The Quick 10: Billy the Kid

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Today's the day Billy the Kid bit the dust 129 years ago. Whether you think he was a misunderstood old West hero or nothing but a cold-blooded killer, the guy was quite interesting, and here are 10 facts to prove it.

1. His real name? Henry McCarty. Or maybe William Bonney. Or Henry Antrim. Take your pick. He was born Henry McCarty, but there's some speculation that his dad may have been a man named William Bonney. Billy the Kid started using his name at some point in 1877. Antrim was his step-father's last name - he went by that for some time as well.
2. Had fortunes worked out differently, he likely would have been raised in Ireland and would have never become one of America's best-known Wild West figures. His mom, Catherine McCarty, is thought to have survived the Great Irish Famine. Sadly, she died of tuberculosis when Billy was just a young teenager. Neighbors who owned a hotel took him in and he worked to earn his keep.

3. He wasn't always engaging in illegal activities and shooting people - he once worked at a cheese factory. At least, he did according to one source. Charlie Bowdre, a man who would later be in Billy's posse, was part owner of the cheese factory. Bowdre's descendants have said this is where the two of them met, although his employ was pretty short.

4. You may have heard the legend that Billy killed 21 people - one for each year of his rather short life. It's just that - legend. We only have evidence that Billy killed four people, two of them prison guards. He may have "participated" in the deaths of up to five more people.

5. He was a voracious reader. According to some early biographers, his love of dime store novels that made crime seem glamorous and profitable is the reason why he turned to a life in that field. Seems a bit far-fetched - other biographers contend that he was basically a good guy who got involved with the wrong crowd.

6. Contrary to popular belief, he probably wasn't left-handed. The reason this notion became widespread is because of the famous ferrotype of him that shows him wearing a gun belt with the holster on the left side. It was later discovered that the image has been reproduced incorrectly and flipped to show the mirror image of what really was. The picture actually shows Billy with his gun on his right hip.

7. Billy narrowly escaped death many times, but he had an especially close call in 1880. He was chatting with a fellow named Joe Grant, and when he turned to leave the saloon, he heard Grant's gun click. Either the cartridge was defective or the chamber was empty, but either way, it was Grant's undoing. Billy didn't wait for Grant to try again - he turned and killed Grant before he was killed himself.

8. Many people - including some claiming to be Billy himself - have said Billy didn't actually die. The story is that Sheriff Garrett helped him fake his death and happily ride off into the sunset. No evidence has ever been found to support this, though - it's just one of the enduring legends that surrounds Billy.

9. Men claiming to be Billy include "Brushy Bill" Roberts and a man named John Miller. Brushy Bill started claiming to be Billy the Kid in 1949 and knew quite a few intimate details about Billy's life and the Lincoln Country War. But there were several gunfights he was pretty clueless about, and photo comparisons using sophisticated computer programs show the men to have completely different bone structure and other features. As for John Miller, his claims were basically put to rest in 2005 when his bones were disinterred and DNA samples were taken. They were compared to a blood sample thought to be Billy the Kid's and there was no match. The only hitch, of course, is that we only think they had Billy the Kid's blood. I guess that leaves the window open for Young Guns III,, huh?

10. He's buried in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, with two members of his gang Tom O'Folliard and Charlie Bowdre. The epitaph says "Pals." It's a popular target for thieves and has been stolen (and recovered) three times since it was erected in the 1940s.

What do you think? Did Billy really die at the hands of Pat Garrett? Was he just a nice kid who was the victim of some unfortunate circumstances? Let us know in the comments.

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July 14, 2010 - 11:30am
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