Billy the Kid remains one of the most mythical figures of the American Old West. There are parts of his life that remain a mystery, but “the Kid” did shoot and killed several men before his own death at the hands of Deputy U.S. Marshall Pat F. Garrett (1850-1908), on July 14, 1881. Following the Kid’s death, Garrett authored this book regarding his former acquaintance. For decades it stood as the best account of the Kid’s life but has been surpassed and challenged. Further, the book is Garrett’s account and not subject to cross-reference within. While it is true that Garrett did know the Kid, questions remain about the outlaw’s life.
Information about the Kid’s early life is scarce but the sources I found agree that he was born Henry McCarty and that the name William H. Bonney was a pseudonym he often used. It has been alleged that he was born in New York City but to the best of my knowledge there is no official birth certificate in existence nor is there a marriage certificate for his biological parents. However, there is evidence that the Kid himself once stated that he was born in New York. To date, I have not seen any evidence that clarifies who his biological father was. What is known is that after his mother Catherine’s (1829-1874) death in Silver City, New Mexico on September 16, 1874, he embarked on the path that led him to becoming a notorious icon of the American Old West. And that life is what forms the bulk of Garrett’s book.
The first thing I noticed is that the book is short in length which caused me to wonder why there is so little information about the Kid. And as reviewers online have pointed out, there are inaccuracies as well. One example is the Kid’s date of birth which is “probably” November 23, 1859, according to historians. However, without a birth certificate the exact date is unknown. Garrett does not address even this important detail which would have addressed the confusion about the Kid’s age at the time of his death. The details Garrett does provide are nothing remarkable and readers will easily find articles online that have statements from others who knew the Kid personally. In his defense, Garrett may not have intended to author a full biography of the Kid’s life. Further, as the man who killed the Kid, I doubt that he would have been received warmly by those who knew him. As a result, the book covers a brief period due in part to the Kid’s limited time on earth. But that is not to say there is nothing of value in the book.
One area where the book does excel is that Garrett shows that the Kid was not the larger-than-life figure he is often portrayed to be. Further, there were hundreds of other outlaws during the era who were just as deadly. The American West was a wild place, and the Kid pulled off daring escapades but, in the book, he emerges as another drifter who was a product of his time and his environment. But America has always had affection for rebels and the Kid fits that mold perfectly. Even Hollywood jumped into the mix with the 1988 film Young Guns starring Emilio Estevez as the Kid enhanced his legend exponentially. The truth about the Kid which can be partially seen here despite the book’s flaws, shows a young man who had lived a rough life and died violently in an era that was lawless at times. For a full biography of the Kid there are other options, but Garrett’s account should not be dismissed.