1916: James Connolly, socialist revolutionary 1941: Maurice Bavaud, who couldn’t get a shot off

1881: Not Billy the Kid

May 13th, 2008 Headsman

“You will be hanged by the neck, Billy, until you are dead, dead, dead!”

“You can go, Judge, to hell, hell, hell!”

We have no source for whether William Bonney’s reply to the judge who sentenced him to hang was vindicated by the Almighty. But the judge’s sentence, due to be executed this day, assuredly never came to pass: two weeks before, Billy the Kid effected the last of his famous escapes.

The exploits of this legendary gunfighter — and his legend rather exceeds his exploits — are exhaustively chronicled online. The Manhattan-born Kid, a pup of 21 at his death, was a gunfighter in the Lincoln County War, a fight between two frontier magnates. Billy counted himself among the Regulators, a deputized posse (so it claimed, by way of legality) that was the armed militia of a murdered rancher.

Billy’s winning way with the press after his capture helped endear him to popular imagination, even after he was condemned in Mesilla, New Mexico for ambushing a lawman.

Here’s how Emilio Estevez played the crime in Young Guns:

On April 28, in a building that still stands in Lincoln, New Mexico, Bonney got the drop on one of his guards and high-tailed it out of town.

Though spared the ignominy of the gallows, Billy the Kid would not long outlive his judicially appointed hour. Lincoln County sheriff Pat Garrett found and killed the fugitive a few months later.

Ironically, this transaction darkened the reputation of the successful officer of the law — the circumstances of the killing were ambiguous, and seem less than honorable to some — while helping valorize the young outlaw who by all rights should long since have been at the end of a rope. And for this, maybe Billy’s shade has stood Garrett’s a drink or two, because a shadowy and youthful disappearance from the scene helped catapult Billy into folklore that has long outlasted the forgotten Lincoln County War.

Billy the Kid — even the name evokes the American self-image with perfect pitch — has come to so fully embody the floating signifiers of the Wild West, of America in its adolescence, that around the same time Bob Dylan composed “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” for the clip above (the 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), Billy Joel took the gunslinger for an all-purpose western motif in “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”. Joel’s song’s describes a life that seems to be just what the listener thinks it ought to be while remaining factually untrue of its titular character in almost every particular, including, in his version, a picturesque death by hanging:

The ballad form of romanticized narrative poetry suits our elusive subject well. Skip music and cinema a generation ahead and we have Guns n’ Roses covering “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and power balladeer par excellence Jon Bon Jovi climbing the charts with this signature hit from the Young Guns II soundtrack:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Escapes,Famous,Gallows Humor,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,New Mexico,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,USA

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