July, 2015 Edition

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Chasing Butch Cassidy

Legend Suggests Outlaws Didn't Die in Bolivia

Butch Cassidy waited along the trail, hidden in the bushes. He knew the banker, with $1,000 in his pocket would be coming his way shortly. He didn’t have to wait long. The banker approached in a buggy and, as luck would have it, stopped right in front of Cassidy’s hiding place to count his money. Butch stepped out of the bushes, six-shooter in hand, and said, “I’ll take that.”

There’s nothing unusual about Cassidy robbing a banker. What makes this story unusual is that it allegedly happened several years after he and the Sundance Kid were supposed to have died in the famous gunfight in Bolivia.

According to Lula Betenson, Cassidy’s youngest sister, Cassidy and the Sundance Kid didn’t die in Bolivia. Betenson is the author of “Butch Cassidy, My Brother.” She wrote the book in 1975. The information in her book came from a meeting she had with her brother in 1925, when Betenson was 41.
Betenson died in 1980.

Cassidy was the leader of the Wild Bunch Gang, a group of 10 outlaws—which included the Sundance Kid—famous for their train and bank robberies. Their robberies spanned many years and a large geographical area from Utah to Nevada to Wyoming to Montana to New Mexico.

In the beginning

Butch Cassidy was born in Beaver, Utah in April 1866. He was the oldest of 13 children. His real name was Robert LeRoy Parker. He grew up in Circleville, Utah. He left home in his early teens and fell in with horse thief and cattle rustler, Mike Cassidy. He then made his way to Wyoming and during a stint as a butcher, acquired the nickname of “Butch.” His true notoriety came when he became leader of the Wild Bunch. After becoming a wanted criminal and outlaw, he cast about for an alias and settled upon Butch, a nickname he already had, and Cassidy, in homage to Mike Cassidy, the man he credited for starting him on his life of crime.

If you spend any time in Circleville, Beaver or Milford, Utah, the Butch Cassidy stories drift about like cotton from the Cottonwood trees. A story you’ll likely hear in any of these towns is the story of how Cassidy got his start as an outlaw. But each town often has its own version, its own spin on the same Butch Cassidy story. The story goes that Cassidy, working as a ranch hand north of Milford had worn through his one pair of Levi’s and one day, after a day on the range, rode into Milford to buy a new pair of pants. He arrived at the mercantile late in the day and discovered it was closed for the day. But, being in desperate need of pants, he broke into the store, took a pair of pants and left the store owner a letter explaining the situation and an I.O.U.

The owner didn’t like it and filled out a warrant with the sheriff. The residents of Circleville and Panguitch, Utah, tell the exact same story, except they say that Cassidy was working as a ranch hand north of Panguitch, and broke into a store in Panguitch.

Sit down in a café in just about any town in Garfield, Piute or Iron County and ask about Butch Cassidy and it isn’t hard to find someone who has a Butch Cassidy story. But the stories often begin like this: “Now, take what I’m going to tell you with a grain of salt.” If the listener did take every Butch Cassidy story he heard with a grain of salt they’d soon have their very own Salt Flats. Verifying the truth of any of these stories is difficult to do this far after the fact. Anyone who knew Cassidy is long-since dead. Like the notorious outlaw he was, he’s still a hard man to track down.

One starts to feel like they’ve entered the realm of Sasquatch, Elvis and the Loch Ness Monster. A Butch Cassidy story often is shared down generations. “I heard this from my dad/grandpa/grandma who heard it from his dad, who used to hang out with Butch Cassidy.” It’s folk hero meets conspiracy theory meets six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Dale Hollingshead, a resident of Beaver, Utah and owner of Arshel’s Cafe, admits this is true.

“So much of it is conjecture and mystery, but that just adds to the intrigue of it all,” Hollingshead said.

According to the legend, Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid, escaped to Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1901 to escape the increasing pressures of being pursued by the Pinkerton Detective Agency. They were joined on their journey to Argentina by Longabaugh’s girlfriend, Etta Place. In Argentina, Cassidy and Sundance assumed new aliases. Cassidy using the alias James P. Ryan and Sundance using the alias Harry Place.

There, Cassidy tried to go straight. He purchased 1,300 sheep, 500 cattle and 35 horses. At that time he wrote a letter to his friend, Matilda Davis, who lived in Utah, that they planned to “settle here for good.”

But the determined Pinkertons followed the outlaws to Argentina and, by intercepting letters he sent to friends in the United States, figured out where Cassidy and Sundance were settled. In 1905, Cassidy and Sundance sold their stock animals and moved to Chile, to once again avoid the Pinkertons.

By 1908 Cassidy and Sundance were living in Bolivia working at the Concordia Tin Mine. At that same time two men robbed the payroll of the Aramayo and Francke Mining company as it was being delivered by pack mule. The outlaws got in a gunfight with Bolivian Police and were killed, and the two bodies were identified as Cassidy and Sundance.

Dead in Bolivia?

So if Cassidy and Sundance didn’t die in a Bolivian gunfight, how did that rumor get started? Betenson says in her book, quoting from Cassidy himself, that the rumor was started by a man named Percy Seibert. Seibert was a native Bolivian, living in Bolivia in 1908 at the time that Cassidy and Sundance were rumored to have met their deaths. It’s true that in 1908 two armed banditos died in a gunfight with Bolivian police. Authorities in the area knew that Cassidy and Sundance were hiding out somewhere in Bolivia. As soon as the gunfight was over, the rumors began that the two dead banditos were Cassidy and Sundance. Seibert, a friend of Cassidy and Sundance, was called in to identity the bodies. Siebert looked at the bodies and identified them as Cassidy and Sundance, even though he knew it wasn’t them.

“He knew this was the only way we could go straight,” Cassidy is quoted as saying in Betenson’s book.

According to Betenson’s book, Cassidy had saved the lives of Seibert and his wife on a previous occasion, and Seibert saw this—falsely identifying the two bodies—as a way to pay Cassidy back. And with that, word was out that Cassidy and Sundance were dead.

And the heat was off. They could come out of hiding. They were free to travel. They could finally go home. They could live out the rest of their days in relative peace, if they did it under the radar and

If you spend any time in Circleville, Beaver or Milford, Utah, the Butch Cassidy stories drift about like cotton from the Cottonwood trees.

under an alias. And, Betenson writes, that’s exactly what they did.

Back to Utah

The most reliable source for what truly happened to Cassidy is Betenson, who heard the stories and information straight from Butch, she claims.
Betenson writes in her book that Cassidy returned to the family home in Circleville in 1925. Betenson would have been 41 years old at the time. They spent that first night listening to Butch tell his stories and asking him questions about his life. It was during that visit that she acquired the information about Cassidy’s life that she would later put into her book. According to Betenson, it was the only time Cassidy came home. She writes, “(Butch) spent about a week with the boys and a day or two more with dad in town. Then he left and never returned.”

The story of Butch robbing the banker on the side of the road, is recorded in Betenson’s book, told in Butch’s own words, and the story is a favorite to residents of Butch Cassidy country. Any native of Circleville, Beaver, Panguitch or Milford can tell you the story. The rest of the story goes like this: Butch walked into a store [Betenson doesn’t give the location of the store] to pick up some supplies. It was run by a widow and Cassidy saw that she was “looking glum.” He asked her what was bothering her. She told Cassidy that the mortgage on the store was due, she didn’t have the money and the banker was coming to take her store.

“How much do you owe?” Cassidy asked her.

“A $1,000,” she says. “I just can’t make ends meet with my husband dead and gone.”

Cassidy told her to stop worrying; he’d help her. Cassidy left the store and a short time later returned with 10 $100 bills.

“Now don’t you tell that old skinflint where you got the money,” Cassidy told the widow. “But make sure you have a signed receipt for it and it’s marked ‘paid in full.’”

That’s when Cassidy went a little ways out of town, hid in the bushes and waited for the banker to come along.

“Sure enough,” Cassidy says, “in a while his buddy came rattling along.”
And as luck would have it, the banker stopped his buggy right in front of Cassidy’s hiding place and starts counting the money. That’s when Cassidy steps out and says, “I’ll take that.”

Betenson quotes Cassidy as saying, “This was so successful that I paid off more than one mortgage in the same way.”

The most common Cassidy stories that you’ll hear while you’re traveling through southern Utah are the stories of Cassidy, applying the same methods as described above, to pay off the mortgages of widows, ranchers and farmers who were about to have their land, their livelihoods or their homes taken from them.

The second most common Butch Cassidy story you’ll hear are stories of people giving Butch Cassidy food and supplies. A mysterious man arriving at the farm. The mom wrapping up some bread and a jar of milk and some jam inside a cloth, walking out the back door and returning with only a sly smile.
But it’s the stories of Butch Cassidy as Prodigal Son, hero, and Robin Hood that most resonate with the residents of these small rural towns. And the stories they tell portray Cassidy as someone who is fighting for the common man, fighting against the corporate ranchers and the railroads that were encroaching on the land, and the rights and the homes of the common man. A man who, in the process, got caught on the wrong side of the law. And everyone loves an underdog. Especially other underdogs.

Edward Kirby, an amateur historian who has spent a lot of time researching the life of Cassidy conjectures that Butch and his cohorts turned to crime as a way to defend their way of life from those they perceived to be out to destroy it.

“Butch and his cohorts had three natural enemies which had encroached on their land: the giant cattle companies, the banks and the railroads,” says Kirby. Kirby conjectures that Cassidy is revered as a folk hero throughout southern Utah for the same reasons.

“In southern Utah men still struggle to save their land and their way of life from industry and land developers; it’s easy to see why he is still seen as a hero figure,” Kirby said.”

Bill Betenson, who is Cassidy’s great-grand nephew and Lula’s great-grandson, grew up listening to Butch Cassidy stories and they always intrigued him. Enough so that he spent several decades doing his own research into Butch Cassidy’s life, and in 2014 published his own book about his findings.

“He didn’t rob the common man, but went after the corporate ranchers,” says Bill. “Butch was unique as an outlaw. He wasn’t a psychopathic killer like some outlaws. He was essentially a good guy. He was a hard worker, he was personable and charismatic and people liked him.”

But, according to Lula’s book, Cassidy spent very little time in southern Utah after he returned from South America, likely less than a few months. She writes that he spent most of his remaining years in Wyoming, Oregon and California, even some time in Alaska where he trapped and prospected, moving often to maintain his cover, and always under an assumed name.
After word got around that Lula was writing a book about Butch Cassidy not dying in Bolivia, friends and acquaintances of Cassidy started sending her letters telling of times they had seen or worked with her brother at a time after he supposedly died.

In her book she records more than a dozen of these letters. They come from San Francisco, Calif., Lander, Wyo., Zortman, Mont., and many other cities from all over the western U.S., all of them reporting to have seen Cassidy in the years after he supposedly died in 1908.

So, the big question is: where is Cassidy’s grave? And where are the letters that people sent Lula claiming to seen Cassidy? Cassidy is rumored to be buried in California, in Oregon, in a Salt Lake City cemetery and somewhere on a hillside outside of Circleville, Utah.

This is where the historian, the Cassidy fan, the researcher suddenly finds him or herself on the same ground as the Pinkertons: This is where the trail grows cold. If you want evidence that Cassidy robbed the rich and gave to the poor you aren’t going to get it. If you want to visit Cassidy’s grave, it isn’t going to happen.

But Lula writes in her book that, “Robert Leroy Parker died in the Northwest in the fall of 1937. Where he is buried and under what name is still our secret. All his life he was chased. Now he has a chance to rest in peace and that’s the way it must be.”

“Lula claimed to know where Cassidy was buried,” Bill says, “but if she did, she took that information with her to the grave.”

Like Cassidy himself, she was good at covering her tracks.