Billy the Kid on ‘American Experience’

"The true story of the orphan teen who became the most wanted man in the West."

Date December 5, 2011 at 11:11 AM

Author Tom Maguire

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Culture Entertainment & Nightlife

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On April 28, 1881, 21-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. In the words of N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer Prize-winning Native American author:  “Escape was one of his great talents. When he leaves the courthouse on horseback, as he goes out of sight he passes into legend at that moment. The story will never be the same after that.”

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.  A fascinating look at the boy behind the myth, Billy the Kid, directed by John Maggio, will premiere on the PBS series American Experience on Tuesday, January 10 at 8 p.m. and repeats Sunday, January 15 at 2 p.m. on KNME-TV, Channel 5.  The broadcast is part of a month-long salute to the West that also includes the premiere of Custer’s Last Stand (Tuesday, January 17 at 7 p.m. on KNME) and encore broadcasts of Wyatt Earp, Geronimo, Annie Oakley and Jesse James.

Born to impoverished Irish immigrants in the teeming slums of New York City, Henry McCarty and his mother joined the wave of humanity that headed 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 senoritas in the evening. When his mother remarried, the family fortunes improved.

But in 1874, his mother died of tuberculosis, his stepfather abandoned him, and Henry’s hardscrabble, itinerant life returned. An orphan at 15, 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 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 and dodged the law, times were changing.  Following the Civil War, Anglo businessmen flocked to New Mexico, becoming the largest property owners on land they often wrested 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 the cattle they raised on their ranch, known as “The House,” Murphy and Dolan ruled the county like a fiefdom.  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, he was surprised when the Englishman offered him a job.  But Tunstall had to have more than just good cowboys – he needed good gunslingers. Tunstall treated Billy and the other men he hired with respect, creating a loyal band of outsiders who defended his land.

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 broke out between the House and the Regulators, led by Billy the Kid.

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 sheep farms that populated the area.  Charming, smart and good-looking, Billy became something of a folk hero as he fought for justice against the wealthy and powerful. 

Caught by Pat Garrett and convicted of the murder of Sheriff Brady, Billy the Kid escaped one last time.  But 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 Chavez 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 in just a few short years transformed himself from a skinny orphan boy to the most feared man in the West to an enduring icon.

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