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The Mythologizing of Billy the Kid: An Examination

Throughout the rogues’ gallery in the history of the American West, there has emerged one supreme figure incomparably recast as a culturally-owned myth. It is a common occurrence, taking historical heroes and villains and letting the machinations of culture have their way with them, stripping them of their tangible humanity and resculpting them as ephemeral myths, even caricatures of their former selves. Adventurers, presidents, war heroes, killers; any and all we admire or despise are fair game for this conversion, and the boy born Henry McCarty was far from exception. His name alone testifies to it, the realm of myth forever endowing him with the moniker “Billy the Kid,” an alias known the world over, as recognizable as Robin Hood or Superman. How did this mythologizing occur? What selected him to attain immortality via his transformation from flesh-and-blood person to folk hero and symbol? How has the concept of the monomyth affected his true story? What has it done to denigrate factual history? On the flipside, has this fictional altering done anything to bolster the light history shines on the man? Why, when scores of other---arguably more notorious and deserving---outlaws were available for such grandiose designs, has this figure, who would have been little more than a misguided punk by today’s standards, risen above the crowd? What has been added, what has been deleted, either consciously or unconsciously, to make the legend of Billy the Kid fit more snuggly into the confines of what a myth is defined as? What documented events or aspects of his life laid the groundwork and set the yarn-spinners to hammering facts into fancies of imagination and requisite characteristics of myth? In short, what about him served so well as fodder for the mythmaking, what about his character and/or deeds selected this desperate young man out of many for the status of everlasting icon?

By definition, the monomyth has a straight-forward, eight-step pattern. The hero is born, either through some divine happenstance or a traumatic incident, has an initiation or awakening in childhood, withdraws for a time for contemplation and maturation, returns to overcome some trial or tribulation, faces death, descends to the underworld, rises anew, and, finally, attains some form of peace or closure. As will be shown, the Billy the Kid of legend meets all of these criteria (though the last few, dealing with the rising of the dead, cannot of course be taken literal).

To understand the purpose of this paper, the mythological aspects of the Kid must be addressed---according to the myths, what made him so (in)famous? He killed twenty-one men (not counting Mexicans and Indians), the first of which when he was only twelve, when he stabbed a crude braggart for insulting his mother. He was the undisputed leader of a gang of ruffians who killed other badmen in the name of vengeance for a mutual friend’s slaying. Though but a boy, he was brave as they come, and as equally cold-blooded, accompanying every killing with a hearty laugh. As a left-hander, he stood out amongst other gunfighters for this unique trait, though his skill with a gun, pistol or rifle, was no less dexterous. Against overwhelming odds, he fought for the sake of the little people against a bulldozing monopoly out to exploit them. There was not a horse he couldn’t tame, a lady he couldn’t charm, a stranger he couldn’t befriend with his unwavering charisma, or a foe he couldn’t terrify with nothing more than a sideways glance from his penetrating blue eyes. He came through numerous gunfights unscathed and escaped jail so often it was said no prison could hold him. All this, and he was killed at the age of twenty-one (a number poetically equal to that of his many victims), slain from ambush by a former friend turned lawman, who betrayed him for money and glory.

Nice story, no? Full of violence, courage, romance, tragedy, and at the center, a young protagonist, coming of age by a trial of fire, maturing by being forced into the position of fighting for his life. Truly, all the trademarks of a good, built-to-last legend. The truth, as expected, paints a picture somewhat different, though no less intriguing.

A succinctly-as-possible synopsis of the Kid’s biography reads as such: Born in either New York, Indiana, Missouri, Texas, or even Ireland, as early as 1855 or as late as 1863, to an either widowed or divorced mother, he is given the name of Henry McCarty, though possibly his first name was William and his middle name Henry. In the late 1860s, he moves with his mother and brother (who was the older sibling is debated) from Indiana to Kansas, then New Mexico, where his mother marries a miner in 1873. In 1875, his mother recently dead of tuberculosis, Henry is arrested for aiding a friend hide some stolen merchandise. Panicked, he escapes the jailhouse by climbing up the chimney, and thereafter disappears for near two years in the Arizona wilderness, occasionally popping up on the historical record for stealing horses. In 1877, he kills his first man when he shoots a surly blacksmith in self-defense and flees to southeastern New Mexico, specifically Lincoln County, the nation’s largest county. There, in 1878, going by the alias William H. ‘Billy’ Bonney, he gets caught up as a soldier in a full-blown war between two mercantile and ranching firms vying for economic dominance of the county. On one side are a circle of Irishmen, lead by hotheaded Jimmy Dolan, who have held a grip on the county for years, due in large part to their ties with a clique of crooked politicians, lawyers, judges, and bankers based in Santa Fe; desiring to supplant this incumbent firm are a Englishman John Tunstall, his naïve lawyer Alex McSween, and notorious cattle baron John Chisum. As fate has it, Billy sides with the latter, acquiring a job as a cowboy on Tunstall’s ranch.

When Tunstall is the first to die, gunned-down by a gang of thugs, Billy joins a legally authorized posse known as the Regulators to hunt down and capture the gang. Over the ensuing months, bodies fall on each side, Billy harnessing his skills and proving instrumental in many of the killings and skirmishes, while violence consumes the once peaceful community, allowing for the breakdown of any concept of law. Eventually, due to the intervention of the U.S. Army---headed by a colonel blatantly biased to the Dolan faction---and the slaying of lawyer McSween, the Regulators’ figurehead, the war ends, Billy’s side losing.

Afterwards, with the law and military on their trail, the Regulators break-up and scatter, with only Billy and a couple others defiant enough to remain in New Mexico, taking a stand to not leave their homes simply because their side lost. Nevertheless, Billy must remain in hiding, unable to clear his name or get an honest job, and thereafter supports himself as a full-time gambler, simultaneously forming a new gang to steal horses and cattle. Over time, as the law grows tired of Billy, he is made a scapegoat, abandoned by former ally John Chisum and targeted by the powerful enemies he made during the war. All efforts are concentrated on bringing him down, and a former friend of his, Pat Garrett, is elected sheriff strictly for the purpose of accomplishing this. In Dec. 1880, Garrett and a posse, after indiscriminately killing two of the Kid’s friends, capture the Kid and three of his gang. Billy goes to trial for the murder of a corrupt sheriff (an incident that occurred during the war, of which Billy was one of six participants, yet the only one to ever be arrested), is convicted, and sentenced to hang. A few weeks later, as the territory awaits his execution, Billy does the seemingly impossible in breaking jail by single-handedly killing his two armed guards. Three months later, in July of 1881, Garrett, who had assumed Billy did the logical thing and fled for Mexico, gets a tip that he is in fact still hiding out in an old haunt of his. Investigating, Garrett discovers the tip to be accurate when the two coincidentally find themselves in the darkened bedroom of a mutual friend at the same time. Garrett proves himself faster though, as he shoots the Kid down with a single bullet to the heart.

In comparing these two versions, the fictitious and the factual, the first thing that must be addressed is where one led to the other. In antiquity, myths were passed on primarily through oral means, fables handed down through generations. In the instance of Billy the Kid, a comparatively modern example, two key sources can be credited with transitioning Billy ‘Kid’ Bonney into Billy the Kid of lore. These two sources are both offspring of the technological advancement of the printing press, namely, newspapers and dime novels.

Today, it’s become trite for people to complain of the newspapers’ biasness or distortion of facts, but the reporting of yesteryear makes contemporary documentation seem like a godsend. Reporting the facts was far from the prime concern of newspapers in the 1870s and ‘80s; getting the papers sold, with whatever dazzling story was needed, reigned supreme. Hence, if this meant changing “Kid Bonney” to “Billy the Kid” would sell more copies, it was done. Likewise, if an article was written with some contrived flourish, maybe with a dash of excitement rather than a bland statement of what occurred, it also was done. If a gang of desperados killed a man, but if Billy the Kid was the only one present with a recognizable name, then, by God, he did the killing all by his lonesome, even if he didn’t get his gun out of his holster.

Going above and beyond the fabrications of newspapers were the dime novels, cheap, poorly written pamphlets serving as a vehicle for a celebrated outlaw to have greater chunks of whimsy piled on. In essence, they were akin to current comic books, only their heroes and villains were sometimes based on real people. Whereas newspapers at least had a public appearance of reporting the truth, dime novels put forth no claim. They were pulp entertainment all the way, frontier tabloids. While the newspaper reporter might distort a fact or run with a less than credible source, the dime novelist had no qualms with---rather, was expected to---concoct whatever improbable falsity struck his fancy. Before Billy had even died, an estimated eight of these publications were in circulation. It wasn’t until after his death, however, that the mill really started churning, cranking out wagon-loads of the trashy accounts of Billy the Kid’s fabulous and daring exploits. Often, the stories they told were so far off the mark, only Billy’s name remained intact.

But, point for point, what truths were so susceptible, so patented in their purity for, alteration? To start at the beginning, his origins practically invite the roots of myth to settle in. To this day, despite the efforts of hundreds of researchers, no one has been able to prove where or when he was born, what his full name was, who his father was, or where his mother came from. It is as if he, quite literally, appeared out of nowhere. As is described in the monomyth, the hero arrives in a mysterious way, possibly through divine conception, or as the product of some discord, or some other way signaling the child is special, that great things are in store for him, a destiny orchestrated for him by a supreme power. If Billy the Kid were purely fictional, and knowing what came of him later in life, one could say this fits his tale exactly, arriving on the scene destined to play a pivotal role in a later conflict. And, due to such fortuitous lacking documentation of his origins, the mythmakers were left unchecked to invent as they saw fit.

Likewise, in the second stage of the monomyth, childhood development, Billy (or Henry, as he was then known) is similarly nearly lost to history, only first giving evidence of his existence in the early 1870s when his mother was running a laundry in Wichita, Kansas, by which time he would have been near twelve-years-old. As with his birth, myth has taken the responsibility to create filler, making Henry out to be anything from a ne’re-do-well hoodlum, to a pious boy incapable of wrongdoing. As researcher Bob Boze Bell said, “Two-thirds of the Kid’s life is unknown; legend and myth have filled in the gaps.”

Thirdly, there is the withdrawal stage, where the hero vacates his life to mature and reflect, to meditate on his status. As for Billy, while he is reaching the end of his childhood, his mother dies, leaving him with no one but a step-father who has ostensibly abandoned him and a brother. In retrospect, this event marked the turning point in his life. Misguided and vulnerable, he takes the baby-step that would dictate his future when he helps a friend hide some stolen clothes, and after being arrested and in turn fleeing, he once again is lost to history. This two-year gap, what historians have dubbed “the missing years,” certainly jives with the monomyth’s description of the withdrawal period. He’s out in the wilderness, fending for himself, learning what he’s capable of, changing his name, becoming adept at gunplay, handling horses, thieving, gambling, discovering he can kill a man if he’s pushed far enough…learning the tricks of the trade that will carry him through life.

Fourthly, we have the hero returning, matured and ready to fulfill his destiny. And true to form, Henry (Billy by now) does just that, departing Arizona for his old stomping grounds of New Mexico. While making a legit attempt to go straight by finding an honest job, he gets swept up in a war larger than himself, ignorant of the full ramifications or what all is at stake, but letting his loyalty to friends and desire for excitement, his need to belong to something after living so long as a nomad, guide him. And, just like any mythical hero, he rises to the occasion. He starts small, as one nondescript member of a posse, quickly gaining a voice as a co-leader, acquiring a reputation for an iron nerve and intrepid reflexes. He helps gun down a pair of killers he and the Regulators were sent to arrest; he and a small detachment assassinate a crooked sheriff and his deputy in broad daylight, taking a bullet in the thigh for his efforts and still able to ride away; is wounded again when he and a dozen compadres take on a lone, gung-ho buffalo hunter. When it all culminates in a five-day, town-wide siege, when the other leaders crack under the pressure of realizing the odds are overwhelming and their fight is in vain, it is Billy alone who steps up and takes charge. In a burning house, he leads the charge out of the last remaining room, two guns blazing, running pell-mell until he and his allies find haven. When the dust settles, he is no longer a mere, though exceptional, soldier. He is a leader, a force to be reckoned with, news of his flight from the burning house spreading like wildfire, perhaps being the first instance when the world at large begins taking notice of this kid with the mentality of a veteran.

Later, he holds to his integrity by refusing to flee the land that has become his home. He makes attempts to go straight, even turns himself in and testifies in open court against his enemies with a promise from the governor of a full pardon coming his way. Then, as a hero who has been deceived by the gods, the governor fails to live up to his end of the bargain, forcing Billy to return to a life of crime. In turn, he is captured, cast as a scapegoat for the Lincoln County War; he, who figured into the majority of the war as a soldier; he, who is and will be the only one out of hundreds of participants to go to trial for crimes committed in said war. He is convicted, sentenced to die, but is given a zero-hour reprieve by the gods, who are not done being entertained by his wiles, and through some mysterious means, he is presented a way to acquire a pistol and kill both his guards before riding out of town on a stolen horse, his broken leg-irons still hanging from his ankles. It is this stand-alone event that triggers the change, the jailbreak signaling his transformation from killer and rustler infamous throughout New Mexico to a megastar, newspapers as far away as New York and London notifying the world of this cunning rogue with the slight appearance of a teen who has defied the courts and the system, the Grim Reaper himself, by refusing to go quietly into the night.

Then comes the fifth stage of the monomyth’s plot, wherein Billy finally wears out his favor with the gods as fate comes calling in the form of his nemesis, the trusted friend who turned on him for fortune. He finds himself in a situation he cannot control, in a dark room of a friend, sensing another figure but uncharacteristically unable to act, losing his trademark quick nerve, possibly leaving himself at risk by not wanting to act hastily and accidentally endanger a friend. And in that instant of hesitation, he is shot dead, plunging to the netherworld courtesy of a bullet delivered into his chest.

It is here, at the sixth stage, metaphor seeps in. In his way, Billy does visit the netherworld, as, after the initial few months of the press buzzing with news of his escapades, cultural attention shifts to the next big thing. The dime novels find new subjects, the newspapers have bigger issues to spend ink on. In short, he is forgotten, those who hated him glad he’s gone, those who loved him dealing with their grief and moving on. For a time, even his grave is left unmarked, a celebrity no more.

Ah, but then, then there is the resurrection, where the hero reasserts himself, his victory over the oblivion of death. It happens in 1926, when author Walter N. Burns publishes his novel “The Saga of Billy the Kid.” It becomes a best-seller, heralding the second coming of Billy’s notoriety, the rebirth of the boy as an icon, America’s own Robin Hood. His grave is relocated and made into a tourist trap, the sites he visited bearing historical markers just for his presence gracing them. Adding further weight to the renaissance is the emergence of several old men claiming to be the real Kid, having survived Garrett’s gun. The claims are eventually refuted, but they stand as testament to how in demand Billy had become.

Lastly, after everything else fades, the specifics and the circumstances, a manner of closure is affixed to the Billy legend. Immortality is attained, for no matter what comes from this point on, his legacy has been assured, his name cemented in our nation’s memory. Forevermore, he has been elevated beyond common criminal or freedom fighter, beyond a fad or commodity…he has become Myth, as ingrained in America as Heracles and Theseus were to the Greeks. And it is for this reason, for the Billy of myth, there exist historians today devoting their lives to sifting through the fake from the genuine, to get at the core of the Billy persona. Ironically, it is the myth we are indebted to for preserving the truth, holding it tightly as a layered cocoon for the strips to be peeled away a bit at a time.

Accompanying these cornerstones of the mythical concept are peripheral aspects, frequently appearing characteristics of myths which aren’t necessarily requirements of the monomyth itself. For instance, like so many myths, from the story of the Buddha to that of Icarus, Billy has a mentor in the form of his employer, John Tunstall. Whereas the real Tunstall was only a handful of years older than Billy and all evidence indicates they had nothing more than an average employer-employee relationship, the spinsters have taken to rendering Tunstall as a wizened father figure, who took the disenfranchised Billy under his wing. With the eventual murder of Tunstall, the stage is conveniently set for Billy being thrust into the position of having to right a wrong, to bear the weight of righteous vengeance and thus become a champion of justice. Thus, the presence of Tunstall covers two facets simultaneously.

Another common theme for mythic heroes is that of the sidekick. As Gilgamesh had Enkidu and Robin Hood had Little John, so did Billy have Tom O’Folliard, his joined-at-the-hip admirer and companion. Since they met during the Lincoln County War, the two were said to be inseparable, Tom loyal to Billy as a dog, the duo sharing in their illegal scheming. Once again, myth likely fashioned this niche for Tom, as he was a year older than Billy and there are numerous recorded accounts of the two not sharing experiences. In all likelihood, they were best friends, but not to the “Batman and Robin” degree some would like to believe. Nevertheless, Tom fulfilled his mythically-deigned role when he was killed by Pat Garrett with a bullet intended for Billy.

As Hercules and Odysseus had their succession of adversaries to fight, Billy also had his slue of foes. The first in this long line was Frank Cahill, the cumbersome blacksmith who began beating a seventeen-year-old Billy in a saloon, forcing Billy to pull his gun and mortally wound him. Following were Jimmy Dolan, head of Billy and the Regulators’ opposition in the Lincoln County War; Jessie Evans, Dolan’s main henchman and a counterpart to Billy; and William Brady, the sheriff in Dolan’s pocket whose murder Billy eventually was convicted of. Also notable is Joe Grant, a glory-seeker Billy bested with his ingenuity by taking Grant’s pistol and rigging it so that the next few shots would misfire. When an ignorant Grant did later pull his gun on Billy, Billy felled him with three shots to the head. Reeking with the stench of fabrication though it may seem, available evidence indicates this is exactly how the incident played-out. One of Billy’s guards while he was awaiting execution, Bob Olinger, also rates as one of Billy’s top enemies, historically painted as a sadist who fought against Billy in the Lincoln County War and enjoyed taunting him with his shotgun once the Kid was held in his clutches. Irony could not be better defined when, in making his escape and after having already disposed his first guard, Billy shoots an unsuspecting Olinger with said shotgun. Finally, as every pro has his foil, Billy meets his match with the enemy he once called friend, Pat Garrett.

Of course, there is also the seemingly divine protection surrounding Billy, the hands of the gods at play in designating his fate. He makes short work of any attempt to confine him; evades the pursuit of lawmen, soldiers, and bounty hunters; evaporates into the atmosphere to ensure his freedom; watches as, one after another, his friends die around him, knowing he could be next, wondering what aura is shielding him from those same flying bullets. Divine tragedy if there ever was, all the telltale signs of every event in Billy’s life being guided towards some preordained finale.

Stripped of the myths, though, what is left of the real Billy? Killer of twenty-one men? Far from it; he killed at least four, and was involved in the killings of between ten and fifteen more. Killed his first man with a knife when he was only twelve? Never happened, plain and simple. Left-handed gun? Nope, this yarn comes from his only surviving photo showing him with his pistol on his left hip. Problem is, the original photo, called a “tintype,” was reversed, meaning Billy actually wore the gun on his right hip. Unchallenged gang leader? Let’s say he had some leadership qualities he made known, and he certainly got his say in, but to say he was some outlaw chieftain is a bit of a stretch. Cold-blooded, homicidal maniac? Not hardly, each of his killings having been committed either in self-defense or as an act of war, showing no evidence he took any joy in the act of murder (excepting his killing of guard Olinger, whom Billy was known---not unjustifiably---to hate). No jail able to hold him? Actually, this one is true, as for all the times he was arrested, he managed to escape, one way or the other, each time. Charmer of ladies, expert at guns and horses, loyal to the death? Well, even myths get some things right, the things spawning their fantastical notions in the first place.

But has the question been satisfied as to why Billy Bonney? He never robbed a train or bank like Jesse James or Cole Younger, didn’t sell his proficiency with a gun like Tom Horn, didn’t murder scores upon scores of people like John Wesley Hardin, didn’t make a name for himself as peace officer like Wild Bill Hickok or Wyatt Earp; so, really, why Billy? Simply put, he had that appeal, that panache, even in his own time a popular personality wherever he went, his charisma and ever-present joviality an undeniable attraction. Love him or hate him, you knew him, and you respected him. Living most of his life in a land predominately populated by Hispanics, he was fluent in Spanish, adopted their culture. What better way to ingratiate oneself in the contemporary public’s heart more than that, what better way to become endeared and idolized by the masses? In essence, within his own lifetime the wheels were in motion for him to be the underdog’s hero, and to become something grander once death took him.

Beyond that, he was a kid in a man’s world who held his own, who had the personality to remain optimistic even when the chips were down, to laugh at himself and, despite his circumstances, wasn’t quite old enough to take life seriously. While other outlaws and lawmen achieved their own degrees of mythic status, there is something about them that many find disagreeable, some chinks in their armor holding them back. They committed acts that cannot be overlooked, they let their legends dwindle in proportion to their own age. But with Billy, you have a figure who, having died so young, remains young, whose pathos reach out and latch onto your sympathy, who you can route for and see yourself in. Sure, he committed acts that likewise cannot be totally justified, but as if because of his age, we cast a less judgmental eye on him, overlook those qualities we find less than savory. After all, having the nickname “the Kid” tends to spell it all, doesn’t it? And, as all good myths do, his is one continually stirring the imagination, exuding palpable drama, drawing you in with the fantastical touches of myth…but leaving you with the knowledge that, at its heart, it is the story of a real person.