For well over 130 years there has been much speculation about Billy the Kid’s real name. His name, just as the young man himself, has remained an enigma. While the world knows much of his criminal exploits, a significant portion of his personal details remain a mystery, including his real name. This is in part due to the fact that, despite being a cold and ruthless killer, he captured the American, and world imagination like very few have managed to do so before or since. He became a mix of folklore and historical accuracy. Perhaps the biggest inaccuracy of all was Billy the Kid’s real name, which wasn’t William H. Bonny. It was William Henry McCarty, Jr.
It doesn’t take rocket science to know that criminals and wanted people openly adopt aliases to avoid capture. It’s also extremely common for people to take on nicknames, or use their second name throughout their lives. These are some of the circumstances that led to the confusion to the 19th century outlaws real name, because he had a few.
William Henry McCarty, Jr. This was the name that he was born with, and his real name.
Henry Antrim. In 1873, The Kid’s mother married William Antrim. To avoid confusion with two Williams in the same house, Williams mother started to call him by his middle name, Henry. Presumably for convenience reasons, he also adopted his stepfathers surname. This was definitely the largest deviation from William base for his outlaw name, even though at that time he was not a wanted person.
William H. Bonney. Only four years after adopting his stepfathers last name, the young William went for a new name change. This time however, it was to avoid capture and a premature death. In 1877, he murdered Frank “Windy” Cahill, at the young age of 16, and fled to New Mexico to avoid the hangman’s noose. The exact reason why he stuck with the name Bonney remains a mystery. It could have been his biological fathers surname, or his mothers maiden name.
The Kid. This was clearly a nickname, and it was often used by those closest to him. He earned the moniker for his youthful look and build, and young age.
Billy the Kid. Without a doubt, this is his most well known name, even though it wasn’t in widespread use during his own lifetime. In 1880, not long before his death, journalists looking to sell newspapers and novels, started to use this name when they not only wrote about his exploits, but also embellished them. They picked up on the nickname, “The Kid,” and added the obvious short form of William, which is still in use today, Billy. Like a fire burning out of control, this name spread across the continent and around the world. He was now known as Billy the Kid.
So despite the confusion and popular belief that Billy the Kid’s real name was William H. Bonney, it was in fact William Henry McCarty, Jr. Today, he remains as much a legendary figure of the old west as ever he has been. Stories of his exploits, often embellished, have become some of the best known stories of the Wild West.