Little is known about McCarty's early childhood but he was probably born in New York City. The exact names of his parents, and thus McCarty's own surname, are not known for certain. Variations for his parent's names include: Catherine McCarty or Katherine McCarty Bonney for his mother and William Bonney or Patrick Henry McCarty for his father (who probably died around the end of the American Civil War). In 1873 his mother married William Antrim and the family moved to Silver City, New Mexico. His stepfather was a bartender and carpenter but soon became more interested in prospecting for fortune than in his wife and stepsons.
Faced with an indigent husband, McCarty's mother took in boarders in order to provide for her sons. She was by now afflicted with tuberculosis even though she was seen by her boarders and neighbors as "a jolly Irish lady, full of life and mischief." The following year in 1874 his mother died of her condition and at 14 McCarty was forced to find work in a hotel. The manager was impressed by the young boy, boasting that he was the only kid who ever worked for him that didn't steal anything. His school teachers thought that the young orphan was "no more of a problem than any other boy, always quite willing to help with chores around the schoolhouse."
On September 23, 1875 McCarty was arrested for hiding a bundle of stolen clothes for a man playing a prank on a Chinese laundryman. Two days after McCarty was thrown in jail, the scrawny teen escaped by worming his way up the jailhouse chimney. From that point onward McCarty would be a fugitive.
He eventually found work as an itinerant ranch hand and sheepherder in southeastern Arizona. In 1877 he became a civilian teamster at Camp Grant Army Post with the duty of hauling logs from a timber camp to a sawmill. The civilian blacksmith at the camp, Frank "Windy" Cahill, took pleasure in bullying young McCarty. On August 17 Cahill attacked McCarty after a verbal exchange and threw him to the ground. McCarty retaliated by drawing his gun and shooting Cahill, who died the next day. Once again McCarty was in custody, this time in the Camp's guardhouse awaiting the arrival of the local Marshall. Before the Marshall could arrive, however, McCarty escaped.
Again on the run, McCarty next turns-up in the house of a Heiskell Jones in Pecos Valley, New Mexico. Apaches had stolen McCarty's horse which forced him to walk many miles to the nearest settlement, which was Mrs. Jones' house. She nursed the young man, who was near death, back to health. The Jones' family developed a strong attachment to McCarty and gave him one of their horses.
He later became embroiled in the infamous Lincoln County War in which his newest friend and employer, John Tunstall, was killed. McCarty would enact revenge by gunning-down the deputy who killed his friend, another deputy and the county sheriff. Now an even more wanted man than before, McCarty went into hiding but soon started to steal livestock from white ranchers and Apaches on the Mescalero reservation.
In autumn 1878, retired Union General Lew Wallace, became the new territorial governor of New Mexico. In order to restore peace to Lincoln County, Wallace proclaimed an amnesty for any man involved in the Lincoln County War that was not already under indictment. McCarty was, of course, under several indictments (some of which unrelated to the Lincoln County War) but Wallace was intrigued by rumors that McCarty was willing to surrender himself and testify against other combatants if amnesty could be extended to him. In March of 1879 Wallace and McCarty met to discus the possibility of a deal. True to form, McCarty greeted the governor with a revolver was in one hand and a Winchester rifle in the other. After several days to think the issue over, McCarty agreed to testify in return for an amnesty.
Part of the agreement was for McCarty to submit to a show arrest and a short stay in jail until the conclusion of his courtroom testimony. Even though his testimony helped to indict one of the powerful House faction leaders, John Dolan, the district attorney defied Wallace's order to set McCarty free after testifying. A skilled escape artist, McCarty slipped out of his handcuffs and fled.
For the next year he survived by stealing and rustling as he did before. He did hang around Fort Sumner on the Pescos River and developed a fateful friendship with a local bartender named Pat Garrett who was later elected sheriff of Lincoln County. As sheriff, Garrett was charged with arresting his friend Henry McCarty who by now was almost exclusively known as "Billy the Kid".
Garrett set-up many traps and ambushes in an attempt to apprehend McCarty but the Kid seemed to have an animal instinct that warned him of danger. However, McCarty's instinct failed him at an abandoned stone building located in a remote location called Stinking Springs. Garrett's men surrounded the building during the night and waited for sunrise. One of McCarty's companions named Charles Bowdre had a hat similar to McCarty's and was shot dead by the posse after leaving the structure to feed his horse. Soon afterward somebody from within the building reached for the horse's halter rope but Garrett shot and killed the horse (the horses body then blocked the only exit). Without transportation there wasn't any chance of escape, but the besieged and hungry group didn't surrender until later that day when the posse was cooking a meal.
McCarty was jailed in the town of Mesilla while waiting for his April 1881 trial. Deliberation took exactly one day and McCarty was convicted of murdering Sheriff William Brady and on April 13 he was sentenced by Judge Warren Bristol to hang. His execution was scheduled for May 13 and he was sent to Lincoln to await this date. He was under guard by James Bell and Robert Ollinger on the top floor of the building formerly known as the House before and during the Lincoln County War. On April 28 McCarty somehow escaped and killed both of his guards while Garrett was out of town. It is not known how McCarty was able to do this, but it is widely believed that a friend or Regulator sympathizer left a pistol in the privy that one of the guards escorted McCarty to daily. It is thought that McCarty shot Bell with the pistol when McCarty reached the top of a flight of stairs in the House. After that, the story goes, McCarty stole Ollinger's 10-gauge double barrel shotgun and waited for Ollinger by the window in the room he was being held in. From here McCarty is thought to have shot Ollinger as he paused from running across the street upon hearing "Hello Bob" from McCarty.
This would be, however, McCarty's last escape; Pat Garrett and two of his remaining deputies were questioning McCarty's friend, Pete Maxwell on July 14, 1881 in Maxwell's darkened bedroom in Old Fort Sumner, when McCarty unexpectedly entered the room. The Kid didn't recognize Garret in the poor lighting conditions and asked "Quien es? Quien es" (Spanish for "Who is it? Who is it?), to which Garret responded with two shots from his revolver (one struck McCarty's heart).
Henry McCarty, the infamous "Billy the Kid", was buried in a plot in-between his dead friends Tom O'Folliard and Charlie Bowdre the next day at Fort Sumner's cemetery.
See also: List of Cowboys