On This Day – 23 November 1859

Henry McCarty (17 Sept 1859 – 14 July 1881), better known under the pseudonyms of Billy the Kid and William H. Bonney, was a 19th-century gunman who participated in the Lincoln County War and became a frontier outlaw in the American Old West.

According to legend, he killed twenty-one men, but it is now generally believed that he killed eight, with the first, Francis P. “Windy” Cahill, on 17 August, 1877. McCarty was 5 ft 8 in (173 cm) tall with blue eyes, blond or dirty blond hair, and a smooth complexion. He was described as being friendly and personable at times and as lithe as a cat. Contemporaries described him as a “neat” dresser who favoured 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 a folk hero. He was relatively unknown during most of his lifetime, but was catapulted into legend in 1881 when New Mexico’s governor Lew Wallace placed a price on his head. In addition, the Las Vegas Gazette (Las Vegas, New Mexico) and the New York Sun carried stories about his exploits. Other newspapers followed suit. Billy the Kid was still alive, and Pat Garrett’s prisoner, when a reporter gave what Philip J. Rasch regarded as “The best contemporary description of the famous desperado.”  That account was printed in the Las Vegas Gazette on December 28, 1880 and stated that Billy the Kid,

“did look human, indeed, but there was nothing very mannish about him in appearance, for he looked to be a mere boy. He is about five feet eight or nine inches tall, slightly built and lithe, weighing about 140; a frank and 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, and he has agreeable and winning ways.”