Outlaws: Billy the Kid and Whitey Bulger
The legendary Billy the Kid and the recently captured Whitey Bulger, both Irish American outlaws, share much in common in their lives on the lam.
Just as the infamous South Boston Irish mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger was arrested on June 22, a photo of another outlaw from another century, Billy the Kid, sold for millions of dollars.
Whitey and Billy were different in many ways. One made his name in the Wild West, while the other ruled gritty urban streets. But it turns out these infamous Irishmen had a lot in common.
Among other things, they spent years on the run from their enemies, and still today show that Americans remain fascinated by mythic outlaws.
Million Dollar Photo
No one would be more surprised than Billy the Kid that his photograph sold for $2.3 million at auction on June 25.
Billy, who was about 20 at the time, probably paid 25 cents to have the picture taken around 1879. The photograph – a tintype, which is an early type of photography that used metal plates – is believed to have been taken outside a saloon at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The photographer is unknown.
The fragile metal image survived because Billy passed it on to Dan Dedrick, one of his pals, and it stayed in Dedrick’s family until it was consigned by Dedrick’s nephew, Frank Upham, to Brian Lebel’s 22nd Annual Old West Show & Auction in Colorado.
The photo was expected to bring up to $400,000, but it took just over three minutes to get to the $2.3 million mark. The photograph went to collector William Koch, who already has a vast collection of Old West memorabilia, which also includes General Custer’s rifle, as well as guns owned by outlaws Frank and Jesse James.
Born in New York
By most accounts, Billy the Kid was born Henry McCarthy in New York City on November 23, 1859. His mother was Catherine McCarthy. His father has variously been listed as Patrick McCarthy and Patrick McCarthy Bonney. So, it seems quite certain that Billy had Irish blood running through his veins. Ironically, it would be Irish adversaries who would do Billy the Kid in.
In 1870, Catherine moved to Coffeyville, Kansas (although some accounts say she moved to Indiana) with Henry, as well as his brother Joseph, and Joseph’s father William Antrim, whom Catherine later married.
The family later moved to Silver City, New Mexico where Catherine ran a laundry and Antrim worked as a miner. Catherine suffered from tuberculosis, a disease that was rampant in New York City at the time, and it was thought that the drier climate would help her condition. Catherine died, however, in 1873.
According to the website Badhombres, Henry, who was 15 at the time of his mother’s death, didn’t get along with his stepfather and was soon out on his own. He got in trouble for petty theft, but he was also a good student who, according to one teacher, wasn’t in more trouble than any other kid. A reader, Billy the Kid apparently had a penchant for dime novels, which is fitting, as he would later inspire dozens of western adventure stories and movies.
Becoming “the Kid”
The first time Henry McCarthy was called “the Kid” was when he killed an Irishman called Frank P. “Windy” Cahill who had been drinking in George Adkins’ Saloon in Camp Grant, Arizona. Cahill, a huge man, and a blacksmith by trade, called Billy a pimp and hit him across the head, knocking him to the ground. Billy drew a gun and shot Cahill in the stomach. He died a day later.
After that, Billy was on the run and ended up back in New Mexico where he became embroiled in what was known as the Lincoln County War.
According to Dermot P. Duggan, writing in Irish America (October 1991), two Irishmen, L.G. Murphy and J.J. Dolan, owned huge cattle ranches and controlled the town of Lincoln, including the sheriff William Brady. Murphy-Dolan were big suppliers to the U.S. Army and were stealing cattle from another big ranching baron, John Chisum, to fill some of their orders. Billy, after initially working for Murphy-Dolan, met up with John Tunstall, an Englishman who had moved to Lincoln in 1876 and started a ranch on the Rio Felez a few miles from the town. He has also teamed up with Chisum against the Murphy-Dolan outfit.
Billy and Tunstall developed a bond. Tunstall was impressed with Billy and became a father figure to the boy. However, Sheriff Brady’s men, probably at Murphy’s instigation, killed Tunstall in cold blood in February 1878. Billy swore revenge and eventually (with the help of his gang) killed several of Brady’s men. On April 1, 1878, Brady himself was killed.
Enter Pat Garrett
The tit-for-tat killings went on for months. The Governor of New Mexico, Lew Wallace, a former General in the Union Army, put up a reward of $5000 for the capture of Billy. But he also met with him to work out an amnesty in return for his testifying against the cattle thief J.J. Dolan. (His partner L.G. Murphy had died of pneumonia). Billy’s testimony helped convict Dolan, but Wallace wasn’t able to come through on his promise of amnesty for Billy and, shortly after testifying, Billy made his escape.
In 1880, fellow Irish American Pat Garrett was made sheriff of Lincoln County and he managed to capture Billy, but he couldn’t hold him for long. A couple of months later, on July 13, 1881, Billy had another run-in with Garrett at the house of his friend Pete Maxwell and Garrett shot him dead. Billy was unarmed.
A Hollywood Legend
Billy the Kid’s death turned out to be merely the first act of his longer, mythic life. His exploits would inspire countless books, plays and radio specials. Meanwhile, generations of Hollywood’s most celebrated talent created films based on Billy the Kid. In the 1930s and 1940s, King Vidor, Wallace Beery, Roy Rogers, Buster Crabbe and Howard Hughes were among the actors and directors who made films about Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett.
Paul Newman, Kris Kristofferson, Val Kilmer and Emilio Estevez (son of Irish American Martin Sheen) are among the stars who portrayed Billy the Kid in subsequent films.
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