History paints Butch Cassidy
(born Robert Leroy Parker) in a somewhat different light than William Goldman
did in his eponymous
screenplay for George Roy Hill
's film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
He grew up the eldest of eleven children of Mormons, Max and Anne Parker, who emigrated to Circleville, Utah from England. As a boy he rebelled against Mormonism, and--saturated with the dime novel sagas of Jesse James--dreamed of being a cowboy.
He rustled some cattle with a bad influence named Mike Cassidy in 1884, borrowed his accomplice's name, and rode from the Great Salt Lake into history.
When the "great white winter" of 1886-87 destroyed three quarters of the cattle in Texas, where Parker/Cassidy had found honest work as a cowboy, he again fell in with bad company at Brown's Hole, or Hole-in-the-Wall--desperate men most of them, driven by unemployment and a lack of imagination into rustling and bank robbery.
He went to prison in Wyoming in 1894 for stealing a horse that he in fact had not stolen, and upon his release in 1896, his path had been chosen for him--he became the leader of the Train Robbers Syndicate, better known as the Wild Bunch. For the next five years he would perpetrate a succession of perfect crimes, frustrating the Pinkerton detectives and the banks and railroads, just like in the movie.
He was aided and abetted in his crime spree, oddly enough, by the Mormons, many of whom were considered outlaws themselves because of their practice of polygamy. They gave him food, shelter and their daughters, and it all seemed very romantic for a while.
Butch Cassidy, who never killed a man himself, always harbored a secret regret that he had to rely on the deadly skills of his murderous friends, particularly Harry Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid. Sundance, far from being the sort of frontier charmer portrayed by Robert Redford in the movie, seems to have been a genuine Pennsylvania Dutch psychopath.
There is evidence that Butch tried to go straight, but his record and the veritable cost of doing business itself kept him in the outlaw game. As lawmen became more savvy, the capers became more murderous and one by one his partners in crime were captured or killed off.
In the fall of 1901, Butch, Sundance and Sundance's girl, Etta Place, sailed from New York to Buenos Aires, Argentina. They had escaped their no-win existence in America's rapidly-changing West and for almost five years they lived ordinary lives in Patagonia, though they had bought twelve thousand acres of land and therefore could be considered wealthy landowners in their adopted country.
Once again, however, the straight life paled in comparison to the easy money to be found on the other side of the law, and in 1905 they robbed a bank in southern Santa Cruz. By 1907 they seemed to have vanished into the Cordillera, and conventional wisdom has it that they broke up about then. It was rumoured that Etta moved to Denver, pregnant, some say, with a young Englishman's child. It has been reported that she was living in Denver in 1924 and that her daughter, Betty Weaver, was also an accomplished bank robber until her own inevitable arrest.
The story goes that Butch and Sundance were finally tracked down by the Pinkertons and died in San Vicente, Bolivia, in 1909. It may be, however, that this is exactly the story that the canny outlaw wanted people to believe. The Pinkertons had their own version of Butch's demise--in a shoot-out with Uruguayan police in 1911.
But from 1915 on, hundreds of people claimed to have seen Butch Cassidy alive. The star witness to his continued good health was his own sister, Mrs. Lula Parker Betenson, who was still alive in the 1970's. When interviewed by British author Bruce Chatwin, for his famous book In Patagonia, Butch's sister, then in her nineties and the very model of a good citizen without an ax to grind, claimed that her brother came back to the states and ate blueberry pie with the family in Circleville, Utah in the fall of 1925.
She insisted he died of pneumonia in Washington State in the late 1930's which is--as those of us who've lived there can attest--entirely plausible.
In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin, Summit Books, 1977.
The Wild Bunch at Robbers Roost, Pearl Baker, Abelard-Schuman, 1971, University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Butch Cassidy My Brother, Lula Parker Betenson and Dora Flack, Brigham Young University Press, 1975.
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