September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
The obvious candidate —all his rivals pale by comparison—is Henry McCarty, a.k.a. Henry Antrim, a.k.a. William H. Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid.
Rumored to be 21 years old when in the summer of 1881 he was gunned down by the Lincoln County, New Mexico, sheriff, Pat Garrett (the date of his birth, like so much else about him, remains a matter of dispute), it was widely advertised that he had killed one man for each year of his life—“not counting Mexicans.”In fact, the number of killings for which he can plausibly be held accountable ranges from a mere four (Bill O’Neal, Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters ) to as many as nine (Gary L. Roberts, The New Encyclopedia of the American West ), although he was involved in a generous number of skirmishes, shootouts, and gunfights (16). Still, in light of his unprecedented press—the countless films, TV shows, plays, novels and short stories, poems, folk tunes, ballads and rock songs, anthologized essays, doctoral dissertations and scholarly biographies, paintings and sculpture, operas, ballets, and symphonies, much less the magazine and newspaper articles—it is difficult to take issue with Roberts’s assessment that his status in American folklore “defies explanation.”
Now, 120 years after his death, the verifiable facts of the Kid’s life seem increasingly beside the point. As with the historical Jesus, it no longer is what we know that matters but what we believe in: the immortal afterlife, the nimbus of symbolic meaning, the life that over time has assumed a life of its own. Billy the Kid is the abiding apotheosis of the American outlaw as cultural icon—young, misunderstood, contemptuous of authority, victimized by the “system,” as reluctantly violent as he was casually dauntless—and the fervor of the romantic embrace with which we routinely clasp that Billy to our collective bosom says much about who we once were, who we are, and who we may imagine ourselves to be.
Again, no contest. John Wesley Hardin is hardly unknown, but for a man who during his lifetime was said to have more than doubled the Kid’s kill count (44 is the usual number, amassed during a 10-year stretch beginning in 1868, when he was 15, though the truth is nearer half that), who while still a teenager faced down the fabled Wild Bill Hickok, and whose reputation as a “gun thrower” was at the time of his murder in 1895 surpassed only by those of John Henry (“Doc”) Holliday and the Kid himself, his notoriety clearly has suffered an eclipse. The short-lived Normandie coruscates in a poster.
Despite writing an autobiography now widely considered a classic of Western Americana—save Holliday, he was the most lettered of gunfighters—there has been only one film about Wes Hardin, and no television shows, much less symphonies or ballets. (Although he was celebrated on Bob Dylan’s classic John Wesley Hardin album.)
This is perplexing. For personal flamboyance, raw nerve, technical prowess, and sheer, brute violence, he trumped them all. Perhaps part of his eclipse is due to his racism—his hatred of blacks was documentably pathological—or perhaps it has to do with the swaggering, coldblooded glee with which he disposed of so many of his victims. Whatever the explanation, this grandson of a Texas congressman and son of a Methodist circuit rider and schoolteacher has yet to receive anything approaching his historical due.