Friday Fables: Butch Cassidy

The American outlaw known as Butch Cassidy was made famous by Hollywood, romanticized for his days of holding up trains and rustling livestock in the late 19th century. Though Cassidy was well-recognized in his day, he had a humble beginning and a mysterious end.

Butch Cassidy, as he would later come to be known, was born Robert LeRoy Parker on April 13, 1866. He was the eldest of 13 children, born in Utah to Mormon immigrant parents. In 1879, the Parker family moved south to a new homestead, where Robert was mentored by a local ranch hand named Mike Cassidy while working on a dairy farm in his early teens. Cassidy taught him to ride, rope, and shoot. Later, Robert worked for a butcher shop, where he picked up the nickname Butch.

Robert took on the name Butch Cassidy to honor his mentor. He left home at 18, drifting through Colorado and Wyoming working as a ranch hand and rustling livestock along his way, even though he told his family that he went to seek work in a silver mine.

In 1889, Butch Cassidy was involved in his first bank robbery with the McCarty brothers in Telluride, Colorado. They stole about $21,000, which is the equivalent of $560,000 today. And so began Cassidy’s life of crime. In 1894, Cassidy was caught for buying a stolen horse for five dollars, and he was incarcerated at the Wyoming State Penitentiary. Though sentenced to two years, Cassidy was released and pardoned after just 18 months.

Shortly after his time in prison, Cassidy formed a gang known as the Wild Bunch and went on to become one of the most successful and well-known thieves of the time. The Wild Bunch used a variety of hideouts across the country, mostly in Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico. Aside from Cassidy’s early rustling days, the Wild Bunch started robbing banks and stagecoaches in Wyoming, often spreading money around to the poor much like the tales of Robin Hood.

It wasn’t long before the gang of bandits started holding up Union Pacific trains. The first documented train robbery occurred in June 1899 near Wilcox. Six masked men commandeered the Overland Flyer early in the morning, pulled it over a bridge, and blew open the baggage car safe with dynamite. They stole over $50,000 in cash, gold, and jewelry and then escaped on horseback. Funded by the Union Pacific Railroad, hundreds of men pursued the robbers, but they disappeared into the country and eluded the search parties.

The Wilcox robbery earned Cassidy and the Wild Bunch national attention, especially since that train was carrying gold to pay troops fighting in the Spanish-American War. President McKinley labeled Cassidy a national terrorist and authorities placed a bounty on the outlaws, dead or alive. The gang was pursued from Wyoming to Texas, but they were not deterred and continued their illegal activity throughout the west.

Cassidy struck another Union Pacific train in August 1900 near Tipton. His gang blew up the safe in the express car, gathered about $55,000 worth of valuables, and escaped on horseback once again. In fact, one of Cassidy’s trademarks was hiding horses every 20 miles along a planned escape route.

Within a year, many of Cassidy’s buddies were either captured, killed, or on the run. He himself was assumed to have participated in several other robberies, but none have been proven.

In 1901, Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh, a partner of his known as the Sundance Kid, moved to Argentina where they purchased a ranch and raised cattle in Cholila. Cassidy went on to work as a payroll guard for the Concordia Tin Mines in Bolivia, where it was also thought he might have been involved in several bank and payroll robberies. Authorities visited his home to investigate and wound up getting into a gunfight with Cassidy and Longabaugh in San Vicente, Bolivia. Most notable accounts state that the pair of bandits died there, with Cassidy shooting Longabaugh in the head and then turning his gun on himself after they were both badly wounded.

However, numerous people (including his sister) said they saw Cassidy after his reported death, leading some historians to believe he might have escaped and made his way back to the US using a different name. Yet, there is no definitive proof that Cassidy and/or Longabaugh did escape the gunfight. One thing we know for certain is that the location of Butch Cassidy’s grave is unknown.

Though Butch Cassidy was known to have been involved of many robberies (and suspected of being involved in many more than those that are documented), it is believed that he never killed anyone. We’ll let you decide if that makes him an honorable man or not.

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