In the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch and Sundance drop in on a man named Bledsoe, an old outlaw pal who has “gone straight” and become a sheriff. They ask the man to help cover for them, but instead they get a lecture about their lives of banditry: “I never met a man more affable than you, Butch, or faster than the Kid, but you’re still nothin’ but two-bit outlaws on the dodge. It’s over! Don’t you get that? Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.” Sheriff Bledsoe was right. By 1901, Butch and Sundance, perhaps the most notorious outlaw duo in American history, were nothing but rusty remnants of a century gone by. Technology had made successful bank and train robberies increasingly difficult, and the law kept getting closer and closer to catching them. Finally, on July 3, 1901, Butch and Sundance’s “Wild Bunch” pulled off one last great robbery — a holdup of the Great Northern Coast Flyer train near Wagner, Montana. After dividing the estimated take of $65,000, the Wild Bunch split up forever. Butch and Sundance realized the outlaw way was dying, and the pair — accompanied by Etta Place, the Sundance Kid’s common-law wife — headed for the greener pastures of Argentina. America’s two most daring outlaws had decided to start life anew as sheep ranchers, and when they set sail for South America, the 19th century spirit of the untamed West departed with them.
Butch and Sundance were both products of conservative 19th century religious communities. Cassidy was born Robert LeRoy Parker in Beaver, Utah, in April 1866 — on Friday the 13th. His grandfather had been one of the original Mormon settlers of Utah, but the young Cassidy saw the church as oppressive and hypocritical. As a teenager he engaged in what he saw as harmless cattle rustling, and when the town elders — all devout Mormons — objected, he left Utah for the wilder plains of the Wyoming Territory. [Pointer, pp. 42-49] In Wyoming he got involved with would-be settlers in a dispute against large absentee landowners. In 1894 Cassidy was sentenced to two years in the Territorial Prison for rustling, a judgment he said was unfair and politically motivated. Upon his release, he apparently decided that if he was going to be treated as an outlaw, he might as well act like one. Cassidy soon moved to the Hole in the Wall area of north-central Wyoming, a mountain haven for criminals on the lam. Though historical records are sketchy, it was probably here that he met most of the future members of the Wild Bunch, including the Sundance Kid. [Pointer, pp. 63-98] The Kid had been born Harry Longabaugh in 1867. Though his parents were Baptists, he was raised in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in the heart of Amish country. As a boy Harry read dime novels about the exploits of Jesse James and other western heroes, and he longed to escape the confines of rural Pennsylvania. The perfect opportunity presented itself in 1882 when some cousins decided to move West on a wagon train, and the 15-year-old Harry went with them. [Meadows, pp.26-27; O’Neill, pp. 40-49] Harry soon arrived in Colorado Springs, perhaps in time to witness a lecture by another rebellious figure who would come to symbolize the end of the 19th century: Oscar Wilde. The young writer was nearing the end of his famed American lecture tour of 1882, and he had taken to wearing Cowboy garb on stage since arriving in the West. In Leadville, Colorado, Wilde encountered what he later called “the only rational piece of art criticism I’ve ever come across in my life” — a sign in a saloon pleading, “DON’T SHOOT THE PIANIST, HE’S DOING HIS DAMNEDEST.” [O’Neill, pp. 55-57] Neither Wilde nor Longabaugh lasted long in Colorado Springs, however. By 1884 Harry had drifted North and was working as an itinerant ranch hand in Montana and Wyoming. In 1887 the 19-year-old Longabaugh stole a horse and was sentenced to two years imprisonment in Sundance, Wyoming. He was known forever after as the Sundance Kid. [Meadows, pp. 27-30]
It is not certain when or where the Wild Bunch began its string of bank and train robberies, but from the beginning it had a unique system of operation. Cassidy fancied himself as a modern-day Robin Hood. After one bank robbery he allegedly gave part of his share to a widow who had been foreclosed on by the bank in question. “I consider that most of [the banker’s] money is blood money squeezed out of his mortgage victims,” Cassidy supposedly told the widow. “The only difference between him and myself is that he uses the law when he holds people up and I use a six-shooter.” [Pointer, pp. 103-104] The Wild Bunch differed from their famed predecessors, the James Gang, in several respects. Though both groups rationalized their crimes in similar ways, James was seen as a Southerner giving the postbellum North what it deserved, while Cassidy was a champion of small homesteaders in their struggles against turn-of-the-century cattle barons and railroad magnates. While the James Gang was a product of Reconstruction, the Wild Bunch represented a sense of frontier justice that was vanishing near the end of the 19th century. By all accounts, Cassidy had a great wit, roguish charm, and respect for humanity. He went out of his way to avoid conflict; according to some, he never killed anyone in all his years of robbery. [Pointer, pp. 4-5]
While the encroachment of “civilization” on the Western frontier at the end of the 19th century was almost certainly responsible for the demise of the Wild Bunch, it also provided Butch and Sundance with new methods to use in their robberies. At the start of the duo’s career evading the law was no problem because “distances were too great, terrain too rugged, hideouts too remote. Communications systems were virtually nonexistent.” [Pointer, p. 50] Soon, however, innovations like the railroad and telegraph were providing the authorities with valuable tools for apprehending outlaws. In one case, a member of the Wild Bunch was apprehended when lawmen sent a telegram from Kansas City to Cripple Creek, Colorado — an action that would have been impossible a few years earlier. But Butch and Sundance also changed with the times. First they began using smokeless gunpowder, which enabled them to shoot at distant pursuers while hidden, without revealing their location. [Pointer, pp. 151-152, 158] In addition, the Wild Bunch was far removed from the gangs of “horse outlaws” that had predominated earlier in the century. This is illustrated by one of Cassidy’s many remarkable getaways: He first left the bank on horseback, galloping from hideout to hideout. Then he purchased new clothes to disguise his appearance and boarded a train to Iowa. From there he made his way to Chicago, where he attended the Ontario Theater before boarding a boat to Frankfort, Michigan. He then took a train to Bay City, Michigan, where he found work on the crew of the schooner Eagle. After the schooner reached its destination in Sandusky, Michigan, Cassidy was hired by a traveling circus, which he accompanied for a time before traveling by train to St. Louis and, eventually, back home. When he returned to Wyoming, Cassidy found that not only had the intense manhunt for him died down, but his death had been mistakenly reported in the newspapers. [Pointer, pp. 109-116]
Eventually, however, Cassidy grew weary of the outlaw life. Members of the Wild Bunch were being apprehended left and right, and staying one step ahead of the law became too much of a hassle. In 1900 he contacted the Utah governor through an intermediary, offering to stop his robberies in exchange for amnesty. But because the Wild Bunch had pulled off robberies in many states, the governor was powerless. He suggested that Cassidy instead talk to the Union Pacific Railroad Company, which had the power to drop charges on Cassidy’s train robberies. Cassidy set up a meeting with a company representative, and even offered his services as a railroad guard to thwart robberies by others. However, bad weather prevented the Union Pacific man from reaching the remote meeting location on time, and Cassidy thought he had been double-crossed. He left a note reading in part, “Tell the U.P. to go to hell. And you can go with them.” With compromise now out of the question, Cassidy began planning his next robbery — of a Union Pacific train, of course. [Pointer, pp. 164-165]
Butch and Sundance still wanted to go straight, however, and if they couldn’t do it in the United States, they would have to go somewhere else. Cassidy decided to pull off one last great train robbery, which took place near Wagner, Montana, on July 3, 1901, in the first year of the new century. Then, accompanied by Etta Place, the Sundance Kid’s common-law wife, they took their share of the take to New York City — where they proceeded to paint the town while evading the Pinkerton detectives who were searching for them. “It shows how daring these people are,” William Pinkerton wrote. “While we’re looking for them in the mountains and the wilderness they are in the midst of society.” The trio visited Coney Island and Atlantic City, and Mr. and Mrs. Longabaugh had their photograph taken on Broadway. Then they sailed separately for Argentina, where they had heard one could make a prosperous living as a sheep rancher. Cassidy visited Liverpool, the Canaries, and the Cape Verde Islands en route to Buenos Aires, where upon his arrival he purchased a 1300-acre ranch and 800 head of cattle. [Pointer, pp. 194-96]
For several years Butch, Sundance, and Etta lived and worked happily in rural Argentina, socializing with their ranching neighbors and participating in fiestas in the nearby town of Esquel. But then the inevitable happened: One day in 1905, Butch and Sundance were recognized by an ex-sheriff from Wyoming who happened to be passing through. There was still a price on their head, so the duo felt they had no choice but to resume a life of banditry. [Pointer, pp. 198-99] The Wild Bunch was gone, so Butch and Sundance enlisted a new partner to help with their robberies: Etta. By all accounts Etta Place was not only beautiful and full of spirit, but was also a renowned horsewoman and sharpshooter. However, because “Etta Place” was an alias, little is known of her true identity or background. The most common theories are that she was either a teacher or a prostitute, and hailed from either Colorado or Texas. One of the few things known for certain about her life is that she and Sundance traveled to New Orleans to bring in the new century on December 31, 1900. [Meadows, pp. 36-45] Etta disguised herself as a man during the South American robberies, and together the trio became known in Latin America as los Bandidos Yanquis. They pulled off several successful robberies in Argentina and Bolivia before mysteriously disappearing. Legend had it that Butch and Sundance were killed in a shootout with the Bolivian cavalry at San Vicente, Bolivia, in 1908; however, this story was not reported in the United States until 1930, well after the fact. Historical and archaeological research has shown that two American outlaws were indeed killed at San Vicente, but whether they were Butch and Sundance is not certain. A 1992 exhumation showed that one of the outlaws in question bore an unquestionable physical resemblance to Sundance, but the other body was not in good enough condition to compare it to Cassidy. Etta Place’s fate is also unknown; for the last century, countless stories have circulated concerning the true fate of each of the three outlaws. The most persistent of these rumors is that Butch Cassidy lived until 1937 in Spokane, Washington, under the alias William T. Phillips. In his 1977 book In Search of Butch Cassidy, historian Larry Pointer presented convincing evidence, including photographic and graphological analysis, in arguing that Phillips was really Cassidy.
Whatever their true fate, it is clear that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid left their mark on the American psyche at the turn of the century as symbols of a passing age of daring and adventure. The Wild Bunch was the last great western outlaw gang: By the time the Barrow gang and others became prominent in the 1930s, their getaways were made in Packards instead of on horseback. And thanks to Hollywood, Butch and Sundance are as famous at the end of the 20th century as they were at the beginning of it. Countless films, including American landmarks such as The Great Train Robbery (1903) and The Wild Bunch (1969), have been loosely based on the exploits of Butch, Sundance, and company. But it is unquestionably Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) that has made the most impact. Starring Paul Newman as Butch and Robert Redford as Sundance, it became one of the most critically and commercially successful films of all time. Though conceived as a comic “buddy movie,” the film was painstakingly accurate in its characterizations of the two outlaws and its depictions of their exploits. Screenwriter William Goldman, like so many others, saw Butch and Sundance as emblems of a bygone era. Throughout the film, images of the horse and bicycle are used to contrast the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. Eventually Butch himself realizes that his way of life is dying, and as he leaves for South America, he throws his bike down in disgust and offers a parting shot: “The future’s all yours, you lousy bicycle!”
Meadows, Anne. Digging Up Butch and Sundance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
O’Neill, Eamonn. Outlaws: A Quest for Butch and Sundance. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1997.
Pointer, Larry. In Search of Butch Cassidy. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.