Few American lives have elicited more tales, rumors, and folklores than that of Henry McCarty. I would go so far as to say that of all the famous Americans who have lived such a short life span—two meager decades—McCarty has the most amount of words written about him. He perhaps has also influenced more authors than any other old west figure. And despite all this, he remains one of the most elusive figures of the old west. So who is Henry McCarty? History knows him as one Billy the Kid. The foremost scholar of Billy the Kid, Frederick Nolan, claims “Few American lives have more successfully resisted research than that of Billy the Kid.” (Nolan 3). Evidence for this lies in the fact that The Kid did not receive serious scholarly attention until nearly 100 years after his death.
Why is that? What makes Billy the Kid so fascinating that for the better part of the 20th century his life has resisted serious research and remained in the mainstream arena of folklore and myth? No scholar of the Kid seems to have a definitive answer to that question. It might simply be that facts are not as exciting as the mysterious. Regardless, from the late 1950s to the present day reliable research, scholarly articles and books have been written and new historical documents uncovered. Granted, the mythos remains and makes for wonderful movies and exciting novels but we now live in what should be considered a more enlightened era with regard to our understanding of The Kid.
There was a long period of time where scarcely a word was written or spoken about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County Wars. This span occurred between the death of the infamous sheriff (Pat Garrett) who killed Billy the Kid in 1908 until 1925 when Harvey Fergusson raised the question in an American Mercury article, “Who remembers Billy the Kid?” Apparently, the Kid’s reputation had faded and Fergusson wondered why (Nolan 295). All this would soon change in 1926 when Walter Noble Burns published The Saga of Billy the Kid, and the Kid would once again be thrust into the limelight of folklore and myth. This was the very book that sparked interest in the mind of a young boy who would later become the premier scholar of Billy the Kid studies, Frederick Nolan. Moreover, Walter Noble Burns, with his flamboyant style and highly exaggerated account of Billy the Kid, would also influence a series of western writers of the early to mid twentieth century. One in particular was a popular pulp fiction writer from
named Robert E. Howard. Although the focus of Howard’s writing had pretty much
been the fantasy and action adventure genres, Burn’s book would ultimately set
Howard in a new creative direction. Cross Plains, Texas
It is no secret to Robert E. Howard aficionados that Howard had a serious interest in the Old West. This interest became so predominant toward the latter years of his life he shifted his writing career in the direction of publishing western stories and even proclaimed in correspondence to August Derleth:
“I’m seriously contemplating devoting all my time and efforts to western writing, abandoning all other forms of work entirely; the older I get the more my thoughts and interests are drawn back over the trails of the past; so much has been written, but there is so much that should be written.” (Howard Letters 2: 372).
In studies about Robert E. Howard’s western writing career there is no definitive time frame or specific cause that pushed Howard in the direction of western tales. Howard had written westerns in his earlier years and sporadically throughout his fantasy and action adventure years, but what made him tell Derleth that he wanted to devote all his time to western writing? There was likely no single factor or date, rather a series of events that hinged upon at least one thing—Walter Noble Burn’s book The Saga of Billy the Kid.
Walter Noble Burns was born October 24th, 1872. As a teenager he became a junior reporter for the
Evening Post. (Nolan 295).
This led Burns into a fairly long career as a writer and reporter which
eventually led him to Chicago where he would work for both the Chicago Examiner
and Chicago Tribune. It was his work with the Tribune that would launch him
into his most famous research and work. In 1923 Burns would visit Louisville,
KY New Mexico to interview various people who were still alive during the
Lincoln County Wars and the days of Billy the Kid. This research would ultimately
end up in Burns’ book The Saga of Billy
the Kid (from here on referred to as SBK).
SBK was the definitive book about Billy the Kid’s life until the late 1950s and early 1960s when scholars took pen in hand and began seriously researching the Lincoln County Wars. Today SBK is considered nothing but a novel work on the Lincoln County Wars. It has all but been dismissed as exaggerations, myths, and fun folklore. Regardless, from 1926, the year SBK was published, to the early 1960s, Burns’ work set the tone for movies, western pulp stories, dime novels, and even magazine articles about Billy the Kid.
When SBK was published it quickly became a national best seller, rivaling the sales of other popular books of its day. In just a few short months Nolan explains,