History Weekend: The Charming and Notorious Billy

(As a break from current events, herewith this offering. It was rather curious, examining the history of one of the bitter range wars of the old west. This one didn’t pit rival families against each other, or even big ranchers against small ones… but was rather a case of a corrupt mercantile and banking enterprise with close ties to the territorial government making war on those who objected to being skinned economically and bullied politically. All this – and a famous gunslinger, too.)

One of the most well-known western gunslingers of the post-Civil-War Wild West – if not one of the most storied – is also the one of whom extraordinarily little is known. His life was also brief, which continues to give all kinds of story-telling latitude to writers of pulp fiction, movie makers and musicians. An impulsive sociopath, or just an unfortunate teenager with extremely bad luck in choosing friends? Even his name and date of birth are open to considerable question; his given name was William Henry, later shortened to Billy, but his surname varied between McCarty, Antrim or Bonney, depending on the year and circumstance. His mother was an immigrant Irishwoman, Catherine McCarty, either a single mother or a Civil War widow. After the War, Catherine married, or married again – to William Antrim, who took his wife and her son west to Wichita and then to Silver City, New Mexico. Catherine McCarty Antrim kept a boarding house there until she died of tuberculosis in 1874. It appeared that William Antrim had no interest in family life; Billy and his younger brother were left more or less to their own devices.

The young Billy McCarty/Antrim was not seen as juvenile hell-raiser by anyone in Silver City at first. He was described as being no more of a handful than any other boy his age; bright and rather charming, fond of music and books. Curiously enough for the time and his station in life, he was also literate and had good handwriting. Billy made friends easily, especially with the ladies. Everyone wanted to think the best of him; long afterwards one of his friends wrote that he “seemed as gentlemanly as a college-bred youth … because of his humorous and pleasing personality grew to be a community favorite.” He also was a very good shot with a revolver – only to be expected of someone who had a natural skill and practiced a lot.

Alas, he drifted into bad company when still in his early teens – a tendency which would be repeated several times. He was arrested for stealing a bundle of clothing from a local Chinese laundry; a prank in which he may have been set up by his friends. He was caught at once and locked up. The sheriff might have known of the prank and intended to ‘scare him straight’ by locking Billy up, but instead of being reformed by the experience, Billy escaped from jail and left Silver City at speed. He drifted around for a couple of years, working as an itinerant ranch hand. He may have spent time in Mexico, thereby acquiring fluency in Spanish. By then, he was known as the ‘Antrim Kid’, and earning a living at Camp Grant, Arizona – a military post, as a teamster and general errand-runner. There he ran into trouble again, at the age of 16 or 17. In a physical altercation, Billy pulled a revolver and mortally wounded the other man; a muscular tough with a bad reputation. Likely a plea of self-defense would have been upheld, but Billy panicked, grabbed the nearest horse and departed town in a cloud of dust.

Wanted for murder, he found a new group of friends even less savory; a loose association of toughs known as the ‘Boys’, who specialized in livestock theft across a swath of southern New Mexico, a method of enterprise interspersed with public brawling, flamboyant gun-play and drunkenly harassing the relatively more law-abiding. Eventually with the attention of local law enforcement falling upon the ‘Boys’ they drifted into Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory, where a brewing range and mercantile war offered a more serious diversion.
Political and economic life in Lincoln County was dominated by James Dolan, and his partner Lawrence Murphy, who owned the largest – and indeed the only – general store in the town of Lincoln. Dolan and Murphy were well-established, well-connected and becoming very wealthy from that retail monopoly and on supplying beef to local Army garrisons and the Indian reservations. They took badly to being challenged by a wealthy expatriate Englishman, rancher John Tunstall, and his business partner, lawyer Alexander McSween. Tunstall and McSween were new to the area, but they were already a threat to Dolan and Murphy – who did not handle threats to their economic and political dominance well. There may also have been an element of ethnic resentment between Irish Dolan and Murphy, and the Englishman Tunstall. Tunstall and McSween fired the opening shot in what developed into open war in the streets of Lincoln by opening a competing general store.

Dolan and Murphy’s monopoly on business and on the beef-supply contract were also furiously resented by another big cattle rancher, John Chisum, who backed Tunstall and McSween. One might have thought that a county that comprised nearly a quarter of the territory would have been big enough for all parties. One would have been wrong. Ranchers and farmers took sides as past resentments and circumstances led them. Some – resentful of Chisum’s herds crowding their own out of public grazing lands – took the side of Dolan and Murphy. Others, infuriated at being skinned economically, took the side of Tunstall, Chisum and McSween – even though Dolan, through connections with corrupt territorial officials, also controlled what passed for law enforcement in Lincoln County. The sheriff – William Brady – did Dolan’s bidding. The ‘Boys’ fell in with the Dolan faction, but Billy, the ever-charming, made friends with Tunstall ranch employees and Tunstall himself; this followed on an attempt at stealing some of Tunstall’s horses. It might be that Tunstall offered Billy a job in order to keep him close, as a potential witness against Dolan … or in part because of an understating that Tunstall’s hands were hired on the basis of their ability with firearms and willingness to use them, at least as much for skill at tending livestock.

Some versions of the Billy the Kid story suggest that Tunstall was a substitute father-figure, reining in an otherwise impulsive and reckless lost boy. But Tunstall was in his early twenties, and Billy only worked ten months or so on the ranch. During much of that time Tunstall was away in Lincoln or Mesilla. The simpler answer might be that this was Billy’s last chance to straighten out his life, and walk back from the petty criminality which had marred it so far; doing honest work for an upright and respectable man. Whatever the reason, Billy’s loyalty to Tunstall became absolute and unswerving – with dire consequences.

Early in the spring of 1878, Dolan struck back against Tunstall and McSween, procuring a court order attaching property owned by McSween in payment of a large debt to do with McSween’s legal practice. Sheriff Brady obediently ransacked the store and McSween’s home. Assuming – perhaps maliciously – that since that McSween was also Tunstall’s business partner in the general store, the writ extended to Tunstall, Brady authorized a posse to go out to the Tunstall ranch and seize some of Tunstall’s horse herd. The leader of the posse was a friend of Brady’s – a hot-tempered man named William Morton – and also part of the Dolan faction. Other members of the posse were less than upright and stalwart citizens; in the resulting confrontation at the ranch, Tunstall was murdered in cold blood blood by Morton. An unconvincing attempt by the posse members to convince others that Tunstall had been resisting arrest only added insult to injury. Tunstall’s friends, allies and employees were outraged. Most of them had been involved in the Lincoln County vendetta for far longer than Billy – the fatally impulsive saddle-tramp with a talent for gun-play. His first attempt to act on his anger – trying to arrest some members of Morton’s posse – ended in humiliation, when Sheriff Brady arrested him, confiscating his rifle, and locked him in the jail. Jail and Billy did not agree – as had been proved and would be again, several times.

On release, Billy joined with Tunstall’s friends and ranch hands – led by Tunstall’s ranch foreman, Richard Brewer – in a legal posse to hunt for the murderers, who had scattered into the rough country near the Rio Penasco, miles from Lincoln. They called themselves the Regulators (a name with a certain pedigree in Texas). Following a running gunfight, they captured Morton and one of Brady’s deputies who had been implicated in the Tunstall murder. They surrendered to Brewer, who promised them he would return them to Lincoln, alive and unharmed. Unfortunately, on the return journey, Billy’s fierce loyalties and bad impulse-control led him astray once more. He and another Regulator gunned down the captives in cold blood – along with a Regulator who apparently had tried to protect them. (Or the man had been a Dolan sympathizer to begin with.)

Shortly afterwards, Sheriff Brady and two deputies attempted to arrest Billy on the murder charge. Billy and five Regulators forted up in the Tunstall & McSween store building, and when Brady and his deputies approached the store, Brady and one deputy fell in a hail of fire. The rifle Brady carried was the same one he had confiscated earlier from Billy – and when Billy dashed out to retrieve his property, the surviving deputy snapped off a quick shot at him. Wounded, Billy hid in town instead of skedaddling. The surviving lawmen of Lincoln ransacked the place, searching for him. One story has it that he was hiding in the house of one of his Mexican friends – inside a barrel, while a woman rolled out tortillas on the top of the barrel and the deputies searched the house. Tit for tat violence claimed nearly a dozen lives – even the U.S. Army got involved, after some Regulators exchanged gunfire with cavalry troopers.

The final spasm of violence and the one which put a final end to Billy’s stay in Lincoln was a siege of McSween’s own home, an adobe house built like a fortress, on the only street in Lincoln. McSween, his wife, Billy and a small number of their Regulator friends barricaded up against an assault by the Dolin faction, directed by a new sheriff. The siege ground on for four days, in a sporadic exchange of gunfire with the only casualties being some livestock and Alexander McSween’s rapidly unraveling nerves. On the fifth day, the sheriff demanded surrender; upon refusal, the forces of law and order piled kindling against the wooden doors and window frames of the house and set fire to them. The flames spread insidiously throughout the day to ceiling beams, floors and other flammable fittings. Billy persuaded Mrs. McSween to leave, certain that she as a woman would not be harmed. He kept up defense of the McSween establishment even as the owner of it gave up. Alexander McSween refused to use a gun throughout the siege, on the grounds that his life insurance policy would be invalidated, apparently not grasping the concept that this was a moot point, under the circumstances. By late evening, the house was filled with thick smoke. Time to leave or die, choking on it; Billy told McSween that he and two Regulators would make a break for safety, running from the back of the smoldering house to cover in the thick brush along the banks of a little creek, no more than a couple of hundred yards away. They would provide a diversion – under cover of which the others could follow. McSween hesitated at the last moment, framed in the doorway of a burning house which made the area around as bright as day. An easy target – and the Lincoln County War claimed Billy’s second employer.

There went all possibility of settling down to a more or less respectable and law-abiding life. His friends and employers were dead or in hiding – and he had made implacable enemies in Lincoln County. Such was his notoriety that he had no refuge in obscurity, as did most of the surviving Regulators. He spent the next three years on the run, sheltered and protected by those friends that he did have – many of them in the overlooked and downtrodden Mexican community, while reverting to petty thievery and stock-rustling of the sort that the ‘Boys’ had been notorious for. Likely, this propensity destroyed any chances of amnesty for him. He was captured and escaped from jail once again, which sealed his fate, for in that escape he murdered a law officer. When he was finally run to ground in Fort Sumner by Pat Garrett in the summer of 1881, he was just barely 21 years of age, but in a bare half-dozen years, he had acquired a reputation which equaled or bettered men who had lived the life of a western shootist for decades longer.

(Other survivors of the Lincoln County War fared a little better than Billy. One of the main instigators of the war itself, Murphy died of cancer in 1878, just as it was ramping up. His partner Dolan was indicted for the murder of Tunstall, but acquitted – and eventually wound up owning much of Tunstall’s ranch property. It is thought that he instigated the murder of Mrs. McSween’s lawyer, a year to the day after Tunstall’s murder. Mrs. McSween, a woman of considerable resource, had hired the lawyer to pursue those responsible for the death of her husband. Undaunted, she acquired considerable landholdings in the Three Rivers area, and prospered as a cattle rancher herself, living until 1931. John Chisum also died rich and respectable – of old age and still a power in New Mexico.)

8 thoughts on “History Weekend: The Charming and Notorious Billy”

  1. I can remember traveling up an interstate from NM to Denver, stopping in a small town and there was this old general store – creaking wooden floors – that the proprietor said was a favorite hang out for Billy. Wonder if it is the same one.

  2. If the general store was in Lincoln – likely it was the Tunstall store building. It’s apparently part of the historical district. But he got around a lot in that part of New Mexico, so it would not be unreasonable for him to have hung out in the general stores of other communities…

  3. I was looking at a map of NM and it was just off I25 – apparently west of Lincoln. So it wasn’t the Tunstall building – but you could still sense history there.

    The Turquoise Trail – a road from Santa Fe to Albuquerque is a drive well worth it – and I am sure Billy the Kid country!

    The town of Madrid – they call Maa-drid

  4. Mom,
    Following up on the Billy life story characters, Pat Garrett’s subsequent life is very interesting, especially at the intersection of the A. B. Fall (later of Teapot Dome scandal fame), Oliver Lee and Albert Fountain feud centered around Las Cruces and the aftermath of Lee’s trial for the murder of Fountain’s youngest son. Descendants of Lee (Cox family) still held title to large land holding leased as part of White Sands Missile Range in the late 1960’s and the adobe ruins of Garrett’s ranch house were still standing at that time on WSMR property (unmarked and unprotected). Hope something has been affirmatively been done since to preserve it. Seems to me that we were able to locate the ruins of Oliver Lee’s ranch as well. The Fountain and Lee/Cox families were still estranged at that time. One of the taboo subjects in the Dona Anna Historical Society was this chapter of early New Mexico history. I have also visited Hillsboro where Lee’s trial took place, but it was an obscure ghost town and pretty much ruins.

    This was a rough and tumble place until well after statehood.

    Thanks for the Billy perspective and the details on the Lincoln County War. Lincoln is about 100 miles to the east of I25 on the edge of the Lincoln National Forest on US 380. It is a ghost town as well, but has some apparently nicely restored structures along it’s original main street. No idea if that includes either general store.


  5. Thanks, Mike – the story was interesting to me because of the economic-allied-to-political concerns, in which Billy the Kid was merely a walk-on character … yet most people know of the matter just because he was involved! It is still pretty interesting how lively local history went on being, long after the frontier West was supposed to have calmed down.

  6. Albert B Fall was appointed as Interior Secretary because of his supposed knowledge of Mexico. We had had a bad relationship with that country under Wilson plus the invasion of 1914 . Harding hoped to restore those relations. He was badly disappointed but that was true of several of his appointments.

    By the late 1890s, Lee was rustling cattle from other ranches in the area, altering the brands to resemble his own. When Lee and his gunmen were arrested, Fall handled the legal issues.[1]
    Fall disliked Fountain, who showed little fear of the Fall-Lee faction, and challenged them openly in the courts and political arena. On February 1, 1896, Fountain and his eight-year-old son Henry disappeared near the White Sands on the way to their home in Mesilla, New Mexico. Fall successfully defended the men accused of the murder—Oliver Lee, Jim Gilliland and Billy McNew—at a trial in Hillsboro, New Mexico.

    Fall’s history sounds like the Lincoln County War. His Pat Garrett defense seems a part of this.

    April 1922 when the Wall Street Journal reported that Secretary Fall had decided that two of his friends, oilmen Harry F. Sinclair (Mammoth Oil Corporation) and Edward L. Doheny (Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Company), should be given leases to drill in parts of these Naval Reserves without open bidding.
    His acceptance of bribes for the leases resulted in the Teapot Dome scandal. During congressional hearings concerning the scandal in 1924 he said something which was later adapted into the 2007 film There Will Be Blood:
    “Sir, if you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and my straw reaches across the room, I’ll end up drinking your milkshake.”[9]

    I can’t call this history all black since USC, my alma mater, got a new library from Harry Doheny. This occurred because the Chancellor of USC, Rufus Von Kleinschmidt, testified as a character witness for Doheny.

    The big central library resulted. It is still a gorgeous library It is named “Doheny Memorial” and was in the name of his son, who died in 1921, not as the result of war wounds but at the hands of his angry mistress.

  7. The not guilty verdict hinged to some extent on the lack of the bodies being recovered. Pat Garrett continued to pursue this for some years as a private citizen. He was shot in the back and killed in San Augustin Pass on the way back to his ranch in 1907 (I believe). It was suspected that it was a professional killing related to his continued investigation of Oliver Lee for the Fountain disappearances. No one was ever tried for his murder or again for the Fountain’s. The reported exact circumstances of Garrett’s killing were embarrassing for such a famous personality. It was indeed a lively area.


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