The Billy the Kid Reader

The Billy the Kid Reader

by Frederick Nolan

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Despite the countless books and films devoted to him, Billy the Kid remains one of the most elusive figures of the Old West. Now, award-winning western historian Frederick Nolan has scoured the published literature to offer this well-rounded compendium on the life and times of William H. Bonney.

The Billy the Kid Reader contains some of the best articles on the Kid—including gems no longer in print. From the first dime novel that appeared shortly after his death to the research of today’s historians, these writings bring Bonney’s life into sharp focus.

Nolan highlights two distinct schools of Billy the Kid studies: works of popularizers who tended to exaggerate his historical role, and the findings of grassroots researchers who have reassessed our perceptions of the Kid. Dozens of illustrations enhance the text, illuminating the Kid’s career and notoriety.

This collection shows that the life of William H. Bonney is not yet a closed book—far from it. Many versions of his life remain little more than unchallenged tradition. The Billy the Kid Reader puts that lengthy body of work in perspective and will satisfy seasoned Kid aficionados as well as first-time readers eager to learn more about the man and the legend.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806184463
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 01/05/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Frederick Nolan is a leading authority on outlaws and gunfighters of the Old West. His award-winning books include The West of Billy the Kid; The Wild West: History, Myth, and the Making of America; and The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History. He resides in England.

Read an Excerpt

The Billy the Kid Reader

By Frederick Nolan


Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8446-3


The True Life of Billy the Kid

Don Jenardo

The endearing curiosity that follows is, as far as can be ascertained, the very first complete narrative of the life of Billy the Kid. It was on thousands of newsstands within six weeks of the Kid's death on July 14, 1881, antedating by six or seven months the better-known, but scarcely more accurate, Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, ghostwritten for Pat Garrett by Ash Upson, which did not see the light of day until April 1882. The story itself was probably based on the many newspaper stories that appeared after the Kid was killed and two short pieces that had appeared in the National Police Gazette, many of whose authors (like Don Jenardo, soaking up their information from newspaper reports of the Kid's death) claimed that Billy's real last name was McCarthy and that he had been born in New York. The killing of William Morton and Frank Baker, the assassination of Sheriff William Brady, and the pardon by Governor Lew Wallace are all included; John Chisum, Lawrence G. Murphy and James J. Dolan, Alexander McSween (as McSwain), and Tom O'Folliard (O'Fallaher) put in appearances, but with little connection to the facts (for instance, in the finale, betrayed by a man named Riaz, the Kid is killed by a rifle bullet fired by Pat Garrett on August 14, 1881).

No. 451 in Frank Tousey's "Five Cent Wide-Awake Library," this "true life" was not, as claimed by the publisher, written by Mexican author Illion Constellano; rather, it was the work of John Woodruff Lewis, a well-known and prolific dime-novelist, and it had—much like its subject—a short, sensational life. Two years after its appearance, the postmaster general of the United States launched a cleanup of the dimenovel industry by threatening to withhold second-class mailing privileges from publishers who glorified bandits and outlaws. Tousey responded by substituting stories that did not "tend to incite murder" for sixty-six of his outlaw series, one of which was Jenardo's The True Life of Billy the Kid. Although thousands of copies were printed and sold, only three appear to have survived; at last report, two were in private collections, and the third was in theLibrary of Congress. A rather fragile sixteen-page photo-offset reproduction with commentary and notes by J. C. Dykes, published in an edition of 1,000 copies in 1956, has also now become scarce.


The West has always been prolific in criminals. Scarce is one noted character swept away from earth, ere another comes to take his place. A land that is stranger to civilization, and where the strong arm of the law seldom reaches its victim, where might is right, can not do otherwise than breed hosts of such characters, as those whose biography we have set out to write.

Billy the Kid's true name was William McCarthy. He was born in the State of New York (some have located his birthplace as the City of New York, but this is doubtless a mistake) in year A. D. 1859 or 1860.

When Billy was a very small boy, his father emigrated to the Territory of New Mexico, and settled his family in Silver City, Grant County. There were but three children in the family, two sons and a daughter. Billy was the youngest of the three. He has a sister and a brother still living in the Territory. The brother, whose name is John McCarthy, is a miner, and regarded by all who know him as an honest, fair-dealing man. His sister has married a respectable miner, and in fact Billy seems to be the only black sheep in the entire flock.

His father was poor, and the entire family were compelled to "put their shoulders to the wheel," to assist in making a living. Billy was young and exceedingly small for his age, so it was very difficult to find anything for him to do. He had a passion for horses, and soon became one of the best riders in all the country. He readily found employment in assisting the herders, or cow boys as they are called, in herding cattle.

It was the cow boys who gave the lad the euphonious cognomen of Billy the Kid. Billy was a delicate looking child, with a thin pale face, slender frame, light blue eyes, and fair hair. He was the last person one would take to be a desperado.

His voice was soft and effeminate, his hands, though exposed to wind and weather, always seemed soft as a woman's. He readily became a favorite of the rough cow boys, and there is no doubt but what it was his earlier associations with them that led him to seek the mad lawless career that finally brought him to ruin and death.

The rough men frequently furnished the lad with liquor. They thought it fine sport to see the "Kid on a high." Billy's father died when the boy was thirteen years of age, and his mother married a man named Henry Antrim. Shortly after her marriage she moved to Georgetown, New Mexico, where she still resides.

The lad never lived with his step-father, merely spending a few weeks there when out of employment.

One day, when fifteen years of age, he found himself out of employment and money. As he was "loafing" about Silver City, he met an acquaintance named Tom O'Fallaher, from Texas, who was in the same condition.

"What shall we do?" asked the Kid. "Dun no," answered Tom, who, though of Irish descent, had none of the brogue about him. "Are ye flat broke?"

"Not a dust," answered the Kid.

"We might strike a job," said Tom.

"Yes, but I want to make it faster than that," the Kid replied.


"Hold still, Tom, and I'll tell ye."

"Go on, then."

"Joe Taylor, who keeps the store here, has lots o' dust. He keeps it in the drawer in his store. Quien sabe. "

"You bet, Billy, I'll go yer halvers."

The compact was made, and as thoroughly understood as if they had spent weeks in concocting the plan.

Consequently that night, provided with tools, the young burglars entered the door of the store by cutting the lock out, and had just pried open the money drawer, when Joe Taylor, who slept in the rear room, was aroused by the noise.

Seeing the youthful burglars, he made a swoop upon them, and seized the Kid by the throat. O'Fallaher made his escape. A complaint was at once preferred against Billy, and he lodged in jail.

He was very small for his age, and soon won the sympathy of the jailer's wife, and, more especially of his daughter, the beautiful, dark-eyed Nettie.

She visited the little fellow in his confinement, and as she noticed his pale cheeks growing paler day by day it was no wonder that her heart went out toward the criminal.

"Are you lonely here, Billy?" she asked one day, as she brought his dinner to his cell.

"I am," he responded, in a tone very sad and feeble.

"Would you like me to visit you oftener?"

"I would," he answered, "but, Nettie, there is something I prefer even to your sweet presence. Something I must have or die."

"What?" she asked.

"Liberty. Confinement in the dungeon is slowly wearing my life away. I cannot endure it much longer, and if you would not see me taken away from here dead, then provide some way whereby I can escape living."

Nettie shed tears; she told her mother what the poor little prisoner had said, and they wept together over his sad fate.

"Something must be done for him, mother," said Nettie. "He mustn't be left to languish and die there alone in that horrible cell."

The mother studied the matter over, and then agreed with her daughter to aid the prisoner to escape. Many other women than Mrs. Jones have made the same blunder. A too tender heart has often given many criminals their liberty, and turned them out to prey upon society.

A plan was arranged, and put into execution, by which Billy, who being very slender, crawled out at the jail chimney.

Nettie and her mother furnished him with clothes, and, after kissing his fair rescuer, and promising to ever give her the warmest corner in his heart, he left Silver City.

The night was intensely dark, but the Kid was a stranger to fear.

He made his way to Arizona, where he engaged as herder, on the ranche of a Mr. Mason.

Here he labored for two years in a quiet and unassuming manner. When he was about seventeen years of age the fickle-minded youth, forgetting Nettie, placed his affections on a Mexican senorita named Quiseta.

Whether the attachment of the youth was an ardent, honest one, or merely a passing fancy, is not exactly known.

The character of the senorita has been questioned, and yet we are inclined to believe that, if understood, Senorita Quiseta was no more than the common, dashing belle of the present day.

Lacking in culture, she made it up with her beauty and excellent voice.

Billy was desperately in love with her, and perhaps, had his affections been returned, he might have settled down to a quiet life and made a good citizen.

But a young miner named Frank Douglass, with broader shoulders, higher brow, and finer form, won the Mexican beauty's heart.

Douglass and Senorita Quiseta were betrothed, and the day of their wedding fixed. A Mexican Catholic priest was asked to officiate at the services, and Billy the Kid, who professed to be a friend of Frank Douglass, invited to be present.

On the very day before the wedding was to take place, the Kid invited Frank to take a hunt on the prairie for deer. They crossed a narrow chain of hills and mountains on their horses, and had shot a buck and were returning.

On the way back they were compelled to cross a small rivulet.

"Is not that clear water, Frank?" asked the Kid.

"It is," was Frank's reply.

"Would you not like to drink of it?"

"I would, for I am thirsty." Handing the rein to Billy, the young man dismounted and stooped down over the spring to drink.

With a devilish grin on his face, the Kid drew his pistol and aimed it directly at the head of the kneeling man.

"Crack!" went the pistol, and young Douglass fell forward on his face, shot through the brain.

Billy the Kid had committed his first murder, but not unobserved.

The beautiful senorita, not a hundred yards away, had witnessed the dastardly act, and with a piercing scream she ran down to the brook, and threw herself on the prostrate body.

Billy fled, and was pursued by an armed body of men, but succeeded in making his escape into New Mexico.


Just at the time of the first atrocious murder committed by Billy the Kid, the Lincoln County War, in the Territory of New Mexico, broke out, and for a while raged with uncontrollable fury.

The war originated among the leading herdsmen, and was disgraceful and ferocious in the extreme. It originated in the determination of old John Chisum, the great cattle king, and his partner, Alexander McSwain, to establish a monopoly in the cattle-grazing business. They drove eighty thousand head of cattle into the Pecos Valley.

The herds of the smaller ranchers were swept away by the rolling avalanche of hoofs and horns.

Ranches or herds of a few hundred head would be swept on with the invincible tide, and it was useless to attempt to reclaim them.

In vain the smaller herdsmen complained to Chisum and McSwain that they were being robbed; in vain they sought by fair means to regain their animals.

The law could not reach them, and but one result must follow. Collisions were the result between the rancheros, and not unfrequently bloody.

At last all the smaller herdsmen, in order to meet the coming tidal wave, joined their fortunes with the firm of Murphy, Dolan & Co.

Both sides enlisted all the men they could, and preparations were made for a severe struggle.

One evening, as the little army of Chisum & McSwain was encamped on the banks of a creek, a small being, more boy than man, was seen to advance toward the camp.

The cow boys and rancheros looked on him with not a little curiosity. He was mounted on a black mustang, a powerful animal for both speed and endurance. He was not over five feet and two inches in height, had a rather sallow complexion, caused doubtless by exposure to the weather.

Had a belt about his waist which supported a pair of silver-mounted revolvers, and a long two-edged knife. Holsters were at his saddle bow which contained two more pistols, and he carried in his hand a short repeating rifle. There was a strap attached to the rifle by which he could support it on his back when he desired.

"Who is that strange-lookin' cuss?" said a cow boy, as the horseman continued to advance in a fearless manner.

"Hold up there," said a youthful desperado, springing from his seat on the grass, and shading his eyes with his hands. "I know him."

"Who is he, Tom?"

"Billy the Kid, who was put in jail in Silver City two years ago, and broke out."

"What's he a doin' here?" growled the first speaker.

"Dun'no," answered Tom. "But I'll bet we kin get him on our side. I know Billy, an' he is just the chap that old Chisum wants."

He left the others and ran out on the plain toward the horseman. Seeing him coming, Billy drew rein and prepared for the meeting, be it hostile or friendly.

"Helloa, Billy, how are ye?" cried Tom.

The Kid was astonished at meeting on his return no other person than his friend and former associate, Tom O'Fallaher.

"Hey, Tom, old pard, glad to see ye," cried the Kid, spurring his mustang, and galloping alongside his friend.

He sprang from his saddle, and the meeting of these young desperadoes was affecting.

"Where have ye been, Billy?" asked Tom.

"Over in Arizona."

"What doin'?"

"As a ranchero."

"When did ye leave?"

"Two days ago."

"Got into a little fuss, eh?"

"Yes, had a row with a chap about a Mexican girl."

"You came out ahead, did ye?"

"You bet I did, with a gang o' about two hundred devils after me," laughed the reckless Kid.

"Well, Billy, I'm glad ye come."

"Why, Tom, some new game up?"

"Yes, we're hevin' a reg'lar war here, an' old Chislum is payin' the highest price for good marksmen."

"I'll jest suit him then, an' he'll suit me," said the Kid.

"If anybody should come after ye, Billy, ye'll be perfectly safe here."

"Well, I don't know but what I'd as soon kill them as is after me as not, but if old Chisum hez money to pay fur blood, he couldn't strike a better chap than me."

"Well, Billy, he'll do it."

"I've got a taste, Tom, an' I like it. I loved a girl, another fellow got ahead of me, an' I shot him down and left. I'm in for more o' the same kind o' work."

"Then let's go back an' hunt up old John."

Old John was found, and Billy the Kid was employed as one of the herdsmen of Chisum and McSwain, which was only another name for murderer and cattle-thief.

The next day they moved the immense herd upon the higher grounds. As they advanced, two hundred armed men were seen guarding a large drove of cattle upon an elevation about three miles distant.

"Them fellers have some of our cattle over there," said old John Chisum as be rode along in front of his cow boys.

"Let's take 'em then," cried Tom.

"That is jest what I want you to do," said old John.

With a wild shout, Billy the Kid, and his no less dauntless partner, galloped away over the plain, making a circuit and coming in on the left wing of the herdsmen. The spot was unguarded and the cracks of their long whips stampeded and put to the run about one hundred head of cattle.

The herders discovered them, and came sweeping down on the young cattle thieves. Dashing into the midst of the fleeing animals, Billy and Tom threw themselves flat on their horses back to back, and with their repeating rifles opened fire on the herders.

Even old John was astonished at such a daring feat, and horsemanship.

"Crack, crack, crack!" rang out their rifles with remarkable rapidity, and the pursuing herdsman began to fall.

"Crack, crack, crack, crack!" rang out a score of rifles from the pursuers; their bullets flew over the young horsemen and killed or wounded the cattle.

The volley only tended to increase the speed of the flying animals, and drive them from the real owners to the cattle thieves.

The result of the daring act was three of Murphy, Dolan & Co's. men unhorsed, and one hundred head of cattle stolen.

The pursuers paused, and seeing that nothing but an actual engagement would recover the lost property, began a consultation of war.

The forces were equally matched, and old John ordered his men to be ready to defend their property from the ravages of the marauders.

"Ye did well, youngster," he said, to Billy the Kid, grasping him by the hand. "You and your pardner are worth your weight in gold. Now we are goin' to hev a battle with them thieves, I want you to preserve yer good reputation."

A fight on the plains among the cow-boys is always bloody. The cowboy is a strange specimen of the genus homo. Part civilian, part soldier, and in many cases thief:

He is a crack shot with the rifle, and an expert horseman. Some are honest, and seek by this wild exciting life to make an honest living, yet many are given to plunder.

The temptation to swoop down on an unprotected ranche and drive off the fat herds is great.

The men who had just suffered by the daring act of the Kid and his "pard," were exasperated beyond endurance.

Not only were they enraged at the loss of their stock, but their pride was piqued at being outwitted, and run into by a pair of kids, as they term boys. A fight was inevitable.


Excerpted from The Billy the Kid Reader by Frederick Nolan. Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Part One: The Legend,
1. The True Life of Billy the Kid Don Jenardo,
2. A True Sketch of "Billy the Kid's" Life Charles A. Siringo,
3. Billy the Kid: The True Story of a Western "Bad Man" Emerson Hough,
4. Billy the Kid: A Man All "Bad" Arthur Chapman,
5. Billy the Kid Harvey Fergusson,
6. A Belle of Old Fort Sumner Walter Noble Burns,
7. Billy ("The Kid") Bonney N. Howard (Jack) Thorp as told to Neil McCullough Clark,
8. The True Trail of Billy the Kid Alvin Rucker,
9. The Individual Song: "Billy the Kid" D. K. Wilgus,
Part Two: Legend into History,
10. New Light on the Legend of Billy the Kid Philip J. Rasch and R. N. Mullin,
11. Billy the Kid: The Trail of a Kansas Legend Waldo E. Koop,
12. The Boyhood of Billy the Kid Robert N. Mullin,
13. First Blood: Another Look at the Killing of "Windy" Cahill Frederick Nolan,
14. The Kid Lily Casey Klasner,
15. The Fight at Blazer's Mill, in New Mexico Almer Blazer,
16. The Mackyswins and the Marfes Francisco Trujillo,
17. Five Days of Battle Philip J. Rasch,
18. In His Own Words (1),
19. The Capture of Billy the Kid James H. East,
20. In His Own Words (2),
21. The Kid's Escape!,
22. Facts Regarding the Escape of Billy the Kid Leslie Traylor,
23. The Killing of Billy the Kid John W. Poe,
24. Death and Burial of Billy the Kid Col. Jack Potter,
25. Billy the Kid: A Case Study in Epic Origins Alfred Adler,
26. Dreamscape Desperado Paul Andrew Hutton,

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