His mythical exploits and jail escapes made this son of Irish immigrants one of the nation's most famous Old West outlaws. Yet fewer know that the man widely known as Billy the Kid was a central figure in a violent, Irish-English land war in New Mexico, and was beloved by Mexican-American ranchers who felt discriminated against by racist white bankers and land thieves.
And the Kid's end came only after he refused to abandon his Mexican-American teen girlfriend.
Despite hundreds of stories and books, movies, songs and even poems covering the notorious Billy the Kid, the PBS series American Experience is joining in exploring his life and myth with a new documentary set to air in January. Filmmaker John Maggio said this documentary will focus less on Billy the Kid the legend and more on Billy the Kid the human being.
"His whole life he was searching for a home," said Maggio. "There was more to him that the fact that he killed and was an outlaw."
Born Henry McCarty, likely in New York City, he came to New Mexico with his mother while searching for a better economic future. It was in Silver City, N.M., that a young Billy the Kid learned Spanish and Mexican dances as he mingled easily among the territory's large Mexican-American population when others from the East Coast didn't even bother, according to Paul Hutton, a University of New Mexico American West historian, who appears in the new film.
When his mother died of tuberculosis when he was 15, Billy the Kid was left an orphan and raised largely by Mexican-American ranchers and sheepherders.
This helped the Kid later when he was on the run from the law and was given shelter by poor Mexican-Americans ranchers he befriended, Hutton said.
To emphasize this, Maggio included in the film Latina novelist Denise Chavez and Native American writer N. Scott Momaday, who discuss their beliefs that Billy the Kid was a viewed as a hero by those facing discrimination in the old territory, despite his reputation as a horse thief and outlaw.
The PBS documentary also focuses the dueling interests of cattle ranchers from Ireland and Britain who brought old hostilities from Europe to the plains of New Mexico. The Kid was swept up in what was known as the "Lincoln County War" after his British mentor was gunned down by a corrupt Sheriff William Brady. Billy the Kid organized the assassination of Brady in revenge, which escalated into a war between factions.
The film also discusses the Kid's love for Paulita Maxwell, the daughter of a Mexican-American landowner. When he was being chased down by another sheriff, Billy the Kid refused to leave Maxwell for safe haven south of the border. Her brother tipped off Sheriff Pat Garrett who eventually gunned down the 21-year-old Kid at the Maxwell's Fort Sumner, N.M. home.
For decades, Billy the Kid has been an important figure in New Mexico's Old West past and any story mentioning him often generates a lot of attention, as well as a lot of disagreements over historic detail.
When former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson considered a much-belated pardon for Billy the Kid after an Albuquerque attorney petitioned, it sparked international news and controversy, to cite one recent example.
Richardson's office received 809 emails and letters in a survey about the pardon with most favoring it. He left office without granting the pardon.
Gov. Susana Martinez, in the days leading up to her inauguration, announced she would not consider the pardon of the state's most famous outlaw. "There's an awful lot of work to be taken care of for us to be wasting so much time on such a consideration," Martinez said.
However, earlier this year the state's tourism department launched a "Catch the Kid" summer campaign aimed at promoting travel around the state. Under the campaign, the state offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of Billy the Kid during a game where clues were handed out at various events. Two groups of hunters "caught" the Kid at Expo New Mexico at the State Fair in September.
American Experience executive producer Mark Samels, who also produced an upcoming documentary of George Armstrong Custer, said people remain fascinated with Billy the Kid, partly because he lived such a short life and because he made headlines in the American West when he was alive.
"The West is a place of mystery, a place of extremes," said Samels. "Billy the Kid is part of that history as a rebel."
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