- Historic Sites
Henry The Kid
April 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 3
Seeking reasons for the orphaned boy’s precipitous slide into outlawry, his earliest biographers made much of his having been left too much alone at an impressionable age with the Police Gazette . More important, surely, was the fact that in a place where size and strength and bluster were highly prized, he was slender and soft-spoken and undersized—#8220;really girlish looking,” a boyhood friend recalled, with hands so small and supple they slipped easily through handcuffs. His seems to have been an especially deadly instance of overcompensation.
Whatever its causes, he began his life of crime at fifteen by stealing a tub of butter from a rancher. He got caught trying to sell it in town, then stole a bundle of clothes from a Chinese laundryman, got caught again, and managed to make his escape from jail by squirreling his way up the chimney and onto the roof. He graduated to stealing horses and rustling cattle, broke out of two more jails—part of his legend, like that of the bank robber Willie Sutton in this century, had its roots in the extraordinary difficulty the law had just holding on to him—and in 1877 at Camp Grant, Arizona, shot and killed his first man, a blacksmith and bully who, according to an eyewitness, had once too often chosen to “throw [him] to the floor, ruffle his hair, slap his face and humiliate him before the men in the saloon.”
Utley’s research shows that while the Kid did not kill twenty-one men (one for each year of his truncated life, as boys of my generation fervently believed), he did account for four, and he was present and firing enthusiastically when six others died. (That is not to say that he wasn’t good at killing when circumstances required it. “Grant squared off at Billy,” an admiring eyewitness to one of his authenticated killings recalled, “who when he heard the click whirled around and ‘bang, bang, bang.’ Right in the chin—could cover all of them with a half a dollar.”)
The Kid’s side would eventually lose the Lincoln County War. John Tunstall was murdered in the very first serious engagement, but his partners persevered, and the fighting stuttered on for more than two years. There were chases, shoot-outs, and standoffs before the climactic five-day pitched battle along Lincoln’s lone street in July 1878, which ended with the daring escape from a burning building Walter Noble Burns described so lovingly.
There was really no malice in this shooting,” a bystander explained. “Life was held lightly down there in those days.”
In the interest of returning to some semblance of law and order, Gov. Lew Wallace issued a “general pardon” but specifically exempted from it the young man who now called himself Bill Bonney, because he was already under indictment for murdering a sheriff. The peace that followed was only relative, in any case. After a drunken parley in Lincoln, members of both factions, glassy-eyed with whiskey and good fellowship, happened upon an unarmed attorney who unwisely refused to dance for their amusement. He was shot through the heart and left where he fell, his coat still burning from the powder flash, while all hands went off to an oyster supper. “There was really no malice in this shooting,” a bystander later explained. “Life was held lightly down there in those days.”
The Kid happened to have been a sober witness to the lawyer’s shooting (alcohol was not among his vices) and struck with the governor what he thought was an ironclad bargain: In exchange for going through the motions of being arrested, fingering the attorney’s killer, and providing information about other crimes and criminals, all charges against him were to be erased. He duly testified against others, then was told that all bets were off. He would have to stand trial for murder himself. Disgusted, the Kid simply rode away from prison (thanks to a sympathetic lawman) and returned to cattle rustling.
Local stockmen, weary of their losses and with old scores to settle, helped elect a sometime bartender named Pat Garrett sheriff and sent him pounding after the Kid. On the night of July 14, 1881, Garrett shot the Kid dead in the darkened bedroom of a ranch house in which he had taken refuge.
The first book about him was in the stores within a year. It is hard to see just what made his legend loom so large so fast. His youth had something to do with it. So did the eagerness of old allies to spin tales that reflected well on him and on their common cause. But beyond that he seems to have been genuinely amiable when he did not feel threatened. He was “happy go-lucky all the time,” a victim of his rustling admitted. “Nothing bothered him.”
“You appear to take it easy,” a reporter told him once as he smiled for the crowd that had turned out to see him momentarily locked up.
“Yes,” the Kid replied. “What’s the use of looking on the gloomy side of everything. The laugh’s on me this time.”
“He done some things I can’t endorse,” an old friend said. “But Kid certainly had good feelings.”