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Billy the Kid (1859–1881). Encyclopedia of American Folklore

The American West’s most famous outlaw. Gaining notoriety as a vigilante in New Mexico, William H.Bonney (his bestknown alias) became a legend in his own lifetime thanks to embroidered stories in the Potice Gazette and dime novels. After his death at the hands of Pat Garrett, the legend evolved until he became not the sour rebel of the lawman’s recollection but a friend to the poor and a romantic charmer. The “good bad man” gloss, introduced by Walter Noble Burns ([1926] 1973), was sustained in popular fiction, radio and television treatments, and dozens of Hollywood serials and feature fllms. According to Garrett, Billy was born in New York City, moved West with his family as a child, killed a man for insulting his mother when he was twelve, and murdered twenty more before he died—one for every year of his life. Scholars today believe that his given name was Henry McCarty and that the body count of his victims was greatly exaggerated. Well documented is his part in the 1870s Lincoln County, New Mexico, range feud between cattleman John Chisum and Lawrence Murphy. As a Chisum “regulator,” Billy apparently killed the murderers of Chisum’s ally John Tunstall as well as a Murphy sheriff, William Brady; engaged in two major shootouts with rival gunmen; and took his pay for services rendered in rustled cattle. Surrendering in hope of a pardon, he spent two brief spells in jail but escaped both times, gunning down another two lawmen in his second flight. Sheriff Pat Garrett finally cornered him near Fort Sumner, New Mexico and shot him to death from cover of darkness at a friend’s ranch. The Kid’s legend was variously elaborated over time. For a generation after Garrett’s 1882 biography, he was the embodiment of violent disorder, a social evil that only violence could subdue. In the 1920s and 1930s, a more figure emerged, as Americans used to bootleg gin and bread lines evinced a “mixed response” to a “loss of faith in traditional explanations” (Tatum 1982:90). By the postwar era, as shown in Arthur Penn’s film The Left-Handed Gun (1957), the Kid became a reflection of social malaise, “an alienated, troubled youth” pitted tragically against “regimented middle class society” (Tatum 1982:133). Through these changes, heroic motifs continued to resonate. His mysterious birth, his touted affection for the oppressed, and his death at the hands of a faithless friend made the outlaw a Southwestern model of the mythical victim. The mythical parallels fed stories, told into the 1940s, that he had magically survived Garrett’s ambush and was still alive. Hollywood treatments of the legend, in addition to Penn’s film, included King Vidor’s Billy the Kid (1930), Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw (1943), Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks (1961), and Sam Peckinpah’s Sam Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). The score for the Peckinpah film featured Bob Dylan’s country-style dirge “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” a late addition to a body of musical elegies that included “Bilito” corridos as well as English-language ballads. Tad Tuleja References Burns, Walter Noble. [1926] 1973. The Saga of Bitty the Kid. New York: Ballantine. Dykes, J.C. 1952. Billy the Kid: The Bibliography of a Legend. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. Garrett, Pat, with Ash Upson. [1882] 1965. The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. Norman:University of Oklahoma Press. Steckmesser, Kent. 1965. The Western Hero in History and Legend. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Tatum, Stephen. 1982. Inventing Billy the Kid: Visionsof the Outlaw in America, 1881–1981. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

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