Did Billy the Kid really kill 21 men?

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Archaeological excavations were conducted at the Alexander MacSween House ruins in Lincoln State Historical Monument 1986-88 by Human Systems Research, Inc. A public education program was included that focused on the reality versus the myths associated with Billy the Kid.

One of the most common questions asked by the site visitors was “Did Billy the Kid really kill 21 men?” The answer appears to be no.

He was involved in killing nine men, four by himself and five as a group member. On Aug. 17, 1877, he shot Frank “Windy” Cahill in the stomach when Cahill bullied him physically and verbally at Camp Grant, Arizona.

The second was Jan. 10, 1880, when Joe Grant challenged him, saying, “He would kill a man today before you do,” and then tried to shoot Billy. The third event was the escape from the Lincoln County Court House when on April 28, 1881, he shot James Bell and Robert Olinger during his escape from the second-story jail.

On March 1, 1878, Billy and several regulators captured Billy Morton, Frank Baker and William McClosky, members of the sheriff’s posse that killed John Tunstill on Feb. 18, 1878. These three were killed trying to escape after leaving John Chisum’s ranch.

The second group killing involved the assassination of Sheriff William Brady and Deputy George Hindman. On April 1, 1878, as the sheriff and his deputies (Billy Mathews, George Hindman, George Pepper and Jack Long) walked down a Lincoln, N.M., street toward the courthouse, Billy the Kid, Jim French, John Middleton, Fred Waite, Henry Brown and Frank McNab fired on the sheriff and his deputies from behind an adobe wall associated with the Tunstall store.

In the exchange of gun fire, Billy was wounded in the thigh as he tried to get Brady’s rifle, but he was able to escape. It is not known if any of his bullets actually caused the deaths.

So how did the 21-men myth begin and continue to be perpetuated?  

The “Santa Fe Weekly Democrat” published his obituary on July 21, 1881, and included the following statement: “Billy Bonny [Bonney], alias Billy the Kid, the 21-year old desperado, who is known to have killed 16 men, and who boasted that he had killed a man for every year of his life, will no longer take deliberate aim at his fellow man and kill him, just to keep in practice.”

Billy the Kid would probably have been another unknown individual, footnoted in history books and articles except for the publication of “The Saga of Billy the Kid” by Walter Noble Burns.

The book, selected for the December 1926 Book of the Month Club, was widely read. Who knows how many people received it as a Christmas gift? Burns portrayed Billy as a persecuted youth who was noble, courageous and handsome but was forced to violence.

The original song of “Billy the Kid” was written by Rev. Andrew Jenkins on Jan. 20, 1927, and sung by Vernon Dalhart. The fourth verse is, “On the very same night when poor Billie died, he said to his friends, ‘I am not satisfied. There were twenty-one men I have put bullets through, And Sheriff Pat Garrett must make twenty-two.’”

Versions of the song have been sung by Burl Ives, Marty Robbins and others. The wildly inaccurate song “Ballad of Billy the Kid” was released by Billy Joel in 1974.

There are several other myths that were asked about during the course of the excavations and public education program. This one appears to have been started with the death of Billy the Kid and his obituary, which was carried on in the popular culture of dime novels of the late 1800s, folk ballads and Burns’ book. The original version of Dalhart’s song can be heard at www.youtube.com/watch?v=unpy8rQYfAM.

HSR, with offices in Las Cruces, was founded in 1972 and is the oldest nonprofit in New Mexico doing archeological research. Contact Executive Director Deb Dennis at 575-524-9456 and ddennis@humansystemsresearch.org. Visit http://exhibition.canadaalamosaproject.org/.

Billy the Kid