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In Remembering Thugs

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Have you ever heard of the name Henry McCarty or of the Antrim family? Maybe you have, if you’re from a certain part of the country. More likely, though, the name isn’t familiar.

William Henry McCarty, Jr. was believed to have been born in New York City in approximately 1859, though the year isn’t known, and was quite likely closer to 1861 or 1862. I say approximately, because there is no actual known record of when or where he was born. The likely reason for the guesstimated year is tied up in a mystery likely devised to make him a few years older when he died.

What is known is that he was born to Catherine McCarty, an Irish immigrant (likely due to the Great Famine of 1845), though who his biological father was has never been confirmed. Catherine was said to have been a widow by the time she left New York and went to Indiana, and later Kansas where she met William Antrim, a prospector. The known records indicate that Catherine married Antrim in New Mexico. Because there were now two Williams in the family, young McCarty began to go by the name Henry. Due to Catherine’s deteriorating health from tuberculosis, she and Antrim, along with her two sons, Henry and Joseph, moved to Santa Fe in the New Mexico Territory.  

Antrim, being a prospector and a gambler, was frequently away from Catherine and the boys. He was typically in Arizona, where many opportunities for mining and prospecting were to be found. And so it was, while he was off prospecting and gambling that Catherine succumbed to consumption in 1874. Young Henry McCarty, believed to be approximately 13 or 14 at the time was left motherless. Henry and his brother went through a series of foster families. Henry, during this period of his life was mischievous, but no more so than other young boys his age, and was more likely to be found reading a book than making mischief. Also, because of his slight build, he was frequently a target for bullying.

Henry’s first run-in with the law was for stealing butter (though some sources claim he stole a block of cheese); however, all he received was a stern scolding and a warning. Later, however, he was arrested for hiding clothing stolen from a local launderer. The historical record suggests that Henry did not actually steal the clothing, though the actual likely thief (Sombrero Jack) had high-tailed out of town. Henry escaped from jail before his court hearing, and ran away to Arizona. Had he stayed put, I would very likely not be sharing this story. By this time, he was an expert with horses and learning his hand with guns.

In Arizona, Henry was turned away by Antrim (his step-father). Having no means of finding work, Henry made friends with a petty horse thief. Stealing horses resulted in another arrest, though he managed to again escape. After a bit of wandering in the very dangerous Arizona Territory, he managed to get work as a ranch hand, but –again, because of his size– was a target for merciless bullying, particularly by a man called Windy Cahill. Cahill was a blacksmith probably twice Henry’s size, and he took every opportunity to harass Henry.

One evening, Cahill took the bullying too far, and in what we would consider today defense of the “Stand Your Ground” sort, Henry shot Cahill in the stomach, killing him. At the tender age of about 15, Henry McCarty became a fugitive from the law with a murder charge hanging over his head. He ran…eventually winding up back in New Mexico.

Instead of going to the Santa Fe area, Henry made his way to Lincoln County with a ring of outlaws, where there was a historical feud transpiring between an Irishman and an Englishman. We know this long-standing feud today by what it eventually erupted into: The Lincoln County War. Henry wound up, due to a variety of different circumstances, on the Tunstall side of that violent situation. Hoping for a better outcome and a new lease on life, Henry began going by the surname of Bonney, the origin of which is uncertain, but was possibly one of his mother’s previous married names. Further, although Henry did kill a few people during the Lincoln County War, many more people than he actually killed were pinned on him for different political reasons. Regardless, Henry was officially a wanted man. An outlaw.

Although the worst of the LCW was over, there were several remaining gun battles from the conflicting sides, and Henry still tied up with people who were considered outlaws, Henry tried several times to put things right. After a particularly gruesome murder in the aftermath of the LCW, during which Henry was likely the only sober member of the group and took no part in the slaying, he risked his own life by making a deal with the governor…who cruelly betrayed him. This left Henry remaining on the run from the law, even though he had held up his end of the bargain with the governor; but worse, it put him on the run for his life from the very outlaws with whom he had previously been associated.

With no other choice, Henry returned to a life of crime…though all accounts indicate that he wanted nothing more than to lead a different sort of life, an honest life, than the one that wouldn’t willingly let him go. In 1880, Henry committed his 2nd known recorded single-handed killing – another bully-type who had it in for him – and Henry’s now experienced eyes and instincts kept him from getting killed by an obnoxious, drunk bully who was determined to kill someone that night.

Although Henry by this point was only committing minor thefts and had only actually killed two men (outside of the LCW), and there were far more dangerous criminals throughout that area of the Old West, Henry had very powerful enemies. Not only that, he had powerful enemies on both sides of the law. So his name became infamous in the press, with exaggerated reports of his misdeeds. Worse still, there was a $500 bounty on his head…and a new sheriff in town. A former bartender, Pat Garrett, had money and fame on his mind when he became the Lincoln County Sheriff…and he had his sights set on Henry. Evidence suggests that Henry and Pat Garrett likely knew each other from days of ranch handing in Arizona, and though there remains debate (to this day), the likelihood is that they were not on friendly terms.

For the next few months, Garrett and Henry were engaged in a cat and mouse game of sorts that wound up including Henry in jail, sentenced to be hanged, and escaping after killing the two guards who were on his watch. Henry’s greatest mistake at this point was staying in Lincoln County. Completely fluent in Spanish, Henry could easily have crossed the border into Mexico and away from the reach of Garrett…never to be seen or heard from again. Instead, he stayed in the county, and hid out at various friends’ houses. Seemingly unbeknownst to him, Garrett had a less than honorable plan that did not include Henry coming out alive.

Garrett snuck into the bedroom of the house of the friend Henry was visiting, and in the dark, shot Henry in the back. Hearing gunshots, neighbors came and found Henry, face down on the floor, dead. They turned him over, and Garrett…too cowardly to come in himself, asked if Henry was dead. When Henry was confirmed dead, Garrett entered the room to see for himself. The people in the house, and all the neighbors who bore witness, knew what Garrett had done.

Garrett, having won the reward and having gained the fame of having killed the “most infamous outlaw” in the Old West, was having difficulty shaking the disgust and distrust of people who had heard that he killed Henry in such a cowardly way. So Garrett began manufacturing another story about how the night went down, including disingenuously using the point that he came in with Henry laying face up to bolster the idea of acting in self-defense. Further, it would appear that he manufactured the year of Henry’s birth to make it appear that he had not murdered a teenager. He even went so far to write a book with another friend as a co-author, which further exaggerated Henry’s criminal exploits, and culminated in Garrett killing Henry in a heroic fashion.

In manufacturing this myth, Garrett did more than he ever realized.

Why?

Because while Garrett went on to get murdered himself, and is remembered as an afterthought in the annals of the Old West, the legend that he created is known to this very day…some 130 years later.

Most people don’t know the name Henry McCarty, though there are quite a lot of people who know the name William H. Bonney.

But very few people have never heard of Billy the Kid.
On the surface, there is seemingly little in common between the story of William H. Bonney --aka Billy the Kid--- and Trayvon Martin. Indeed, there are many very important differences between the two stories/situations.

However, in setting aside the most notable differences between the two stories, a few very stark similarities emerged. After the GZ verdict, I had several thoughts filter through my mind...mainly to many reactions to the verdict -- on both sides. I wrote an initial blog entry -- a rather ranty one -- then the next day, a different entry, somewhat more thoughtful, attempting to articulate what was in my head, since Billy the Kid kept flitting in and out of my thoughts. Except that I hadn't given much thought to The Kid's life in many, many years...and I knew that I had gotten a few important details wrong in my blog entry. Which was all right...the point of the entry wasn't really about the details of The Kid's life, but about the connecting point I was working to make at the end of the entry, with respect to Trayvon Martin.

Afterward, though...and since my blog is going "back to normal" (whatever the hell "normal" is)...I wanted to go back and re-review the life of a person who has fascinated me off and on since I was a teenager. I have never believed that Billy the Kid was the horrific outlaw that the legends make out. And indeed, the evidence suggests that he certainly was not. He was no innocent, to be sure. But what actual facts are known about him and his life are in distinct conflict with the popular narrative and debates that continue to this very day.

A couple of very important notes. 1. I deliberately used his middle name of "Henry" throughout this piece of writing, so as to keep his better-known names of William H. Bonney, and especially Billy the Kid, to the very end. The people closest to him simply called him "Billy," and he was known throughout the region during that era simply as "The Kid." My use of "Henry" was for storytelling purposes only. 2. My memory of the larger story was definitely off on many points when I wrote my blog entry...and after much digging, I came across this site, which provides what I consider to be the most comprehensive detailing of the story of The Kid as I have found anywhere...complete with many supporting citations. Ms. Marcelle Brothers, the webmistress of the site, has been involved in many projects pertaining to The Kid, including the Discovery Channel's documentary, Billy the Kid, Unmasked. So many thanks to Ms. Brothers for her tireless work. You can also find her on facebook.

In any case, the reason I decided to put this particular story together has to do with the fact that, like BTK, there were and remain many conflicting stories and opinions about his life...and his death. But in the end, whatever position we take on The Kid, we remember him, not his murderer. A century from now, I believe that the same will be true of Trayvon Martin...a young kid, gunned down at night, in what I believe to be a cowardly fashion...his name dragged through the mud after his death...and with very heated views on both sides of the debate. In the end, though, all of that will fall to the wayside.

Maybe he'll even get his own moniker.
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Around five years ago, I created a character for a vampire larp game.  Said character was based in and around Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War.  It was an experience sifting through fiction, myth and more material to understand the time and place.  About Billy the Kid has plenty of factual material concerning the history of the famous/infamous outlaw. 

What is important to understand is that Will had a choice to leave the area after McSween was murdered.  Instead, he remained in the area and eventual fell in love with Paulita Maxwell.  Contrary to popular belief, she did bear him a son.  The family covered up the dates, but looking at his photograph is very telling.

www.aboutbillythekid.com/
ProsePetals's avatar
Had an opportunity yesterday to dig a bit, but Maxwell's son was born 13 years after BTK was murdered, so not his son. :-) www.aboutbillythekid.com/frequ…
ProsePetals's avatar
Thank you for this! I apologize for having not seen your comment here for more than a year (EEP! -- I'm just so rarely in dA anymore that I haven't looked to see comments made).

The information that Ms. Maxwell bore him a son is fascinating, and that's something I'd love to read more about. I'm back in Ms. Brothers' website, but am not having luck finding that (I'm in the biography section right now). Will you point me in the right direction?

:-)