Villain or hero: PBS exposes the real Billy the Kid

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Kyla Brewer / TV Media
Billy the Kid was one of the most wanted outlaws of the Wild West

Billy the Kid was one of the most wanted outlaws of the Wild West

He's been immortalized in books, songs, movies and even poetry. But in spite of the fame, the real story of one of the Wild West's most enduring figures has been obscured. PBS is about to change all of that, as "American Experience" takes a look at the truth behind the legend of Billy the Kid on Tuesday, Jan. 10.

Kicking off a month-long expose on fugitives of the Wild West, this profile of Billy the Kid precedes the tales of Wyatt Earp, Geronimo, Annie Oakley and a brand-new feature about "Custer's Last Stand."

Famous for his sharpshooting skills, Billy the Kid's legend as an outlaw is deeply ingrained in the history of America's early days. But as the experts in "American Experience" reveal, he was also somewhat of a folk hero of the day, especially to the Hispanic community, who embraced him as a Wild West underdog.

Billy the Kid's real name was William Henry McCarty, Jr., though he's more famously known by the alias William H. Bonney. While many of the details of McCarty's early life are hazy at best, it is believed that he was born in New York City to Irish immigrant Catherine McCarty. When the family moved to New Mexico in search of fortune, the young McCarty mingled within the local Latino and Native American communities, and soon learned to speak Spanish fluently. He embraced the culture, sporting sombreros and courting senoritas.

Conditions seemed to improve for the young family when Catherine remarried, but McCarty's stepfather abandoned him after his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving him an orphan at the age of 15. Like many youngsters with no direction, he soon fell in with the wrong crowd and his life as an outlaw began when he killed a man during a barroom brawl.

Some accounts allege that The Kid killed as many as 21 men, but historians claim the real number is likely somewhere between four and nine. Although he wasn't well known until later in his life, his myth fascinated the public then and now, thanks in part to his ability to elude the law. In fact, he escaped just as lawmen were preparing to hang him after catching up with him in 1881.

"Escape was one of his great talents," explained Native American author N. Scott Momaday, who appears in the film. "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."

Momaday is just one of the many experts interviewed in the "American Experience" presentation. The film features a number of Western historians and writers, including Billy the Kid expert Drew Gomber, historian and author Mark Lee Gardner, award-winning writer Frederick Nolan and Pulitzer Prize nominee Michael Wallis. Playwright and stage director Denise Chavez adds her two cents, and even former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson offers some insight into the famous figure.

All of their accounts unravel a story more complex than simply an orphan boy gone bad. In this case, the truth may be more fascinating than fiction, and "American Experience" aims to set the record straight. Many of the experts agree the story's become warped over the years, but that isn't to say McCarty wasn't a murderer or didn't have a penchant for violence. Indeed, the documentary delves into his violent history but, unlike "glorified" and "glamorized" Hollywood stories of Billy the Kid, the documentary takes a hard look at the circumstances that produced one of the most famous figures in the Old West.

Stories of Billy the Kid often focus on his seemingly random acts of violence, but filmmakers reveal he was involved in an epic land/horse conflict known as The Lincoln County War. At the time, the area was controlled by Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan. The two immigrants used unscrupulous bankers and crooked lawmen to force land from local Hispanic ranchers.

Along with Englishman John Tunstall, McCarty and his cohorts battled Murphy and Dolan for a piece of the pie. When the law came for him, McCarty often found refuge in the Hispanic community, which revered him for taking on those who had bullied them.

His luck eventually ran out, of course, and Pat Garrett famously gunned him down in 1881.

More than a villain, Billy the Kid was a folk hero, and his legend lives on to this day. A recent New Mexico tourist gimmick banked on the popularity of the famous figure. The state's tourism department launched the Catch the Kid campaign and offered a $10,000 reward for his capture as "clues" to his whereabouts were distributed at various events throughout the state.