PBS separates the man from the myth in “Billy the Kid” special

Many people are familiar with the legend of Billy the Kid, but those who want to know how an Irish immigrant named Henry McCarty became one of America’s most storied killers ever should definitely tune into PBS tonight.

Premiering at 9pm ET as part of the the network’s popular “American Experience” series, Billy the Kid goes behind the folklore and examines the developments in McCarty’s life that transformed him from a likable teenager into to a cold-blooded murderer. Born in New York without a father, he and his mother Catherine moved to New Mexico after the Civil War. According to those interviewed for this special, he embraced the region’s Hispanic culture and even learned to speak Spanish fluently.

“He had this unique charm,” says one historian. “He was always smiling, always laughing.”

But things seemed to turn suddenly when Catherine died of tuberculosis when Henry was only 15. After being abandoned by his stepfather, he was forced to fend for himself and ultimately ended up on the wrong end of the law. He changed his name to William H. Bonney and formed a group called “The Regulators.” Billy the Kid and his army went on to kill mercifully until he was ultimately murdered in 1881.

In an interview for tonight’s documentary, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said it’s important to distinguish between the legend and reality.

“Billy the Kid was a rebel, an outlaw, good looking, glamorous,” he said. “But you have separate the romantic, mystical side of Billy and the fact that he was a cop killer and he murdered people.”

Writer Denise Chavez tends to lean more toward the romantic side: “People saw him as the voice of the disenfranchised. He was the Robin Hood of New Mexico.”

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Photo courtesy of Robert McCubbin

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