What can you say about a guy who was played by Paul Newman in one of the best Westerns ever filmed? The real Butch Cassidy wasn’t as cute as Paul (who is?), but he had his own charms. What’s more, to this writer, Butch is practically a hometown boy!
Butch was born Robert Leroy Parker in 1866, in Beaver, Utah, the first of thirteen children. In 1879 the family moved over the mountain to Circleville, Utah. I never knew Butch (no, I’m not that old), but I grew up an hour from Circleville. My sister married a Circleville boy, and I went to school with descendants of Butch’s younger siblings. Lots of Parkers down that way.
Young Roy, as he was called, cut loose early and worked odd jobs. He earned the name Butch from the time he worked as a butcher. Cassidy was the name of a shady rancher who befriended him as a youth. By 1884, Butch was rustling cattle outside Parowan, Utah. From there he drifted to Telluride, Colorado where he pulled his first major crime, the robbery of the San Miguel Valley Bank. He and three cowboys got away with $20,000. They escaped along the Outlaw Trail, a meandering path that ran from Mexico to Montana.
After Telluride, Butch’s reputation grew. He liked to think of himself as a kind of Robin Hood, fighting for settlers’ rights against the railroads and cattle barons. Of course, he was really just a criminal.. But what he did, he did with flair. He gathered a band of outlaw cowboys (including Harry Longbaugh, known as the Sundance Kid) and established a hideout at the Hole-In-The-Wall, in central Wyoming. The gang became known as the Wild Bunch.
By 1896 the Wild Bunch was robbing trains and banks all over the West. Butch was a clever strategist. His gang would strike fast and flee over a network of hidden trails. They became bold and confident, even sprucing up to pose for the famous photograph that helped lawmen identify them. But their glory days couldn’t last forever. By 1900, they were on the run. In 1902 the Wild Bunch disbanded. Butch, Sundance, and Sundance’s girlfriend Etta Place (who was no schoolmarm) fled to Europe, then to Argentina where they bought a ranch. In 1908 the famous shootout, with Butch and Sundance supposedly gunned down by Bolivian troops, took place.
Now, here’s where the story gets interesting. According to Butch’s last surviving sister, Lula Parker Betenson, her brother showed up to visit the family sixteen years later. Current research suggests that Butch faked his death, sailed to Europe and got a facelift and returned to the U.S. where he married and went into business. He died of cancer in 1937. Evidence to support this includes a detailed manuscript about Cassidy’s life, which he appears to have written himself.