Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid--Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Longabaugh. Legends beyond their time. Despite the gallons of ink devoted to the exploits of these two colorful, romantic, but struggling cowboys-turned-bank robbers, their mystique continues to capture the imagination.
From the day of Butch's first stickup at Telluride, Colorado, June 24, 1889, when--as Roy Parker--he threw in with Matt Warner and Tom McCarty to make an unauthorized withdrawal of $20,750 from the San Miguel Valley Bank, to his last job November 4, 1908, robbing a cash shipment from a mining company near Tupiza in southern Bolivia, the saga of Butch Cassidy and his cohort, the Sundance Kid, has grown to mythic proportions in the annals of Western outlaws.
Butch and the Kid were not killer-desperadoes on the order of the James boys or the Youngers or the Daltons, but there was an aura about the two alumni from Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyoming, and their connection with the notorious Wild Bunch from Robbers Roost that stuck like glue. It may have been the $10,000 reward posted by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, but as the legend goes, Butch and Sundance (and Sundance's lady friend, the stunning Etta Place) could find no rest for fear of discovery and capture.
There are many twists to the story, but no ending. The traditional version has the trio fleeing to South America, with Cassidy and Sundance knocking off the mining-company shipment, only to be trapped in a village called San Vicente by Bolivian police. Then history becomes muddled. Some say the two outlaws fought it out with the federales, killed a few and were themselves wounded; in this version, Cassidy puts Sundance out of his misery with a bullet to the head, then shoots himself rather than surrender. Yet another faction of Western historians holds that the shootout involved two other North American outlaws, that they were deliberately misidentified to provide Butch and the Kid an opportunity to go straight without further fear of the Pinkertons. (This account also has Cassidy returning to America and working in the embryo Hollywood film industry.)
There are dozens of stories emanating from Utah, Nevada and Wyoming of "Butch Cassidy" sightings at various times and in as many places from the 1920s through the 1940s. In a new book, Digging Up Butch and Sundance (St. Martin's Press), author Anne Meadows details the circumstances that led her and her husband, Dan Buck, to search for answers to the mystery in South America. What they found in poking through Bolivian, Chilean and Argentinian newspaper and court records eight decades old brought them to the conclusion that Parker and Longabaugh lived with Etta Place on a ranch in northern Patagonia's Cholila Valley, under assumed names (James Ryan and Mr. and Mrs. Harry A. Place), from 1901 to 1905. During these years, Butch kept in touch with friends in Utah with occasional letters explaining how the fugitives were getting along.
But apparently the call of the wild was too strong and they took to the outlaw trail once again, plying their trade in Argentina and Bolivia. But the Pinkertons blamed them for virtually every holdup on the continent. Sometime over the next two years, the lovely Etta drops from sight. According to Meadows, the schoolteacher and bandit queen was last seen "crossing Argentina's Salado River on a raft" after a holdup at Villa Mercedes de San Luis in 1905.
Etta continues to be a mystery, since researchers have never learned her real name or background. Students of outlaw history theorize Etta was everything from a Boston finishing-school graduate to madam of a Texas bordello. One insists she was actually Ann Bassett of Brown's Hole on the Green River.
Meadows and Buck, intrigued by the Butch Cassidy story, doggedly retraced the events of the Tupiza robbery and shootout at San Vicente, making frequent trips over the ensuing years from their Washington, D.C., home to South America in a frustrating search for records that would lead them to positive identification of the two slain bandoleros or the location of their graves. Their quest ultimately was brought to PBS television in a 1993 "Nova" episode that documented an exhumation at the San Vicente Cemetery.
As described in her book, the forensic investigation of the bones of a white male Caucasian became a public-relations debacle when members of the scientific team talked to the press. "Did somebody forget to tell those guys to keep their mouths shut until the testing is complete," Meadows agonizes, "or are they just hard of listening?" Over the next weeks, stories that Butch and Sundance had been identified found their way into newspapers and television across the country--before the tests had begun.
In the final analysis, the recovered skeletal remains believed those of the Sundance Kid are ruled to be one Gustav Zimmer, a German working in Bolivia. There are no plans to excavate San Vicente graves, although Meadows and Buck believe the outlaws they seek are indeed buried there. "We just dug in the wrong spot." She is convinced, as is her husband, that the two did indeed die in the shootout.
As for claims that William T. Phillips, a Spokane, Washington, businessman who died in 1937, was Butch Cassidy, Meadows puts forth a convincing argument that he was born in Sandusky, Michigan, to Celia Mudge and Laddie J. Phillips, thus eliminating him. The name Hiram BeBee, a convicted killer who died in Utah State Prison, also surfaces as the "real" Harry Longabaugh. Absurd as this claim is--Longabaugh stood 6 feet tall--and the best BeBee could muster on his tallest day was 5- foot-3--the folktale continues. But Meadows has located a 1919 photograph of BeBee taken in San Quentin under his alias George Hanlon. The glossy mug shot looks more like a senior Dustin Hoffman or Jimmy Durante than the Sundance Kid. (In 1919, California authorities pegged BeBee/Hanlon's height at 5 feet, 2 3/4 inches. Not Sundance by any s-t-r-e-t-c-h.)
The story that Butch and Sundance died at San Vicente was first reported in a 1930 Elks Magazine article by Arthur Chapman. He used Percy Seibert, an American engineer in Bolivia, as the source. From the outset, the story was greeted with skepticism. And reports from scores of witnesses claiming to have seen one or the other of the outlaws after 1908 abounded. Writes Meadows: "Unverifiable reports have him--asking a postal detective in Salt Lake City to buy a wagon, harness, and camping outfit for him with money he peeled from a big roll of bills' in 1910; saving Jesse James's grandson from five kidnappers in the St. Louis railroad station,' after receiving a coded telegram about the plot while getting a medical checkup in a nearby hospital; then returning to Utah to work in a saloon in Price in 1915 and to sell shoes in Delta in 1918. Later, he supposedly went to Wyoming and spent two days in Baggs, drank whiskey in a Lander bar, looked up an old flame, and had his Model-T Ford repaired in Rock Springs, while hauling around a two-wheel trailer full of camping gear. He also attended a Wild West show in San Francisco; prospected with Wyatt Earp in Alaska; popped up in Nogales, Arizona; visited Albuquerque, New Mexico, and drifted to Europe."
And, of course, a story carried in The Salt Lake Tribune last October that retired Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Merrill Johnson and his wife had seen, heard and spoken to Robert LeRoy Parker in Kanab in 1941, 32 years after the episode at San Vicente! Meadows also writes that Joyce Warner, daughter of one of Cassidy's early cohorts, Matt Warner, said she was visited by Cassidy after her father's death; that she had last seen him in 1941; that he settled in the East under the name Frank Ervin and died in 1944 in Nevada.
When all is said and done, Meadows has pulled together a compelling and convincing argument in favor of Butch and Sundance on a holdup spree in South America during the early 1900s, and an almost convincing argument that the two stole the mine payroll and died in the San Vicente shootout four days later. (There is no question that two masked bandits--apparently "Yankees"--did the deed, but Cassidy and Longabaugh?)
Until absolute proof is discovered (or their identifiable remains), many history buffs will prefer to believe the pair escaped to North America and lived out their lives in welcome obscurity. But that does not detract a whit from Anne Meadows' very readable and interesting account of Digging Up Butch and Sundance.