One of America’s most infamous outlaws, Billy the Kid, may have been trilingual and acted as a translator for Irish immigrants who spoke Irish but who had not yet learned English.
Billy the Kid expert Chuck Usmar believes he has found evidence that proves the notorious criminal was an Irish speaker, a useful skill to have in the Wild West, it seems, as he helped other Irish immigrants make themselves understood.
Billy the Kid was most likely born in New York City in 1859. He was the son of Irish immigrants and his real name is believed to have been Henry McCarthy. His family soon headed west where he was arrested for the first time for stealing clothes in New Mexico. He was 16 years old.
Not much is known regarding McCarty’s father, but his mother is said to have been named Catherine McCarty, with debates over whether McCarty was her maiden or her married name. According to Biography.com McCarty's father left when he was young and that young McCarty was essentially orphaned at 15 when his mother died of tuberculosis.
As he descended into criminality, William McCarty fled from town to town earning the moniker Billy the Kid from his short stature and his age, although he also used other aliases such as Henry Antrim and William H. Bonney.
In the 1870s, still only in his teens or early 20s, he became the most notorious member of the Regulators, the outlaws organized to protect the cattle business of Englishman John Tunstall.
He also sold cattle for another man, Irish man Pat Coughlan, who owned the Three Rivers Ranch which was located north of Tularosa, New Mexico. Coughlan was born in Cork in 1822 and by 1874 he had made his way to New Mexico, where he secured a government contract to sell beef to Fort Stanton.
One of his employees, Clark Hust, gave an interview in 1954 in which the cowboy recalled the visit of Coughlan’s niece, Mary. Childless, Mary was a sort of surrogate daughter to the Coughlans, but when she arrived her lack of English meant the Coughlans and Billy the Kid were the only people she could fully communicate with, according to Hust.
Newspaper reports from the time mention a niece of Coughlan's coming to visit and, in his will, Coughlan left the ranch to a nephew and two nieces, one of whom was named Mary. Coughlan’s niece certainly seems to have existed, but whether she is absolute proof that Billy the Kid was an Irish speaker is another story.
The outlaw is also believed to have spoken Spanish which would make him a very handy person to have around.
Born in the Five Points in New York, Usmar feels it is not completely unbelieveable The Kid would have Irish as the language would have been spoken as freely as English here during the 1840s and 1850s and he certianly would have heard it spoken around him as a child.
According to the legend, McCarty killed as many as 21 men, one for every year of his short life, although historians believe the actual figure was most likely between six and nine. McCarty is said to have killed for the first time when he was 17, although he could have been even younger as the exact year of his birth is uncertain.
It was the murder of Tunstall in February 1878 that started the Lincoln County War as the gang took action to avenge the death of their benefactor. The war came to an end with the Battle of Lincoln on July 17 when the Army intervened and the Regulators either fled or lost their lives.
Billy the Kid was placed on a wanted list in the aftermath of the Lincoln County War with a bounty of $500 on his head. He was captures and sentenced to death in 1880, but McCarty killed two further deputies and escaped.
The outlaw was shot and captured again shortly thereafter and in a sting operation by Lincoln County sheriff Patrick Floyd Garrett, who was also the grandson of Irish immigrants.
H/T: True West Magazine