Henry McCarty, Jr. or Billy the Kid! Cleveland Comhrá

Cleveland Comhrá: Henry McCarty Jr.
By Bob Carney

“It’s easier to fall, than it is to rise”

If you’ve ever read Irish mythology, you are probably familiar with this story line. A warrior who comes out of the wilderness and takes part in a battle between rival clans, seeking revenge against those that killed his “father”, and the young hero dying a martyr’s death almost welcoming his fate.

With a little imagination and forgiving his character, the story line could be attached to Henry McCarty Jr. Born November 23rd, 1860 in the Irish slums of New York’s Lower Eastside to Henry and Catherine McCarty, Henry had a brother Joseph.

Henry Sr. died when the boys were very young, and not much is known about him. Catherine was a native Irish speaker who passed away a year after remarrying in 1873 in Silver City, New Mexico, where the family had moved hoping to find a respite for her tuberculosis.

The last thing Henry’s new step-father wanted was two boys and put the young teens into foster homes. Henry, now fourteen, washed dishes to earn his keep. Soon after, he was caught stealing cheese from a local rancher and then was found to be in possession of stolen clothing and firearms.

Run Henry Run
Fearful of being locked up for his crimes, he ran. He wandered for a couple of years, working as a ranch hand and trying his luck as a gambler, while trying to avoid being noticed by the law. Things took a turn for the worse when he shot and killed a man who was teasing him. This destroyed any chance of finding work, and he eventually took up with a gang of rustlers known as “the boys.”

After an altercation with a blacksmith named Frank Cahill that resulted in Cahill’s death, young Henry fled to the Arizona Territory. There, he joined up with the Evan’s Gang, rustling animals belonging to cattle baron John Chisum.

On one of these raids, he was separated from the others and was attacked by Apaches. He escaped with his life, but they stole his horse and left him wandering in the desert alone. He made his way to a settlement owned by the Jones family, who took him in.

When Henry Became Billy
Henry decided to try honest work again and assumed a new name, William H. Bonney. He went to work for an English rancher named John Tunstall. They soon developed a close relationship and viewed Tunstall as a “father figure.” 

John Tunstall was the enemy of an “Irish mafia,” headed by Laurence Murphy, a native of Wexford, and John Dolan, originally from Galway. They had come west as soldiers during the Civil War.

The Irish Mafia
Soon they controlled the sheriff, William Brady, and his deputized gang of Irish hoods. Unfortunately, Tunstall was killed by members of the Murphy-Dolan Gang in the Lincoln County Land War. They shot his favorite horse and put Tunstall’s hat on the dead animal’s head.

Bonney was devasted and furious. He joined the fued on the side of the regulators and wrote to the governor asking for immunity in exchange for his testimony against Tunstall’s killers. A promise was made, but despite helping to convict John Dolan, Bonney was kept a prisoner.
He escaped and his coverage in the newspapers was making him a celebrity. They took to calling him, Billy the Kid because of his smooth skin and boyish looks. With this celebrity also came notoriety, and every killing and criminal act in the west was being laid upon him.

Even with the newspaper’s coverage, he managed to avoid capture for a couple of years, until lawman Pat Garrett was sent to apprehend him. Garrett and Bonney were not strangers, they had met when Garrett was working as a bartender in Beaver Smith’s Saloon in Fort Sumner. The two became friends and gambled together so often, they became known as “Big Casino” and “Little Casino.”

Pat Garrett
When Garrett became the new sheriff of Lincoln County, his first task was to arrest his friend. Garrett caught up to Bonney two days before Christmas, 1880, in a cabin in Stinking Springs. After a brief stand off, and the death of one of Billy’s men, Billy surrendered. He was charged and sentenced for the murder of Sheriff Brady during the Lincoln County War and was to be taken back to Lincoln County to await hanging.

Billy the Kid made his final escape, killing a guard, J.W. Bell, in the process. He also stopped to kill Robert Olinger with his own weapon, because Olinger made fun of him during his stay in prison. No longer viewed by the newspapers or their readers as a “Robin Hood” type of outlaw, Billy was on the run for his life with Pat Garrett after him once more.

Three months after his escape, Garrett was questioning a rooming house owner when Billy walked in looking for dinner. Garrett shot the unarmed killer twice in the chest, with one shot piercing his heart. Henry McCarty Jr.’s short but colorful career as a gunman and outlaw was ended on July 14th, 1881. He was just 20.

After his death, many of his friends and contempories praised his sense of humour, his loyalty and the kindness he showed to his horses. He was said to be very intelligent but could be cunning as well.

Some saw him as a boy who loved his mother and fell victim to a life of crime due to the adults who neglected him as a child, while others considered him a cold-blooded, psycopathic killer. It remains however, that Mrs. McCarty’s boy Henry became the biggest gun-slinging legend of America’s West.

*Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday@ PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhounds and Irish dog orginizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hound Morrighán and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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