Almost 140 years after his death, the man born Henry McCarty ̶ but better known as Billy the Kid ̶ continues to exert a sense of fascination and romance.
Two books about the outlaw, who spent the last part of his life in New Mexico, will be published in July by University of New Mexico professor emeritus Richard Etulain. Thunder in the West: The Life and Legends of Billy the Kid, examines the man and the legend. Billy the Kid: A Reader’s Guide introduces readers to significant written and filmed works about him, including summaries and evaluations of biographies, histories, novels, and movies, as well as archival sources and research collections.
The professor moved to Albuquerque in 1979 to teach at UNM. He was the editor of the New Mexico Historical Review from 1979 to 1985 and directed the Center for the American West from 1989 until his retirement in 2001. He served as president of both the Western Literature (1978-79) and Western History (1998-99) associations. He is the author or editor of 60 books.
Etulain explained how he began his fascination with Billy.
“My first book fascinations were as a boy on an isolated sheep ranch in eastern Washington. I fell in love with those wonderful classics, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and sports books. My mother and grandmother nourished that interest by buying me more books. My two brothers loved horses and technology, but I was smitten with bibliomania. It only got worse as the years passed.”
After he moved from the Pacific Northwest to New Mexico in 1979 to teach at UNM, “the Billy the Kid questions came quickly and often. What did I know about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War? Almost nothing, so I began to dig ̶ and that led to more digging. So, for about 40 years I have been scouting around to find the faint and new tracks of Billy and his friends and enemies. It was Billy's novelty that grabbed me at first, then his importance as the most-written-about New Mexican. I wanted to see why more than 1,000 books and essays had been written about the Kid and why he challenged General Custer and Jesse James as the most publicized resident of the Old West.”
Etulain started his first serious research on Billy the Kid in the 1980s in the Zimmerman Library at UNM, then branched out to Santa Fe, Lincoln, Las Cruces, and Silver City in New Mexico, Texas, and other states. He was also helped by other writers who were also fascinated by Billy.
Not much is known about Billy’s early life, including exactly where he was born, how he and his mother made their way west. In 1877, Billy returned to New Mexico after killing a man in Arizona and took part in a deadly feud between local businessmen known as the Lincoln County War.
Legends about his short life abound. In his book, Etulain considers the stories and myths spawned by Billy’s life and death and offers a uniquely informed view of the changing interpretations that have shaped and reshaped the reputation of this enduring icon of the Old West.
In his portrayal, Billy the Kid lives on, not as a cut-throat desperado or a young charmer but as both — hero and villain, man and myth.
Among the legends is one that claims the notorious Billy met the also notorious and romanticized outlaw Jesse James in New Mexico.
Dr. Henry F. Hoyt, in his 1929 book Frontier Doctor, “a strong and dependable source,” asserted that Jesse James and Billy the Kid met in the Las Vegas, N.M., area in 1879. A Las Vegas newspaper says the same, but no other sources confirm this meeting.
“That means no one is able to say, for certain, whether the meeting took place. Ride with Dr. Hoyt, and you say yes; jump off with the dissenters and you say no. I'm at peace with saying, no one knows for sure,” Etulain mused.
What Billy looked like remains somewhat of a mystery. Etulain said as many as 50 photos have been advanced as authentic photos of Billy the Kid, but in his books he uses only the widely reproduced photograph made originally in Fort Sumner about 1880. Billy died in 1881 at the age of 21 after being shot by Sheriff Pat Garett in Fort Sumner.
Etulain is skeptical of more recently found photos, but said, “I would love to see new authentic photos of Billy, but thus far I am not convinced about the nominees. Convince me, please.”
This title of the book was primarily invented to refer to the "thunder" that Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War brought to New Mexico and western history.
“And the thunder keeps rolling. My two new books on Billy the Kid, others that are also just coming out, and still others in the making mean the rolling thunder still keeps enthralling readers. Billy the Kid, the enigma, the mystery, stands in the midst of the thunder, almost commanding it to keep rolling,” Etulain explained.
Etulain said his second book coming out in July, Billy the Kid: A Reader’s Guide, is a far different book than Thunder in the West and “is meant especially for those intrigued, smitten if you will, with Billy the Kid and who want to read or view everything written or screened about Billy." It's something of an annotated bibliography, he added, providing summaries and evaluations of nearly 500 histories, biographies, novels, and films about the Kid.
Etulain considered the question of whether Billy was really a romantic and sympathetic character or a rascal and bad guy.
“I think the best way to understand Billy the Kid is to engage in ‘both-and’ thinking, not ‘either-or’ thinking. We tend to do the latter and divide people into the good guys and bad guys. Instead my Kid is what a call a ‘bifurcated Billy,’ meaning a two-way guy. He's certainly a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, often a rascal, even a murderer. Yet on other occasions, he acts as a first-rate buddy, gentleman, and companion. Opponents hated him and painted him as evil. Supporters, especially most Hispanics and women, saw him as person they liked to be around. My Billy is both of these ̶ the bad and good in one person.”
He continued: “I hope that general readers and academics continue to pursue Billy the Kid. His is a very interesting story, revealing about a boy becoming a young man, part-hero and part villain, about frontier violence and attempts at settlement. I hope, too, those fascinated with the Kid will continue to follow the new stories about Billy that will continue to intrigue us well into the future.”
Both books will be available in July from the University of Oklahoma Press, Amazon, and other outlets.