Sunday, November 6, 2011

Did Butch Cassidy Survive?

I read an interesting article a couple of months ago, which brought to mind a documentary I saw (I think on the History Channel), about Butch Cassidy and speculation about what really happened to him.

We've seen the Paul Newman-Robert Redford movie, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, where they supposedly die in a shoot out with the Bolivian army in 1908. At the end of the movie, they rush out of the building with guns blazing and are surrounded by soldiers unleashing a barrage of bullets. The scene freezes with them still on their feet and the closing credits roll across the screen. We never actually see them die, but it's alluded to much like the real life story of Butch Cassidy alludes to him having died in South America.

But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, perhaps the story of his death was greatly exaggerated.

For decades rumors have persisted that Butch survived the shoot out, returned to the United States, and lived in quiet anonymity in Washington state under an assumed name for nearly thirty years after his death.

And swirling at the center of the controversy is a 200 page manuscript titled Bandit Invincible: The Story of Butch Cassidy written in 1934 by William T. Phillips, a machinist who died in Spokane, Washington, in 1937. Utah book collector Brent Ashworth and Montana author Larry Pointer believe that the manuscript is not a biography of the famous outlaw, but actually an autobiography and that Phillips was really Butch Cassidy. Ashworth and Pointer insist that the manuscript contains details that only the real Butch Cassidy could have known.

As with all speculative versions of history, there are always detractors to the theory, historians who claim the manuscript is not an accurate portrayal of Cassidy's life…or at least his life that is known.

Everyone basically agrees that Butch Cassidy was born Robert LeRoy Parker in 1866 in Beaver, Utah. He was the oldest of 13 children in a Mormon family and robbed his first bank in 1889 in Telluride, Colorado. He served a year and a half in the Wyoming Territorial Prison in Laramie followed by most of the next 20 years spent robbing banks and trains with his Wild Bunch gang.

Cassidy historian Dan Buck disagrees with Ashworth's and Pointer's conclusions. Buck suggests that the reason Phillips knew so many details about Butch that others wouldn't have known was because the two men actually knew each other back then.

In 1991 Buck and his wife helped dig up a grave in San Vicente, Bolivia, reputed to contain the remains of Butch and Sundance. DNA testing revealed that the bones did not belong to the two outlaws. However, Buck still insists his research confirms that Butch and Sundance died in that 1908 shoot out in Bolivia.

There are stories about the Sundance Kid living long after his time in South America, but they are outnumbered by the many alleged Butch Cassidy sightings. A brother and sister of Butch Cassidy insisted that he stopped in for a visit at the family ranch in Utah in 1925. Phillips' adopted son believed that his stepfather was the real Butch Cassidy. Since Phillips was cremated following his death in 1937, there's little possibility of being able to obtain any type of a DNA match.

So the mystery continues…


Toni V.S. said...

Good blog, bring up some good points.
I have a copy of a book which is along those same lines. Unfortunately it's in storage so I can't refer to it at the moment and off-hand I don't remember the exact title. It's something like "My Grandfather, Butch Cassidy," and tells of his life after the famous Bolivian shoot-out. It sounds pretty convincing but, like who's really buried in Billy the Kid's grave and did Jesse James actually survive that bullet in the back, we'll probably never know for sure.

Samantha Gentry said...

Hi, Toni. Yep, certain historical figures are surrounded by colorful conspiracy theories about their deaths and final resting places. They keep history alive and interesting.

Thanks for stopping by.

Harlie Reader said...

I think the program was on the History Channel and it just leaves it you to wonder...what if and did he really die in the shoot out.

Interesting post.

Samantha Gentry said...

Hi, Harlee. It's one of those things that hasn't been definitively answered and probably won't be. The History Channel program showed a re-enactment of his alleged visit to his sister along with other sightings of him post Bolivian shoot out.

P.L. Parker said...

My last name is Parker, my great (whatever great) uncle was Robert Lee Parker, born of a Mormon family in northern Utah I believe. My family believes he survived and lived in Seattle until he died. Seems like my Great Aunt Hortense might have known more than she gave out.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Samantha, Serendipitously, I did a blog on Butch and Sundance for the Sweethearts of the West at on October 26th. I think Butch did escape and return to the U.S. In the article, I quote his sister as saying Butch showed up.

Samantha Gentry said...

P.L.: Wow...that's neat. Has your family done a lot of in depth research? The article I read said the man who wrote the book (Phillips) who was believed to really be Butch Cassidy lived in Spokane, Washington, until he died in 1937.

Samantha Gentry said...

Caroline: OMG! I had no idea you had previously done a blog on Butch and Sundance! Great minds think alike? :)

It's an interesting subject with lots of possibilities. One of the theories I read said he didn't return directly to the US, he first went to Europe and had plastic surgery in France. Plastic surgery would have certainly been in its infancy at that time.