Billy The Kid’s Grave in Fort Sumner, New Mexico

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Billy the Kid’s Grave Site in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, just a short drive from the Billy the Kid’s Museum.

Henry McCarty, better known as Billy the Kid, but also known by the aliases Henry Antrim and William H. Bonney (reportedly November 23, 1859 — July 14, 1881), was a 19th century American frontier outlaw and gunman who participated in the Lincoln County War. According to legend, he killed 21 men, but he is generally accepted to have killed between four and nine.

McCarty (or Bonney, the name he used at the height of his notoriety) was 5 feet 8 inches (173 cm) to 5 feet 9 inches (175 cm) tall with blue eyes, a smooth complexion and prominent front teeth. He was said to be friendly and personable at times, and many recalled that he was as “lithe as a cat”. Contemporaries described him as a “neat” dresser who favored an “unadorned Mexican sombrero”. These qualities, along with his cunning and celebrated skill with firearms, contributed to his paradoxical image, as both a notorious outlaw and beloved folk hero.

A relative unknown during his own lifetime, he was catapulted into legend the year after his death when his killer, Sheriff Pat Garrett published a sensationalistic biography titled The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid. Beginning with Garrett’s account, Billy the Kid grew into a symbolic figure of the American Old West.

Responding to rumors that Billy was still lurking in the vicinity of Fort Sumner almost three months after his escape, Sheriff Garrett and two deputies set out on July 14, 1881, to question one of the town’s residents, a friend of McCarty’s named Pete Maxwell (son of land baron Lucien Maxwell). Close to midnight, as Garrett and Maxwell sat talking in Maxwell’s darkened bedroom, McCarty unexpectedly entered the room. There are at least two versions of what happened next.

One version suggests that as the Kid entered, he failed to recognize Garrett in the poor light. McCarty drew his pistol and backed away, asking “¿Quién es? ¿Quién es?” (Spanish for “Who is it? Who is it?”). Recognizing McCarty’s voice, Garrett drew his own pistol and fired twice, the first bullet striking McCarty just above his heart, killing him. In a second version, McCarty entered carrying a knife, evidently headed to a kitchen area. He noticed someone in the darkness, and uttered the words, “¿Quién es? ¿Quién es?” at which point he was shot and killed in ambush style.

Although the popularity of the first story persists, and portrays Garrett in a better light, many historians contend that the second version is probably the accurate one. A markedly different theory, in which Garrett and his posse set a trap for McCarty, has also been suggested. Most recently explored in the Discovery Channel documentary, Billy the Kid: Unmasked, this theory contends that Garrett went to the bedroom of Pedro Maxwell’s sister, Paulita, and bound and gagged her in her bed. When McCarty arrived, Garrett was waiting behind Paulita’s bed and shot the Kid.

McCarty was buried the next day in Fort Sumner’s old military cemetery, between his fallen companions Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre. A single tombstone was later erected over the graves, giving the three outlaws’ names (Billy’s as “William H. Bonney”) and with a one word epitaph of “Pals” also carved into it. The tombstone has been stolen and recovered three times since it was set in place in the 1940s, and the entire gravesite is now enclosed within a steel cage.

We stopped off here during our three week Road trip along Route 66 and beyond.

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