Irish Ghosts of America: Billy the Kid, New Mexico

Billy the Kid: Outlaw, legend, a part of the Irish history of New Mexico.

William Henry McCarty, Jr., sometimes called William Antrim, or William H. Bonney, or most often Billy the Kid, has had his experiences with the supernatural. In 1966, he battled Dracula on the silver screen in a film appropriately titled “Billy the Kid vs Dracula.” In 1976, he ended up in hell in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournell’s novel “Inferno.” In 1991 he appeared in a science fiction novel called “The Illegal Rebirth of Billy the Kid” by Rebecca Ore. He even appeared on a Halloween episode of the Simpsons, leading an army of the undead.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised to discover he’s also supposed to roam the earth, haunting the places he once habituated: The prison in Lincoln, New Mexico, where he shot down two guards and escaped a death sentence. Some say you can see a foggy mass above his grave at Fort Sumner, although the exact location of his grave is a guess, and there are several that claim to be it. And then there are some who claim the Kid was never killed, not by Pat Garrett, as the history books claims, but survived long after.

And I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised to hear that Billy the Kid has a troubled death. After all, he had a troubled life. We still aren’t sure whether he was an outlaw hero or a murderous psychopath — all we can say for certain is that he participated in a brutal New Mexico range war and killed at least eight men, the first when Billy was just 16 or 17 years old. He wound up with a price on his head from the governor of New Mexico, which launched him to national fame, and he was shot and killed by Garrett, who may have shot in self-defense or may simply have executed Billy the Kid.

And we know he was an Irish-American. His childhood is the subject of some debate, but he seems to have been born in an Irish neighborhood of New York to a woman, Catherine McCarty, who likely moved to America during the Irish famine. Billy the Kid’s paternity is uncertain, but his mother moved the family to Indiana, and there she married a man named after a county in Ireland: Antrim. When Billy the Kid was in his teens, he took to stealing horses, and the other thieves called him Kid Antrim. It was here that he found himself bullied by an Irishman, Frank P. “Windy” Cahill; Billy the Kid responded by killing him.

I mentioned a range war, and that too was Irish: Now called the Lincoln County War, the main players were a Scottish businessman named Alexander McSween, an Irish cattle rancher named John Chisum, an Irish sheriff named William Brady, and Pat Garrett, a probable Irish-American.

Irish-Americans had flooded New Mexico in the mid-1800s, attracted, in part, by the fact that Spanish rule meant that they could practice Catholicism freely, whereas Irish Catholics suffered sometimes repressive anti-Catholic sentiment back east. The Irish also followed the railroad west, settling along the way, and traveled with the army during the Spanish-American war, which had a large number of Irish-American soldiers. (There were also Irish soldiers who fought against the US during the war: The Saint Patrick’s Battalion.) Some Irish-Americans developed a tremendous affinity for Mexican culture, learning Spanish and taking Mexican wives — Billy the Kid himself spoke fluent Spanish and was said to favor a sombrero with an orange/green ribbon.

I’ll close by pointing out that this echoes an earlier relationship between the Irish and a Spanish-speaking country — specifically, Spain. Irish mythology has the Irish people in Spain before Ireland, and Ireland long made use of this mythology to bolster alliances with Catholic Spain against Protestant England. Irish soldiers joined the ranks of the Spanish army, and Spain trained Irish priests when such training was impossible in Ireland. One of the most famous members of the O’Neill dynasty of kings was Owen Roe O’Neill, who fled persecution Ireland and grew up in Spanish Netherlands, becoming a commander in the Spanish army.

In this way, Billy the Kid was always a sort of ghost, a wild-west reincarnation of his Irish forbears, who likewise fled oppression as Catholics into a Spanish-speaking world, and likewise distinguished himself as killers of men. In the Wild West, it made Billy the Kid an outlaw. Two centuries earlier, it might have made him a king.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.