Michael Hirst is a great showrunner. The Tudors and Vikings are just two highly successful historical series that came out of your curiosity and imagination. Of course, retelling History in a drama series demands “adaptations” and some liberties, and in Vikings, he took them more often, but with efficiency and precision. It worked perfectly and with that, we gained unforgettable characters like Ragnar Lothbrok, Lagherta, Bjorn Ironside, and Ivar, the Boneless, among others. Vikings: Valhalla has its consultancy and features some well-known characters, such as The Seer, but the text misses Hirst’s well-placed words. The reason for his absence is his dedication to the new series, Billy, The Kid, which after a preview premiere at Cannes, was released in the US this week.
Billy is to this day a legend in American culture. Born in New York as Henry McCarty over 160 years ago, he later went by the name William H. Bonney Jr. and is considered one of the most notorious gunmen in the American West, is alleged to be responsible for at least 27 murders before he turned 21. Quick on the trigger, complex and legendary, Billy was an irresistible character for Michael Hirst, who has a tendency to bring empathy to his complicated heroes. That’s why it’s worth bearing in mind some facts that should be part of the series.
His youth, which will be the heart of the first season, is less well known. What is known is that, as the son of Irish immigrants, he was born in the slums of New York around 1859 or 1860. His father, William Henry McCarty, drove beer carts around Manhattan, but one day, in 1862, he decided to move west (Coffeyville, Kansas) with his wife, Catherine McCarty, and their two children, Henry (Billy) and Joseph.
However, as soon as he arrived in Kansas, Billy’s father died of pneumonia and his mother joined a man named Bill Antrim. After being diagnosed with tuberculosis, Catherine and her new boyfriend traveled with the family to New Mexico in search of a drier, sunnier climate that would be beneficial to her health. Married to Antrim in 1873, the family settled in Silver City, where Billy would spend the rest of his childhood. As her stepfather was an alcoholic and did not like to work, Catherine had to work hard to support her children, but her fragile health made it worse. In less than a year, she died, marking Billy’s life forever, aged just 14 at the time.
While his mother lived, Billy was an ordinary, honest, hard-working young man, five feet five inches tall, with blond hair, blue eyes, and huge front teeth, looking more like an Irish peasant than a tough guy. His imagination, however, was devoted to the frequent reading of adventure novels, with bandits and gunslingers. He befriended the young George Schaefer, nicknamed “Hat Jack”, who led him into a life of scams and problems with the law.
In April 1875 Billy is arrested for the first time, accused of stealing some cheese in the company of his friend “Hat Jack”. In September of the same year, he was arrested again for stealing clothes and a revolver in a Chinese laundry (Billy wanted decent clothes and a gun to have a better social status). Two days later, he escaped from prison by crawling through the fireplace. Once an official fugitive, he went to Arizona.
Doing odd jobs on farms, he also made a name for himself as a great card player. When he associated with Scotsman John R. Mackie, he began to participate in more dangerous crimes. Already with the false name of William, Billy was known as “Kid Antrim”, a nickname given to him by the soldiers of Fort Grant (who were chasing him), because of his youth and fragile appearance. Even when caught, I managed to escape.
He learned to shoot rifles and revolvers, and at 17, he killed the first man during an argument in an Arizona saloon. His victim was the Fort Grant blacksmith, an Irish immigrant named Frank “Windy” Cahill, who was the typical city bully who liked to piss off the weak, especially skinny Billy. Tired of the bullying, the gunslinger allegedly cursed Cahill and the fight escalated to the two pulling out their revolvers, but with Billy being faster. He fired first, wounding Cahill in the stomach, who died the next day and forced the young man to flee again. As it was in self-defense, Billy just wanted to escape the revenge of the opponent’s relatives.
In New Mexico, he joined one of the most famous groups of cattle rustlers and murderers in the area, led by Jesse Evans and known as “The Boys”. It was here that Billy adopted the name “William H. Bonney” and came to be called Billy the Kid. The gang, led by Jesse Evans, stole cattle and horses, but they caught the attention of the law and moved to Lincoln County, where Billy would achieve his greatest fame.
In Lincoln, the group merged with “Murphy & Dolan Corporation”, a shell company led by Irish James Dolan, a partner of Lawrence Murphy, who held a monopoly on cattle in the region. In fact, Dolan and Murphy led the gang known as “The House” and had the support of the county sheriff and Santa Fe authorities in solving legal problems. Jesse Evans’ gang worked to intimidate competitors, especially young Englishman John Tunstall, who refused to give in.
This business rivalry took a bloody turn when Tunstall had to recruit Kid and several other hitmen to protect his property. John Tunstall was innovative, sophisticated and a rare honest man in a country dominated by corruption. His rapid rise in business threatened The House, and Dolan decided to get dirty. He got the authorities to arrest Tunstall’s partner for embezzlement and tax evasion, at the same time that Jesse Evans and Billy’s gang would steal his horses from Tunstall. The Englishman went to the press to expose the situation, revealing the corrupt attitude of the sheriff William Brady.
At the same time, an important rift was also occurring within the Evans pack. Billy and Jesse no longer understood each other, and the gunslinger disliked another member of the pack, Bill Morton, even more (it didn’t help that Billy slept with the enemy’s girlfriend). In addition, Billy became friends with local farmers, such as cousins Frank Coe and George Coe, with whom he worked at times leaving the pack aside. So Tunstall realized there was an opportunity and when Billy was arrested for stealing horses, instead of pressing charges, he offered him a position on his ranch. Billy accepted the generous offer and became part of the guardians of the Tunstall Ranch, which for him, at 18, was a new beginning. It didn’t last long.
Tired of losing money to Tunstall, Dolan decided to end the story once and for all and ordered the sheriff to take possession of the opponent’s farm as part of civil damages. When trying to resist, the Englishman fled with his nine best stallions but was surrounded and killed at close range with a shot in the chest. The gang “faked” the scene to imply that they had acted in self-defense, placing a revolver in Tunstall’s hand. Tunstall’s guardians, shocked by his death, decided to take revenge. Billy, in particular, was upset.
The day after the assassination, friends of the Englishman went to the Ministry of Peace in Lincoln to demand justice and obtained arrest warrants for the Tunstall assassins. At that time, Billy, was one of the “delegates” and the group took on the name of “The Regulators”, led by Dick Brewer. The bloody persecution increased the number of victims in the conflict. The apex was in July 1878, when they spent 5 days exchanging gunfire in what the newspapers called the “Lincoln County War”, with The House gaining the support of the United States Army against the Regulators, who managed to escape even with fewer resources. . The House won, however, with the murder of Tunstall’s partner in the firefight. From delegates, Regulators became outlaws. Famous across the country.
In February 1879, Governor Lee Wallace granted amnesty to participants in the “Lincoln County War”, and Billy decided to accept and return with his inseparable friend Tom O’Folliard to Lincoln, making peace with Dolan and his former friend. Jesse Evans, with a common “non-aggression” agreement, something that didn’t even last days. After a drinking spree and bar fight involving Dolan, Billy and his friend Tom O’Folliard had no choice but to intervene and in the confusion, a murder was attributed to Billy (which was not true), putting him once again as a fugitive.
The gunslinger wrote a letter to the governor maintaining his innocence and promising to testify against the real killers in exchange for an official pardon. With the proposal accepted, Billy and Tom turned themselves in and revealed the details of crimes committed in recent times by the Dolan men, in addition to the new band of thieves called “The Rustlers”, directed by John Selman. Tom got a pardon, but Billy was betrayed by the governor, who kept him imprisoned. Or try, because once again Billy escaped and went to Fort Summer, where he was reunited with his old friends Charlie Bowdre and Doc Scurlock. Known for being easygoing, Billy was relentless and quick on the trigger when provoked. Which happened at least nine times in a four-year period, between 1877 and 1881, when the outlaw was accused of being responsible for the deaths of nine men. Four of them, I would have killed alone. The most legendary of these murders would have taken place in January 1880, in a New Mexico saloon, when a drunk named Joe Grant was terrorizing bar patrons and threatening to kill someone before the night was over. Feeling trouble, Kid casually approached Grant and remarked, “That’s a nice six-shot revolver you’ve got.” He then took Grant’s gun from its holster, rotated its cylinder so that his next shot was in an empty chamber, and handed it back. It proved to be a wise move. Later that night, Grant pointed the same pistol at Kid and tried to shoot him in the back. When it didn’t fire, the Kid pulled out his own gun and killed Grant. Another case of self-defense.
Meanwhile, in Lincoln, Billy’s longtime friend Pat Garrett is chosen as the county’s new sheriff. His first mission was to capture the gunslinger and Garrett knew where to find him. When surrounding the ranch where Billy and his friends were, Garrett’s men shot the man advancing ahead of the group, thinking he was the fugitive, but they hit Tom O’Folliard. The death of his best friend was a heavy blow and it wouldn’t be the same ever since.
The chase continued, with Garrett one step ahead of Billy’s plans, who was arrested and tried in Santa Fe for various crimes, before being transferred to Lincoln for further charges. Once there, what a surprise, it ran away again. But once again Garrett “read” it better, knowing where to find Billy the Kid. He was at his girlfriend Paulita Maxwell‘s house, and on July 14, 1881, Garrett entered Billy’s girl’s house at night when the gunman had left. Garrett decided to wait for him inside the room. When Billy entered the house, it was dark and when he entered the room and when he saw a man in the shadows he asked in Spanish: “Who is it? “Garrett responded with two gunshots, one of which hit him in the heart and killed him instantly. Billy the Kid was unarmed and had no opportunity to defend himself. He was only 20 years old.
Thus was born the legend, which gained momentum with Pat Garrett‘s own book, “The True Life of Billy the Kid“. Garrett, like Robert Ford, who killed Jesse James, came to be hated by the public, especially for the cowardly way in which he managed to eliminate his friend. He was killed by a man named Jesse Wayne in 1908, with some historians crediting the revenge to Billy’s friend-rival Jesse Evans.
Although his fame has been as a bank and train robber, like Jesse James, Cole Younger, Butch Cassidy, Billy the Kid – according to historians – he did not earn his living as a bandit. His violent life was a consequence of the prevailing corruption of the time. There are many who believe that Billy’s “death” was faked by Garrett, who would have released him in the name of their friendship. This theory was bolstered by the testimony of Jesse Evans, missing since 1882, who reappeared in 1948 claiming that the outlaws involved in the Lincoln War, Jim McDaniels and Billy the Kid, went into hiding. Billy would have lived under the name of Ollie P. Roberts living in Texas. Historians did not believe this story and did not seriously investigate it, leaving a shadow of doubt to this day.
Watching Michael Hirst’s choice for this fascinating story! With much less information available he has given us a wonderful Viking saga with Ragnar and his sons, what about with that degree of information? Tom Blyth has everything to shine as Billy.