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In Search of Butch Cassidy
By Larry Pointer
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 1988 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
THE LEGEND OF BUTCH CASSIDY
ARTHUR CHAPMAN started it. Chapman is the fellow who penned the immortal "Out Where the West Begins." He should have stayed with poetry.
In the April 1930 issue of the Elks Magazine, Chapman immortalized Butch Cassidy as a swashbuckling Robin Hood of the West, jousting with cattle barons, dragons in banker's clothing, and the smoke-belching behemoths of land-grabbing railroad tycoons. For more than a decade this flamboyant champion of small homesteaders sallied forth from that impregnable bastion of outlawry, the Hole-in-the-Wall, leading his infamous Wild Bunch in guerrilla raids upon the mercenary monsters of the West.
With pursuing hordes of sheriffs, Pinkerton operatives, and cavalry troops snapping at his heels, Cassidy miraculously escaped certain annihilation and, with his most trusted confidant Harry Longabaugh, the Sundance Kid, and Sundance's devoted moll Etta Place, romped away to Argentina again to take up his crusade in behalf of the oppressed.
Now, every school child knows that justice reigns eternal, and even Butch Cassidy must have his comeuppance. Sure enough, a Bolivian troop of rurales, no less, rushed to the call of moral service and, well, let's let Chapman tell it. After all, it's his story.
... the captain himself walked into the room where Cassidy and Longabaugh were eating and drinking.
"Surrender, señors," came the demand from the brave captain.
The outlaws leaped to their feet. Longabaugh was drunk, but Cassidy, always a canny drinker, was in complete command of his senses.
The captain had drawn his revolver when he entered the room. Before he could fire, Cassidy had shot from the hip. The captain fell dead and Cassidy and Longabaugh stationed themselves where they could command a view of the patio.
A sergeant and a picked body of cavalrymen rushed through the gate, calling upon the outlaws to surrender. Revolvers blazed from door and window and men began to stagger and fall in the courtyard. The first to die was the sergeant who had sought to rescue his captain.
Cassidy and Longabaugh were firing rapidly, and with deadly effect. Those of the detachment who remained on their feet were firing in return. Bullets sank into the thick adobe walls, or whistled through the window and door. Other soldiers began firing from behind the shelter of the courtyard wall.
"Keep me covered, Butch," called Longabaugh. "I'll get our rifles."
Shooting as he went, Longabaugh lurched into the courtyard. If he could only reach the rifles and ammunition which they had so thoughtlessly laid aside, the fight would be something the outlaws would welcome.
Blood was settling in little pools about the courtyard. The sergeant and most of his file of soldiers were stretched out dead. A few wounded were trying to crawl to safety. The mules had broken their halters and galloped out of the yard.
Soldiers were firing through the open gate and from other vantage points outside the wall. Longabaugh got half-way across the court yard and fell, desperately wounded, but not before he had effectively emptied his six-shooter.
When Cassidy saw his partner fall, he rushed into the courtyard. Bullets rained about him as he ran to Longabaugh's side. Some of the shots found their mark, but Cassidy, though wounded, managed to pick up Longabaugh and stagger back to the house with his heavy burden.
Cassidy saw that Longabaugh was mortally wounded. Furthermore, it was going to be impossible to carry on the battle much longer unless the rifles and ammunition could be reached. Cassidy made several attempts to cross the courtyard. At each attempt he was wounded and driven back.
The battle now settled into a siege. Night came on, and men fired at the red flashes from weapons. There were spaces of increasing length between Cassidy's shots. He had only a few cartridges left. Longabaugh's cartridge belt was empty. So was the dead Bolivian captain's.
The soldiers, about 9 or 10 o'clock in the evening, heard two shots fired in the bullet-ridden station. Then no more shots came. Perhaps it was a ruse to lure them into the patio within range of those deadly revolvers. The soldiers kept on firing all through the night and during the next morning.
About noon an officer and a detachment of soldiers rushed through the patio and into the station. They found Longabaugh and Cassidy dead. Cassidy had fired a bullet into Longabaugh's head and had used his last cartridge to kill himself.
Chapman's tale was picked up by the press, and in an item date-lined New York, April 23, 1930, the Washington Post, that "shaper of public opinion" no less, excerpting the Elks Magazine article, proclaimed to the world, BUTCH IS DEAD.
The Chapman story was believable. He wrote with authority, appearing to have researched his subject well. Too, his account of Butch Cassidy went unchallenged because people wanted to believe it. With sensational style, contrived dialogue, and lurid detail, he gave a Depression-weary public an escape to the fantasy land of the dime novels of their youth. He painted the west just the way Americans had grown to believe it really was. It was the stuff of which story books are made.
For half a century books passed off as authentic western history have expanded on Arthur Chapman's time-worn saga. In passing the legend on, writers have been content to repeat his sensational account without investigating available records to verify its authenticity.
Most significant of these "histories" is Charles Kelly's Outlaw Trail, written in 1938. Kelly, an outspoken Utah printer with a penchant for western history, spent several years in retracing Cassidy's outlaw activities and recording stories told by Utah pioneers who had known the outgoing bandit. Until recently Kelly's book, complete with Chapman's version of Cassidy's South American adventures and violent death, was considered the final word on the life of Butch Cassidy.
Arthur Chapman, however, was not without his detractors. In Wyoming, some five years after his article's release, rumors began circulating that Butch Cassidy had not died in South America, but had returned to the United States and had even revisited old Wyoming friends from his outlaw days. In July 1936 Wyoming's treasurer, Mart T. Christensen, received the following note from the Register of the U.S. Land Office, William G. Johnson:
During the summer of 1935, Butch Cassidy bought a bill of grub from Harry Baldwin, pioneer merchant at Lander. He then had 2 Lander men deliver him somewhere in the Indian Reservation. At a certain point, Butch dismissed his companions and proceded alone. Soon thereafter departed for his home in Seattle, Wash., where he is known as William Phillips. He now has cancer of the stomach and is not expected to live much longer.
Johnson's findings were generally corroborated by Wyoming historian Tacetta B. Walker, who also wrote Mart Christensen in 1936 concerning Cassidy's reported visit to the Lander vicinity, "two years ago."
In addition to his other civil duties, Christensen also headed the Wyoming Writers Project, a federally funded WPA program. As one goal of the project was to reconstruct the history of the state of Wyoming, Christensen assigned several of his writers to investigate these recurring stories of Butch Cassidy's return.
At the same time Christensen was assembling information on the outlaw, Utah historian Charles Kelly was preparing his Outlaw Trail. Kelly was convinced of the authenticity of the legendary battle at San Vicente. The Utah author had interviewed Wyoming pioneers and was aware of the claims Cassidy had returned to visit his old haunts, yet he dismissed the accounts as fiction. When his research placed him in contact with Wyoming historians, a lively exchange of correspondence developed.
Wyoming researchers made serious efforts to get Kelly to reevaluate the stories. Tacetta Walker, in 1936, was among the first to write Kelly of Cassidy's return, stating that Lander pioneers had told her that Cassidy "was back in the country over there two years ago. One old timer who roomed with him claimed he recognized him by a scar on his head. Another one told me that Cassidy did not tell him he was Butch Cassidy until he told him he knew him. Then he told him a story that only he, Butch Cassidy, and one other knew. The third party was dead so that left only Cassidy and himself as knowing the story."
"This same man told me he believed Cassidy was going by the name of Bill Phillips in Spokane, Washington.... And from what they say, he would probably not admit being Cassidy."
After evaluating research compiled by members of his Wyoming Writers Project staff, Mart Christensen—convinced the stories were true—joined Mrs. Walker in appeals to Kelly to reconsider the accounts of Cassidy's visits to Wyoming in the Thirties.
When, in return, the Utah author made it known to Christensen that he did not deem the information worth much and that he preferred to believe Chapman's account of Cassidy's death in San Vicente, the incredulous Wyoming official sent a heated reply, elaborating on the findings of his project researchers:
I will not burden you with the details of Cassidy's visit there in the summer of 1934 but it is enough to relate that an old friend of Cassidy's by the name of Hank Boedeker, 78, but very alert and active for his age, spent the best part of a day with Butch Cassidy on that occasion. It is common knowledge in that entire vicinity that Butch Cassidy did visit there during 1934 and the purpose of his visit. He talked to Harry Baldwin, Wyoming merchant, who sold him a bill of grub and to Ed Farlow, a former mayor of Lander, who knew him during his early days. Now, if I were interested enough in the life of Butch Cassidy to write a book I would forthwith visit Hank Boedeker, Ed Farlow, and Harry Baldwin in Lander.... It will explode all the "bunk" put out by the several writers who finish the life of Cassidy in South America with such dramatics.
Hank Boedeker, then peace officer in Lander, took Cassidy to Rawlins [actually Laramie] the time he went to the penitentiary. It would be preposterous to assert to any of the people I have named that they are mistaken. George LeRoy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy—now known as William Phillips, in the state of Washington—was alive six months ago and resides in Spokane....
Butch Cassidy related to Hank Boedeker some details of the fight you describe, in which he is supposed to have been killed.
The men I have named, who live at Lander, Wyoming, are reputable, well-known and responsible citizens and not the type who would exploit any sort of story for publicity or for gossiping purposes. They knew Butch Cassidy well and they are not mistaken about this whole matter.
Although he viewed the stories of Cassidy's return as a preposterous hoax, Charles Kelly did eventually investigate further, after a September 1937 Wyoming newspaper story announced the death of William Phillips, "the real Butch Cassidy," in Spokane, Washington. A query letter to the Washington Bureau of Vital Statistics brought forth a copy of the death certificate of one William Phillips, a Spokane resident who died of rectal cancer on July 20, 1937, just one month after Christensen's scathing letter.
There was no question this was the man referred to by Wyoming pioneers as "the real Butch Cassidy," Although early reports as to his residence varied from Seattle to Spokane, there had emerged a consistent mention of Spokane, His age, listed as seventy-two on the death certificate, would have been comparable to that of the outlaw, and William G. Johnson's note that Phillips had cancer of the stomach is remarkably similar to the attending physician's statement of cause of death as cancer of the rectum.
Continuing to delve into the mystery, Kelly located the Spokane man's widow, Gertrude Phillips. In October 1938, finally responding to the Utah writer's persistent inquiries, Mrs. William T. Phillips wrote an account of her controversial husband's life:
... it came to my mind last eve, that at least I could do as you suggested and give you a brief outline of Mr. Phillips' life; tho' am afraid there will be little in it of interest to you, because I am unable to give you an account of the part of it in which you, naturally, are most interested, viz, the few years in which he knew and rode the range with Cassidy.
Wm. T. Phillips was born and raised in an eastern state until he reached the age of 14 years; at which time (owing to dime novel influence) he ran away and headed for the Black Hills, where he was greatly disillusioned in regard to many things, as he was bound to be; after a few months of seeing his small hoard dwindle away, and failing to find work because of his youth and inability to convince anyone he could hold down a man's job, he became homesick and started out to make his way back home.
It was in the fall of the year, and he finally succeeded in obtaining work on a ranch during harvest, and (tho I've heard him tell about it), I'm not sure just where that was, but in the corn belt, for he often laughed at the speed he acquired in husking corn. He enjoyed the people with whom he found himself, and stayed till the following Spring, when, having survived his homesickness, decided to stay a while longer in the west, and again headed for the Black Hills. It was after that, of course, that he fell in with Cassidy; but not having it all in detail, I can not give you much satisfaction as to how it all came about, except that it was at the time of the Johnson County War, and I've heard him express himself as being in sympathy with the "little fellows" instead of the stock association. He thought he knew Cassidy very, very well; and considered he was much more sinned against than sinning. As to just how long he was associated with him I am unable to say, for my memory is none to good as to dates, etc. and I haven't that all in detail, as I have his account of Cassidy, in which he makes no mention of himself.
Later, he did mural decorating in New York City for two or three years; at one time had a machine shop in Des Moines, Iowa, for about seven or eight years. After he and I were married, we lived in Arizona for a year; came to Spokane, and have been here ever since, until his death last year.
That, in brief, is the story of my husband. I wrote you that we each knew Cassidy; so we did; I knew his family, but I can tell you little, I think, that you do not already know; however both Mr. Phillips and myself came originally from the east; not the middle west.
So, I'm afraid there is little of interest that I can acquaint you with, concerning the western experiences, tho' I wish I could, for I would very much like to figure out some way whereby I could better myself financially; the depression of '29 is responsible for my present circumstances; we have a son who is not old enough yet to become established in business; and present conditions are not too favorable for young fellows of his age; however, we hope to weather through, and if war does not yet break out, we, as others, have a better chance.
Thanking you for your interest, and wishing you success with your book, I am, sincerely yours,
Mrs. William T. Phillips.
With receipt of this letter, Charles Kelly closed the subject, concluding William Phillips to be a hoax. That same year he published Outlaw Trail, re-entrenching Arthur Chapman's dramatic tale as a historically accurate account. Quoting portions of Gertrude Phillips' story of her husband's life, Kelly pronounced benediction on the issue with a terse summary of his own findings in Wyoming:
Phillips, representing himself as Cassidy, searched the mountains near Fort Washakie with Bill Boyd for $70,000 supposed to have been buried there by Butch. He met Hank Bedeker of Dubois, who knew Cassidy well in the old days, but was not recognized as an imposter. He also fooled several old-timers in the vicinity of Lander and Wilcox, who swore they could not be mistaken.... The preceding stories are given for what they are worth, merely to complete the record.
Christensen released to the news media the findings of his researchers. Resulting news releases described Cassidy's 1934 visit to Lander where he "was positively identified by officers who had known him in the heyday of his outlaw career," and summarized the Wyoming Writers Project investigations. Citing as supporting evidence the corroborating investigation of the Cheyenne Register of the United States land office, William Johnson, "personally acquainted with the 'Butch Cassidy' of 50 years ago," the widely carried news items concluded, "George (Butch) Cassidy, once head of a notorious train robber and bank robber and horse rustler gang in Wyoming, died of stomach cancer in Spokane, in December 1937, under an assumed name—William Phillips.... The investigations 'brought to life' a man thought shot down by soldiers who ambushed him after a South American mine pay roll robbery in 1909. His real name is believed to have been George LeRoy Parker."
Excerpted from In Search of Butch Cassidy by Larry Pointer. Copyright © 1988 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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