Did Billy the Kid Escape Death with a Staged Shooting?

If you haven’t heard the legend of Billy the Kid, we’ll break it down for you.

Back in the late 19th century during the Old West period in American history, a young man — most likely born with the name Henry McCarty — conjured up a big ruckus at the young age of 21. Orphaned at 14, his life was a constant battle with the law.

Ultimately, the legend goes that he was a darn-good shot who managed to kill eight other men in the gunfight before falling himself. During his time on the run, he managed to, allegedly, kill anywhere from 13-21 victims. The more accurate number is four, but as we’ll see later, the Kid involved himself in so many deaths that it makes sense as to why this count is often skewed.

He went by a few names, such as William Bonney, and was a short, slightly stocking-looking person. The one photo, which is the only one we have of him, depicts so.

Some of the biggest questions about the whole legend of the Kid stem from his final showdown with Sheriff Pat Garrett of Lincoln County, New Mexico. Did the two know each other beforehand? Did the Kid best eight men at his end?

There are a ton of mysteries revolving around this tale, but none bigger than that of his ultimate demise, which was supposedly a staged shooting of his own doing.

Is there any merit to this claim? Let’s take a deeper look at one of America’s more fascinating Western outlaws.

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Only confirmed photo of Billy the Kid. Image by Ben Wittick via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Some Background on Billy the Kid

It’s hard to deny that sometimes the environment you’re raised in influences you psychologically. It’s the classic nature vs. nurture theory. The latter seems to be the case with young Henry, who murdered his first victim at 18 due to an altercation of sorts. At this point, he was already a wanted man, as he escaped prison, and then fled to a neighboring state.

Skipping over state lines turned him into a federal fugitive, where his reign as an outlaw and gunslinger truly began.

But let’s back up.

During his upbringing, he had some trouble with the law. Henry’s first offense came at the hands of a local laundry store in 1875 and this incident is well-documented. Billy the Kid was asked to help a local man nicknamed “Sombrero Jack” steal from a local Chinese laundry. He initially got away with it, but his landlord decided to turn him in.

Quick Facts and Myths Regarding Billy

Whatever the story, it’s always a good one. With that in mind, let’s run down some quick facts and myths about the Kid.

Starting Out with the Day He Was Born

One of the fist items that is still questioned comes with Billy’s birth date. There isn’t any hard evidence to suggest that he was born in New York City, as is often claimed, but most reputable sources indicate his birth year was 1959, although the actual month and day are both in question. One source states it as November 20, 1859, another as September 17, 1859, and still another as November 23, 1959.

There are so many different accounts regarding the outlaw’s age that it can be hard to trust or pinpoint it.

The Wild West Man Had Siblings

There isn’t much reason to document these, but the Wild West outlaw most likely had a brother. There are tales stating one younger and one older, each with a different interpretation.

On the one hand, Billy the Kid supposedly had a younger brother named Edward. Yet, with another story, he had an older brother named Joseph. The former is false, but the latter does remain true to some degree.

The Kid did have a brother named Joseph, he just wasn’t the older of the boys. It’s suggested that he was around 2 or 3 years younger than the fugitive.

Keep in mind that there isn’t hard evidence in either direction. While Joseph was a real person related to Billy, it’s not clear which side of the younger or older spectrum he fell on.

Billy the Kid Was Not a Bandit

It may seem hard to believe, but Billy the Kid was not a bandit-style outlaw. What we mean is that he didn’t make a living, or seek monetary gain, from stealing trains, robbing banks, or holding up stagecoaches.

As it stands, the Kid gained his reputation from gunfighting and rustling cattle throughout the New Mexico land.

Some Unbelievable Myths About the Man

As with any legend, there is always going to be hard-to-believe statements regarding one’s life or actions, especially someone who lived during a changing American frontier.

One of the craziest stories is that Billy used a knife to decapitate a neighbor’s kitten when he was just 10 years old. As much as the man, or boy, may have enjoyed gunplay later in his life, this didn’t mean he was a sadistic killer.

Most of the first-person accounts of Henry talk about his friendly nature, even and his cool temperament. They also note his lack of drinking.

So, is this unbelievable? Absolutely.

Also, as much as people might want to believe it, Billy the Kid never rode with any of the other famous outlaws of the time. People such as Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, or John Hardin were never in his party, as most of them were separated by a huge age gap.

His Time as a Regulator and the Lincoln County War

After this, he found himself in a frontier feud where he earned his reputation as a shoot-first, questions-later sort of man.

Everything started in Lincoln County, New Mexico, where Billy was hired as a protection agent for Mr. John Tunstall’s property. Why was he hired as a security guard? Because Tunstall had a business rivalry with another dry goods and cattle company, one that ultimately got him killed.

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Unofficial group photo of Billy the Kid (left) with friends. Image by Unknown via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

It happened in February 1878, as Tunstall was murdered by the Sheriff of Lincoln County, William Brady, who supported the opposing business.

After his death, Billy and some former employees rounded themselves together into a group known as “The Regulators.” This group had one mission: revenge for their former boss. Long story short, the Kid would go on to kill William Brady and end up in the middle of a 5-day firefight.

This is where his reputation as a skilled gunman would come from, and with it, the reputation.

For Billy, the biggest gain for him was the public attention and image that came with being an on-the-run outlaw and apparently had become proud of himself and accomplishments.

But Did He Die on His Own Terms?

All that said, we’re here to examine the possibility of Billy the Kid staging his own killing.

At the outset, it would seem unlikely, but there’s also evidence that points to the myth having some merit. Pat Garrett, the Sheriff who became a Western legend for killing Billy, was accused of helping the man fake his own death.

One of the more interesting facts about the case was that, as the account goes, Mr. Garrett recognized Billy’s voice during their fateful meeting in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Thus, instead of trying to arrest or capture him, the Sheriff blindly fired off two rounds from his six-shooter.

The first bullet struck the heart of the outlaw, while the second one missed him completely. It wouldn’t matter, as the Western gunslinger was announced dead on the spot. The Kid’s last words were quoted as, “Quien es?”. This translates in Spanish to the phrase “Who is it?”.

Overall though, there are reports that multiple people who knew Billy would identify his body over the days after his death.

Billy the Kid Is Still a Legend

Even though it seems unlikely, at this point, that the Western fugitive had the help of a Sheriff to fake his own death, the tale itself still provides an interesting look at America during this period.

The fame of Billy, a young, charming man who was on the run in the Southwest part of America would be known across the country and for years to come.

In the end, you can believe whatever you want regarding the events surrounding his death, but it’s more likely that Billy simply tempted fate a bit much.

After all, no matter what any story says, it would be hard to best three men by yourself late at night, particularly, if you were hungry.

Featured Image by Unknown via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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