair and eyes.”
“He got to be quite a reader, too. He was always sprawled out somewhere reading a book, when he wasn’t working at Knight’s Butcher Shop. Finally he took to reading the Police Gazette and dime novels.”
That Billy cut his teeth on the Police Gazette, which featured crime stories, is certainly curious since he himself would make his mark on history as a criminal. Then of course, within twenty years, Billy the Kid would be a recurring figure in dime novels, the trashy literature consumed by the masses.
On the whole, however, the boy’s youth seems to have been pretty tame and those who actually knew him then would claim afterward that he had been well behaved. The popular story, occasionally still heard today, that Billy had gunned down a man who insulted his mother, is pure fiction--part of the legend fabricated by dime novelists and others.
It was after Mrs. Antrim died in 1874 that her son, without her restraining hand, started to go astray. Billy’s step-father gave him little attention and the boy engaged in some petty thefts.
At one point, he and a pal stole a basket of clothes from a Chinese laundry, mainly as a prank. But easy-going Sheriff Harvey Whitehill thought Kid Antrim needed to be taught a lesson, so he jailed him.
Anthony Conner believed the sheriff merely wished Billy to understand where such conduct might lead. Instead, the boy made a daring escape by climbing up the jailhouse chimney.
He fled to Arizona Territory where in 1877 he killed near Camp Grant his first man, a blacksmith who bullied him. From there, Billy the Kid made his way to New Mexico’s Lincoln County to keep a date with his destiny.