Can we pierce the fog and fish out the facts of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid’s shadowy careers without mixing too many metaphors?
In the early 1900’s two North American bandits with hefty criminal records “led active lives” in South America. Patagonia, the continent’s southern fringe, was their main turf. Their part-time accomplice was “a most beautiful woman”.
La señora norteamericana was no dilettante, yet never really adapted to the outlaw lifestyle. She spoke polished Spanish but had little liking for South America. She disliked the isolation and instability that went with dodging lawmen from two continents.
Their mysterious fate has spawned countless arguments, articles, books and documentaries. Plus a hit movie.
i: THE THREE
ii: HERE’S THE PLAN
iii: IN PATAGONIA
iv: THINGS CHANGE
v: THE EVANS-WILSON TRAJECTORY
vi: FADING INTO A BOLIVIAN
vii: MEMORIES, MEMORIES
viii: THE BANDIT INVISIBLE
(i) THE THREE
Their leader was Robert Leroy Parker (1866 – ?). The Parkers were Mormons from Lancashire and Scotland. “Bob”, the oldest of thirteen, shared Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. He inherited his mother’s eyes and jawline. He was a genial lad, fond of books about medieval England, Scottish clans and anything by Charles Dickens. But by 1884, chafing against his native Utah’s economic and religious boundaries, Bob went rogue.
He started with petty crime, a theft here, some cattle rustling there. His crimes were interspersed with periods of good conduct as a ranch hand. Gradually he escalated to big-time robberies – banks and trains.
In Wyoming he was imprisoned for buying a stolen horse. To spare his Mormon family the shame of his imprisonment he claimed to be a New Yorker without kin (Religion: None). After his release he settled on the permanent nom-de-crime Butch Cassidy, after earlier using other aliases.
“Butch” came from working in a Rock Springs, Wyoming butcher-shop, while “Cassidy” originated with an early hero-figure, Mike Cassidy.
Parker/Cassidy founded the most successful train-robbing “gang” – actually a loose band of comers-and-goers – in U.S. criminal history. It had various names, but The Wild Bunch stuck the longest.
Unusually for the 1890’s, during robberies Cassidy enforced absolute sobriety among his accomplices. Planning robberies afforded Butch genuine pleasure. Despite his easygoing image, he researched every heist’s details with rigorous precision, insisting the perfect robbery involved (a) nobody getting hurt and (b) no arrests. Meticulous about the getaway phase, Cassidy stymied the pursuing lawmen by cutting the telegraph lines and pre-positioning supplies and fresh horses along the planned escape routes.
This was key. Knowing when trains or banks held the maximum cash, what the staff arrangements were and how the security worked was vital. But what was the point if you got caught?
Cassidy targeted railroads, cattle barons (“dudes”) and banks, never ordinary folks. This endeared him to the masses but also produced high-powered enemies.
His longest-serving associate was a tall, taciturn Pennsylvanian, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (1867 – ?).
Longabaugh’s German grandfather was Conrad Langenbach, back when names and spellings were more flexible. The Longabaughs knew poverty, but young Harry’s library card let him escape into fantasies about outlaws like Jesse James. He yearned to go west. Aged 15 he did just that, adapting to frontier life with remarkable ease and becoming an expert horseman. He played down his East-coast origins and tried to comport himself as a true son of the west.
Longabaugh called himself The Sundance Kid, commemorating his first serious crime at the age of 20: stealing a horse and gun near Sundance, Wyoming. If he were alive today he’d have 18 tattoos (one for every month behind bars).
Unlike Butch, he was not given to deep analysis. He shunned complexity. While Cassidy’s research aimed to prevent on-the-job hiccups, Sundance didn’t mind them. They gave him an excuse to instill fear, something he enjoyed.
Some described Harry Longabaugh as warm, but he was normally standoffish. He rarely smiled, although maybe he simply wished to hide a flashing gold tooth, which he later replaced with a porcelain tooth once the big money rolled in. Plus he had chronic catarrh (excessive respiratory mucus), so all that snorting, sniffing and spitting was unlikely to transform him into The Sunshine Kid.
Despite their popular image, Butch and Sundance weren’t bosom buddies. They somehow clicked, despite temperaments as different as cheese and chalk. But the lure of big money was what drew them together and kept them together.
Their part-time accomplice – Sundance’s lover – was the most mysterious. Her biography remains a thicket of question marks, frustrating generations of researchers. One commented: It’s as though she had no identity before she met Sundance and no identity after they separated.
Was Etta (Ethel?) Place a Colorado schoolteacher? Perhaps. Other research traces her to Texas bordellos. Perhaps. Was her name originally C-a-p-e-l? Or Platz (“place” in German)? Coincidentally (or not) Longabaugh’s mother was Annie Place. Did that make Etta his cousin?
She was Sundance’s lover until she left South America around 1905. She probably rejoined her lover, but at some point she abandoned South America forever (perhaps) and her trail went stone cold.
Some researchers argue she settled in Colorado. One source claims her daughter was the bank robber Betty Weaver, who was finally nabbed in Kansas in 1932. Another has her running an Arizona sanatorium. Other investigators say Etta simply “went underground” in San Francisco.
One attests she spied on Cassidy and Longabaugh for the U.S. Secret Service and that she was assassinated in California in 1915. Other research claims she returned to South America and (a) committed suicide in 1924 or (b) was murdered in 1922 by Mateo Gebhardt, her Argentinian lover.
And one researcher says Etta lived until 1966, just three years before the Hollywood movie Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid hit the world’s screens.
(ii) HERE’S THE PLAN
The year is 1900 and the times they are a-becomin’ different. The heat is hotting up for The Wild Bunch. Law enforcement has become uncomfortably sophisticated.
Lawmen in the West were spirited and hardy. They had to be. But their resources were limited, their adversaries just as spirited and hardy, and the West’s vast stretches of wilderness hindered pursuit.
Now the Pinkerton Detective Agency tipped the balance.
It was once the world’s largest private law-enforcement and detective agency. “Pinkertons” formed Abraham Lincoln’s personal bodyguard. Government authorities hired Pinkertons for special investigations. Railroads had them guard payroll-carrying trains. Huge profits accrued from locating WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE outlaws.
The agency’s detection-for-profit ethic and its multitude of agents, undercover operatives, archivists and part-time informants made it a formidable outfit. Its voluminous cross-referenced files on every known criminal in America covered every detail. What are his aliases? Where are his known hide-outs? Who are his known associates? What is his preferred weapon? What does he smoke, cigars or a pipe? Does he have visible scars? Missing digits? A limp? Is he left-handed? Which teeth are missing? And so on.
The Pinkertons operated 24/7, accepting any assignment with a reasonable chance of success. That, and their famous “all-seeing eye” commercial logo, engendered the label “private eye”: detective for hire.
This hurt The Wild Bunch. They’d steal a payroll, only to find the Pinkertons had recorded and telegraphed every banknote’s serial number – promising rewards for actionable leads – throughout the area. So spending that cash risked blowing their cover.
Cassidy had to think outside the box. He reasoned: Our luck will run out, and most likely soon. So why not try something radical? Like Argentina.
The Argentinian government was giving – giving! – virgin Patagonian farmland to North American settlers. While the German, Italian and Slavic immigrants fueling Argentina’s booming economy were still welcome, norteamericanos – with their proven expertise in transforming wilderness into productive farmland – got Patagonian land gratis.
Here’s the plan, Butch announced. We get free farmland in Argentina. The Pinkertons won’t look for us there. We walk the straight and narrow. Then we don’t have the law breathing down our necks. And we get rich from farming.
Only Harry Longabaugh/The Sundance Kid and Etta Place were in. Fine, said Cassidy. Then just us three will go. ¡Adios!
(iii) IN PATAGONIA
Riding some of the very trains they’d robbed, they rendezvoused in New York in February 1901 after Longabaugh visited his family’s new residence in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The trio bought stylish clothes (a priority for Sundance), attended the opera, experienced the kinetoscope (moving pictures) and sailed to Argentina.
The couple embarked as Mr. and Mrs. Harry A. Place. Cassidy became Mrs. Place’s brother, “James Ryan”, the same name as the sheriff who’d arrested young Longabaugh back in Wyoming.
In Buenos Aires they chose the luxury Hotel Europa. Señor Place opened a bank account with US$12,000 (what the average white U.S. male earned in 27 years). They established themselves as people of substance, desirable additions to Argentina’s burgeoning population.
After scouting potential places to settle they visited the Land Department. 61 square km of pristine Patagonian grassland near the Chilean border fell into their laps. On behalf of the group the señora asked the Director, ¿Hay bandidos en esa zona? They were relieved to hear Cholila was bandit-free.
By June their cottage, resembling the Parker home back in Utah, boasted lace curtains, brass lamps and perfumed wash basins. A Cholila policeman named Humphreys befriended them, but came perilously close to risking Sundance’s vicious wrath by displaying an unseemly interest in the señora.
On August 10, 1902 Cassidy/Ryan wrote to Matilda Davies in Ashley, Utah. She was the mother-in-law of Ellsworth (‘Elzy’) Lay, his closest friend. Lay was behind bars for killing two lawmen in a New Mexico shoot-out. Butch addressed her as my dear friend, but such affectionate terms were really meant for Elzy, who’d receive that letter himself in due course.
Cassidy and Lay were old pals/ brothers-in-crime. They’d both been romantically involved with the Bassett sisters. As we’ll see, Josie Bassett later swore she met Butch three times in the 1920’s in the States.
I was restless and … wanted to see more of the world, Cassidy wrote. [One] of my Uncles died and left $30,000 to our little family of three … So I took my $10,000 share and I located to South A.
The death of his “Uncle” was actually the $33,000-haul from The Wild Bunch’s robbery of a Nevada bank in 1900. The “little family of three” was the ménage à trois with Etta and Longabaugh.
The homestead pleased Butch: I have 300 cattle, 1500 sheep and 28 good saddle horses, and 2 men to do my work, also a good 4 room house, a wearhouse [sic] … But he regretted having to cook for himself. He confessed to loneliness: I am alone all day, and … besides the only language spoken in this country is Spanish, and I don’t speak it well enough to converse on the latest scandals so dear to the hearts of all nations…
Cholila was good agricultural country … and it can’t be beat for [stockraising]. The new trans-Andes road to Puerto Montt opened up the lucrative Chilean beef market and easy access to cheaper Chilean products.
Patagonia’s climate pleased him: The summers are beautiful, never as warm as [Utah], and grass knee high everywhere and lots of good cold mountain water. But [in] winter… it rains most of the time…[S]ometimes we have lots of snow, but it don’t last long.
Butch’s letter was all I-me-my: “I took my $10,000…”. “I have 300 cattle”. “2 men do my work”. He never mentioned Longabaugh and Etta. They were currently away, leaving the naturally gregarious Cassidy bereft of company (and without a cook). Why didn’t he mention them? In case the letter was intercepted and the authorities put two and two together.
Their new lives assumed a patina of respectability. The Cholilans embraced the newcomers, even the throaty, rather standoffish husband with the made-to-order shirts, expensive vests and masses of silk handkerchiefs, Señor Enrique (“Clothes maketh the man”) Place. His charming señora‘s witty conversation and excellent Spanish put some Cholila homesteaders – especially the well-off Brits – to shame.
The Places and Señor Ryan – the shorter, congenial fellow with the infectious laugh – were welcome additions to the community. So welcome, in fact, that nobody objected to the two men always carrying guns. Or to the elegant young señora displaying such masculine skills with horses (skills no Argentinian lady would ever wish for herself).
The territorial governor visited Cholila, and Enrique Place kindly entertained His Excellency on the guitar. The three norteamericanos made such positive impressions that nobody around Cholila suspected their dark secrets.
Life can be good. But it don’t last long.
(iv) THINGS CHANGE
What most people “know” about Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid derives from the 1969 film starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katherine Ross. It depicts The Wild Bunch disintegrating when they accept that honest outlaws can no longer make a decent living. Butch, Sundance and Etta head to Bolivia, not Argentina. Etta’s unhappy there, predicts this will all end badly and returns to the States. Cassidy and Longabaugh resolve to stop robbing Bolivian banks. They’ll “go straight”.
While working as mining company security guards the Devil whispers in their ears. They revert to banditry. One day half the Bolivian Army corners them in the godforsaken hamlet of San Vicente.
Wounded but undaunted, they discuss their next destination once this minor difficulty is resolved. Butch suggests Australia: no language barrier, Australian banks are bursting with money and there are unlimited spaces for outlaws to disappear into. They draw their weapons and make a dash for it, but they’re blasted to smithereens after only a few strides.
That scenario mined – and distorted – Arthur Chapman’s anonymously-sourced magazine article from 1930. Chapman had the pair heroically resisting the Bolivian troopers on their trail. In November 1908, they made a last stand in San Vicente (altitude 4,500 meters /15,000 feet). But far from planning an Australian crime spree they couldn’t even plan an escape. Both wounded and down to only two bullets, Butch shot Sundance in the head and then shot himself.
Both versions are completely unsubstantiated.
Research on the San Vicente “siege” has unearthed so many wildly contradictory versions, all differing in every conceivable detail, that now only the most irredeemable fantasists cling to the idea that Butch and Sundance died in that Bolivian hamlet.
In any case, the Bolivians’ – and the outside world’s – willingness to believe they died had proven to be wonderfully convenient. What better cover for fugitives than to be assumed dead?
The trio definitely farmed in Cholila until 1905. “Enrique and Etta Place” visited the U.S.A. three times. In 1902 they visited New York, Atlantic City – where Sundance introduced the Longabaughs to his “wife” – and Buffalo before returning to Argentina.
Their detour to Buffalo, an unlikely destination for that couple, has been plausibly explained as a confidential visit to a renowned venereal disease clinic. They docked in Buenos Aires the day before Cassidy wrote his letter to Elzy Lay.
April 1904 saw their second trip. Ignoring the risk of Pinkerton agents detecting their presence, after Atlantic City they visited Fort Worth, Texas. Its brothels were always high on The Wild Bunch’s list. Etta probably had connections there. Then they nonchalantly took in The World’s Fair in St. Louis.
The third trip – arranged hurriedly – was in May 1905. Etta developed an intestinal problem. Claiming to distrust local doctors, she demanded treatment in the United States. They sailed from Chile to San Francisco.
Longabaugh soon returned to Cholila but Etta stayed on. One possible explanation for this concerns her “intestinal problem” being a pregnancy for which Longabaugh wasn’t the father. This had to remain secret from him at all costs. She needed to get away before her belly bump showed. Significantly, nearby homesteader John Gardiner simultaneously made a sudden unexplained departure to Britain.
Whatever the circumstances, a separation ensued. Evidence suggests Etta returned later.
Possibly warned by the local lawman Humphreys that the Pinkertons had discovered their whereabouts, they suddenly sold their homestead to an Anglo-Chilean. They reverted to banditry, crisscrossing the border, robbing banks. This was late 1905.
Eyewitnesses reported a female accomplice: her impressive horsemanship and male disguise couldn’t conceal her feminine beauty.
Unless there was another beautiful yanqui expert horsewoman in cahoots with the bandidos, and unless these eyewitness reports were actually dozens of hallucinations, she must have been Etta. Meaning she must have returned by 1906 at the latest. Meaning Etta and Sundance must have rekindled their relationship and the ménage à trois.
But eventually Etta dropped completely out of sight, leaving Butch and Sundance to their fate.
But what was that fate?
(v) THE EVANS-WILSON TRAJECTORY
Much of the mystery surrounding Butch and Sundance’s fate arises from them being not the only bandidos yanquis in Argentina. American outlaws found Argentina’s rich pickings, undistinguished police standards and lack of Pinkertons irresistible.
W. C. Jameson’s Butch Cassidy: Beyond the Grave (2014) explained:
To compound the identity problems, the number of North American outlaws … operating in … Argentina was increasing, and it is likely that several robberies committed by them were attributed to Cassidy and Longabaugh. The [outlaws] Robert Evans [from Montana] and William Wilson [from Texas] were committing crimes in the area in much the same manner as Cassidy and Longabaugh, and were often mistaken for the more famous duo. (p.103)
Actually, Evans and Wilson knew Butch and Sundance. They’d almost certainly visited their homestead. Their appearance and personalities were known to resemble Butch and Sundance’s. Evans, the shorter one, shared Cassidy’s gregarious nature. Wilson had Nordic features and shared Longabaugh’s taciturnity. (But not his catarrh.)
It’s very probable that the Montanan and Texan exploited these resemblances by sometimes posing as Cassidy and Longabaugh to confuse the police. It’s also very probable that Butch and Sundance posed as Evans and Wilson for the same reason.
The claim that Evans and Wilson were Butch and Sundance limped through the decades. Then in 1970 (following the movie’s release) a 104-year-old Argentinian – Pedro Peña – told interviewers he was in the Frontier Police patrol which killed Cassidy (Evans) and Longabaugh (Wilson) in 1911.
Now, said the death-in-Bolivia-fantasy doubters who yearned for something substantive about the outlaws’ fate, now we’re getting somewhere. And the Evans-Wilson narrative did seem credible.
It’s December, 1909 in Arroyo Pescado, southwest of Cholila. Two Welsh immigrants ran the local general store: Llwyd ApIwan, the owner, and Bobby, “a soft-headed religious maniac”.
“Evans” and “Wilson” entered the store, ostensibly as customers, but actually intent on stealing the gold sovereigns in the safe. The bandidos forced ApIwan to open the safe but found it virtually empty. The expected gold consignment was late.
Wilson covered the Welshmen as the bandits backed their way out. His spur caught on the rug and he fell backwards. ApIwan tried to wrestle the gun away but Wilson shot him in the chest. Then the pair escaped.
The local Police Commissioner, Milton Roberts, knowing the Pinkertons still maintained Butch and Sundance were in Argentina, sent detailed descriptions.
Evans was “about 35 years old, height 5 feet 7 inches [170cm]”. Stockily built, he had red hair, although Roberts surmised this was a wig or a dye job. The man known as Wilson, he wrote, was “about 25 years old”(!), height 5 feet 11 inches (180cm). He was slim with fair hair.
Roberts never saw them himself, so the descriptions depended on Bobby’s observational powers. Their descriptions matched the outlaws’. The age discrepancy – Cassidy and Longabaugh were well past 40 in 1909 – was explained by Bobby being not too bright, the shock of it all and everything happening so quickly.
The Pinkertons sat on this information and did nothing. We’ll learn why in Part vii.
The scene moves south to their camp near Río Pico. It’s March 1911. A kidnapping now proves significant, leading to Peña’s story.
Luis Otero was an eccentric loner from a wealthy Buenos Aires family. He avoided women, dressed badly and loved Patagonia’s solitude. One day he and a servant were driving a buckboard to his farm. Two riders approached. One smiled and waved Otero on, giving his buckboard the right of way. The other rider suddenly grabbed the passing buckboard’s reins.
The horsemen – now identifiable as English-speakers – took them to their camp, tied them up and built a crude prison cell with tree trunks and rawhide. Otero noted the taller, fair-haired bandit left most of the heavy work to the shorter fellow.
The two bandidos had English-speaking sidekicks. They let the prisoners out twice a day for exercise and bodily functions. After two weeks of this routine one gringo accidentally dropped a match. Otero scooped it up, surreptitiously lit a small fire and burned through the rawhide.
That night the prisoners heaved aside a log, squeezed out and escaped. Otero made hysterical accusations, claiming his brothers had orchestrated the kidnapping to poison his affection for Patagonia. His family assured the police that mentally he was not a well young man. Nobody believed Otero’s story until the police investigated the site. Then the kidnapping scandalized Argentina.
The Ministry of the Interior took the heat.
We can imagine the Minister at his desk, bewailing all the negative publicity Otero’s kidnapping and other recent abominations had sprayed on Patagonia in general and on his ministry in particular.
Here he is, venting to an assistant after digesting the latest newspaper reports and editorials:
Minister: Fabris, this is outrageous! Outrageous! Absolutely outrageous! I’m … I’m …
Fabris: Outraged, Your Excellency?
Minister: Outraged! Yes! How did things in Patagonia get so bad? Just look at these headlines. Kidnappings! Marauding outlaws!Bandidos yanquis acting like they own the place! I mean, how did it get like this?
Fabris: Well, I hesitate to use the word misappropriation, but Your Excellency will recall those funds earlier allocated to the improvement of law enforcement in Patagonia…
Minister: Er … y…yes.
We have to do something, Fabris. Not only do something, but be seen to do something. I’m ordering a huge increase in police manpower down there. Let’s beef up the Frontier Police. With luck they’ll make some juicy arrests and embarrass those sons of whores who run the newspapers. I’ll rub their noses in it. See to it at once, will you?
So the funds earmarked for the suppression of Patagonia banditry magically rematerialized. Patrols were stepped up. Evans and Wilson laid low.
Old Peña’s story featured in Bruce Chatwin’s genre-bending book In Patagonia (1977):
In December, 1911 Evans and Wilson returned to Río Pico to buy supplies from the Hahn brothers, German immigrants on friendly terms with the bandidos. The Hahns warned them that the Frontier Police were uncomfortably close, and treated Wilson’s wounded hand. He explained a faulty cartridge had detonated while he was repacking it. After paying for the provisions they rode off into the hills.
They rode into trouble. A local landowner named Solís suspected his wife of “carrying on” with Evans. Having a rough idea of their camp’s whereabouts, Solís directed a patrol there. They saw Evans taking shelter from the summer sun, eating lunch under a tree. Wilson was in his tent, feverish from his infected hand.
Taking cover, the patrol’s leader, Lieutenant Blanco, shouted “¡Arriba las manos!“. But instead of submitting to capture, Evans fired twice, killing one trooper and wounding Pedro Peña. The troopers returned fire, killing Evans. Wilson, fleeing barefoot through the underbrush, was an easy target.
Six decades later Peña told interviewers Blanco’s search of the corpses produced two gold watches and the photograph of “una mujer hermosísima” (a most beautiful woman).
We should assess this.
The discredited Bolivian shoot-out story means Cassidy and Longabaugh could have remained active in South America post-1908. Given multiple yanqui gangs roaming Argentina-Chile, and with Evans and Wilson often posing as Butch and Sundance, it’s likely the Frontier Police weren’t always sure who their quarry was.
But in Peña’s story, researchers yearn for solid answers to:
- (1) Were the corpses independently identified?
- (2) Where were they buried? (Recent advances in DNA analysis compel this question.)
- (3) Assuming it existed, what became of “the most beautiful woman” photo?
It’s highly unlikely but not impossible that the victims really were Butch and Sundance. However, those events occurred from 1909 to 1911. What about “the gap years”, 1906 to 1908?
(vi) FADING INTO A BOLIVIAN
Cassidy, Longabaugh and Etta meandered north, reaching Bolivia (without Etta) in 1906. From Cholila this was about the same distance as Miami to Montreal.
As “Santiago Maxwell” and “Enrique Brown”, they walked the straight and narrow – to some extent – as employees of the Concordia Tin Mine.
Their American boss, Percy Seibert, liked Butch, describing him as “a gentleman … pleasant … charming … Women invariably liked him”. Longabaugh, however, was “distant and difficult to befriend”. They became reliable workers, and Seibert was glad to have them.
Cassidy/Maxwell eventually revealed their true identity, but their recent excellent conduct gave Seibert no reason to make this an issue. While Sundance trained the company’s mules, Butch was entrusted with delivering valuable payrolls. His impeccable record made him Concordia’s golden boy.
(Incidentally, Butch told Seibert about Etta: she was a great housekeeper – and sure could cook! – with “the heart of a whore”. He didn’t elaborate, and Seibert thought it unwise to pursue the subject.)
Cassidy’s duties included detailed negotiations for the purchase of Concordia’s pack animals. His Spanish had obviously come a long way since 1902, when his letter to Elzy Lay lamented his linguistic inadequacies.
Seibert allowed the pair considerable freedom. He figured if they were happy they’d be less likely to rob their employer and more likely to foil robberies by other outlaws.
There were reports that Cassidy and Longabaugh robbed other Bolivian mines themselves. This backfired on them: caucasians stood out in Bolivia’s largely indigenous population. Every robbery produced more eyewitnesses. Butch feared trouble was coming. And his partner became problematic.
During 1907 the tedium of training a tin mine’s mules unhinged Sundance. He hit the bottle.
Longabaugh’s drunken boasts of the robberies he and his amigo had pulled in Argentina and Chile prompted one cantina owner to summon the police. They made a speedy exit.
The crunch came on a visit to Santa Cruz. They saw a Spanish-language Pinkerton poster of themselves. Luckily, Cassidy now sported a beard and Longabaugh – no longer slim – had a booze-hound’s puffy face and double chin. Nobody connected them with the Wild Bunch-era faces on the posters.
Sundance sobered up and they quit the mine in 1908 to work as stagecoach drivers for a Scottish owner.
Then they vanished. November 1908 saw the San Vicente shoot-out involving two gringos.
Seibert did his ex-employees a kindness by identifying the corpses as Cassidy and Longabaugh.
That’s it, said the authorities. Case closed.
Butch and Sundance were now good to go.
(vii) MEMORIES, MEMORIES
The Pinkertons hadn’t forgotten them.
In 1902 an agent visited Argentina following reports that three yanquis in Patagonia matched the outlaws’ and Etta’s descriptions. He alerted the authorities and distributed Spanish-language wanted posters, reminding everyone of the generous rewards still available. But nothing happened.
In 1903 Agent Frank Dimaio arrived in Argentina with orders to get the ball rolling. In Patagonia falsely depicted Dimaio as a nervous fellow, endlessly delaying his search for the fugitives after somehow forming an image of Patagonia as a snake-infested jungle full of crocodiles and fevers.
In fact, Dimaio was an agency hero. One of the few Italian-American Pinkertons, he volunteered to infiltrate Sicilian gangs in a New Orleans prison. One slip-up and Dimaio was a goner. But he pulled off this perilous undercover mission with exemplary skill and courage.
Dimaio sent more Spanish-language wanted posters throughout Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile. Yet unexplained stalling by the Argentinian authorities and U.S. consular officials now confounded him. Then HQ suddenly informed Dimaio that this investigation was deprioritized.
The Union Pacific Railroad and the American Bankers Association, accepting the Pinkertons’ contention that these fugitives had relocated to Argentina, were now perfectly satisfied to let them be. Look, they said, if they’re down in South America they can’t rob our banks and trains. Reward money? Forget reward money. Repeat: forget reward money. Forget Cassidy and Longabaugh.
The case remained officially open. Then in 1911 the Uruguayan police reported killing three bandidos yanquis, two men and a woman, in a shoot-out. This was music to the Pinkertons’ ears. That’s it, they said after a decent interval. Case closed.
The word spread: Butch and Sundance were pushing up South American daisies. But not everyone was convinced.
Poppycock! said Cassidy’s old friends:
- Butch dead in a South American shoot-out? A shoot-out? Butch? Never!
- Why, I seen old Butch running guns for Pancho Villa in Mexico! (Possible but unlikely.)
- A Mormon family named Bowman swore Cassidy skillfully negotiated them out of a serious jam with Mexican troops in Chihuahua in 1910. Years later Butch visited them in Texas. They sent his photo to his folks in Utah.
- Butch went gold-prospecting in Alaska with Wyatt Earp. But the climate disagreed with Butch so he come on back. (Alaska: possible. Earp: nope.)
- I met Butch at a Wild West show in San Francisco. (Not impossible.)
- After South America Butch went to Paris, France, Europe. He had surgery on his face. Now he looks real different. (C’est possible. But see Part viii.)
- Old Butch? He got himself a Model T Ford and drove all around the West. (This was supposedly Cassidy’s sentimental journey to his preferred brothels from Nevada to Texas.) (Memories, memories.) And he’s gotten rather fat.
Other return stories:
A Rock Springs, Wyoming bartender, Bert Kraft alleged that during the 1920’s Elzy Lay and Cassidy entered his saloon. Lay was incarcerated in 1899, but was pardoned in 1906 for helping to end a prison riot. He straightened himself out, remarried and moved to California.
Kraft knew them back in the 1890’s. He mentioned that Elzy’s old flame, Josie Bassett (whose sister was Butch’s old flame) lived nearby.
Butch, Elzy and Josie reminisced for hours. She later claimed she’d met Butch twice in Johnnie, Nevada. Josie added he’d worked for a mining company there, where he died “in the 1940’s”.
Then there’s Lula Parker Betenson, Cassidy’s youngest sister.
In her book Butch Cassidy, My Brother (1975), Betenson described the autumn day in 1925 when “Bob” – as the Parkers remembered him – appeared in Circleville, Utah.
A shiny Ford stopped on the road where Mark Parker was repairing a fence. After some hesitation Bob’s identity clicked and the brothers embraced. They took Bob’s car to the house where old Maximilian (“Maxi”) Parker – with his distinctive shock of white hair – and daughter Lula (aged 41) still lived.
“Bob” was 59 and hadn’t been home in over 40 years, but Maxi knew immediately his firstborn had returned. Lula – too young to remember him – observed the stranger had her mother Annie Parker’s face. She fixed an extra plate for her long lost brother.
Bob expressed grief at how his wicked ways had broken his dear mother’s heart. He described the day in ’84 when he left home. His mother packed some food in a blue blanket. She and the family dog, Dash, watched him ride past the poplar trees his mother had planted years earlier.
He declared he and Sundance had sincerely tried to “go straight” in Argentina and Bolivia. But he blamed corrupt local lawmen and Pinkertons for relentlessly hounding them, forcing them back into criminality. The family believed him.
Accepting they weren’t kids anymore and enough was enough, Cassidy and Longabaugh abandoned the outlaw life in 1909.
(If true, this casts fatal doubt on the outlaws in Bobby’s, Otero’s and Peña’s stories being Cassidy and Longabaugh.)
The ex-outlaws separated in 1909, arranging a future rendezvous and a return to America. A scorpion sting made Cassidy miss the rendezvous. He reached Mexico, finding employment here and there. In a cantina Butch suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder. He froze, fearing a zealous lawman had identified him. But the hand belonged to Etta.
Sundance was with her (!). The trio shared two convivial days. Later, Bob recounted, he prospected for gold. But Alaska’s climate aggravated his old injuries and he settled in the Pacific Northwest (not – as Josie said – in Nevada). There he hoped to live out his days.
His family promised never to reveal his whereabouts, allow outsiders access to his letters or divulge his burial place.
Lots of Lula’s blueberry pie (but no coffee in that Mormon household) later, he departed. Lula – “forthright and energetic into her nineties” – wrote: “Bob died of pneumonia in the Pacific Northwest in 1937”.
(viii) THE BANDIT INVISIBLE
Lula’s memoir contains nothing impossible but much that’s unprovable. Did she massage the facts to protect Bob’s anonymity and reputation? Perhaps. But we must balance that against her religious scruples and her stated wish to set the record straight.
Another memoir exists. A never-published manuscript, The Bandit Invincible, surfaced in the mid-1930’s. It claimed to tell the truth about Cassidy, by Cassidy, under the pseudonym William T. Phillips.
What can be said about William T. Phillips (“WTP”)?
Nothing for certain before 1908 (when Butch and Sundance were still known to be in Bolivia). WTP died in 1937 – as Lula reported about Butch- but his death certificate puts his birth in Michigan in June 1865, ten months before Butch was born in Utah.
Michigan’s 19th-century census records are intact, but no records exist for either WTP or his “father”, “L.J. Phillips”. The records for the “mother” show she was a 12-year-old in 1865.
The first appearance of WTP in any official record is his wedding certificate issued in Adrian, Michigan on May 14, 1908. He gave his age as 34 (wildly inaccurate for someone born in 1865). His profession was “mechanical engineer”. He took Gertrude (an asthmatic) to the healthier climate of Spokane, Washington (the Pacific Northwest), where he worked for a utility company and then a typewriter manufacturer. WTP quit temporarily to prospect for gold in Alaska.
Acquiring his own company, he took time off for a trip – alone – through Wyoming and Utah in 1925.
In 1930, as the Depression hit, WTP went to Wyoming to find some Wild Bunch money stashed decades earlier. He failed.
During another trip in 1934, WTP’s companion, a young Spokanite, heard WTP’s accounts of daring robberies, travels throughout the West, narrow escapes, brushes with death, adventures in South America and much more. WTP virtually admitted he was Butch Cassidy, complaining of decades-long harassment by lawmen. “When they get a man down they won’t let him up” was his constant refrain.
Urged to write his memoirs as soon as possible, WTP obliged by pouring out plodding prose in pencil.
He obviously wrote in haste. WTP was his own worst editor. The questionable chronology and frequent misspellings (emaculate; only heresay) attest to that. WTP wrote in the third person (Butch knew…; Cassidy was…) but occasionally slipped and used I/me/my. Names, dates and places were changed, either because of memory lapses or to hide incriminating details. These “errors” led some researchers to dismiss The Bandit Invincible as a failed fraud.
But. The misspellings, idiosyncrasies, faulty grammar and quirky punctuation are close to what’s found in Cassidy’s early letters. While not a perfect match, the handwriting is too similar to be coincidental. The differences could be due to ageing.
The Bandit Invincible includes intimate details which its defenders claim only someone living in Cassidy’s shadowy world would know. It describes long forgotten saloons which subsequent research showed had briefly existed as the author portrays them. Obscure South American locales appear with details that you’d only know if you’d been there.
Without editorial comment, here’s what The Bandit Invincible says:
Parker wasn’t Butch’s original surname. As a runaway he was adopted by a George Parker. WTP ignores his childhood experiences and goes straight to Butch’s nascent criminality. His petty crimes eventually escalate.
Cassidy’s unjustly imprisoned for a minor crime, resulting in a lifelong grudge against the judge responsible. A model prisoner, he’s released – with that judge’s official apology – after seven months of an 18-month sentence. He works various straight jobs, but frequently backslides into crime.
Butch’s increasing boldness leads to notoriety. He forms The Wild Bunch, a loose coalition dissolving and coalescing with the circumstances. With western lawmen on his tail, Cassidy heads east. In Chicago and Michigan he dispenses largesse, survives close calls, coincidentally encounters Western lawmen (even accidentally sharing accommodation with one), works for a circus and steers a Lake Michigan boat. He also visits Central America but is unimpressed.
Butch returns to Wyoming, associating more with Dick Maxwell – Harry Longabaugh – who’s never called The Sundance Kid. Maxwell and his girlfriend, Betty Price, maintain a fierce mutual loyalty.
The pressure surges, and after more narrow escapes Cassidy and Maxwell decide to “go straight” and become Patagonian beef farmers. They arrange to rendezvous in Montevideo, Uruguay in September 1901. Butch travels from Montreal to Liverpool, the Canary Islands, Madeira and Brazil. He arrives in Uruguay in July.
Maxwell arrives. Before Betty’s arrival they purchase a homestead near the Rio Negro, nowhere near Cholila. After an uneventful three years they encounter an ex-Wyoming lawman – now a Patagonian stock buyer – named Apfield. Alarm bells ring. Apfield knows them from “the days of your”. They abandon farming and revert to banditry.
Two yanquis – Fowler and Haines – join them. Betty tags along. In northern Argentina Butch spreads the word they’re leaving Argentina forever. Respectable job offers arrive from Chile and Peru, but he declines: staying anchored to one spot increases his vulnerability. Entering Bolivia, they rob trains for chicken feed.
Their crimes become bolder. Betty’s unhappy. Maxwell sends her to Buenos Aires with all his money.
Bolivian troopers pursue them. In a vicious firefight Cassidy, Maxwell and an unexplained partner named Billings kill 17 troopers. Billings dies. Maxwell’s hit. Sinking fast, Maxwell’s last words are: Good-bye, Butch, my old pal. Don’t forget Betty. Take my [money] belt with you if you can get away and send it to little Betty and she will know I died fighting and thinking of her.
Butch skedaddles before the troopers realize he’s survived, heading to Brazil by horse, riverboat and foot. He sends Maxwell’s belt to Betty without an accompanying letter. She’ll understand. From a Brazilian port he sails to Liverpool, then heads straight to Paris for three weeks of facial surgery by an unnamed doctor in an unnamed hospital to alter his appearance.
Butch returns to the States. The Bandit Invincible ends.
Q: What can we make of all this?
A: Firstly, I believe Lula’s account is the more reliable, I’ll say that much.
Before we tackle Invincible itself, consider WTP’s timing.
There’s a signed letter from Cassidy to Concordia’s top management, sent from Tres Cruces, Bolivia on February 16, 1908. It says nothing about leaving. Yet three months later WTP’s already abandoned Bolivia, has already settled in Michigan, has already courted Gertrude and is saying “I do” at the altar.
Either: (a) WTP wasn’t Cassidy but someone expertly hiding his true identity who knew Cassidy intimately. Or (b): He was Cassidy, and he left South America much earlier than we thought, making that letter a red herring.
My bet’s on (a).
Q: And the similar handwriting, misspellings and grammar?
A: Did a relative or close companion who’d seen his letters copy his style? But that does remain a nagging problem, as nagging as the WTP-first-appearance conundrum.
It’s like JFK-assassination studies: implausiblities can produce possible explanations, but plausible explanations often produce shaky conclusions.
Q: Invincible‘s defenders point to many details that only Cassidy could have known. For example, he refused to shake hands with the judge who imprisoned and later released him. Only Butch was there, so…
A: This episode’s recorded by that judge in Wyoming’s public records, so it wasn’t something only Butch could know.
What if the text said The night before, Cassidy had dreamed about his family? Would this be proof of the dream’s reality? Only Butch could remember Butch’s dreams, right? With these statements you can say pretty much anything because nobody can prove you wrong.
Anyway, even a cursory reading raises these issues:
Cassidy’s picaresque Michigan adventures were intended to create links between Cassidy and Michigan, to make WTP/Cassidy’s sudden presence there in 1908 less surprising.
Remember his weird sea-routes to and from South America? The first is explicable by a natural desire to conceal his true final destination. But the return-trip’s Paris episode was necessary to explain why WTP and Cassidy looked like:
Also, how did he reach Europe and America after barely escaping with his life in Bolivia? How much money could he carry? Enough to cross Brazil, reach England, spend three weeks in Paris, pay for plastic surgery then sail to the States and start afresh?
Invincible ignores Cassidy’s spell in Mexico. Lula’s book didn’t. There’s nothing about the Bolivian mine. Invincible asserts Longabaugh died but Cassidy told the Parkers they met in Mexico. There’s nothing about Cassidy’s new life in America.
The similarities may certainly be striking but the discrepancies and omissions are glaring.
Plus, Invincible‘s depiction of Cassidy is questionable. Butch’s character combines Huckleberry Finn with Robin Hood and Indiana Jones.
Q: What about the “Evans and Wilson were Butch and Sundance” idea?
A: Doubtful. The chronology’s problematic. Also: If Butch and Sundance left Bolivia around 1908, why would they return to Patagonia? They were still wanted by the Argentinian and Chilean police, remember.
Q: Finally, Cassidy dominates the narrative. Longabaugh always played second fiddle. Why isn’t there more research on Longabaugh‘s post-Bolivia fate?
A: It seems people just aren’t that interested in Sundance. Butch was charismatic. Sundance stayed a shadowy, silent figure, except in Bolivian cantinas. There was never much to say about him. And that’s probably how he wanted it.