by Don Bullis
New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers
Catherin McCarty Antrim
A Mother Whose Son Went Wrong
“[A] lady by instinct and education”
Catherine McCarty (1829-1874), most historians agree, was born in Ireland; but if they agree to that fact, it is about all they agree on concerning the mother of New Mexico’s most famous outlaw: Billy the Kid. (No one knows for sure why Billy used the name Bonney as an alias, but some have suggested that it might have been Catherine’s maiden name.)
She made her way to the United States, probably in the late 1840s. According to one historian, she lived in New York City’s 4th Ward, on the east side of Manhattan, when her first son, Joe, was born in 1854 (some sources indicate that Joe was not born until 1862, and he claimed at one point that he was born in Indiana). Her second son, Henry, may have also been born in New York, perhaps in 1859. Both boys may have been illegitimate, according to some, and they may have been but half-brothers. Much dispute surrounds Catherine Antrim and her offspring, some of it acrimonious.
Historian Dan L. Thrapp, for instance, reported that she was married—perhaps no more than in a common law way—to Patrick McCarty and he was the father of both of her sons; Henry (Billy the Kid) being born at 210 Greene Street in New York City in on September 17, 1859. Historians Richard Melzer and Robert Utley cite his date of birth as November 20, 1859, at 70 Allen Street, New York City. Pat Garrett in his biography, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, cites the birth date as November 23, 1859 (November 23, it should be noted, was the birth date of Garrett’s ghostwriter Marshall Ashmun “Ash” Upson). Historian Frederick Nolan, however, in an annotated edition of Garrett’s book, wrote “No unimpeachable documentary evidence has ever been located to support the assertion that Billy the Kid was born in New York City or that the date of his birth was [in] 1859.”
Nolan also suggested that Billy may have been younger than 21 years when he was killed; perhaps as young as 19, which would make his birth year 1861. Historian Mark Lee Gardner quotes Billy as telling a census taker in 1880 that he was 25 years old at that time which would make his birth year 1855. Billy also told the census taker at one point that he was born in Missouri, as were both of his parents.
Historian Emerson Hough avoids the debate by flatly stating this: “The true name of Billy the Kid was William H. Bonney, and he was born in New York City . . . His father removed to Coffeyville, Kansas, on the border of the Indian Nations, in 1862, where soon after he died . . .” Billy would have been three years old at the time. There is one problem with Hough’s version of things: Coffeyville, Kansas, was not founded until 1869.
Different sources offer different versions of Catherine’s departure from New York and her route west. One suggests that she went first to Indiana, which would have been in the early 1860s if indeed Joe was born there in 1862. Another reported that her travels took her on to Wichita, Kansas, in 1868 or 1869. Nolan reported that a Mrs. McCarty operated the City Laundry in Wichita and he reproduced a news item dated March 15, 1871 as proof of that. Other sources refute entirely the assertion that she ever lived in Wichita.
There is some certainty that Catherine left New York at some point after the Civil War, suffering from tuberculosis; perhaps seeking a healthier climate.
It is known that she reached Santa Fe by 1873 and married William H. “Uncle Billy” Antrim there on March 1 (after having met him in Indianapolis). The newlyweds moved on to Silver City, New Mexico, with Joe and Henry, by May of the same year in hopes that her ill health would improve. Catherine’s tuberculosis worsened, however, and she died there in September of 1874.
Ash Upson (mentioned above), was personally acquainted with Catherine in Silver City. He wrote of her: “She was evidently of Irish descent . . . She was about the medium height, straight, and graceful in form, with regular features, light blue eyes, and luxuriant golden hair. She was not a beauty, but what the world calls a fine-looking woman. She kept boarders in Silver City, and her charity and goodness of heart were proverbial. . . In all her deportment she exhibited the unmistakable characteristics of a lady—a lady by instinct and education.”
In the early years of the 21st century, some historical revisionists made efforts to exhume her body so that DNA comparisons could be made with the alleged remains of Billy the Kid. They intended to prove that Sheriff Pat Garrett did not kill the Kid on July 14, 1881, at Fort Sumner. The citizens of Silver City, to their credit, prevented the molestation of Catherine’s remains. In 1947, a local funeral home replaced her original wooden grave marker with a stone monument. Both misspelled her first name as “Katherine.”
Her other son, Joe, by the way, was not an outlaw but he didn’t amount to much. He may have spent time in Tombstone, El Paso, and Albuquerque before he moved on to Denver, where he lived for the rest of his life. He earned his way by working as a cook, clerk, bartender and gambler. He never married and was sometimes described as “cantankerous” and friendless. Historian Leon Metz wrote: “Joe was a humorless, colorless individual with tight lips, a rectangular head, large ears, high forehead, and droopy mustache.” He died broke in 1930.
Catherine Antrim has occasionally, and unfairly, been maligned for the misdeeds of her offspring.
Note on sources: There are countless books and other sources extant on Billy the Kid. Listed below are but a few of them, and they are included here as a random selection.
Bullis, New Mexico Historical Biographies
Cline, Alias Billy the Kid
City of Coffeyville, Kansas
Fulton, History of the Lincoln County War
Gardner, To Hell on a Fast Horse
Garrett, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid (Annotated by Frederick Nolan)
Hough, The Story of the Outlaw – A study of the Western Desperado
Melzer, Buried Treasures
Metz, Encyclopedia of Lawmen, Outlaws, and Gunfighters
Marc Simmons, “Silver City Remembers Billy the Kid’s Mom,” Santa Fe New Mexican, October 27, 2001
Nolan, The Lincoln County War
Nolan, The West of Billy the Kid
Philip J. Rasch & Robert N. Mullen, “New Light on the Legend of Billy the Kid,” The Billy the Kid Reader, Frederick Nolan, Editor
Thrapp, Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography
Wallis, Billy the Kid