He was born as Henry McCarty, but settled on "William H. Bonney" later in life instead. He was an orphan at age 14 and taken in by a neighbouring family, where he helped his adoptive parents to take care of a hotel. His criminal career began when he moved into a boarding house at age 15 and pursued odd jobs. In 1875 he was arrested for theft and placed in jail, where he escaped up the jailhouse chimney and became a fugitive. He was part of a gang of horse thieves and by 1877, at age 17, he committed his first murder, shooting a blacksmith who bullied and/or annoyed him. Most witnesses called the shooting self-defense, and local law enforcement agreed, but the youngster didn't stick around to take his chances with a jury and crossed the state line from Arizona to Lincoln County, New Mexico. He briefly rode with a gang of cattle rustlers before finding more honest work on a cattle ranch owned by English immigrant John Tunstall. When Tunstall was murdered by men working for his rivals Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, Billy and a couple of accomplices went after those responsible and killed several, including the county sheriff, who was in Murphy's pocket. As the violence escalated into what is now remembered as the Lincoln County War, Billy and his gang became notorious all over The Wild West.
By this point sheriff Pat Garrett, a former associate of Billy's before the Tunstall murder, had the ambition to bring Billy the Kid to justice. In 1880 he managed to capture him and brought him to Las Vegas, New Mexico (No, we don't mean Las Vegas, Nevada), where Billy was convicted of murder and sentenced to hanging. He was then sent to Lincoln New Mexico to await his execution.He once again managed to escape by shooting both his guards and running away. Garrett managed to track him down again in 1881, where he was questioning someone in a darkened bedroom and Billy unexpectedly walked in. Billy was unable to see who was in the room and asked "Who is it? Who is it?" in Spanish. Garrett recognized his voice and put two bullets in him, killing him where he stood.
Billy's legend really took off after he was dead. Garrett published a sensationalized biography called The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid, which made the outlaw infamous all over the world. A lot of urban legends about Billy are derived from this book, including several that painted Garrett in a much better light. The most common myth about Billy the Kid is that he supposedly murdered 21 people, one for each of the years he'd lived. In reality there are only four confirmed murders by his hand, plus a couple of others that might have been him.
Despite a short life and a reputation that was more myth than fact he has become one of the most legendary characters in American history, inspiring countless appearances in popular culture. Ned Kelly occupies a similar position in Australian popular culture.
Appearances in popular culture:
- Billy the Cat: An obvious Pun-Based Title.
- Lucky Luke: Much like other legendary The Wild West characters he appears in the stories Billy the Kid and The Escort, where he is portrayed as a Spoiled Brat with buck teeth who scares everybody so much that he can do whatever he want, because nobody dares to testify against him.
- The Three Stooges: The film The Outlaws Is Coming has Billy appear as a literal Young Gun.
- One-Eyed Jacks is based on his life.
- The Left Handed Gun with Paul Newman.
- Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is perhaps the most famous modern movie adaptation, with Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid, James Coburn as Pat Garrett and a soundtrack by Bob Dylan, who also acts in the film.
- Appeared in the really weird film Billy The Kid VS Dracula where he appears totally out of character as a nice, well behaved young man who doesn't want to fight and even works along with the sheriff to get Dracula.
- Has an important role in the 1970 John Wayne film Chisum.
- Emilio Estevez portrays him in Young Guns (1988) and Young Guns II (1990).
- Appears in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.
- Appears in the 1999 film Purgatory.
- Leads a vampire army in BloodRayne II: Deliverance.
- The Last Sharknado: It's About Time: The adult Little Gil time travels to the Wild West and becomes partners with Billy. When Little Gil gets arrested, Billy challenges the sheriff to a duel in an attempt to save him, but the duel is interrupted when Fin Shepard and his friends time travel and arrive there, scaring Billy into running away. Later, after finding out Fin and his friends are time travelers, Billy orders them to take him with them to the future, believing it will be a whole new world to rob. When they refuse, he challenges Fin to a duel, only to get killed by two sharks.
- The Kid, a 2019 movie directed by Vincent Donofrio, stars Dane De Hann as Billy opposite Ethan Hawke as Pat Garrett.
- Michael Ondaatje's novel The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which is partly about how Billy's reputation developed.
- Woody Guthrie wrote the song Billy the Kid about him.
- Aaron Copland's ballet Billy the Kid is about the outlaw.
- Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins features a song about his life.
- Referenced in "Bad Meets Evil" from Eminem's The Slim Shady LP
Two of the most wanted individuals in the countyMade Jesse James and Billy the Kid look like law-abiding citizens
- Billy Joel's "The Ballad of Billy the Kid", from his album Songs in the Attic.
- In Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, Silas claims to have been fighting at Billy's side when Pat Garret captured him and then assisted in his subsequent escape. He even says that he was the one who killed Bob Olinger with his own "mean-ass shotgun", but Billy took credit for that because he was a star already, while Silas was still a Young Gun.
- In Fate/Grand Order, Billy is one of the Archers introduced in Chapter Five of the main storyline. He is portrayed as 5'2" while the real Billy was 5'8", and is a lot more attractive than the real Billy, probably to emphasize the "Kid" part of his title. He explains that he was a quiet man and just a cattle thief who killed someone who insulted his mother in life, but the legends of him were exaggerated over the years. He is a Badass Normal by Servant standards. His only Noble Phantasm is his Colt M1877 double-action revolver (a.k.a. Thunderer), which doesn't do anything special other than being able to wound the normally Immune to Bullets Servants and having unlimited ammo. Other than the generic Super Strength, Super Speed, and Super Toughness that all Servants get, he did not get any special abilities. He is just insanely skilled at the Quick Draw and gun fighting. While he's friendly, he is cold in battle and is perfectly willing to execute downed opponents, which the protagonists constantly balk at.
- Neko Atsume has a cowboy-themed cat called Billy the Kitten whose personality is described as "nihilistic".
- The Simpsons: In "Treehouse of Horror XIII", Lisa brings him back to life, after reading a pacifist message on his gravestone, not knowing that William H. Bonney is in fact Billy the Kid. As a living skeleton he is joined by Jesse James, Frank James, Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid and Kaiser Wilhelm II to attack Springfield.
- Time Squad: Appears in an episode where he is a literal Manchild, walking around in diapers and sucking milk from a bottle. Our main heroes have to toughen him up.
- Shows up in an episode of Xiaolin Showdown as part of Jack Spicer's (Time Travel-acquired) Legion of Doom, alongside Attila the Hun, Blackbeard, and Jack's sixth-grade Sadist Teacher.