How Many Men Did Billy The Kid Kill?

Billy the Kid, the notorious young outlaw, claimed that he killed 21 men, one murder for each year of his life. But such bravado is expected from gunslingers in those days; honesty, not so much. If he didn't kill 21, just how many met their end at his hands?

Billy the Kid, born Henry McCarty in 1859, lived with his Irish immigrant mother in New York City, described PBS. His father was out of the picture. He was 10 when they moved to Indianapolis. His mother married his stepfather, and the family moved again, to Silver City, New Mexico, for the climate and the mining that was booming there. When McCarty was around 13 years old, his mother died from tuberculosis. With his stepfather disinterested in raising him, McCarty moved into a boarding house. There he met George Schafer, who enticed him to a life of crime.

Schafer and McCarty were arrested. McCarty shimmied up the jail's chimney and escaped, making the papers the next day and beginning his life as an outlaw. He was 15 years old.

By 1876, he arrived in Arizona, and there earned the nickname "The Kid," which was reserved for juvenile delinquents. He joined a gang, was arrested, and again managed to escape his shackles when the guards attended a dance. In August 1877, during a poker game, he traded insults with a local blacksmith, Francis Cahill. The game turned violent. Cahill pinned McCarty to the ground, and McCarty shot him.

A legend is born

McCarty escapes back to New Mexico. According to History, Cahill died the next day — McCarty's first kill. And even though Cahill insulted McCarty, he never pulled out his gun, and so under Western law, McCarty committed unjustified murder.

In New Mexico, McCarty took the pseudonym William H. Bonney and became involved with cattleman John Tunstall in Lincoln, New Mexico. Tunstall was murdered by his enemies, and, in retaliation, McCarty and his gang shot three people suspected of killing Tunstall. A post on Medium explained that McCarty and his squad each shot a bullet into each man, to share responsibility. Tensions grew worse in Lincoln County, escalating the violence so much that President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed a new governor in New Mexico in hopes of restoring peace.

But McCarty, now called Billy the Kid, and his gang wouldn't relent. The violence in the county intensified. Billy shot and killed Sheriff William Brady and another man, Buckshot Roberts. The governor of New Mexico offered Billy a pardon in exchange for ratting out his gang members. Billy agreed but was double-crossed, so he escaped jail again.

He managed to avoid violence and kill anyone else until he walked into a Fort Sumner bar. Once again, mirroring his first kill, he shot a man who was mouthing off during a card game. Later, a posse tracked down his gang, and during a gunfight, Deputy James Carlyle was killed.

End of the line

By 1881, Billy the Kid had become a media darling. Though he only posed for one photo, the public was fascinated by him. He was the face of everything wrong with the West, but he was also daring and young.

Somehow, Billy was captured and jailed awaiting trial in Lincoln County for the murder of Sheriff Brady. Once again, Billy managed to escape by wresting a guard's gun from him and shot him. Billy grabbed a shotgun and fired at another guard, killing him. Stories said he rode out of Lincoln County on a stolen horse, singing.

But Billy the Kid's luck ran out. The New Mexico Tourism Department wrote his reign of terror ended on July 14, 1881. Sheriff and Deputy U.S. Marshal Pat Garrett tracked him down. The lawman heard a rumor that Billy the Kid's lover was pregnant, so Garrett paid her a visit. While Garrett was inside the house, Billy walked up and sensed someone inside. He asked in Spanish if someone was there, and sure enough, Garrett took out his gun and fired.

Billy the Kid died at age 21. While he was a deadly outlaw, his kill count is nowhere near his boast of one per year of his life. He was directly responsible for killing four men and had a hand in the deaths of five others. Nine is far from 21, but that's still more than anyone should have.