April 28, 2022

Billy the Kid Escapes

Billy the Kid Escapes

April 28, 1881. The condemned outlaw, Billy the Kid, makes a daring escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse Jail.


Cold Open

It’s February 18th, 1878, on a ranch in Lincoln County, in New Mexico Territory.

John Tunstall, an English-born ranch owner, rides out with several of his ranch hands; among them is a grinning young man named William H. Bonney.

On a hilltop not far from the ranch, William and the other boys bring their horses to a stop.

William points to a flock of wild turkeys gathered nearby. He turns to John and grins, silently asking for permission. And John nods.

John stays behind as William and the rest of his ranch hands ride off in the direction of the turkeys, causing the birds to scatter far and wide. The ranch hands split up and chase after the fleeing foul. William laughs wildly as he dismounts his horse and runs the turkeys down on foot. But about that time, William sees something in the distance… a posse of armed men on horseback headed straight for John. William knows these men. They’re dangerous criminals. So he yells for John to run. But John’s too far away to hear William’s warning. Instead, John rides out to greet his guests, and one of the armed men suddenly raises a rifle…

John tumbles off his horse, and William runs for cover behind a tree. He peeks back around the tree to see another posse member pull John’s own pistol from its holster and point it at John's head. 

William’s eyes flash red with fury. But just as he’s about to charge the posse with his gun drawn, he hears a familiar voice calling out to him. It’s Dick Brewer; John’s ranch foreman. Dick urges William to be smart; to live and fight another day.

So William rides off with Dick and the rest of John’s ranch hands, determined to seek revenge on the men who killed his boss and friend.

Since the mid-1870s, two factions have been vying for dominance in Lincoln County. On one side was John Tunstall. On the other, two cut-throat businessmen named Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan.

For a time, the Murphy-Dolan Faction, as their outfit is called, controlled everything: the local saloon, the general store, the town bank, even local law enforcement. They used the power they amassed to charge exorbitant prices on goods and high-interest rates on loans. They held a true monopoly over Lincoln County; until John Tunstall came along and opened up several competing businesses. Needless to say, Dolan and Murphy weren’t pleased with the presence of their new rival. So they decided to eliminate the competition. 

The murder of John Tunstall will give rise to what is known as the Lincoln County Wars. In the midst of this violent conflict, that young grinning ranch hand, William Bonney, will go on a quest for revenge. His actions will transform him into a legend, and land him behind bars. There, the myth of “Billy the Kid” will be seared into the ages when the ranch hand-turned-gunfighter avoids the hangman’s noose and makes a daring escape from the Lincoln County jail on April 28th, 1881.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is April 28: Billy the Kid Escapes.

Act One: Rise of the Regulators

It’s March 1878; weeks after John Tunstall’s murder.

Inside the Lincoln County Courthouse, several of John’s ranch hands are gathered; including Billy the Kid and John’s former foreman, Dick Brewer. They stand in front of a local Justice of the Peace. But they’re not here because they’re in trouble. They’re here to be deputized.

After the murder of John Tunstall, it was clear none of the men responsible would be brought to justice; in no small part because the posse that killed John was organized by the highest ranking law enforcement officer in Lincoln: Sheriff William Brady, one of the many local officials who’s on the payroll of Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan.

Dick, Billy, and the others were furious. And they were desperate to find a legal means to bring down the men who killed John. They approached one of the few honest officials in Lincoln County, the local Justice of the Peace. He was a friend of John Tunstall and agreed to use his power to deputize the group. As “special constables”, they’ll have legal authority to take the fight to the Murphy-Dolan Faction, and they won’t have to answer to the corrupt and compromised sheriff, William Brady.

Today, in the Courthouse, Billy grins as the Justice of the Peace pins a deputy’s badge to his vest. When the ceremony ends, the boys leave the courthouse with the power of the law behind them. Dick Brewer takes charge of the group, which he calls “the Regulators”. 

Almost immediately, the Regulators get to work. Within days, they find their first prey. Near the Rio Peñasco in New Mexico, they track down and capture three men connected to the murder of John Tunstall.

Dick and Billy debate what to do with their captives. As newly deputized lawmen, they know they should bring the men to Lincoln County for trial. But Dick and Billy fear that if they take their prisoners to town, corrupt Sheriff William Brady will simply let them go. So Dick and Billy consider taking matters into their own hands.

Three days later, when the Regulators arrive back in Lincoln, their captives aren’t with them. The Regulators claim their prisoners were killed on the road while trying to escape, but it’s widely believed the Regulators murdered them.

But before Dick and Billy can choose their next target, they’re greeted with devastating news. While they were hunting down members of the Murphy-Dolan Faction, the territorial governor of New Mexico came to Lincoln for a visit. Accompanied by James Dolan, the governor took a brief tour of the town. By the time he left, the governor had removed the Local Justice of the Peace and revoked his latest deputizations. Sheriff Brady made it known that the so-called Regulators were nothing more than outlaws. And hearing this news, Billy, Dick, and the others quickly flee Lincoln to avoid arrest and plot their next moves.

To Billy, it’s obvious what needs to be done: kill Sheriff Brady. So before dawn on April 1st, 1878, Billy leads five other Regulators back into Lincoln. Under the cover of darkness, they take up a position behind an adobe wall. Armed with Winchester rifles, they bide their time and wait for the perfect opportunity to strike.

That moment comes around 9:00 AM when Billy sees Sheriff Brady and his deputy leave the courthouse and start walking down the street toward them. From their position behind the wall, the Regulators fire their rifles in near unison. Brady is hit at least a dozen times before he falls to the ground. He dies face down in the mud along with his deputy.

Billy and the Regulators ride out of Lincoln, having sent a clear message: no one is safe from their wrath, not even high-ranking lawmen.

The slaying of the Sheriff makes the Regulators infamous overnight, and the people of Lincoln County are torn. Some believe the violent young men must be stopped at all costs, while others see them as heroes taking on corruption. But the remaining members of the Murphy-Dolan faction are not conflicted at all in their opinions of the Regulators. 

A few days later, on April 4th, Billy, Dick, and a group of Regulators are having dinner at a restaurant near the Blazer's Mill Trading Post. Their meal is interrupted when they see a familiar face approaching: Buckshot Roberts, a known member of the Murphy-Dolan outfit.

The Regulators leave their meal and approach Roberts, he sees them coming and draws his revolver. A fierce gunfight ensues. When the smoke clears, Roberts is mortally wounded. Several of the Regulators are also hit, including Billy the Kid. But Dick Brewer, their leader, is dead; shot through the eye.

The Gunfight at Blazer’s Mill, as this incident will come to be known, is over. But the Lincoln County War is just beginning. In the wake of Dick Brewer's death, Billy the Kid will emerge as the Regulators’ new captain; but Billy’s thirst for revenge will soon bring him face to face with the lawman who will ultimately take his life.

Act Two: Billy is arrested

It’s December 23rd, 1880 in an abandoned, snow-covered house in Stinking Springs, New Mexico. Billy the Kid crouches against a wall, shivering, hungry, and clutching his pistols. Billy knows lawmen have the house surrounded, and he feels like a caged animal. Billy tells the four Regulators with him that they’re going to have to make a run for it, and fast. 

Since the death of Dick Brewer, Billy has led the Regulators across New Mexico, killing Murphy and Dolan’s henchmen along the way. Billy’s infamy has been growing along with body count. He’s become the subject of dime store novels and countless newspaper articles. Billy’s fame has made him the most wanted man in the West. And now, Pat Garrett, the brand new sheriff of Lincoln County has tracked Billy down. 

Billy tells one of the Regulators, Charles Bowdre, to make a run for their horses which are tethered outside. Billy says if they can get on horseback, they might be able to escape. But as Charlie walks out the door, Pat Garrett’s men open fire. Covered in blood, Charlie stumbles back into the house. Billy is gutted. He and Charlie are more than partners in crime; they’re good friends. But that doesn’t stop Billy from seizing Charlie and using him as a human shield.

As Billy rushes outside, the lawmen fire at will. But with Charlie in front of him, Billy remains untouched; until Charlie’s lifeless body slips through his fingers and falls to the ground. Suddenly exposed and vulnerable, Billy retreats back inside. After several hours of trading insults with Sheriff Pat Garrett, Billy finally accepts that there’s no way out. With no other choice, Billy surrenders.

The following day, Christmas Eve, Pat Garrett is already being lauded as a hero. As he leads Billy through New Mexico to his impending trial, crowds gather to lay eyes on the infamous duo. Rumors circulate that the sheriff and the Kid know each other well. And it’s true that Billy and Pat have crossed paths over the years, but future stories that paint them as best friends are likely more myth than fact. Still, Billy and Pat do enjoy each other’s company, and the attention they garner as they travel across the territory.

But then on April 9th, 1881, the circus comes to an end when Billy stands trial in Mesilla, New Mexico for the murder of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady. Billy worries the outcome has already been decided. As the proceedings get underway, it’s clear no one is interested in a fair trial. After brief witness testimonies and an even briefer deliberation, Billy is found guilty of murder.

Days after his conviction, Billy returns to court for sentencing. The judge orders that “William Bonney, alias Kid, be hanged by the neck until his body be dead.” The judge also declares that the execution will take place in the same location as the crime. So soon, Pat takes Billy back to Lincoln where his execution is set to take place on May 13th.

But that's a few days away. And the government fears Billy’s Regulators might stage a rescue attempt. So, for added protection, Billy is shackled and loaded into a wagon where he’s accompanied by a Deputy United States Marshall and six other heavily armed lawmen.

After he arrives in Lincoln County, Billy is immediately taken to the Courthouse Jail. There, Billy is handcuffed and shackled in a small room on the top floor; far away from other prisoners. Billy’s situation looks hopeless. But he has no intention of going down without a fight. From the moment he arrived in Lincoln, Billy has been plotting his escape.

While incarcerated, Billy studies the routines of the two guards who’ve been assigned to watch him: James and Bob. Billy has no love for his duo of captors, especially the brutish Bob who spends the bulk of his time verbally abusing Billy. But Billy knows the torment he’s currently enduring is only temporary.

Before long, Billy realizes that at 5:00 PM every day, Bob leads the rest of the prisoners across the street to eat their dinner at a hotel. Billy is left alone with James to eat in the courthouse. And soon, Billy discovers that a ten-gauge shotgun is stored nearby in Pat Garrett’s office. In late April, with his execution date rapidly approaching, Billy is ready. All he has to do now is wait for the perfect moment to put his plan in motion.

Act Three: Billy escapes

It’s just before 5:00 PM on April 28th, 1881 at the Lincoln County Courthouse Jail in New Mexico.

As he sits in his room, shackled, Billy’s face is blank, but his mind is racing. He knows Pat Garrett has left Lincoln for the day; it’s the perfect opportunity to make his escape.

So at 5:00 PM sharp, when Bob leads the other prisoners across the street for their meal, Billy tells James he needs to go out back to use the outhouse. Annoyed, James leads Billy down the stairs and outside. After a short while, Billy emerges from the outhouse. Still irritated, James ushers him back into the courthouse and then leads him up the stairs to his room. James has no idea that Billy is now concealing a gun.

It’s unclear if someone stashed the weapon inside the outhouse for Billy, or if he procured it by some other means. But this much is clear: at the top of the stairs, Billy hits James in the head with his handcuffs. The stunned guard tries to flee down the steps to safety, but Billy draws and fires.

Bleeding badly, James stumbles outside screaming for help. Billy somehow manages to slip his handcuffs. He runs into Pat Garrett’s office and grabs the ten-gauge shotgun he knows is kept there. He opens a second-story window, and sees the other mouthy guard, Bob, running across the street from the hotel. Billy decides it’s time to pay him back for all that verbal abuse. He leans out the window, and allegedly calls out, “Hello Bob” before firing the shotgun. Bob dies in a heap on the ground.

Soon, Billy sees a crowd gathering on the street below. He calls out to them, saying he doesn’t want to kill anyone else, but that he will if they stand in his way. He hollers down to a man he knows in the crowd, and tells him to saddle a horse. And when it's ready, Billy dashes outside, mounts up, and rides fast out of Lincoln.

After his escape, Billy is on the run for over two months with Pat Garrett in hot pursuit. But finally, on July 14th, 1881, Pat catches up with Billy in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and shoots the Kid dead.

William H. Bonney also known as Billy the Kid will fascinate the American public in death even more than he did in life. He will be the subject of countless novels and news articles, and eventually, his story will find its way to radio, television, and over 50 different films. The truth behind Billy the Kid, like other outlaw tales of the Old West, lives in the space between legend and lies. Some will argue that the Kid did not really die in the summer of 1881. In the late 1940s, an old man calling himself “Brushy Bill Roberts” will tell the world that he is none other than William H. Bonney. But the authenticity of his claims will never be confirmed.

Part myth, part man, Billy the Kid continues to fuel the imagination. For some, he’s a cold-blooded killer. For others, he's a hero who lived on his own terms and pulled off death-defying feats; like the escape he made from the Lincoln County Courthouse Jail on April 28th, 1881.


Next on History Daily. April 29th, 1992. A jury acquits four police officers in the beating of Rodney King, sparking six days of violence and unrest in Los Angeles.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.