Did Butch Cassidy die in Bolivia or Spokane? Good question.

Time Before Now, November, 1908William Howard Taft won the Republican nomination for president and would go on to  defeat “The Great Commoner,”  Nebraska’s “William Jennings Bryan in November.  University of Pennsylvania alumnus, John Baxter Taylor, became the first African American to win an Olympic Gold Medal in the men’s 400-metre relay at the London Summer Olympics.  England’s future wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill and Lady Clementine Ogilvy Spencer were wed at Westminster in September and Henry Ford  officially launched the Model T.  It sold for $850.

November 7, 1908

On this day Robert LeRoy Parker, a.k.a. Butch Cassidy and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, a,k.a. the Sundance Kid, were reported to have died during a shoot-out with Bolivian soldiers, perhaps ending, say some, in a suicide pact. 

Sundance and Butch, the most famous outlaws of the day

Circumstances surrounding the deaths of two of America’s most famous bandits remain murky more than a century later.  A number of researches, friends and even family members, claim that Cassidy survived the events in Bolivia, returning to the U.S. to live in ananimity.  Remains of the pair were never discovered and the continued ambiguity has helped make Cassidy, Sundance and the Wild Bunch a go-to for Hollywood movie-makers.

Cassidy, born in 1866 in Beaver, Utah, to English Mormon immigrants,  was one of 13 children.  Despite being brought up in a respectable pioneer family, Parker (right) fell in with rustler and horse thief, J.T. McClammy, alias Mike Cassidy, while working at a dairy farm as a teen. Shedding his family’s good  name early, he assumed McClammy’s alias, Cassidy, from then on.

His first brush with the law came over a pair of pants and a piece of pie.  Finding the local mercantile closed, Parker took a pair of pants and a piece of pie, leaving an IOU behind.  The store owner pressed charges, and Parker was acquitted in a jury trial.

Longabaugh (left) didn’t have the excuse of bad company.  He was just 15 when he was convicted of stealing a gun, a horse and a saddle from a ranch in Sundance, Wyoming.  While serving an 18-month jail sentence, he adopted the famous moniker of the Sundance Kid.  

By 1889 Cassidy had moved beyond pants and pie, seving time for his first bank robbery in Telluride, Colorado.  Somewhere in Utah, Cassedy became best friends with William Elsworth “Elzy” Lay.  The Sundance Kid came on the scene in the early 1890s.

How the Wild Bunch all got together seems largely due to the Bassett sisters, Josie and Annie.  Daughters of a dodgy rancher, Herb Bassett, the pair were serially involved with many of the Wild Bunch cast of characters.

Elzy Lay began a relationship with Josie Bassett.  Cassidy was soon seeing her sister, Ann. (Right)  Wild Bunch member, Ben “Tall Texan” Kilpatrick and William “News” Carver were also romantically linked to the sisters at various times.

The gang cut a wide swath in a half a dozen states, robbing trains and banks from the Dakotas to New Mexico, the longest successful string of hold-ups in the history of the frontier.   But as members were killed off and the noose tightened, largely due to the pursuit by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Cassidy, Sundance and his elusive paramour, Etta Place, fled to South America.

The trio bought a small ranch in Argentina and may have pursued some semblance of a normal life.  But on Valentine’s Day in 1905, two English-speaking bandits held up a bank in Rio Gellagos, escaping with an estimated $100,000, nearly a quarter million today.

Remains of ranch in Argentina

But the Pinkertons had already sniffed them out and an arrest warrant was issued.  A friendly sheriff, Edward Humphreys, however, tipped them off the pair and they were on the run again. After robbing yet another bank in Villa Mercedes, they crossed into Chile. 

In June, apparently Etta Place was done running. Sundance accompanied her back to San Francisco. By the time he returned to Chile, Cassidy had been hired on at the Concordia Tin Mine, where one of his duties was guarding the mine’s payrole.  (Left, Sundance and Etta) 

When the courier for another payroll, the Armayo Franke and Cio Silver Mine was robbed by a pair English-speaking bandits, it appeared to be Butch and Sundance again. Not long after the hold-up, the owner of a small boarding house in San Vincente grew suspicious of his two new  “gringo” guests and notified a small Bolivian cavalry contingent nearby. 

Surrounded, Butch and Sundance decided to shoot it out.  But when the shooting stopped the next morning, the soldiers reportedly found two dead bodies inside the boarding house.  According to the Bolivians, they had been shot numerous times including bullet wounds to the head, perhaps self-inflicted.

A witness to the payroll robbery identified them as the two men who had held up the courier but the soldiers didn’t know they were dealing with America’s most famous outlaws of the day.  Case closed.  Maybe.  They were believed to be buried in unmarked graves at San Vincente’s local cemetery.  

Various unsuccessful attempts were made to find the remains.  Over the years, friends, family and eye witnesses insisted that at least Cassidy had survived.  Josie Bassett and a Cassidy sister claimed Cassidy had visited them before going into hiding.

For fans of the “Butch didn’t actually die” theory, cite the outlaw’s youngest sister, Lula Parker Berenson, (left) provided their most credible evidence.  In Berenson’s 1975 book “Butch Cassidy, My Brother,”with writer Dora Flack, she said Robert LeRoy “Butch Cassidy” Parker visited her and their father, Maximillian, at their Utah home in 1925.  According to her account, he was married, lived in Spokane, Washington, under the name William Phillips and died anonymously in 1937.

A 1977 book, “In Search of Butch Cassidy”  by Larry Pointer seemed to verify Berenson’s  story.  An agronomist turned author, Pointer interviewed dozens of relatives and friends.  All agreed that Butch survived but Sundance did not.

Enter William T. Phillips, a Spokane author of the  book,”The Bandit Invincible.”  The book, in addition to some handwriting analyses, convinced Pointer that Phillips was actually Butch Cassidy himself.  

But in 2012, the”Phillips as Butch” scenero went off the rails.  Pointer was able to examine an unabridged copy of the Phillips book, which referenced  Wyoming Territorial Prison inmate, William T. Wilcox, incarcerated there  with Cassidy.  Examination of the prison’s mug shot of Wilcox convinced Pointer that William Phillips was actually Wilcox and not Butch. ((Left, Pointer from 2012 interview with Billings (Mont.) Gazette

Dueling biographies aside,  the “Butch didn’t die” believers still have his sister’s account.  Her varasity seems credible.  Active in Mormon auxilliaries and Democratic politics, Utah Governor Geoge Clyde appointed the 77-year-old to the Utah Senate in 1962 to fill the an unexpired term from Piute County.  She died in 1980 at the age of 96.  

Along with the foggy facts concerning Butch and Sundance, there is no conclusive record of Etta Place past South America.  Some say she lived the remainder of her days as a teacher in Colorado or Oregon.  Others claim she returned to her former profession of prostitution, perhaps working at Fannie Porter’s San Antonio brothel. (Left, Fanny Porter)

The Bassett sisters were, if not the big winners, at least not the biggest losers.  Ann married a cattleman named Willis and spent the remainder of her life in Utah, dying at age 78.  Josie outlived five husbands, reportedly bootlegging during Prohibition and dying as a recluse at the age of 90, reliving her days as an outlaw consort.

The inconclusive end to the saga has kept authors and screen writers busy for decades.  Beginning in 1956, a a flurry of movies  about the outlaws began to appear.  Best known among them is the Academy Award winning 1969 film, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, with Catherine Ross as Etta Place.

Redford and Newman in 1969 film

Despite Hollywood’s portrayal as a bit of breezy bandit high jinks, the reality surrounding Butch and Sundance’s Wild Bunch is less amusing.  Most were serious criminals, some were murderers, and real people died during the commission of their robberies. 

The Butch Cassidy Museum, Montpelier, Idaho, is located in what is believed to be the last standing bank in the U.S. robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch.  In an attempt to bail gang member Matt Warner out of jail, Butch Cassidy, Elzy Lay and company held up the bank on August 13, 1896, making off with cash, gold and silver. 

The museum is located near the Montpelier Historic District which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day.  Weather may determine museum hours.  For more information go to butchcassidymusuem.com or e-mail brickcapsule@brickcapsule.com.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.