William Henry McCarty - better known by his pseudonym ‘Billy the Kid’ - is one of the most infamous of all the ‘people’s bandits’ - as Eric Hobsbawm termed them - who were common on the American frontier in the mid-late nineteenth century. Billy was little different to any other but had the good fortune to become well-known shortly before he was shot dead by Pat Garrett due to New Mexico’s governor Lew Wallace placing a bounty on his head in 1881.
One of the lesser-known things about McCarty is that one of those who knew him - Charles Siringo - wrote about an incident recounted to him by McCarty involving a jew named Morris Bernstein. (1)
Bernstein - a largely forgotten individual in history notable only because of who (may have) killed him - was an Ashkenazi jew originally from Germany or England depending on who you believe. He was – typically - an accountant by trade and worked for James Dolan who was one of the leaders of one side of what would be later termed the Lincoln County War. (2)
After leaving the employ of Dolan: Bernstein had begun writing anonymous newspaper articles (under the name ‘Soapweed’) that were highly critical of his former employer. However he had stupidly been sending these through the postal service that was controlled by Dolan: resulting in his authorship of the articles in question being discovered. (3)
Bernstein happened to be at Dr. Blazer’s Mill when McCarty (who was one of hired guns of the anti-Dolan camp) and ten others encountered Buckshot Roberts (one of Dolan’s hired guns) who almost killed McCarty in the resultant fierce gun battle. This battle resulted in Bernstein - who also happened to be there (but was on neither side) - being shot four times and killed. (4)
Now while Buckshot Roberts may have been there to kill Bernstein for attacking Dolan in print, there is no evidence per se to say that Roberts actually killed Bernstein: simply supposition and looking for a complex explanation when a simpler (less assumption driven) one is presents itself. That simpler explanation is simply to take McCarty’s (albeit second hand) (5) word for the fact that he killed Bernstein as well as why he killed him.
To quote Siringo:
‘On the 5th day of August, “Billy the Kid” and gang rode up in plain view of the Mescalero Indian Agency and began rounding up a band of horses.
A Jew by the name of Bernstein, mounted a horse and said he would go out and stop them. He was warned of the danger, but persisted in his purpose of preventing the stealing of their band of gentle saddle horses.
When Mr. Bernstein rode up to the gang and told them to “vamoose,” in other words, to hit the road, the “Kid” drew his rifle and shot the poor Jew dead. This was the “Kid’s” most cowardly act. His excuse was that he “didn’t like a Jew, nohow.”’ (6)
Despite the fact that Siringo is often attacked for romanticizing McCarty (7) and this episode is not included in Siringo’s earlier life of McCarty. (8) This is a reasonable sequence of events if one reads slightly between the lines since Bernstein rode out to investigate what was going on at the sound of gunfire and was then shot dead. (9)
Whether he was shot dead by Atanacio Martinez (as Utley asserts) (10) or McCarty as he himself claimed: seems almost impossible to determine given the confusing and chaotic nature of a gun fight.
After all it is quite possible that McCarty did in fact shoot Bernstein, but what is more interesting is that McCarty did so - according to Siringo’s account - because he didn’t like jews. This is in all probability due to the fact that jews had already acquired a very bad reputation as swindlers on the frontier (11) and McCarty simply took the opportunity (or at least he believed he had done so) to get rid one of their number whom he loathed because of their reputation among the folk of the frontier (and quite possibly due to experiences he had dealing with them).
Thus while it is quite possible that McCarty didn’t shoot Bernstein: he certainly wanted to do so; as well as believed he had done so, and stated that he did so because he didn’t like jews.
(1) Charles Siringo, 1920, ‘History of “Billy the Kid”’, 1st Edition, Self-Published: Chicago, p. 66
(4) Robert Utley, 1991, ‘Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life’, 1st Edition, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, pp. 104-105
(5) It is worth noting that we all narratives about the life of McCarty are based on second hand witness accounts and we have little primary evidence.
(6) Siringo, ‘History of “Billy the Kid”’, Op. Cit., p. 66
(7) Utley, Op. Cit., p. 255, n. 7
(8) See Charles Siringo, 1886, ‘A Texas Cow-Boy’, 1st Edition, Siringo & Dobson: Chicago, pp. 269-284
(9) Utley, Op. Cit., p. 104
(11) Cf. Siringo, ‘A Texas Cow-Boy’, Op. Cit.; Joseph Blau, Salo Baron, 1963, ‘The Jews of the United States 1790-1840: A Documentary History’, Vol. I, 1st Edition, Columbia University Press: New York, p. 155