Where does a traveling genealogist go when he has a day off? To the cemetery, of course!
This week, I found myself in Eastern New Mexico with an extra day and nothing planned. Knowing there was a lot of history in the area, I decided to go see some of it for myself. I decided to visit the area's most famous resident, William H. Bonney (born William Henry McCarty, Jr. but better known as Billy the Kid) and take some pictures.
Billy the Kid was one of the more famous outlaws of the American Old West. He is believed to have been born November 23, 1859 (his tombstone says 1860), in an Irish neighborhood of New York City. However, no record of his birth has ever been found. It is not known for sure who his biological father was, but his mother was Catherine McCarty, an Irish immigrant. There is some debate about whether McCarty was her maiden or married name. He also had a brother, Joseph McCarty.
Catherine McCarty and her two young sons appeared in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1868. There she met William Antrim, who was 12 years her junior. In 1873, after several years of moving around the country, the two were married at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and settled further south in Silver City. Antrim became involved in prospecting and gambling and was rarely at home with his wife and stepsons. McCarty's mother reportedly washed clothes, baked pies, and took in boarders in order to provide for herself and her sons. On September 16, 1874, Catherine McCarty died of tuberculosis and was buried in the Memory Lane Cemetery in Silver City.
Young McCarty then lived with a foster family, attended school, and earned a reputation as a good scholar, a hard worker, of slight build, athletic, and scrupulously honest. McCarty later moved into a boarding house and pursued odd jobs. In April 1875, McCarty was arrested by Grant County Sheriff Harvey Whitehill for stealing cheese. On September 24, 1875, McCarty was arrested again when found in possession of clothing and firearms that a fellow boarder at the boarding house had stolen from a Chinese laundry owner. Two days after McCarty was placed in jail, the slim, athletic teenager escaped up the jailhouse chimney. From that point on, McCarty was more or less a fugitive.
William McCarty, or Billy the Kid, then followed a career of horse stealing, cattle rustling, gambling, and whatever other means he could find to support himself. He fell in with a "tough crowd," living with and traveling with various thieves, thugs, and other ne'er-do-wells. He reportedly killed between 15 and 26 men although the exact number is not known. He was arrested and jailed but always managed to escape.
He was fluent in Spanish, popular with Mexican girls, an accomplished dancer, and well loved in the New Mexico territory's Hispanic community. The local Spanish-speaking residents did not view him as a ruthless killer but rather as a defender of the people who was forced to kill in self-defense.
William McCarty was later arrested, jailed, tried, and found guilty of the murder of Sheriff Brady. On April 13, 1881, he was sentenced by Judge Warren Bristol to hang. On April 28, while Sheriff Pat Garrett was out of town, prisoner McCarty killed both of his guards and escaped. The details of the murders and escape are unclear and several different versions of the story have been published over the years.
Sheriff Pat Garrett and two deputies traveled to Fort Sumner almost three months after the escape. On July 14, 1881, Garret found and questioned one of the town's residents, a friend of McCarty's named Pete Maxwell. Close to midnight, as Garrett and Maxwell sat talking in Maxwell's darkened bedroom, McCarty unexpectedly entered the room, apparently unaware that Garrett was there. Garrett drew his pistol and shot the surprised outlaw. Billy the Kid died almost immediately.
Garrett allowed the Kid’s friends to take his body across the plaza to the carpenter’s shop to give him a wake. At noon of the next day, Billy the Kid was buried at the Fort Sumner cemetery between his two friends, Tom O'Folliard and Charlie Bowdre, only a few yards from where he had been killed. He was just 21 years old.
I visited the cemetery this week and found it to be rather plain looking, a typical dusty cemetery of the Old West. You can click on any of these pictures to see larger images. The tombstone of Billy the Kid has been stolen twice but recovered both times. It lies today in the approximate location of his body. In 1889 and 1904 the Pecos River floods covered the cemetery and all the markers were washed away. The latter flood inundated the cemetery under four feet of muddy water until the cemetery had no grave markers left of any kind. However, old timers who had once lived nearby were able to point out the approximate location of the earlier tombstone.
Looking at the dry, dusty cemetery today, it is difficult to imagine four feet of water anywhere in the area. It is now bone dry and very dusty.
Rumors persist that Billy the Kid was not killed that night, and in fact that Garrett, a known friend of the Kid's, may have staged it all so the Kid could escape the law. That's a great story, but probably not true.