In 8th grade, at the urging of my parents, who have always been connoisseurs of old movies, I watched the 1969 classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. No movie before or since has piqued my interest in the subject matter it covered as much as this antithesis of the normal formulaic western films in which the bad guys are the good guys and are the ones being chased, not doing the chasing. After watching that movie, I had to know more. I had to find out who these two outlaws really were and how much of the movie was fact and how much was farce.
The first source I turned to was Larry Pointer’s book, In Search of Butch Cassidy. The cover itself is alluring, showing a picture of Butch Cassidy in his heyday with the caption: “Robert LeRoy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy, died in a shootout with Bolivian Cavalry troops in South America.” Next to it is a picture of an older man who looks like a dead ringer for Cassidy, whose caption reads, “Robert LeRoy Parker, alias William T. Phillips, returned from Bolivia and lived out the remainder of his life in Spokane, Washington.” How could one not be intrigued by this cover? I was when I found it in my junior high school’s library.
Pointer had me convinced that Butch Cassidy didn’t die in that shootout with Bolivian troops in 1908, but instead returned to the United States and became known as William T. Phillips, based on evidence such as a meeting with his old friends and some family members in 1925, a ring he sent to one of his old flames in the 1930s and a manuscript he wrote telling Cassidy’s story entitled The Bandit Invincible. Interestingly, that manuscript led to an argument with my 9th grade English teacher that I’ll never forget. In her class, I was supposed to write a report on an American author or president. When I told my English teacher I would do my report on Butch Cassidy because he was an American author, she was beside herself. I told her I had proof, even going as far as showing her Pointer’s description of the manuscript, but she wouldn’t budge. Reluctantly, I backed down and wrote my report on another one of my favorite U.S. historical figures, Teddy Roosevelt.
After Pointer’s, the next book I picked up, The Outlaw Trail, by Charles Kelly, was markedly different. It did it’s best to show that Cassidy did meet his demise in Bolivia. I had a hard time bearing that thought so I turned to other sources that were sympathetic to Pointer’s view, namely Butch Cassidy, My Brother by Lula Parker Betenson, who swore she saw her brother at that meeting in 1925, among other evidence, to suggest he made it out of Bolivia alive. I even started my own Butch Cassidy file, clipping any newspaper or magazine article I found about Cassidy and his Wild Bunch. Some of those articles seemed to have some warped views, one of them even claiming that he died in 1941 and is buried in the Parowan, Utah cemetery, which is completely different than Pointer, who said he died of stomach cancer in 1937 in Spokane under the alias of Phillips. I couldn’t even finish one book, Digging Up Butch and Sundance, by Dan Buck and Anne Meadows, which detracted completely from Pointer’s view. It made me distraught. I decided I wanted to believe what I wanted to believe and Butch Cassidy escaping from certain death sounded a lot better than dying at the hands of Bolivian Cavalry. That wasn’t the Cassidy I’d come to know.
The Butch Cassidy I’d come to know was a gentleman, not prone to the violence and bloodthirstiness of many of his counterparts. He was a Robin Hood figure who literally gave to the poor from the “earnings” of his chosen profession. He treated those he robbed with respect and made banditry his art, going to great lengths to plan the most efficient way to carry out each heist and the best method to make his escape. For example, after robbing the Pleasant Valley Coal Company payroll near Price, Utah, he cut the telegraph wires so word about the robbery would not get out very fast. His foresight contrasts completely with many of his contemporaries, even some within his own gang, The Wild Bunch, who were impetuous and carried out their robberies haphazardly. Even lawmen admired him and acknowledged that he was man of honor, even if he was an outlaw. For instance, after serving time in the Wyoming State Penitentiary, he promised he would never steal another horse in Wyoming and was true to his word.
Even at that age – as a junior high and high school student – I was not shy in admitting to my friends and acquaintances that Butch Cassidy was one of my heroes. They couldn’t understand how I could idolize an outlaw, but I had my reasons – the reasons I just explained. In short, Butch Cassidy knew how to “stick it to the man” and he did it well, and for that, I admire him. And the controversy over his death simply adds to the allure of a seemingly larger-than-life figure who easily captivated and still does captivate my imagination and the imaginations of American West aficionados around the nation. Cassidy’s story is just one bullet per se in the revolver (or rifle) of the mythic west – legends that will never die because they are just too much fun!