Paul Newman and Robert Redford charmed a generation of movie-goers as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, respectively. But the real-life outlaws were completely different from the characters that they inspired. In fact, much about them remains a mystery even today — including how they really spent their final days.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Of course, everyone knows the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — or at least the movie version. Having fled the Wild West and settled in South America, the pair continued their run of lawbreaking, holding up local banks to fund their life in exile. But eventually, their luck ran out.
In the movie, law enforcement officers finally catch up to Cassidy and the Kid, otherwise known as Harry Longabaugh, in a small town in Bolivia. And in the resulting hail of bullets, both outlaws are killed. It’s a bittersweet ending to a tale that has captivated audiences for more than a hundred years. But how close is it to the truth?
Robert LeRoy Parker
Although Cassidy’s later life and death are shrouded in mystery, enough has been written about the outlaw to build up a clear picture of his early years. Born Robert LeRoy Parker in 1866 in Utah Territory, he was the son of Mormons who had emigrated from England in the 1850s. Before long, though, he would stray far from these religious roots.
At the family ranch near Circleville, Utah, the young Parker learned how to wrangle cattle. And when he was a teenager, he met a fellow cowboy and outlaw named Mike Cassidy. Inspired by his new friend — and bored with life in small-town America — he left home when he was still just a teenager.
Not long after, Parker had his first run-in with the law. While employed as a ranch hand, the story goes, he took a long ride into the nearest town to purchase pants at a local store. But when he found the owner away, he took the liberty of helping himself. And despite the fact that he left a note promising to pay, the police were soon called.
Distrust of authority
Ultimately, Parker was acquitted — but the incident left him with a deep mistrust of law enforcement and authority figures in general. It did not, however, transform him into an honest man. And before long, he was most likely dealing in stolen horses and supplementing his cowboy lifestyle with various petty crimes.
Butch is born
Drawn to the life of an outlaw, Parker wanted to change his identity to protect his family. And eventually, he settled on the surname of his former mentor. After spending some time working in the meat industry, he acquired the nickname Butch, and one of the most famous monikers in the Wild West was born.
On June 24, 1889, Cassidy robbed a bank for the first time. And the following year he bought a ranch in Wyoming, a few hundred miles west of a notorious outlaw hideout. The business was likely a front for further illegal activities, and in 1894 he was arrested for dealing in stolen horses.
The Wild Bunch
Before his stint in jail, Cassidy had already begun to amass plenty of friends and acquaintances — many with somewhat nefarious reputations. And after his release in 1896 several of them joined together to form their own crime syndicate. First known as the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, they would later go down in history as the Wild Bunch.
Along with other established criminals such as Ben Kilpatrick, known as the Tall Texan, and Harvey Logan, or Kid Curry, Cassidy embarked on an impressive lawbreaking career. After successfully robbing a bank in Idaho and making off with about $7,000 in cash, the Wild Bunch welcomed another member to their fold: Longabaugh.
The Sundance Kid
Already going by the nickname Sundance Kid, Longabaugh had his own criminal past by the time that he joined forces with Cassidy and his friends. But once the two men started working together, they became a formidable force. And even now, more than a century after they first met, they remain one of history’s most iconic duos.
For the next five years, Cassidy, Longabaugh, and the rest of the Wild Bunch wreaked havoc across north-west America. Although nobody is sure exactly how many robberies they committed — and how many were erroneously attributed to the gang — they are believed to have pocketed several hundred thousand dollars in total.
Much of their success, it seems, was down to Cassidy’s fine-tuned organizational skills. Before a robbery, the gang would stake out their target, observing the location and planning the best way to make good their escape. Then, once the deed was done, the horses and supplies that they had stashed in strategic locations always ensured a quick getaway.
A gentleman thief
But even though Cassidy was an efficient criminal, he was no monster. In fact, while other members of the Wild Bunch happily murdered the lawmen who pursued them, there is no evidence to suggest that he ever killed a single person. Instead, he built up a reputation as a kind and friendly man who served as a pillar of the local community.
Clearing his name
What’s more, on at least one occasion, Cassidy actively tried to change his criminal ways. According to some accounts, the outlaw sought a pardon via Heber Wells, the governor of Utah, in 1899. The following year, others claim, he approached a lawyer for advice on how he might clear his name in the eyes of the law.
The spree continues
Obviously, neither of these approaches worked, and Cassidy soon returned to crime, holding up a train in Wyoming in August 1900. With any chance of a pardon now scuppered, the Wild Bunch began planning another major heist. And on September 19, 1900, they committed their last big robbery at the First National Bank of Winnemucca in Nevada.
Fort Worth Five
By that point, several members of the gang had been killed in shootouts or altercations with the law. But Cassidy and Longabaugh were still going strong, as were Kilpatrick, Logan, and Will Carver, another outlaw. And when the five of them rode into Fort Worth, Texas, they decided to get a formal portrait of their ragtag family.
Escaping the West
It would prove to be a fatal mistake. Somehow, the authorities get hold of this now-infamous photograph dubbed the Fort Worth Five, plastering it over wanted posters across the region.
With law enforcement hot on their heels, Cassidy and Longabaugh made their way to New York City and began plotting a way to escape.
It’s at this point, though, that the truth begins to get somewhat blurry. What we do know is that in the winter of 1901 Longabaugh departed for South America, accompanied by his partner Etta Place. And most believe that there was a third party with them on this journey: Cassidy, traveling under the alias James Ryan.
A fresh start
On the other hand, some suspect that Cassidy remained in the U.S. a while longer, taking part in a Montana train robbery in July 1901. But eventually, everyone agrees, he wound up in South America, where he and Longabaugh purchased land with a log cabin near the Patagonian town of Cholila.
Family of three
There, Cassidy seems to have found some kind of peace — at least for a while. In a letter to a friend back in America, he wrote, “Another of my uncles died and left $30,000 to our little family of three so I took my $10,000 and started to see a little more of the world. I visited the best cities and best parts of the country of South A. till I got here. And this part of the country looked so good that I located, and I think for good, for I like the place better every day.”
But even this paradise, in the foothills of the Andes, could not tempt Cassidy away from a life of crime. And while nothing can be definitively proven, historians suspect that the two outlaws began committing bank robberies in South America as well. Meanwhile, detectives from the Pinkerton Agency back in the U.S. continued their efforts to track the outlaws down.
On the run
Eventually, Cassidy and Longabaugh abandoned their Patagonian property, fearing that their cover had been blown. According to reports, they took refuge in Chile before returning to Argentina some months later. In December 1905 a bank was robbed in Villa Mercedes, hundreds of miles north of Cholila — and the remaining members of the Wild Bunch caught the blame.
But were Cassidy and Longabaugh really committing ambitious robberies up and down the length and breadth of Argentina? Or were these the acts of different criminals, only associated with the infamous gang after the fact? As records of this time are scarce, we might never know the full truth of the matter.
After the Villa Mercedes robbery, some reports claim, Cassidy and Longabaugh escaped across the mountains into Chile. From there, they made their way to Bolivia, where they seem to have at least attempted to live an honest life. Allegedly, the pair took work at the Concordia Tin Mine — although their proximity to the company’s payroll may well have been part of the appeal.
It’s rumored that in 1907 Cassidy and Longabaugh made their way west to the frontier settlement of Santa Cruz. But by November of the following year, they are thought to have been in San Vicente, some 600 miles to the south. Certainly, we know that two white men stole a payroll in the mining town — although their identities have never been confirmed.
The final confrontation
Of course, the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid makes the identity of the two men who committed the San Vicente robbery clear. And it also depicts their ultimate fate, cornered as armed lawmen surrounded them. In fact, the image of the two outlaws charging straight into the line of fire — and facing certain death — is one of the most famous cinematic moments of all time.
Caught at last
But what really happened at San Vicente? Well, the official line is that Cassidy and Longabaugh were holed up in a nearby boarding house after committing their final crime. When one witness recognized their mule as belonging to a local silver mine, though, he alerted the authorities to their presence.
Soon, the story goes, the boarding house was surrounded by police and soldiers, and a brutal gunfight ensued. After several hours of fighting, shots were heard coming from inside the building — before an eerie silence descended on the scene. On entering the property, authorities located two bodies riddled with bullet holes.
Having caught the culprits behind the robbery, the Bolivian authorities, who were not able to identify the men, buried them in a nearby cemetery. But over time, these anonymous criminals became tied to the legend of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And today, most believe that it is the former Wild West outlaws themselves who died that November day.
An alternative explanation
The shootout depicted in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid confirms this version of events. In reality, though, there is little solid evidence to tie the outlaws to the San Vicente robbery — and the deadly gunfight that followed. And when researchers exhumed the pair’s alleged graves in 1991 the truth became even murkier.
What really happened?
Although the researchers did locate human remains at the site, DNA testing revealed that they did not belong to Cassidy and Longabaugh. Might the men killed at San Vicente have been a different pair of criminals after all? And if they were, what had really happened to the remaining members of the Wild Bunch?
Return to the States
In the years that followed, several people claimed to have spotted Cassidy back in the U.S. — including those closest to him. In 1960 Josie Bassett, a friend and former flame of the outlaw, claimed that he had visited her some decades before. According to her, he had spent his final days in Johnnie, Nevada, before passing away in the 1940s.
Then in 1977 the travel book In Patagonia was published — complete with an account of author Bruce Chatwin’s meeting with Cassidy’s sister Lula. According to her, the outlaw returned to Circleville in the 1920s, sitting down with his family to enjoy a slice of blueberry pie. Some years later, in 1937, he died of pneumonia while living in Washington State.
In Search Of... Butch Cassidy
In 1978 a Cassidy-focused episode of the television series In Search Of... aired, in which presenters attempted to get to the truth of the matter. Traveling to the town of Baggs, Wyoming, where the Wild Bunch had spent a lot of their time, they found several witnesses who claimed to have seen Cassidy after 1908.
Sightings in Utah
According to some, Cassidy had been spotted driving around town in a brand new Ford Model T. Again, Lula repeated her claims that her brother had survived and visited her in Utah, expressing regret for the way that he had lived his life. And if that wasn’t enough, one author claimed to have actually tracked down the alias that the outlaw had been living under for all those years.
William T. Phillips
Back in 1934 an engineer from Spokane, Washington, by the name of William T. Phillips had written The Bandit Invincible, a biography of Cassidy. In fact, he claimed to have known his subject for many years. But in the 1978 book In Search of Butch Cassidy, author Larry Pointer speculated that the two men were one and the same.
Apparently, Pointer had uncovered photographs demonstrating a clear resemblance between Phillips and Cassidy. But this theory was overturned when he discovered a mugshot of another Wild Bunch-era criminal named William T. Wilcox, and concluded that this was probably the identity of the mystery author. Even so, rumors that both outlaws survived their time in South America and returned to the U.S. continue today.
According to Bill Betenson — who wrote Butch Cassidy: My Uncle in 2012 — there are some who know the truth, but they’re keeping the details to themselves. He said, “My great-grandmother, Butch’s little sister Lula, was very clear. She said that where he was buried, and under what name, was a family secret; that he was chased all his life and now he had a chance to finally rest in peace — and that’s the way it must be.”