American Experience: Billy The Kid
Airs Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV
Originally published January 9, 2012 at 11:21 a.m., updated March 14, 2013 at 11:51 a.m.
On April 28, 1881, 21-year-old Henry McCarty, alias 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 daring escapes.
The Life and Legend
View a timeline of Billy the Kid's life.
The Golden Age of the American Cowboy
View a photo gallery of images taken across the American West between the late 1800s and the early 1900s.
Just a few weeks later, the notorious young outlaw was gunned down by an ambitious sheriff. Demonized by the lawman who killed him, the Kid was soon mythologized by a never-ending stream of dime-store romances and later, big-screen dramas.
But in all the narratives, Billy the Kid’s real story has been obscured. Born to impoverished Irish immigrants, the Kid led a hardscrabble, itinerant life that became harder still when his mother died of tuberculosis.
He came of age in a lawless corner of New Mexico, where an Irish immigrant ring held a vise-like grip on all money-making endeavors and the Mexican population was frequently cheated out of their property without recourse to the courts.
Caught in the middle of a many-centuries-old Irish-English conflict playing out on the plains of the Southwest, the Kid captured national attention with his reckless violence.
His fascination with Mexican culture, his flair for Spanish and his disdain for the Anglo authorities made him a hero of sorts to the Hispanic community, who hid him when the law came looking and mourned him when he was gone.
A fascinating look at the boy behind the myth, "Billy The Kid," features interviews with a wide variety of Western historians and writers, and 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.