Starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a smash success when it was released in 1969. Surprisingly, the movie generally follows the actual events of Butch Cassidy’s outlaw life. It’s a fun romp from beginning to end. Most of the casting is not bad for Hollywood: Believe it or not, the real Etta Place was just as beautiful as Katharine Ross. However, Paul Newman was nothing like the real Butch Cassidy. Although the real Cassidy had a great sense of humor, an infectious grin, and could be playful, he was a rugged, square-jawed, ornery outlaw inured to all the hardships of the Old West. Newman got the humor and playfulness right, but he couldn’t project the other characteristics that made Cassidy a respected and formidable leader. For me that’s the failing of the movie, but Newman’s Cassidy is the image of Butch Cassidy held by most in America today.
Butch Cassidy was born Robert LeRoy Parker in Beaver, Utah, on Friday the 13th of April 1866. He was the first of 13 children born to Maximillian and Ann Parker. It was a Mormon home.
In 1879 Maximillian Parker bought a homestead in Circle Valley, Utah. Young Robert LeRoy, or Roy as he was called, was 13, and to help support the family he was sent off to work on Pat Ryan’s ranch at Hay Springs. While employed at the Ryan ranch, Roy had his first experience with the law.
Roy rode to town to buy a pair of overalls. The general store was closed when he arrived, but he let himself into the building and took a pair of blue jeans. He also left a note promising to return and pay for the pants. Ignoring the note, the storekeeper swore out a complaint against the young lad.
Roy Parker had been raised with the Code of the West: A man’s word was his bond. He was outraged by the merchant’s action. The matter was quickly settled, but Roy was left with bad feelings about the legal system.
Gale-force winds and droughts made life on the Parker homestead a struggle. Maxi decided to homestead additional acreage in the valley, but rights to the new property were contested by another settler. By Mormon custom the dispute was mediated by the local church bishop. The bishop awarded the land to the other settler. Maxi was furious. He knew he had lost because he was a Jack Mormon.
Young Roy was furious also. He felt religion had been used to cheat his family out of their land. To help support the family Roy hired out again, this time at Jim Marshall’s ranch. There he met Mike Cassidy, a cowboy who was exceptionally good not only with horses but also with guns. Cassidy spent his spare time stealing cattle and horses from the ranges of western Utah and selling them in the booming mining camps of Colorado’s western slope. Soon, Roy was accompanying Cassidy on his adventures. Roy Parker wanted to emulate his mentor in every way.
By 1884 Roy was 18 years old and full grown at 5' 9" and a muscular 165 lbs. He had sandy-blond hair and blue-gray eyes. By 1884 he was also known to the authorities and was forced to leave for parts unknown. Soon he would be using the surname Cassidy and a bit later became Butch Cassidy.
In Telluride, Colorado, Butch worked a pack train of mules hauling ore from the mines down the talus slopes to the mills in the San Miguel Valley. He went on to work cattle ranches in Wyoming and Montana, including the Two Bar, a Swan Land and Cattle Company ranch, which controlled much of Wyoming and had 160,000 head of cattle.
A Two Bar cowboy said Butch could ride around a tree at full speed and put every bullet from his revolver into a three-inch circle. Mike Cassidy had taught him well. Butch was described as likeable, good-natured, loyal, and generous. He made friends easily. Later, these friends helped protect him from pursuing authorities.
Butch’s first major crime was the robbery of the San Miguel Valley bank of Telluride in June 1889. Butch, Tom McCarty, and Matt Warner (whose real name was Willard Christiansen) planned the robbery carefully and cased the bank for several days before striking. They overwhelmed a surprised clerk and galloped out of town.
A posse set out in pursuit, but Butch and the others had a fresh relay of horses waiting for them. While they were changing horses they tied brush to the tail of a horse and spooked it. The horse galloped straight down a slope and into the oncoming posse. The horses of the possemen reared out of control, and the bandits escaped to Brown’s Hole, a remote, secluded valley along the Green River at the junction of Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. By 1889 the valley had been the haunt of outlaws for a generation. There were only two or three ways into it, and lawmen could be seen coming for miles off. Also, state or territorial lines, from Colorado to Utah to Wyoming, could be crossed quickly, and lawmen left frustrated.
Barn dances and horse racing constituted the principal entertainment for the residents of Brown’s Hole. Cassidy, who had ridden Matt Warner’s racehorse Babe in races throughout Colorado’s western slope before the bank robbery at Telluride, was in constant demand as a jockey. He won most of the contests.
Butch gained a reputation in Brown’s Hole for his affable nature, presence of mind in face of danger, toughness, and generosity. He enjoyed demonstrating his quickness and accuracy with guns. He was a natural leader. He courted a few of the young women of Brown’s Hole, especially Mary Boyd. She later claimed to have been his common-law wife.
In 1890 Cassidy moved to Wyoming’s Hole-in-the-Wall. He was peripherally involved in the Johnson County War. In April 1892 a couple of lawmen received word that Cassidy was in possession of three stolen horses and was resting in a cabin near Auburn, Wyoming. One of the lawmen was a deputy sheriff, Bob Calverly. Deputy Calverly surprised Cassidy while he was dozing on a bunk and told him he had a warrant for his arrest. Cassidy replied, “Well, get to shooting.”
With that both Calverly and Cassidy drew their revolvers and began firing. Another lawman got in the way, and neither got off a clean shot. Then Calverly fired a round that creased Cassidy’s forehead and left him stunned. Calverly and the other lawman took advantage of the opportunity to get handcuffs on Cassidy.
Cassidy claimed he had purchased the horses fair and square, and that seems to have been the case. However, the man he had purchased them from had stolen them. There is evidence Cassidy was framed by the cattle barons of Wyoming as a way to get rid of one more small rancher and cattle thief. Cassidy was tried and found guilty. In July 1894 he was sentenced to two years in the Wyoming state penitentiary.
After serving 18 months, Cassidy applied for a pardon. William Richards, the governor of Wyoming, addressed Cassidy: “If it is your intention to go straight after you get out, perhaps it could be arranged. You’re still young, and smart enough to make a success in almost any line. Will you give me your word that you’ll quit rustling?”
“Can’t do that, governor,” replied Cassidy, “because if I gave you my word I’d only have to break it. I’m in too deep now to quit the game. But I’ll promise you one thing: If you give me a pardon I’ll keep out of Wyoming.”
Cassidy’s frankness appealed to Governor Richards. “Give me your word on it?” asked the governor.
“Sure thing,” promised Butch. The governor signed the pardon, and in January 1896 Cassidy walked out of the penitentiary a free man.
Cassidy soon organized a group of outlaws that would become known as the Wild Bunch. The gang included different members during different periods. Among the most prominent members of the Wild Bunch were Harry Longabaugh, known as the Sundance Kid; William Ellsworth “Elzy” Lay; Harvey Logan, known as Kid Curry; Ben “the Tall Texan” Kilpatrick; and Will “News” Carver.
Harry Longabaugh earned his nickname after having served time for horse theft in the Crook County jail in Sundance, Wyoming. He was a bit taller and thinner than Cassidy but with the same coloring. He was also a very quick and a dead shot. Quiet and reserved, he was handsome, immaculate in dress and grooming, and had the attitude and presence of a refined gentleman. Some called him aloof.
Longabaugh came from a good family in Pennsylvania, but ran away from home after reading a number of thrilling novels about the frontier West. In 1892 Longabaugh, Bill Madden, and Harry Bass robbed a Great Northern train at Malta, Montana. Madden and Bass were eventually captured, tried, and convicted, but the Sundance Kid made good his escape.
Of the several women associated with the Wild Bunch, the most famous was Etta Place. Tall, slender, soft-spoken and well-mannered, with green eyes and chestnut hair, she was a beauty—and something of a mystery woman. Some say she was a soiled dove from Fannie Porter’s brothel in San Antonio, Texas. Frank Dimaio, the Pinkerton detective who followed Butch Cassidy, Harry Longabaugh, and Etta Place to Argentina, said she was a schoolmarm from Denver who fell in love with the Sundance Kid. She could ride and shoot with the best of them, and was absolutely devoted to Longabaugh.
Butch Cassidy’s first robbery following his release from the Wyoming state penitentiary occurred in August 1896 at Montpelier, Idaho. Butch was assisted by Elzy Lay and Bob Meeks. Cassidy carefully scouted Montpelier, especially the town’s bank, and planned the robbery thoroughly before taking any action. He and his confederates even worked on a ranch in the area for a time before staging the robbery. As usual, Butch had fresh horses waiting for him on his escape route. They got away with more than $7,000, something like a couple hundred thousand today.
Butch’s next robbery occurred at Castle Gate, Utah, in April 1897. The Denver & Rio Grande noon train arrived at Castle Gate with the Pleasant Valley Coal Company payroll aboard. The crowd of miners barely noticed two horsemen ride up to the general store. The horsemen were Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay, and they were outfitted as horse trainers and mounted on fine, blooded horses. When the paymaster brought the payroll from the train, Butch jumped in his path, put a gun in his ribs, and took the satchel. Before the astonished crowd could react, Cassidy was back on his horse and galloping out of town.
“Butch Cassidy, Part 2” will appear in this space in the December 2018 issue.