- Historic Sites
The Wild, Wild West
August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
Garrett, implacable, continued his pursuit. One brightly moonlit night he shot and killed the Kid in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. It was July 14, 1881. Henry McCarty, alias William Bonney, alias The Kid, was not yet twenty-two.
And now the fun began.
The first book to follow the Kid’s death appeared a month later and was subtitled, “The history of an outlaw who killed a man for every year in his life,” a fiction which was seized upon and inflated by nine out of every ten writers who followed. The author of this book was a man named Fable, appropriately enough, and he described the Kid as wearing “a blue dragoon jacket of the finest broadcloth, heavily loaded down with gold embroidery, buckskin pants, dyed a jet black, with small tinkling bells sewed down the sides … drawers of fine scarlet broadcloth … and a hat covered with gold and jewels. …”
The “Police Gazette” published a biography too, as did Pat Garrett. Both poured gore liberally over the Kid. Garrett added a nice touch : he said that Billy, to show his skill, once shot the heads off several snowbirds, one after another. (J. Frank Dobie has remarked tartly, of this story, that it didn’t happen because it couldn’t happen.)
By 1889 a Frenchman, the Baron de Mandat Grancey, had written a wondrous book called “La Brèche aux Buffles"—this was his way of saying Buffalo Gap—in which he reported how Billy the Kid killed his prison guard, a man named William Bonny. Other accounts appeared : the Kid had been a dishwasher in his youth ; no, he had been a boot-black in New York City’s Fourth Ward; no, he had gone to college in the East and was really an Ivy League type.
The number of his killings mounted steadily. Soon he had killed twenty-three men, one for each of his now twenty-three years, not counting seven Mexicans whom he shot “just to see them kick.” A play about him opened in 1906 and ran for years. By 1918 its producers claimed it had been seen by ten million people. It was in 1906, too, that a dime novel appeared in which the Kid was described as an Apache who had been killed by Buffalo Bill, assisted by Wild Bill Hickok.
Then, oddly, the Kid dropped out of sight for a generation. When he reappeared, he had been twenty-four years old, and killed twenty-four men. Walter Noble Burns sentimentalized him so successfully that Hollywood brought out the first of some twenty movies about him. (Of these, the two best-known, perhaps, are those that starred Robert Taylor and Jane Russell.) Somebody made up the wonderful story that the gun Garrett had used to kill the Kid was the same gun worn by Wild Bill Hickok when he was shot in Deadwood. Somebody else wrote that the judge who sentenced the Kid ordered him to be hanged by the neck until “you are dead, dead, dead,” to which Billy retorted, “You go to hell, hell, hell!”
The further away the mythmakers got from him, the more precisely they described him. He was “a boy of talent and exceptional intelligence,” “goodnatured and of a happy, carefree disposition,” with “an unusually attractive personality.” He was also “an adenoidal moron, both constitutionally and emotionally inadequate to a high degree.” He killed forty-five men. He never killed anybody.
He was driven to a life of crime because, at the age of twelve, he killed a man who made a slurring remark to his mother. “His blue-gray eyes at times could turn cold and deadly.” Pat Garrett never shot him at all, that night at Fort Sumner, for he was still alive in 1920, when he was known as Walk-Along Smith.
In one sense, it is, of course, perfectly true that Billy the Kid did not die. He is the most imperishable of our folk heroes. Under his name there will always appear, whenever appropriate, a figure freshly refurbished so as to embody the hero who appropriately symbolizes the need of the hour : brutal killer, avenging angel, mama’s boy, slayer of capitalist dragons, bewildered cat’s paw, or gay, gallant, carefree cowpoke. The face is blank, but it comes complete with a handy do-it-yourself kit so that the features may be easily filled in.
What, in summary, of the world of the Wild West? Manifestly, it was an underworld, corrupt and rotten. Its heroes, vaunted for their courage, in fact showed only the rashness of the alcoholic or the desperation of the cornered rat. They were popularly supposed to have honored the Wild West’s socalled code, which forbade the shooting of an unarmed man and likewise the shooting of an armed man until he had been faced and warned of the peril in which he stood. But look at our five—the most celebrated heroes of all:
Hickok made his reputation by killing, from his hiding place, two unarmed men and then mortally wounding a third unarmed man who was running for his life.
Jesse James murdered at least two unarmed bank tellers, not because they had offered resistance, but when they were cowering at the bandit’s feet.