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The real story of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and their wild bunch

The Last Outlaws

By Thom Hatch

New American Library

350 pages, $26.95

By Dan Herbeck


Back in the late 1960s, director George Roy Hill got together with actors Paul Newman and Robert Redford to make what many folks consider the coolest cowboy movie of all time – “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

It was a funny and exciting film about two swashbuckling outlaws who wisecracked their way through train robberies, bank heists and all kinds of other hairy adventures.

After it came out in 1969, my buddies at Sweet Home High School thought it was so cool that a few of us took up horseback riding, started wearing cowboy hats to school and, for awhile, took on “Butch” or “Sundance” as nicknames.

Forty-four years later, here I am reviewing a book that actually tries to relate the true facts about these two colorful outlaws, whose real names were Robert Leroy Parker (aka Butch) and Harry Longabaugh (aka Sundance).

There was much more to their stories than Hill was able to tell in his 112-minute film, but I am happy (and pleasantly surprised) to report that the Hollywood version was mostly a fair and accurate portrayal of these two men.

As the movie depicts, they really were outlaws who abhorred violence, and tried to avoid it whenever possible – even while stealing at gunpoint from banks or trains. They really were shameless gamblers and skirt-chasers, and Butch, at least, really was known for his wisecracks and jokes, just as he was in the film.

Author Hatch reports that they really did move to South America at one point and try to “go straight” and that Butch and Sundance really did travel with a lovely young woman named Etta Place, who was played in the movie by Katharine Ross.

Here’s the rest of the story:

Butch was born in 1866 and raised in Utah, in a family of devout Mormons. He was a hard-working man who loved animals, especially horses, and had the makings of a very successful rancher, if he had not found out that crime was an easier and more exciting way to make big money.

Born in 1867, Sundance grew up not so far from Western New York, 260 miles south of us in Phoenixville, Pa. His family was religious too – Baptists – and Sundance was also a hard worker, who toiled on canal boats as a young boy and a teenager.

Sundance grew up loving adventure stories, especially about outlaws, and at age 14, he left his family to seek his fortune as an employee of a Colorado ranch operated by a distant relative.

Both Butch and Sundance made numerous attempts at honest jobs, serving as cowboys at cattle ranches throughout the Southwest, but their taste for wild times drew them both to the world of crime. By 1890, they were both experienced bandits, and were both associated with perhaps the Wild West’s most notorious gang – the “Wild Bunch” – headquartered in a Wyoming canyon called “Hole-in-the-wall.”

Their associates included William “News” Carver, Ben “The Tall Texan” Kilpatrick, Camilla “Deaf Charlie” Hanks and Harvey “Kid Curry” Logan. Under Butch’s leadership, they pulled off train and bank robberies that netted them hundreds of thousands of dollars, an astonishing amount of money in those days.

“The undisputed leader of this gang of rogues was Butch Cassidy, known as a fun-loving, easygoing cowpoke who did not by any means fit the stereotype of a ruthless criminal,” Hatch writes. “He preferred to use his brains rather than his six-shooter, and professed throughout his life to never having killed a man.”

He was a thief, but loyal to a fault, the author writes. One time, a friend lent Butch $25, and Butch promised to pay it back as soon as possible. A year later, he sent the friend $100 and a note that read, “If you don’t know how I got this, you will soon learn someday.”

Sundance was a bit more serious than Butch. He once wrote a letter to a Montana newspaper, complaining that reporters had overstated the extent of his criminal activities.

“I read a very sensational and partly untrue article, which places me before the public not even second to the notorious Jesse James,” Sundance wrote. “I ask a little of your space to set my case before the public in a true light.”

He didn’t deny being a criminal, but denied being a horse thief.

The fact is, Butch and Sundance were notorious, and the moguls of the banking and railroad industries hired the nation’s biggest detective agency, the Pinkerton firm, to track them down, whatever the expense. As the movie accurately depicts, Pinkerton detectives chased them all over the Southwest.

In the year 1900, the heat became too much for them. Butch and Sundance decided to take their cash, move down to South America and try to make an honest living as ranchers. First, they split up and did some traveling.

And at this point, Buffalo and Niagara Falls make brief appearances in this story. In January 1901, Sundance and his lady, Etta Place, took a train from Sundance’s Pennsylvania hometown to Buffalo. Sundance had suffered through some medical problems over the years, and he and Etta checked in to “Dr. Pierce’s Surgical Institute,” also known as the “Invalids Hotel,” at 653 Main St. in Buffalo. Hatch writes that the place was known as a “holistic healing center” that featured Turkish baths and other treatments for “chronic diseases – specifically those of a delicate, obscure, complicated or obstinate character.”

After leaving the institute, they went for a visit to Niagara Falls, and then journeyed to New York City before meeting up with Butch and boarding a ship for South America.

Using the names Santiago Ryan and Enrique Place, they bought 16 colts and started a small ranch in Cholila, Argentina. The ranch expanded, but in 1903, the Pinkertons picked up their trail and sent a detective down to Argentina to look for Butch and Sundance. In May 1905, the three fugitives left their ranch behind and traveled to Chile.

Moving on to Bolivia, they still tried to walk a straight path. Butch and Sundance found work guarding shipments of cash for mining companies. But they couldn’t resist the allure of crime, and began robbing banks again.

In November 1908, they robbed a mining company’s payroll in southern Bolivia, and a contingent of police and soldiers pursued them to a small house in the village of San Vicente. A shootout erupted, lasting about a half-hour.

What apparently happened next is quite a bit different from the movie ending, where Butch and Sundance die in a blaze of glory, emerging wounded from the house and charging at hundreds of soldiers.

After the shootout at the house, all was quiet for 12 hours or more. Early the next morning, Bolivian soldiers entered the house and found Butch and Sundance, both dead. More then a century later, the circumstances of their deaths remain a mystery.

According to Hatch, some reports alleged that Butch, unable to bear the thought of going to a Bolivian prison, killed Sundance, shooting him in the head, and then did the same to himself.

“The two men who died in San Vicente were never officially identified to the public,” Hatch writes.

For decades after, there were rumors that Butch and Sundance actually survived the shootout, and returned to America where they lived quiet and shadowy lives.

After extensive research, Hatch concludes that Butch and Sundance really did die in the Bolivian shootout. Their remains have never been positively identified, so we’ll probably never know for certain, he admits.

Hatch, a journalist and History Channel consultant who has written many books on Wild West history, does a fine job of telling this story. It’s an interesting and entertaining read. Butch and his sidekick would probably have enjoyed it.

Dan Herbeck is a News reporter and the co-author, with Lou Michel, of “American Terrorist.”