Inside The Death Of Billy The Kid, Gunslinging Outlaw Of The Wild West

Published December 5, 2023
Updated December 12, 2023

On July 14, 1881, Billy the Kid died at the age of 21 after being shot in the chest in Fort Sumner, New Mexico by Sheriff Pat Garrett — though some say the story didn’t end there

How Did Billy The Kid Die

Public DomainA depiction of Billy the Kid’s death from Sheriff Pat Garrett’s 1882 biography of the outlaw.

In 1881, Billy the Kid had a reputation as one of the Wild West’s most notorious outlaws. He’d run with vigilantes, escaped prison twice, and claimed to have killed 21 men (“One,” he once quipped, “for every year of my life.”) But Billy the Kid’s death didn’t come during a Wild West shootout or a saloon fight. Instead, it happened in a darkened room in New Mexico.

By July 14, 1881, Billy the Kid had been on the run for months. Back in April, the slippery outlaw had conducted his most impressive prison escape ever, killing two guards as he fled a death sentence in Lincoln County, New Mexico. Ever since, he’d been doggedly pursued by the sheriff, Pat Garrett.

“I knew the desperate character of the man,” Garrett later wrote. “That he was daring and unscrupulous, and that he would sacrifice the lives of a hundred men who stood between him and liberty, when the gallows stared him in the face, with as little compunction as he would kill a coyote.”

That July, Garrett and his deputies followed the outlaw’s trail to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and to a ranch owned by Peter Maxwell. On that fateful night, Garrett snuck into Maxwell’s home and found the rancher in bed. There, in the dark, the sheriff suddenly heard someone else approaching. He hardly had time to react when a shadowy figure appeared in the doorway and demanded in Spanish to know who else was there.

“That’s him,” Maxwell whispered to Garrett, so the sheriff raised his gun.

Billy the Kid died that night at the age of 21, shot near the heart as he lurched into Maxwell’s bedroom. But though several people came forward in the subsequent days to identify his body, it didn’t take long for rumors to circulate that Billy the Kid had actually escaped death — again.

How An Orphan Named ‘Henry McCarty’ Became A Wild West Outlaw

Billy The Kid

Public DomainIn the 1870s, Billy the Kid went from being an orphan to being an outlaw.

Though Billy the Kid’s exploits later became the stuff of legends, less is known about his early life. He was likely born around 1859 as Henry McCarty in the slums of New York City. After moving west, McCarty was orphaned at a young age when his mother died in 1874 in New Mexico. And pretty much from that point on, McCarty started to pursue a life of crime.

In 1875, McCarty got in trouble with the law for the first time. He didn’t make a name for himself because of the crime (acting as a lookout while someone else robbed a Chinese laundry operator) but because of his escape.

After being charged with larceny and imprisoned in the local county jail, McCarty was able to squeeze himself up through the chimney and flee town. As PBS reports, the Silver City Herald reported on his escape, marking the first time that the outlaw’s name appeared in print.

Over the next two years, Henry McCarty transformed from an orphan into an outlaw: Billy the Kid.

Billy The Kid Gains Infamy

In 1877, Billy the Kid killed his first man, Francis Cahill, after coming to blows with Cahill during a poker game. In 1878, he got wrapped up in the Lincoln County War, when Billy the Kid and others formed a vigilante group called “The Regulators” to avenge the death of rancher John Tunstall.

Tunstall had been killed by a posse led by Sheriff William Brady; Billy the Kid and The Regulators got their revenge by assassinating Brady.

Billy The Kid Playing Croquet

Public DomainThis photo purportedly shows Billy the Kid, left, with a member of The Regulators during a game of croquet in 1878.

The Lincoln County War established Billy the Kid’s reputation as a talented gunslinger, but it also put a target on his back. Not only was he involved in the death of a lawman, but Billy the Kid had also killed a number of others (he said 21; historians think nine).

But in 1880, his past caught up to him. In December, Sheriff Pat Garrett arrested Billy the Kid in Stinking Springs, New Mexico. A few months later, the outlaw was found guilty of killing Brady and sentenced to death.

Billy the Kid had one more trick up his sleeve, however. On April 28, he mounted a daring escape, killing two guards and making off on a stolen horse with some stolen weapons. Garrett resolved to bring him to justice, and their encounter a few months later would lead to Billy the Kid’s death.

How Did Billy The Kid Die? Inside The Outlaw’s Fatal Final Encounter With Pat Garrett

Billy the Kid had been on the run for months when Pat Garrett and his deputies got a tip that he might be staying at the Maxwell ranch in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. On July 14, 1881, they made their way there.

Billy The Kid And Pat Garrett

Public DomainAn 1880 photo that allegedly shows Billy the Kid, second from left, and Pat Garrett, far right, in 1880. Before becoming enemies, the two ran in the same circles.

According to Pat Garrett’s 1882 biography of Billy the Kid, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, Noted Desperado of the Southwest, Whose Deeds of Daring and Blood Made His Name a Terror in New Mexico, Arizona and Northern Mexico, Garrett went into the farmhouse alone. It was almost midnight, and he found Peter Maxwell awake in bed in the darkness.

Garrett had just started to ask him about Billy the Kid when a figure appeared in Maxwell’s door. The outlaw had apparently come to the ranch house to get some beef for dinner, and held a knife in one hand and his revolver in the other. Garrett, frozen at the head of Maxwell’s bed, initially thought that it might be the rancher’s brother-in-law.

As the figure approached in the dark, Garrett demanded to know who it was. Maxwell whispered back: “That’s him.”

“Simultaneously,” Garrett later wrote, “the Kid must have seen, or felt, the presence of a third person at the head of the bed. He raised quickly his pistol, a self cocker, within a foot of my breast. Retreating rapidly across the room he cried: ‘Quien es? Quien es?’ (‘Who’s that? Who’s that?’).”

With Billy the Kid in front of him, Garrett seized the opportunity.

“All this occurred in a moment,” he later wrote of Billy the Kid’s death. “Quickly as possible I drew my revolver and fired, threw my body aside, and fired again. The second shot was useless; the Kid fell dead. He never spoke. A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasped for breath, and the Kid was with his many victims.”

The next day, a coroner’s jury examined the body, found that it was, indeed, the notorious outlaw, and declared that Billy the Kid’s death had been a justifiable homicide. Then, the 21-year-old was buried in Fort Sumner.

“It will never be known whether the Kid recognized me or not,” Garrett later noted. “If he did, it was the first time, during all his life of peril, that he ever lost his presence of mind, or failed to shoot first and hesitate afterwards.”

But in the years that followed, some questioned the details of Billy the Kid’s death. Indeed, some suspected that Pat Garrett had not killed him at all.

Why Questions Remain About Billy The Kid’s Death

For most, there’s no doubt that Billy the Kid died on July 14, 1881, in New Mexico at the hands of Pat Garrett. But some have speculated that Garrett faked the outlaw’s death, or even that he killed the wrong man.

Billy The Kid Death

Asagan/Wikimedia CommonsBilly the Kid’s headstone, which also lists the names of Charlie Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard, who were killed by Garrett and his posse. However, the original grave markers washed away so Billy the Kid’s exact burial site is unknown.

And it’s true that Garrett’s deputies weren’t sure who he had killed at first.

“Seeing a bareheaded, barefooted man, in his shirt-sleeves, with a butcher knife in his hand, and hearing his hail in excellent Spanish, they naturally supposed him to be a Mexican and an attache of the establishment, hence their suspicion that I had shot the wrong man,” Garrett explained.

These rumors lingered, especially because a man named “Brushy Bill” Roberts claimed to be Billy the Kid in the 1940s. Some have also suggested that the outlaw survived into old age under the alias “John Miller.”

But there’s no proof that Billy the Kid survived his encounter with Pat Garrett. Indeed, such proof would be hard to get, as a flood washed away the outlaw’s grave marker in 1904. Thus, the exact location of his body remains something of a mystery.

But Pat Garrett seemed certain. Billy the Kid died at his hand at the Maxwell ranch in 1881, and the outlaw was laid to rest in New Mexico. Case closed.

“Again I say that the Kid’s body lies undisturbed in the grave,” Sheriff Pat Garrett wrote in his biography, “and I speak of what I know.”

After reading about Billy the Kid’s death, discover the stories of other Wild West outlaws like John Wesley Hardin, who claimed to have killed 44 men, or Big Nose George, who was killed and turned into shoes.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "Inside The Death Of Billy The Kid, Gunslinging Outlaw Of The Wild West.", December 5, 2023, Accessed June 25, 2024.