Butch Cassidy has gone down in history as the classic Wild West outlaw. Born right after the Civil War to a frontier family, Cassidy was a cowboy and a bank robber who brought a trademark style to his life of crime.
Working with his gang, the Wild Bunch, and most often with the Sundance Kid, Cassidy spent his criminal career hitting big scores only to spend through the fortunes he stole and head back out to steal again.
Unlike many others in his trade, Cassidy managed to evade capture and outlive his era. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the law – in this case, Bolivian law – caught up with him and gave him a bad end. Through it all, the only real ambition he ever expressed was to be a respectable rancher someplace where he wasn’t a wanted man.
Butch Cassidy’s Early life
Butch Cassidy was born Robert LeRoy Parker, the son of two English immigrants who had been converted to Mormonism in England. His parents made the trek to one of the most isolated spots in what would become the state of Utah in the 1850s and established a small ranch on a narrow strip of mountain valley.
The place still stands, though it’s not in good shape anymore, and it’s still quite a drive down 200 miles south of Salt Lake City to see it on the outskirts of Circleville, Utah.
Cassidy was born in that rundown cabin in Beaver, Utah on April 13, 1866, and the first 14 years of his life, seemed to have lived an unremarkable life as one of 13 children on a scrub farm in one of the remote places in North America. It was around age 14 that Cassidy set off to Rock Springs, Wyoming, to find work. Along the way, he fell in with a cattle rustler who went by the name Mike Cassidy. The two got along well enough that in time the younger man would use Mike’s alias for his own last name. He got “Butch” from his time in Wyoming where he worked as a butcher and then as a ranch hand until 1884 when he turned 18.
Cassidy Turns to crime
Butch Cassidy’s legendary life of crime began by accident and almost as a joke.
When he was still 15 or so, Cassidy rode to a nearby town to get some clothes. Riding into the one-horse town on Sunday, he found the shop locked up and deserted. Not wanting to go home emptyhanded, he broke into the shop and took a pair of jeans though he left an IOU for the cashier. The shop owner didn’t think this was funny, so he pressed charges for burglary, which luckily ended in an acquittal.
Having gotten a taste of the legal system and won, Cassidy drifted into horse rustling in 1887. He may have been stealing here and there before this, but by the time he moved to Dubois, Wyoming, he seemed to have gotten deeply involved in the underground trade of stolen horses.
Cassidy’s ranch became a chop shop where horses that were stolen in the area could go to get new brands and other cosmetic alterations before transshipment down to Texas. This went on until Cassidy met a man named Matt Warner who owned a racehorse and made a decent living on the local circuit. The two fell in together and before long they were planning a bank robbery.
Cassidy, Warner, and two associates named McCarty knocked over the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride. The reported haul was $21,000, which works out to well over half a million dollars today. Even after a four-way split, the men each had a hefty sum, but it wasn’t long before it had all gone into the local brothels and saloons, leaving the men short on cash and looking for another easy target.
Cassidy’s ranch at this time was near an odd geological formation in Wyoming called the Hole in the Wall. This was a cave in a hard-to-reach hillside where his gang could lie low after a robbery or plan a new heist when money from the last one ran out.
Given how little time Butch Cassidy spent tending his ranch and how much time he spent at the Hole in the Wall, the ranch might have been a cover for his gang’s activities. Eventually, in 1894, he took up with the daughter of a fellow rancher, Ann Bassett, who was also an outlaw. The two seemed to be very much in love, but their relationship wasn’t stable. For a short time, Cassidy actually lived with Bassett’s sister, but the two allegedly patched things up and got back together.
The Wild Bunch
After serving 18 months for a running racket in Wyoming, the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang reorganized into the Wild Bunch. This is not to be confused with the other Wild Bunch, also known as the Doolin-Dalton Gang, which operated in Texas and Oklahoma at that time. The names weren’t a coincidence; having copied his last name from another man, Butch Cassidy seemed to have had no problem stealing the name of the worst gang in the West at that time just as he stole many other things.
Before long, Cassidy’s Wild Bunch was holed up in Robbers’ Roost in southeastern Utah and staging raids on banks as far north as Idaho.
The Wild Bunch hit the big time on June 2, 1899, when they robbed a train carrying a lot of money out west. This attracted the attention of the authorities, but there was only so much the federal government could do to catch them in the big and open west. This was before Washington had strong interstate law enforcement powers, so the government did the next best thing and hired the Pinkertons to go and get Butch Cassidy.
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid
In those days, appearing on the Pinkertons’ radar was a bad idea. The private detective firm had experience catching counterfeiters as well as providing protection for the President. They were, in fact, the nucleus of the future Secret Service.
The Pinkertons were also strikebreakers who specialized in bringing a level of brutality to labor negotiations that shocked the world, with machine-gun massacres for striking coal miners, for example. Naturally, when they went after Butch Cassidy, they hired a contract killer named Tom Horn.
Horn never did meet Cassidy, but around this time he did meet the Sundance Kid. The Kid’s real name was Harry Longabaugh, and he was born in Pennsylvania in 1867. The name “Sundance” came from the first ranch he robbed which was apparently a solo job that netted him a horse, saddle, and some gear to go farther west.
Longabaugh rode with the Wild Bunch for several years and cultivated a reputation as a gunslinger, but there’s actually no evidence that he ever killed anyone until the fatal shootout where he and Cassidy supposedly died.
In 1896, 30-year-old Cassidy had gotten tired of life on the run. He had been a wanted man for a decade and in some states, the reward for his capture was up to $30,000. Pictures of him and his gang were hanging in every post office in the West and Cassidy seemed to have wanted an end to it all.
Shortly after Utah officially became a state, Cassidy appealed to the governor for amnesty so he could settle down and start a family. The governor deflected his request saying he had to negotiate with the Pinkertons to drop the charges against him. This was apparently out of the question, and what negotiations there were ended in 1901 when Cassidy and Sundance robbed another bank.
With the heat back on, Cassidy, Sundance, and Sundance’s girlfriend fled east to New York. There they boarded a ship for Buenos Aires where they lived under assumed names for a few years. By 1907, the Pinkerton Agency had caught up with the group, who had to flee overnight into the Andes, where they bought yet another ranch. Before long, rumors started going around about where they were, and it was time to move on again.
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