Billy the Kid is known as one of the most famous outlaws in American history, but why? When we look at his outlaw status, he really wasn't a badman by outlaw standards. So how bad was he? Below I gave a listing of Billy the Kid's criminal record.
theft: On two occasions in Silver City: The 1st time, the Kid stole
several pounds of butter, which he sold to a merchant and the 2nd time, he
was an accomplice in the
theft of laundry.
Drunk and disorderly conduct: None.
Illegal Gambling: On one or two
occasions he was busted for running an illegal card table.
Gunfights: Due to the Kid's
participation in the Lincoln County War, he was indeed involved in some
gunfights. Most notable was the Blazer's Mill gun battle against Buckshot Roberts and the 3-day battle at Alex McSween's house.
Okay, I agree...there is some bad things on that list, but compared to other outlaws, like the James and Younger brothers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, John Wesley Hardin, The Doolins, The Daltons, and Clay Allison, as well as New Mexico outlaws like Jesse Evans, John Kinney, and John Selman, Billy the Kid was small potatoes! Most of Billy the Kid's outlaw status does involve "shootings and killings," but keep in mind this was during a violent bloody feud. These were not innocent law-abiding men that he was fighting against, but gunfighters and killers themselves. As a rustler, Billy the Kid was no John Kinney. Due to his involvement in the LCW and on the top of Dolan's hit list, the Kid couldn't settle down and get honest work, so he had to resort to stealing livestock. Actually, in those days, most ranchers and cowboys dabbled in stealing livestock at one time or another. The amount of stock that the Kid stole was more annoying and a nuisance than a huge financial loss to the cattle owner. So as a thief, Billy the Kid was a small-scale rustler.
So if Billy the Kid wasn't all that bad, why is he one of the most famous outlaws in history? One reason...the Lincoln County War. If he never participated or was killed during the war we would not have heard of Billy the Kid. He would've been just another saddle tramp rustler lost to history. Another reason, was after the war, he stuck around Lincoln County instead of laying low for awhile like some of the other Regulators. He also rustled his enemies cattle, and testified against them in court and because of that, the James Dolan side singled him out for "special treatment." Thanks to the newspapers they built up the Kid's reputation as the TERRORIST OF NEW MEXICO and all rustling activities were pinned on him. The public who were once sympathetic towards the Kid were brainwashed into believing he was their main problem and a threat to society and needed to be taken out.
Now along with this inaccurate bad boy image bestowed on him, Billy the Kid also stood out and made lasting impressions because of his charismatic, out-going and fun loving personality, and his "stay and fight" rebellious attitude. He was a skillful gunfighter and courageous to the point of recklessness which got everyone's attention. He had learned the hard way on how to survive in the lawless Wild West. He was tough, but not mean. He would kill, but he wasn't a killer. He was also loyal to his friends and appointed himself protector over the helpless, and because of this loyalty, it would eventually cost him his life.
Unfortunately for Billy the Kid, his life was filled with obstacles and dead ends. Barely a teenager, he was orphaned and abandoned by his stepfather. As a drifter, the Kid tried to find belongingness with a band of cutthroats led by Jesse Evans, only to be bullied out of the gang. Once he got honest work and some stability in his life, his employer, John Tunstall, was murdered. After the war, the Kid made a peace treaty with his enemies only to be lumped-in with them in a brutal murder. When he risked his life to testify against the real killers in exchange for a pardon, the governor abandoned him. The newspapers attacked him and singled him out. The public turned against him and blamed him for all the lawlessness in the territory. When the Kid stood trial, his attorneys did a weak job and the judge was prejudice and did everything in his power to influence the jury to find the Kid guilty. The people who knew him best, including his killer Pat Garrett, all admit the Kid had good qualities and could've made a success any where if it wasn't for these bad turn of events in his life.
Now I admit Billy the Kid did do some wrong, but he doesn't deserve the "badman" label or to be remembered as a "cold-blooded killer of the Old West." In closing, I'd like to point out that unlike other outlaws, Billy the Kid made an honest effort to redeemed himself and live an honest life. The Kid tried to square himself with his enemies and then later with the governor, but met with failure and betrayal. Fred Nolan, a notable Billy the Kid biographer and historian, would go on to say about the Kid in a TV documentary, "He was essentially a good person. Inside himself he wanted to be with the good guys. Because he tried very hard to get a pardon. If he had been a badman, in the conventional outlaw sense, he wouldn't have bothered." That is very true.
In reality, Billy the Kid wasn't a hero or a villain,
but a victim of circumstances.
~ Newspaper Article ~
Here's an excerpt taken from Historian Drew Gomber's article in the October 31, 2002 issue of the Ruidoso News:
I have heard many of the less informed refer to Billy the Kid as a "cop killer," concerning his participation in the death of Sheriff Brady on April 1, 1878. That is an easy — and modern — designation. And it is always a bad idea to judge denizens of the 19th century with our modern values.
While it is true that the Kid was part of a six-man team of shooters who opened up on the Sheriff that day, there are several facts that are invariably left out of the mix. One is that Billy and the other shooters were all legally appointed constables... so, does that mean that when Dick Brewer, and for that matter, any of the other Regulators who were killed before they were declared outlaw by the governor, were also "cops," and therefore, the men who killed them were "cop killers?"
I guess what I'm trying to say is that the "cops" in the Old West were frequently outlaws who were temporarily on the side of the law. It was not as cut and dried as it is today. Things have changed.
In the 21st Century, we don't
have any policemen with lengthy criminal pasts, so we know they are on the
"up and up." There are stringent requirements to become an officer of the
law and not just anyone can do it. (Personally, I think they should be
even more stringent! Let's put all the officers through college for
degrees in either Sociology or Psychology, or both, and then pay them
accordingly – in the six-figure area. After all, these guys are the ones
putting their lives on the line for you and me.)