From his early days as a cattle rustler to his later career as a bank and train robber, Butch Cassidy was a desperado with a difference.
Unlike many of his grizzled, gun-happy counterparts, Cassidy (born Robert LeRoy Parker) cultivated an image as a latter-day Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and, at least occasionally, giving to the poor.
“Indeed, ordinary folks were not even hurt financially by Butch and his boys, who drew a bright line between banks and railroads and the people who patronized them,” writes Charles Leerhsen in his 2020 biography, Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw. Many of Cassidy’s contemporaries, Leerhsen adds, considered him “the best bad man they had ever encountered.”
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Hitting the Jackpot on His First Try
While there’s some evidence that Cassidy, still known as Bob Parker, might have been involved in a Denver bank heist in the spring of 1889, his first celebrated robbery occurred in the mining boom town of Telluride, Colorado, that summer. He and several confederates stuck up the San Miguel Valley Bank, making off with at least $20,000 in cash. In today’s dollars, that would be close to $600,000.
Cassidy used a portion of the loot to buy a ranch in northwest Wyoming and seems to have gone straight for a time. But in 1894 he was found guilty of horse theft and sentenced to two years in a Wyoming prison. He was now calling himself George Cassidy.
In 1896, not long after his release from prison, Cassidy and two other men stuck up the bank in Montpelier, Idaho, scooping up cash and gold and silver coins that may have been worth as much as $16,500 (more than $500,000 today). The following year, Cassidy and crew stuck up two employees of a coal company in Castle Gate, Utah, relieving them of the company’s payroll of $9,860 (more than $300,000 today). The payroll had just arrived by train, and soon he’d be robbing the trains themselves.
The Wild Bunch is Born, and Sundance Signs On
Cassidy was now the leader of a small band of outlaws who eventually came to be known as the Wild Bunch. Among them was Harry Longabaugh, a.k.a. the Sundance Kid.
In 1899, members of the gang held up a Union Pacific Railroad train near Wilcox, Wyoming, dynamiting one or two safes (accounts differ) and helping themselves to the contents, reportedly worth more than $50,000. While it’s unclear Cassidy was at the scene—or simply masterminded the crime—he is believed to have shared in the loot. The next year, the gang hit another train, near Tipton, Wyoming, again blasting open a safe. This time, according to Richard Patterson’s Butch Cassidy: A Biography (1998), the haul may have approached $55,000, and Cassidy was most likely on hand to personally collect it. If those dollar figures are correct, the two robberies had netted the gang more than $3 million in today’s dollars.
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But with the turn of the new century, Cassidy seems to have resolved to give up his criminal career and, in order to escape the law, leave the United States. He and Longabaugh decided on South America, and Longabaugh invited his girlfriend, Etta Place, to join them. In the meantime, though, the Wild Bunch pulled off one last train robbery, this one in July 1901, near Wagner, Montana. Whether Cassidy was with his old gang is a matter of debate; if so, he would have shared in a take estimated at $40,000 (close to $1.25 million today).
By 1902, Cassidy, Longabaugh and Place had settled in Argentina, where they purchased a cattle ranch. Within a couple of years, however, the two were implicated in a series of bank, train and stagecoach robberies. While they had successfully eluded North American authorities, they were now wanted on a whole new continent. In early November 1908, following a payroll robbery, they were cornered by Bolivian troops in the town of San Vicente.
Although the popular 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid showed them charging the Bolivians in a final blaze of suicidal glory, the reality was darker. From the way the bodies were found, it appeared Cassidy had shot Longabaugh in the head, then turned the gun on himself.
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But Was His Death Just a Hoax?
Historians generally accept that version of events. Even so, numerous witnesses claimed to have seen Cassidy years, sometimes decades, after his supposed death. Those witnesses included his own sister, Lula Parker Betenson, who maintained until her death in 1980 that he had visited her in 1925 and died, under an assumed name, in 1937. A widely published 1938 newspaper story made a similar claim, based on an interview with a Wyoming rancher who said Cassidy had died the year before in Spokane, Washington, where he went by the name of Bill Phillips. Complicating matters, Phillips seems to have encouraged the speculation that he was actually Cassidy.
Many of these tales involved Cassidy returning to reclaim loot he’d hidden away during his outlaw years. In 1968, a traveling cigarette salesman came forward with evidence that he said showed Cassidy died in 1953 “after decades of fruitless hunting in the mountains of Wyoming for a buried strongbox of gold he and a bandit friend reportedly robbed from a stagecoach in 1897.”
Biographer Patterson recounts a local legend that Cassidy buried money in an iron pot near Lander, Wyoming, marking the nearby trees with mule shoes. Unfortunately, the trees later caught fire and burned down. Bill Phillips, the Cassidy lookalike who some insisted was the real thing, appears to have taken that story seriously. He visited an Indian Reservation in Lander in 1934 but seems to have left empty handed. He might have had better luck in Colorado or Utah, where Cassidy was said to have hidden other caches.
For decades, those rumors have inspired treasure hunters to go looking for Cassidy’s loot, but so far no one has been successful. Unless of course, they found the money, packed it up and made a clean getaway—a feat that Cassidy would surely have appreciated.
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