Thursday, April 30, 2020

George and Billy

Twas on the same night when poor Billy died,
He said to his friends, “I am not satisfied;
There are twenty-one men I have put bullets through,
And Sheriff Pat Garrett will make twenty-two.”
Now this is how Billy the Kid met his fate:
The bright moon was shining, the hour was late,
Shot down by Pat Garrett, who once was his friend,
The young outlaw’s life had come to an end.
There’s many a man with a face fine and fair
Who starts out in life with a chance to be square,
But just like poor Billy, he wanders astray,
And loses his life in the very same way.

When the two of us retired in 2005 and were looking for volunteer opportunities our good friend J urged us to join our local Wethersfield (CT) Historical Society. We took his suggestion. And over the next twelve years – until we relocated to Santa Fe – we had the enjoyable experience of working and socializing with a group of interesting, intelligent and just plain nice people. And do some fun stuff along the way. Marsha was a member of the Collections and Exhibits Committees, and an event volunteer – while Jim served on the Governing Board, helped at events, and edited/wrote for the society’s “Articles from the Community” website.

His initial piece concerned short-time Wethersfield resident Thomas Hickey – executed for "mutiny, sedition, and treachery" due to his part in a plan to assassinate General George Washington. Most of the essays however did not deal with events that (could have) “changed the course of history” – but were more about individual townspeople such as whalersa female entrepreneur millinerwomen who “came to do the laundry,” a case of familicideseed merchants“free negro men,” three-legged sideshow performers, homebuildersCivil War combatantsItalian immigrants, et al – each of whom influenced the culture and history of the town, and helped create the character and tone of today’s community.

To our pleasant surprise, working and socializing with the society’s members and staff – and learning some of the ground-level history of our hometown – made us feel more a part of the community. So in our new locale we were seeking something similar to help engender the same “at home” feeling. We found part of that in our volunteer work at El Rancho de los Golondrinas – another group of interesting, intelligent and just plain nice people.  But we also needed some folks from day-to-day old Santa Fe to round out the picture.

But who to start with?

After two-plus years of on-site learning about New Mexico’s past, and some Googling, we settled on Henry McCarty, better known outside of the City Different as William Bonney, or Billy the Kid.


Because of his similarity to George Washington of course.

Out here in the Land of Enchantment many towns and villages claim least one Billy the Kid tale in their past. It reminded us of the way our first president “slept here” in virtually every northeastern  village – including our former hometown. But his stay-over in  Wethersfield was the real deal – a fully documented part of the  collective consciousness of the town – a tale that did not need to be told by Articles from the Community.

In May 1781 the then-leader of the American Revolutionary Forces met with Comte de Rochambeau of the French Army at Joseph Webb’s house in Wethersfield to plan their joint Yorktown Campaign. (Today the residence, built in 1752, is part of the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum located in the center of Connecticut’s  largest historic district – across the street from the historical society.)  GW spent at least one night slumbering on the premises. 

Likewise our new southwest home base has a legitimate claim to the presence of Billy the Kid. The iconic outlaw not only grew up in Santa Fe. He also spent time in its jailhouse. And might (just might!) even be buried here.

There are many versions of his story. So here is the most widely accepted one.

Named Henry McCarty at birth and born on the lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City in 1859 – Billy the Kid was the second son of poor Irish immigrants Catherine and Patrick McCarty. After her husband’s death in the late 1860s Catherine moved to Indianapolis, Indiana with Henry and his older brother Joe.  

There  she met and married William Atrim, and began traveling around the country to wherever they could find work. After a while they  settled  in Santa Fe where they ran a boarding house, washed laundry, and worked in various businesses associated with the Santa Fe Trail. The couple were married in town at the Presbyterian  Church on March 1, 1873. Their sons signed the witness book.

Henry most likely received formal education in the City Different. Public schooling began in New Mexico in 1803, but qualified teachers were scarce, and parents kept pulling their offspring out of school to help with family work. By 1821 most schools had closed. Then in 1844 Governor Mariano Martinez used his own money to establish a public school in Santa Fe – reportedly bringing two teachers from Europe, Spaniard Francisco Gonzalez and Englishman Edward Tatty. When it became a state in 1912 New Mexico (population 328,000) had 1,000 free public schools.

Local history says that Henry was smart, charming, literate, and a natural leader who loved books and music. He is described as having a slight build, with blue eyes and lightening fast reflexes. His front teeth were large – but not “buck.” (This is an important distinction to many of his biographers.) Henry learned to speak  fluent Spanish. As a young teen he worked at odd jobs such as singing for tips in bars/restaurants and washing dishes at the La Fonda hotel (Established in 1821 the inn was the preferred lodging option for trappers, soldiers, gold-seekers, gamblers and politicians.)

In other words, Henry was a lad of whom his family and community could be proud.

In 1874 however that family moved to Silver City in lower NM and Henry’s life went south also. Catherine died of tuberculosis. Then Henry was separated from his stepfather and brother (who were off grub-staking) – and placed in a series of foster homes while he worked in a butcher shop, as well as washing dishes and waiting tables in a hotel. In 1875 his life of crime – and of jailbreaking – began when he helped a local street tough known as “Sombrero Jack” steal clothes from a Chinese laundry. Henry hid the loot in his boarding house – and was arrested after his landlord turned him in to the sheriff.

Although the crime only carried a minor sentence Henry shimmied up the jailhouse chimney and escaped – traveling to southeast Arizona and finding work as an itinerant ranch hand, sheepherder, and eventually as a civilian teamster at the Camp Grant Army Post. 

On August 17th 1877 the encampment’s blacksmith, Frank “Windy” Cahill, who enjoyed bullying young McCarty, attacked him and threw him to the ground. Henry in turn drew his gun and shot Cahill, who died the next day. Once again Henry was in custody, this time in the Camp’s guardhouse, pending the arrival of the local marshal. Once again Henry escaped. Later that year he adopted the alias “William H. Bonney” – and a circa 1877 wanted poster identifies him for the first time publicly as “Billy the Kid,” although his full name is listed as “Wm. Wright” on the broadside.
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“He is about five feet eight or nine inches tall, slightly built and lithe, weighing about 140; a frank, open countenance, looking like a school boy, with the traditional silky fuzz on his upper lip; clear blue eyes, with a roguish snap about them; light hair and complexion. He is, in all, quite a handsome looking fellow, the only imperfection being two prominent front teeth slightly protruding like squirrel’s teeth [but not buck], and he has agreeable and winning ways,” according to the December 27, 1881 Las Vegas Gazette

Popular folklore says he killed twenty-one men. But it is generally believed that he was solely or partially involved in a total of “only” nine deaths – one of them Sheriff William Brady.

The “Lincoln County War” was a bloody feud between two factions vying for control of the eponymous county seat. The Murphy-Dolan group – part of the “Santa Fe Ring” of powerful attorneys and speculators who amassed a fortune through political corruption and fraudulent land deals – pretty much controlled things and had lucrative supply contracts with the U.S. military.  They were opposed by the McSween-Tunstall group of merchants.  Both had hired guns in their employ. The sheriff signed on  with  Murphy-Dolan. Billy with the other side.

In the Spring of 1877, Brady was beaten up by two men, believed to be John Tunstall’s cowboys, in the middle of the main street of Lincoln. Shortly thereafter he organized a posse, tracked down and killed Tunstall.

Following their boss’s death, the Kid and several other former employees organized themselves into a vigilante group called “The Regulators” and swore revenge. On April 1, 1878, some of them, including Billy, ambushed Brady and four of his deputies on the main street of Lincoln. They fired on the five men from behind an adobe wall. Brady, died of at least a dozen gunshot wounds.

The Lincoln County War was ended later that year with the help of federal troops, many of them Buffalo Soldiers  stationed at nearby Fort Stanton. Over the next twenty-four months several arrests were made – including Billy for the murder of  Sheriff Brady. He was captured by now-Sheriff, and onetime friend, Pat Garrett. (The two had been saloon  buddies  while  Garrett was tending bar – and were known as “Big Casino” and “Little Casino.”)

Billy was jailed in Santa Fe, and this time did not escape.
In 1880, after three months in jail he was brought to southern New Mexico, tried for the Brady killing, found guilty and imprisoned at Fort Sumner pending his execution by hanging. Then-governor (and author of the novel Ben-Hur) Lew Wallace offered the Kid a pardon if he gave evidence against three men accused of the brutal murder of a one-armed lawyer named Huston Chapman.

“Mr. Bonney kept his end of the bargain by testifying before a grand jury against the men who murdered attorney Huston Chapman on February 18, 1879. Governor Wallace did not keep his end of the deal, which was to pardon Mr. Bonney for all outstanding charges, including the pending indictment related to the death of Sheriff William Brady. This injustice should be corrected,” argued lawyer/historian Randi McGinn in seeking a posthumous pardon 131 years later from Bill Richardson, NM Governor at the time.  Three of Pat Garrett's grandchildren and two great-grandchildren personally met with Richardson to voice their objections.  The pardon was not granted.

So, once again Billy the Kid busted out of jail – for the final time. In January 1880 he took the life of Joe Grant at Hargrove's Saloon in Fort Sumner, NM. And was tracked down and killed in the same town by Garrett on July 14, 1881. He was twenty-one. 

Ironically, seven months earlier the name “Billy the Kid” hit the big time, when both the Las Vegas (NM) Gazette and The Sun of New York carried stories about his crimes. Five days after his death, under the headline “A Notorious Outlaw Killed,” the New York Times reported that the fugitive “terror of New Mexico cattlemen,” had been shot dead.

But this was not the end of his legend.

The Kid was buried in a graveyard in Fort Sumner among American soldiers who had died while on duty at the fort. Then the Pecos River overflowed washing away several grave markers and plot borders. Records were incomplete. So when the gravestones were replaced most of them were labeled as “unknown but to God.” 

Billy’s new memorial however was inscribed with his name – but, according to some, it was placed twenty to thirty feet away from where it should have been. To further confuse the issue, in 1906 forty-five graves in the flooded area of were dug up and re-interred at the National Cemetery in Santa Fe – all of them under markers labeled “unknown.” Many maintain that Billy’s remains from his initial burial site were in that group.

Henry McCarty spent what may have been his best years in Santa Fe – started “out in life with a chance to be square” (as his ballad tells us.) Perhaps now he is back.
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The grave labeled as Billy’s at Fort Sumner is locked inside a steel cage because its headstone has been stolen twice – in 1950, missing for twenty-six years, found in Granbury, TX; and 1981, recovered a week later in Huntington Beach, CA. It is set in iron shackles attached near Billy’s (or whoever's) feet.

George Washington's final resting place is in a family plot on his Mount Vernon estate – along with the remains of his wife, Martha Custis, and twenty-five other family members. There is an empty burial vault below the Rotunda of the United States Capitol building – part of the 1793 original design,  and  intended for the  first President’s use, if he so chose.

But GW declined the honor. Unlike his peripatetic younger years, deceased George is doing his “big sleep” at home.

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