Billy the Kid - From the Old West to Co Antrim

Christine Crawford re-opens the case on the infamous outlaw

The notorious 19th century American frontier outlaw, Billy the Kid is Irish American and descends straight from Co Antrim. Little if anything is known about Billy the Kid's origins or birthplace but it is acknowledged that he was born of Northern Irish parentage, the rest of his life story is an incomplete mystery, lost in the past.

His mother, Catherine McCarthy was born in Co. Antrim in 1829 and during the Irish potato famine of 1945 she emigrated to New York. She arrived in the United States as a 17 year-old girl and whether she was already pregnant with the Kid is not known.

Billy the Kid is one of the most cryptic historical characters of the Old West. Legend paints him as a cold blooded murderer and a robber of banks and trains and the factual evidence paints him as a gunfighter in a feud between two factions -in which both sides stole from each other and killed.

He is reputed to have killed 21 men, one for each year of his life but, the figure is probably closer to nine (four on his own and five with the help of others). He was a participant in the Lincoln County War where he fought and killed in the five-day battle. The Kid escaped unhurt, but with a price on his head  - he surrendered in exchange for amnesty and was sentenced to death. He escaped the hangman and as a result, claimed legendary status.

Billy the Kid's real name was William Henry McCarty, when or where he was born and who or what happened to his father is not known. History's first traces of the ‘Kid’ find him as a young boy in Indiana in the late 1860's and then in Wichita, Kansas in 1870. His mother Catherine McCarty was a widow and a single mother and he had a younger brother named Joseph McCarty.

Catherine McCarty was soon diagnosed with tuberculosis and so upon doctor's orders they left for southwest America for the warm and dry climate to help her health condition. They arrived in New Mexico and Catherine soon married labourer and teamster, William Antrim. As a result of having two Williams in the household Billy the Kid was then refered to as Henry McCarty-Antrim.

‘Billy the Kid was known to be a friendly guy who apparently took after his mother, who according to records from old friends and relatives, was a jolly Irish lady,’ said American history lecturer, Dr. Michael Brady. To those who knew Billy the Kid's mother, his courteous, kindly and benevolent spirit was no mystery. He added, ‘These traits are stereotypes in The United States for women of Irish descent.’

Her husband called her Kathleen and she was about medium height with golden hair and light blue eyes -which the Kid is said to have inherited along with a face with ‘smooth-cheeks’. Catherine was best-known for her kindness, Dr. Brady said, ‘she would allow boarders at her home in Silver City and often took in hungry lost causes.’

‘Hundreds of years later, I am amazed that so many people here are obsessed with him,’ said Ed Staski, director of New Mexico State University Museum. He added, ‘The whole story has been blown out of proportion. He was nothing but a thug and a worthless character - However, he is great for tourism around here.’ It has been recorded that Billy turned to a life of crime when his mother passed away, in September 1874.

Her husband did not want to be burdened with two small boys therefore, they were separated and placed in foster homes. The Kid ran away and ended up alone in the Arizona desert. On September 23, 1875 McCarty was arrested for hiding a bundle of clothes for a man playing a prank on a Chinese laundry man. He was thrown in jail but soon escaped through the jailhouse chimney and was forever more branded as a fugitive and led a life wanted by the law.

To this day, the Billy the Kid mystery remains unsolved. The legendary outlaw is supposed to have died after pistol shots fired through the the desert night sky in New Mexico 125 years ago. Then, in 2003, a local New Mexico sheriffs office reopened the case to further investigate who shot who.

There are numerous stories about the death of the Kid, with legend saying that he was gunned down by one of the states' most famous wild west men of the law, Sheriff Pat Garrett. There are others who say the Kid fled to England where he died of old age or did he flee to Hico, Texas and die at the age of 90?

A body reported to be William Henry McCarty aka, Billy the Kid was exhumed for DNA testing to compare the bodies DNA, to that of the Kid's mother and to others closely likened to the Western outlaw.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation