Did the legendary bandit Butch Cassidy die in a shootout in San Vincente, Bolivia, in November, 1908, or live to a ripe old age in the Pacific Northwest until circa 1940? Did the notorious outlaw mostly familiar to Americans by Paul Newman's portrayal of him in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid escape Bolivian authorities and live on?
Robert Leroy Parker was born April 13, 1866, in Beaver, Utah, the first child of Maximillian and Ann Gillies Parker, devout British Mormon converts who had emigrated to Utah. In 1879, they moved to Circle Valley, where young Bob Parker developed into a competent cowhand, whose skills were much in demand on local ranches. But he soon turned masterful wrangling talents toward cattle rustling, finding the easy money the best way to achieve the acquisitive life, thus the ordinary "Jack" (apostate) Mormon as petty criminal. He participated in his first bank robbery at the age of 23 in the mining -- now trendy ski resort -- town of Telluride, Colorado, and around that time adopted the alias "Butch Cassidy."
Much has been made by scholars as to what a nice guy Cassidy could be. This might be called the Robin Hood Syndrome. He liked kids, and once, while on the run after a bank robbery, gave one a horse. He was an enthusiastic though inept gambler, and a gracious loser. He was a ladies man, and courtly and chivalrous, even towards prostitutes. He was a patriot, and considered signing up under an alias to fight in the Spanish-American War. And unlike some of his violent brethren, it is alleged he never took a human life until the Bolivian period that supposedly marked his own end.
After Telluride, Cassidy pursued a life that walked a fine line between lawful and unlawful. While still dabbling in livestock rustling, he also worked as a cowboy near Lander, Wyoming (in fact, was a partner in a small ranch), and as a butcher in nearby Rock Springs. Though the outlaw life was the stronger calling, and Cassidy was arrested and convicted of horse thievery. He spent parts of the years 1894-96 in Wyoming State Penitentiary in Laramie.
His main criminal career dates from his release from prison. A string of bank and train robberies occurring from 1896-1900 were masterpieces of planning and logistics. If it was a bank job, Cassidy's gang -- the Wild Bunch -- would stake out the town for a period of weeks, getting local jobs and making friends among the populace, people who sometimes even assisted them. Meantime, Cassidy arranged for horses to be kept at strategic relay points: fresh mounts making for easy getaways. A train robbery would require a man already on the train, who would go forward and stop it at gunpoint at the properly remote place. Butch Cassidy was the Napoleon of outlaws, and the Wild Bunch was his army.
At the height of its larcenous fame in 1900, it consisted of Harvey Logan (Kid Curry), a Montana rustler and the gang's only wanted murderer; George "Flat Nose" Currie, a friend of Cassidy's from earlier rustling days; Ben Kilpatrick, a Texas cowboy gone wrong; Will "News" Carver, collector of clippings and the Wild Bunch's impromptu archivist; and Harry Longabaugh, known to history as the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford in the movie), who got his nom de plume after a noteworthy escape from the jail at Sundance, Wyoming.
Five of this group (sans George Currie) posed for a famous photograph in Fort Worth, Texas, on the occasion of Will Carver's wedding. In the picture the outlaws are smiling and nattily dressed. Cassidy sent a print to a friend in Nevada, which fell into the hands of George Nixon, President of the First National Bank of Winnemucca, robbed by the Wild Bunch just weeks before. Nixon passed the photo along to the Pinkerton Agency (the turn-of-the-century private sector version of the FBI). Add to this the telephone as a new law enforcement communications tool, and private posses working for railroad tycoons such as the Union Pacific's E.H. Harriman, and the heat was on. Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and the latter's consort Etta Place fled to South America, taking up housekeeping on a remote Patagonian ranch near Cholila, Argentina in 1901.
A careful weighing of the facts comes down on the side of those scholars who believe that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did indeed die in a shootout with a small force of the Bolivian army after a mining payroll robbery near San Vincente. But at this point the waters become murky.
The bodies of the two bandits were never positively identified, in fact, no forensic evidence is known to exist. They were not removed from Pinkerton and other U.S. Wanted lists until 1921. And a research project in Bolivia financed by the PBS television program "Nova" in 1994 studied remains taken from a San Vicente cemetery, but was inconclusive.
Butch's younger sister, the late Lula Parker Betenson, wrote a book (Butch Cassidy, My Brother, Brigham Young University Press, 1975) that states flatly that he was not killed in South America, and had in 1925 visited Circle Valley to see his aged and ailing father and to attend a wedding.
This story would seem farfetched if there were not so many others -- all hearsay -- to back it up. If they are to be believed, Cassidy-Parker -- through the 1920s and '30s -- resided in Nevada, California, and Seattle, Washington. Relatives and old friends report visits to Circle Valley, Milford and Price, Utah; Jackson Hole and Baggs, Wyoming; and Grand Junction, Colorado. This man is variously reported to have died in 1937, 1939 or 1941. But there are no photographs or other records extant of this the "later" Butch Cassidy.
It's obvious that the case is not closed.
Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.
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