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Leaving out the glamour

By Steve Hayes
Posted Jul 18, 2012 in Crime
Henry was not exactly what you might call a good man, but then he didn't have exactly what you might call an ideal start in life.
He was born on the eve of the Civil War, in a poor Irish neighbourhood of New York. His mother was Catherine McCarty, his parentage on his father's side is a matter of dispute, as these things often were.
His mother made a living as best she could, washing clothes, taking in boarders and such like. It was surely a hard life; brought to an end by tuberculosis in 1874, when Henry was just fourteen. Henry was forced to work in a hotel, for which he received his keep. The manager was impressed. He would later praise Henry, pointing out that he had never stolen from him.
Some people have sought to explain Henry's subsequent descent into lawlessness by pointing out that he was an avid reader of dime novels, but some people will say anything. A much more probable explanation is the simple, mundane, prosaic fact of existence in a market economy: one needs money. So, when Henry became acquainted with one John Mackie, an ex-cavalry man, with a penchant for the profitable enterprise of horse stealing, with hindsight, it seems the die was cast.
There is an old saw: As thick as thieves; but thieves are always likely to fall out, especially over the division of the spoils. Henry's troubles with the law really began when he got into a dispute with the blacksmith. With his youth and his slight build, it was perhaps inevitable that Henry would reach for his gun. Cahill, the blacksmith, lay dead.
Henry fled the scene and wound his way to New Mexico, where he joined a band of cattle rustlers. Their favoured hunting grounds were the land and herds of John Chisum. It seems he had more cattle than they thought he needed.
Still Henry seemed to want to live a respectable life. Anyhow, he quit the cattle rustling business and took a job in a cheese making factory. This was in 1877. Seems though that factory work did not appeal to young Henry, and who can blame him for feeling that way? Anyhow, he soon quit that job and took another, apparently more congenial offer of employment on a ranch.
Things seemed to be working out for Henry at last. However, his employer, the English man, John Tunstall, was shot dead in cold blood. The killers with macabre humour killed Tunstall's prized horse and laid its head on his hat. Henry saw no humour in this; he was enraged, especially when what passed for law and justice called the killing justifiable homicide.
The ranchers decided to uphold the law themselves. They sought to arrest Tunstall's killers. The outcome was all too predictable. The only 'killers' they managed to capture, unfortunately died while trying to escape.
The Governor now became involved and ruled the ranchers to be outlaws. Public opinion was more even-handed, judging both sides to be equally nefarious, bloodthirsty and a danger to the public welfare.
The ranchers, including Henry, were forced to go into hiding. After some months and some close calls, Henry fled to Texas. It was there that he heard about the possibility of an amnesty. In a secret meeting with Governor Wallace in March 1878, Henry agreed to provide testimony against his former colleagues in return for a pardon.
This deal called for Henry to submit to token arrest, with a brief period in jail, prior to giving his evidence. All went well initially. Henry's testimony secured the indictment of a number of the ranchers. However, he was not released after the trial, and he took it upon himself to rectify the situation.
Having broken out of jail, he seems to have taken to the life of an outlaw, gambling, drinking, rustling cattle and always just one step away from the hands of the law.
In 1880 Henry was in a saloon card game, playing poker with a man called Joe Grant, who ended up dead. There are several versions of the incident. What they all have in common is that Henry asked to look at Grant's revolver and, while handling the gun, ensured that when the trigger was pulled the hammer would fall on an empty chamber. Henry returned the gun to Grant and then provoked him. Grant fired. He heard the click of the hammer falling on the empty chamber and the roar of Henry's shot.
Meanwhile, back in New Mexico, a bartender with ambitions got himself elected as Sheriff on the ticket of ridding the county of rustlers. He immediately raised a posse and set out to find and arrest Henry.
The posse fared well. They quickly tracked Henry and the other rustlers to an abandoned stone building in a place not named by anyone looking to make money out of land sales: Stinking Springs, it was called. Whilst the men inside were asleep, the posse took up positions.
The next morning one of the rustlers came outside to feed the horses. He was shot. There now followed a stand-off, with the posse besieging the rustlers. Henry is reported to have told them to: 'Go to Hell.' However, as escape was impossible, the outlaws agreed to surrender.
In jail Henry spent his time writing to Governor Wallace, protesting his innocence and giving interviews to gentlemen of the press romanticizing his life of crime. It seems jails were somewhat lax in those days.
Henry was put on trial in 1881 and found guilty of the murder of Sheriff Brady. He was sentenced to be hanged. However, it seems Henry had inherited the luck of the Irish from his mother. Somehow, he appears to have acquired a gun. He shot and killed his guards and made good his escape, reportedly singing as he rode out of town.
Some months later the former bartender turned Sheriff with two deputies discovered where Henry was hiding. They waited in the house he was staying at. When Henry entered, they took no chances; they shot him down.
Henry was buried the next day in the graveyard at Fort Sumner. He was twenty-one years of age.
That is the history of Henry McCarty, also known as William Bonney or Billy the Kid.

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