American Experience | Billy the Kid
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Watch Tuesday, February 11, 2014 at 8pm on WMHT TV.

On April 28, 1881, twenty-one-year-old Henry McCarty, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, just days from being hanged for murder, outfoxed his jailors and electrified the nation with the latest in a long line of miraculous escapes. An outlaw with a deadly reputation, the young man was finally gunned down by the ambitious sheriff Pat Garrett just a few weeks later. The felling of one of the most notorious criminals of the age made front-page news and marked the end of Henry — but it was the beginning of one of the West’s most enduring legends.

Demonized by the lawman that killed him, the Kid was soon mythologized by a never-ending stream of dime store novels and big-screen dramas, portrayed by everyone from Paul Newman to Roy Rogers to Emilio Estevez. But in all the tellings, Billy the Kid’s real story has been obscured.

Born to impoverished Irish immigrants, Henry McCarty left the slums of New York City with his mother, Catherine, to join the wave of humanity heading west following the end of the Civil War. Lured by the promise of silver, they settled in a remote outpost in southeastern New Mexico, a place on the edge of civilization where Latino, Native American and Anglo cultures mixed freely. Henry embraced this mestiza culture and within a few months was speaking Spanish fluently, wearing sombreros and moccasins, and courting señoritas in the evening. When Catherine remarried, the family fortunes improved.

But in 1874, his mother died of tuberculosis, his stepfather abandoned him, and Henry returned to a hardscrabble, itinerant life. An orphan at fifteen, alone in a tough and transient mining town, it didn’t take long for the Kid to find trouble. He became a skilled gambler and fell in with a gang of seasoned outlaws who taught him to steal horses and master a six-shooter. When he killed a bully named Frank Cahill in a barroom brawl, he suddenly went from thief to murderer — and to a life on the run. Henry McCarty became William H. Bonney and there was no turning back.

In the lawless corner of New Mexico where Billy came of age, times were changing. Following the Civil War, Anglo businessmen flocked to New Mexico, becoming the largest property owners, often wresting land from Hispanic ranchers with the aid of unscrupulous bankers and a rigged legal system. In Lincoln County, two tough Irish immigrants — Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan — held a vice-like grip on all moneymaking endeavors. With huge government contracts for their cattle, Murphy and Dolan ruled the county like a fiefdom from their headquarters in the center of Lincoln known simply as “The House.” Meanwhile, John Tunstall, a young Englishman with dreams of a cattle empire, moved into Lincoln County. When Billy was arrested for stealing horses from Tunstall, the Englishman surprised Billy by offering him a job. But Tunstall wasn’t just looking for a good cowboy — he needed a good gunslinger to defend his land and property. Tunstall treated Billy and the other men he hired with respect, creating a loyal band of outsiders.

When the House, with the help of the local sheriff, murdered Tunstall, Billy and the other Tunstall loyalists were out for revenge. Forming a cowboy army, the Regulators, they dispensed their own brand of justice, gunning down Sheriff Brady and his men as they strolled the streets of town. All-out war erupted between the House and the Regulators.

A participant in almost every skirmish in what became known as “The Lincoln County War,” the Kid found it easy to blend into the night, slipping in and out of the small, Hispanic-owned sheep farms that populated the area. By fighting the Anglos who had stolen their land, Billy became something of a folk hero to the Hispanos.

Eventually caught by Pat Garrett and convicted of the murder of Sheriff Brady, Billy the Kid escaped one last time, but not for long. On the night of July 14, 1881, as he crept into the home of his sweetheart, Paulita Maxwell, Garrett stepped out of the shadows and gunned him down. The Hispanic community, which had hidden him when the law came looking, mourned him most when he was gone. As writer Denise Chávez says, “People saw him as a voice for the disenfranchised. He was the Robin Hood of New Mexico.”

Featuring interviews with a wide variety of Western historians and writers, Billy the Kid puts a human face  on the legend who transformed himself from a skinny orphan boy to the most feared man in the West and eventually to an enduring icon.