On this day in 1875, 15-year-old Billy the Kid is arrested for the first time.
An older acquaintance of Billy’s had stolen a bag of clothes from a Chinese laundryman as a joke and convinced the always affable Billy to hide it for him. When Billy was literally caught holding the bag, a Silver City policeman threw him in the local jail to teach him a lesson. Languishing in a cramped cell for this petty offense, Billy discovered a deep-seated terror of confinement. After enduring his imprisonment for two days, he took advantage of his diminutive frame to worm his way up a chimney and escape. From that day forward Billy would be on the wrong side of the law, though he would soon be guilty of crimes far more serious than hiding a stolen bag of laundry.
Born in New York City in either 1859 or 1860, the boy who would later achieve an almost inexplicable level of worldwide fame as Billy the Kid, was at various times known as Henry McCarty, Henry Antrim, and William Bonney, reflecting the uncertain identity of his real father. The young Billy’s home life was equally uncertain and perhaps even abusive, and he had a rootless childhood that took him to Indiana, Kansas, and finally Silver City, New Mexico, where his mother settled down and ran a boarding house. Although she was plagued by tuberculosis, Billy’s mother, Catherine, was reportedly “a jolly Irish lady, full of life and mischief.” She died when Billy was just 14, leaving the boy to eke out a meager existence on his own.
Unquestionably, Billy’s childhood was a hard and difficult one, but no more so than that of thousands of other young orphans. For a time the boy even seemed to be headed for an unremarkable life as a hard-working, honest, and unusually friendly young man. The owner of a hotel where Billy worked for his room and board later even praised his young employee as “the only kid who ever worked here who never stole anything.” Only after his unjust arrest and imprisonment for hiding a bag of dirty laundry did the good-natured and hardworking William Bonney start down the road to becoming the ruthless murdering outlaw Billy the Kid.