Cassidy's West was far less wild than the West of those who rode outside the law, such as Jesse James and Billy the Kid, whose antics were painted in the dime novels on which Butch was raised. For Cassidy, violence was out(he never killed a man) and magnanimity in - he was known as the "Robin Hood of the West" for sharing his booty with people whose lives had been ruined by the cattle barons and bankers. He even dressed differently - trading in his stetsons, spurs and chaps for bespoke suits, bowler hats and a clean-shaven jawline.
Robert Leroy Parker was born in a shack in Circleville, Utah on 15 April 1866. His family were pioneering Mormon ranchers. During his teens, Parker fell in with Mike Cassidy, a long-time rustler, who inspired him to change his name. The "Butch" part came later, after a stint as a butcher in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Life on the straight didn't suit the newly-named Cassidy, so he turned his hand to rustling Texan Longhorns. Soon, he realised that offering "protection" against the rustlers, and effectively awarding himself time off, was more lucrative. However, the easy life took its toll and, in 1894, he was sloppy and was hauled before the court in Laramine City(having had his skull grazed by federal lead) and given two years in the penitentiary.
On release, Butch returned to the site of his arrest, Brown's Hole, to set up a train robbers' syndicate. He held a meeting with more than 200 outlaws, including Kid Curry, Elza Lay, the Tall Texan and Harry Longabaugh(better known as the Sundance Kid). The Wild Bunch was born. Gang members had a lot to learn: their first heist on the Union Pacific's Overland Flyer introduced them to the intransigent guard Woodcock who, even after a pistol whipping, refused to open the car. They ended up ripping it open with dynamite, scattering $30,000 in charred banknotes across the desert. The following year, they hit the same railroad and were serendipitously reacquainted with Woodcock. This time he was more forthcoming, and the Wild Bunch made off with $50,000.
After this, there was no stopping them. The Kid was an ex-con(he took his pseudonym after an 18-month stretch in Sundance jail, Wyoming) and was greatly feared as the sharpest gun in the West. He provided the brawn that complemented Butch's brain and, together, they netted close to half a million dollars before the close of the century.
The railroads hired the Pinkerton Agency to track down Cassidy and the Kid. Feeling the heat, they fled to New York and booked three passages on the SS Soldier Prince, bound for Buenos Aires - the third ticket was for the Kid's new squeeze, Etta Place. They took the pseudonyms James Ryan and Mr and Mrs Harry Place, and bought a ranch in the Cholila Valley, appearing to settle into life on the right side of the law. A letter from Butch to a Mrs Davis, dated 1902, concerns itself with how many heads of cattle they owned and the difficulties of driving them over the Cordillera to get them to the most lucrative markets. It also contained the more doleful news that "Another of my uncles died and left $30,000 to our little family of three, so I took my $10,000 and started to see a little more of the world". The deceased uncle was the First National Bank in Winemucca, Nevada - and Mrs Davis the mother-in-law of his long-time friend Elza Lay, both of whom were holed up in the pen. Evidently, they still had a taste for adrenalin.
In February 1905, there was a hold-up at the bank of Rio Gallegos and the finger was pointed at them, so they were soon on the run again. In the meantime, the Kid had broken out of jail in Knoxville, Tennessee and made his way south where, together with Etta(now in drag), they hit a bank in Mercedes before drifting north into Bolivia. Together they drew too much heat, so they split up, and this is where fact drifts into folklore.
Butch tried to go straight, working in mine security, but his past never trailed far behind him. The accepted story of his and Sundance's last moments - as immortalised in the movie's closing freeze-frame - have the banditos Yanquis turning over the payroll of a mine outside San Vincente and, two days later, finding themselves trapped in a villa, encircled by the Bolivian Army. The bulk of the pair's ammunition was strapped to a mule outside. In the crossfire, the Kid was badly wounded and, rather than let him be taken prisoner, Butch finished him off. He then used his last bullet on himself.
Butch's sister, who lived on into the Seventies, swore the Gringos duped the Bolivians into killing the wrong men, and that Butch lived on in Washington under the name of William T Phillips until 1937. Even the Bolivian president, Rene Barrientos, wasn't convinced and, after having had the bodies exhumed, concluded that the whole thing had been a ruse. The Pinkerton's version was that Butch was cut down in 1911 in a bank heist in Uruguay. Other Elvis-style sightings had him as a gun-running mercenary for Panco Villa. Alternatively, there's always the photographic testimony of him touring the West Coast in a Model-T Ford.
"I never met a soul more affable than you, Butch, or faster than the Kid. But you're still nothin' but two-bit outlaws on the dodge. Your time is over and you're gonna die bloody. All you can do is choose where".
Sheriff of Cabron County, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969 - Director, George Roy Hill.
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