In this objective, non-sensationalistic biography of legendary outlaw Billy the Kid (1859–81), historian Wallis (Pretty Boy, not reviewed, etc.), host of the PBS series American Roads, painstakingly sifts fact from fiction.
The trail of The Kid runs colder each year. A legal tussle even broke out recently over exhuming his mother’s remains to compare the DNA to that of the body beneath The Kid’s tombstone. Following the work of pioneering Western historians such as Frederick Nolan and Robert Utley, Wallis discusses this and other controversies surrounding the desperado (e.g., did he have Hispanic ancestors?) before venturing his own, usually plausible, conclusions. Although variously known as Henry Antrim and William H. Bonney, the outlaw was likely born Henry McCarty to a mother who fled Ireland’s Great Famine of the 1840s. Neither a modern-day Robin Hood nor a cold-blooded killer, The Kid was, suggests Wallis, simply a scrawny ex–New York street urchin forced to live by his wits after the early death of his mother and abandonment by his stepfather. It didn’t help that he came of age during a time when a generation of Civil War veterans, often alcoholic and alienated, had access to a glut of new firearms. For much of his adolescence a junior member of a cattle-rustling outfit, The Kid was puffed up out of all proportion as a leader of a gang of desperadoes by dime-story novelists and journalistic hacks. A gregarious sort who abstained from alcohol, he enjoyed dancing and singing and dealing monte and poker to rubes. To be sure, he had blood on his hands, but, claims Wallis, the number of these deaths was exaggerated. Crucially, the author shows how The Kid got caught up in New Mexico’s Lincoln County War, a conflict of “greed and corruption waged by profiteers, charlatans and hired guns,” where loyalties shifted easily and dangerously. Of more than 50 people indicted during this period, only The Kid was convicted of a crime.
Not groundbreaking scholarship, but a sensible summary of a small-time criminal whose short, violent life became fodder for American myth.