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The fact and fiction of America’s outlaw
Question of the Day
Is there any name in the annals of Americana better known than that of Billy the Kid? At least 60 movies — of widely varying quality — have taken him as their subject, more, according to some counts, than films made of any other American.
Innumerable books — the first published soon after he was shot dead at the age of 21 in 1881 — have made his short life the stuff of legend.
He's even had a ballet named for him, composer Aaron Copland's 1938 work "Billy the Kid." Few figures in American history have sustained this level of public fascination and maintained it so steadily generation after generation.
Michael Wallis' new book on the Kid doesn't break new ground as much as it provides a very readable and level-headed look at what's accurate and what's pure myth, an often difficult task since there's a great deal of legend, and what's true is often difficult to determine.
But there is much we do know, Mr. Wallis shows, certainly enough to come away with an image of what this extraordinary man was like.
The man who became Billy the Kid was born in 1859, very likely in New York City, though the exact day, month and place have been the subject of heated debate.
His mother, Catherine McCarty, was an Irish immigrant of pluck and keen intelligence. In Wichita, Kan., where she had taken Billy and his brother, Josey, when they were still boys, she ran a successful laundry business and was the only woman (among many men) who signed a petition to make Wichita an official town.
About his blood father nothing is known. Billy used the name McCarty until his mother married William Antrim — at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, N.M. After that, he was known as Billy Antrim.
He took the name William Bonney during the very last years of his life, and scholars remain uncertain where it came from. It may have been his biological dad's name.
Or perhaps he borrowed it from Edward Bonney, an enormously popular author of dime novels. Billy read dime novels by various authors, according to Mr. Wallis, in great numbers.
Very likely Billy's turn to outlawry began after his mother died of tuberculosis when he was in his mid-teens. Mr. Wallis, who's written well received books on Route 66 and on Pretty Boy Floyd, the 20th century gangster, vividly describes the violent side of frontier life and its appeal to rootless young (and not so young) men.
Billy's first recorded fall from grace, however, was not the stuff of legend. At 15, he pilfered butter from an unattended buckboard and received a stern reprimand — and a whipping — by the local law officer.
But even when he became famous, he was not responsible for the scores of murders his legend credits him with, Mr. Wallis shows. Those tales were the inventions of his enemies and of writers from the East, who made up stories to sell their books and articles, the more lurid, the better.
Most of the men it can be shown he killed (altogether certainly fewer than 10) were members of a corrupt faction, bent on control of New Mexico, that was involved in the murder of John Henry Tunstall, a man Billy had worked for and admired enormously.
Mr. Wallis doesn't romanticize the Kid. His Billy is a killer, and not just a man who committed justified revenge killings.
Mr. Wallis' Kid is a complex figure, someone it's easy to like even when we shrink from some of his deeds, and that makes him a living, believable man in ways his legend never has.
Much of what is known about Billy comes from people who knew him. Most was written down long after his death (some as late as the 1930s), but Mr. Wallis is correct in arguing that despite the time gap, a great deal of it has the ring of truth.
A doctor who knew him at 18 described Billy as "a handsome youth with smooth face, wavy brown hair, an athletic and symmetrical figure, and clear blue eyes that would look one through and through."
Another friend described him as "gentlemanly as a college-bred youth." Others mentioned these qualities, but everyone who knew him and wrote about him agreed on one more point, that his good and gentlemanly nature would disappear suddenly when he was angered, and he could get very angry.
Billy loved to sing and had a good voice, those who knew him claimed. His favorite song was the sentimental "Silver Threads Among the Gold." He was also fond of dancing — and could dance well — to tunes like "Turkey in the Straw."
He was ambidextrous and wrote well with both hands. The letters he sent Lew Wallace, the governor of New Mexico territory (and author of "Ben Hur"), asking for Wallace's protection from enemies while incarcerated, display exemplary penmanship.
And Billy was fluent in Spanish, a language he learned after he came to New Mexico. Mr. Wallis notes that he Kid was attracted to Hispanic culture, respecting its style and ways. It was a respect returned by Hispanics, who liked him and readily accepted the Kid as one of their own.
Indeed, from Mr. Wallis' description it is easy to understand Billy the Kid's appeal. A great part of his early legend was Billy's ability to escape after being caught and jailed, which he did more than once under conditions that seemed nearly impossible.
For admirers, he was (and is) a free spirit not to be hemmed in by authority, a man who seemingly lived life as he wanted.
Only days after he was gunned down on July 14, 1881, by 6-foot-6 Pat Garrett, who towered nearly a foot taller than Billy, his obituary appeared in newspapers as far away as London and New York.
Already the legend was stretched beyond reality. Billy the Kid, declared the New York Daily Graphic, "had built up a criminal organization worthy of the underworld in any of the European capitals."
There wasn't a word of truth in it. What's interesting is that the Billy Mr. Wallis shows us [would make a far more powerful subject for a movie than most of the sensationalistic Billy the Kids we've already had. In this instance, at least, the real story is better than the legend.
Stephen Goode is a writer and critic in Milton, Del.
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