billy the kid

When people go missing these days, we are often not surprised. People seem to go missing all the time. Of course, most of them are murdered, or believed to be murdered. Very few are ever seen again, and as often as not, no one is ever prosecuted for their murder. This is not necessarily a new situation either. On February 1, 1896, one Albert Jennings Fountain and his eight year old son, Henry went missing near White Sands, New Mexico on their way home, after Fountain had attended a court term in Lincoln County. Mrs Fountain reported the two missing, and a search party was sent out the next day. On the Tularosa-Las Cruces road, about 45 miles from his home, the buckboard and team were found, along with Fountain’s papers, several empty cartridge casings, and two pools of blood. Missing were Fountain, his son, and Albert’s Winchester rifle.

Albert Jennings Fountain was born in Staten Island, New York on October 23, 1838 to Solomon Jennings, a sea captain, and Catherine de la Fontaine Jennings, Albert grew up to go to Columbia College before traveling all over the world as a tutor. He then settled in California, where he worked at a newspaper before studying law in San Francisco. Though the reasons are unknown, Albert began to go by the name of “Albert Jennings Fountain,” an Anglicized version of his mother’s family name. In August, 1861 he enlisted in the Union Army and was commissioned as an officer in California Column. He participated in the Union conquest of the Confederate Territory of Arizona and fought at the Battle of Apache Pass.

During his time in the army, he married Mariana Perez in October, 1862 and the two would go on to have nine children. By the time he was discharged at the end of the Civil War, Albert had obtained the rank of captain. He and his family settled in El Paso, Texas, where he went to work for the United States Property Commission, which investigated and disposed of former Confederate property. Later he worked as a Customs Collector, was appointed an election judge, and the Assessor and Collector of Internal Revenue for the Western District of Texas. With this background, it is not surprising that he decided to try politics and in 1869, he won a seat in the Texas Senate. Fountain’s radical Republican views angered many Texas Democrats…my kind of guy. During the El Paso Salt War, Albert got into a shootout with a man named B. Frank Williams on December 7, 1870. Albert was wounded three times, but he killed Williams.

In 1875, the Fountain family moved to Mesilla, New Mexico, where his wife was from. It was here that Fountain began his law practice. Southern New Mexico, at that time, was still subject to frequent Indian raids and in 1878, Fountain became a captain in the first company of militia in southeast New Mexico, fighting in the campaigns against Chief Victorio and Geronimo. Continuing to serve in the militia, Fountain would reach the rank of colonel, a title that he was called for the rest of his life. In 1881, he was appointed to defend Billy the Kid in his charge for murder. In 1885, Fountain moved to Las Cruces to prosecute Federal land frauds. In 1888, he was elected to the New Mexico legislature, eventually becoming speaker of the house. Afterwards, he became a special prosecutor for livestock associations. In 1894 convicted 20 men for cattle rustling. His work as a politician and an attorney acquired numerous enemies for Albert, a fact that would prove to be fatal.

After an investigation into the disappearence, it was thought that a noted New Mexico gunman and rancher named Oliver M. Lee, along with two of his employees named Jim Gililland and William “Billy” McNew had perpetrated the crime. Eventually, all three were tried for the crime, but were acquitted for lack of evidence, namely the bodies, and the case remained open, with the Fountain bodies having never been found. Some historians also believe that the famed Sheriff Pat Garrett was assassinated while heavily investigating the Fountain murder, and that he might have been getting close to answering the age old question, “who done it”.

Every family has it’s black sheep, and I have recently found out that one of mine is that my 7th cousin 3 times removed is Billy the Kid. Most of the people in my family tree are good people, and many are presidents and even royalty, but there are still a few of them who were…a bit on the wild side. Billy the Kid was one of those. On September 23, 1875, William Henry McCarty was arrested for the first time after stealing a basket of laundry. I can’t imagine why he chose a basket of laundry, but that was his entry into the world of crime. The jails back then weren’t super secure, so Billy the Kid broke out of jail, and roamed the West, eventually earning a reputation as an outlaw and murderer and a rap sheet that allegedly included 21 murders.

No one really knows much about William’s birth, other than his name and approximate year of birth…between 1859 and 1861, in Indiana or New York. William’s dad was never in his life, and the family moved around a lot, living in Indiana, Kansas, Colorado and Silver City, New Mexico. His mother died in 1874 and Billy the Kid…who went by a variety of names throughout his life, including Kid Antrim and William Bonney…turned to crime soon afterward. I guess that explains the decision to steal a basket of laundry. There are criminals who start out as good people, and then circumstances in their life force them to do things they might not otherwise do. Then, once they are into it, there is no going back. Billy the Kid became a horse thief in Arizona before returning to New Mexico, where he hooked up with a gang of gunslingers and cattle rustlers involved in the notorious Lincoln County War between a rival rancher and merchant factions in Lincoln County in 1878. It would be this time period that would eventually get him a death sentence.

Billy the Kid wasn’t a big man, but rather had a slender build and prominent crooked front teeth. He loved to sing, and I have to wonder what he might have become had he chosen singing over crime. Nevertheless, after the Lincoln County War, he went on the lam and continued his outlaw’s life, stealing cattle and horses, gambling and killing people. His crimes earned him a bounty on his head and he was eventually captured and indicted for killing a sheriff during the Lincoln County War.

Sentenced to hang for his crime, Billy the Kid managed to escape from jail one more time, murdering two deputies in the process. His freedom was short lived, however, as Sheriff Pat Garrett caught up with him at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, on July 14, 1881, and fatally shot him. Billy’s legend grew following his short life and violent death. Today he is a famous symbol of the Old West, along with such men as Kit Carson, Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, and like many criminals of the past, his story has been romanticized in numerous films, books, TV shows and songs. Each year, tourists visit the town of Fort Sumner, located about 160 miles southeast of Albuquerque, to see the Billy the Kid Museum and gravesite.

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