Butch Cassidy’s Colt and the End of the Wild West

The following article is re-published with permission from rockislandauction.blogspot.com.

It is no coincidence that the Old West and gun collecting go hand in hand. For firearms manufacturers, it was a time of innovation and industrialization.  Colt’s Paterson was invented in 1836 and was the first percussion cap revolver, while Smith & Wesson’s first cartridge revolvers would be produced two decades later in 1856. These innovations in firepower were amplified by standardizations that were concurrently taking place. Guns could be mass produced for the first time making them affordable and easier to repair.  Ammunition was also becoming standardized, safer, easier to use, and more powerful.  The guns produced in this era were some of the first to utilize many of the technologies that we take for granted today . . .

The Old West also connects with gun collecting because firearms were an indispensable part of the landscape. In an era without 911, police radio, and most forensics technologies, the gun was often the only way to defend oneself from frontier wildlife, Indians, and outlaws. It could also protect your livestock, be used for hunting… and villainy.  Besides their noble and necessary roles, guns in the West obviously served several “less than savory” roles: dispute settler, stagecoach/rail/bank robber, claim jumper, border enforcer, and avenger. The gun we’ll investigate today was once the tool of one of the Old West’s most infamous outlaws and will be offered in Rock Island Auction Company’s September 2013 Premiere Auction.

Butch Cassidy is a man that many picture as a ruggedly handsome Paul Newman, when in reality he was a square-headed, straw haired, extremely successful thief. Butch Cassidy was born as Robert LeRoy Parker on April 13, 1866 in Beaver, Utah.  Known around the house as “Roy,” he was the youngest in his Mormon family of 13 children. His family being poor, Roy worked ranches at a young age and would eventually leave home in his early teens in search of greener pastures. He continued working ranches and at one point even took work in a butcher shop, earning him his lifelong moniker “Butch.”

The topic of when Roy earned his famous nickname is debated, others say he took it after he changed his last name, but everyone agrees on the occupation. On one of those ranches where he found work, Roy befriended a rancher by the name of Mike Cassidy, who had a reputation of rustling horses and cattle. No doubt that Mike Cassidy warmed right up to his protégé.  History reports that Butch was never anything but charming, kind, and well-liked with an infectious grin. Mike Cassidy taught young Roy how to rope, drive cattle, expertly ride a horse, and to become an expert marksman.

Butch’s first, lesser-known foray into crime was actually when he entered a Hay Springs clothing store, took a pair of jeans, but left a note promising to pay his debt when he next returned to the shop. The shop owner pressed charges regardless of the note, but Butch would be acquitted by a jury. Butch showed aptitude toward any task he put his mind to and had quite a reputation as a skilled and able cowboy. However, Butch would eventually take the promise he showed as a rancher and would apply that skill to other, less savory, areas.

Starting his new life, Butch decided to try his fortunes in a town called Telluride, Colorado, a boomtown full of showgirls, saloons, prospectors, miners, and gamblers. Initially paid for hauling ore, Butch would eventually begin winning money for racing horses. He was only 23 when he, along with three other cowboys, robbed the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride and had over $20,000 to show for their excellent planning. No doubt using some of his plunder, he purchased a ranch in Dubois, WY in 1890 and returned back to his cattle and horse rustling roots.

His reputation as an outlaw began to grow after his Telluride robbery. In an attempt to honor his old  mentor and not disrespect his family, especially his mother, Butch changed his surname to Cassidy. His popularity also began to grow as sentiments again the “cattle barons” of the day grew increasingly hostile; his rustling of cattle from barons was seen as a blow against the giants for the “little guy” independent ranchers. In 1894, he would be jailed for 18 months of a two year sentence in the state prison in Laramie, WY. The prison sentence was earned from a “sting” set up by the cattle barons. They sold Butch unbranded horses for a irresistible price without papers. They then notified the local law about his “undocumented” livestock and had him arrested, ironically, for “rustling” horses that he had actually purchased.

The last 6 months of his sentence were commuted after he had shown he was a model prisoner and allegedly promised Governor William Alford Richards that he would no longer rustle in the state. Newly freed, Butch’s drive for crime and excitement had grown immensely and he would quickly surround himself with others of a lawless nature and form what came to be known as The Wild Bunch. They were hand-picked by Butch himself and they would bring a new level of professionalism, excellence, and precision to bank robbing. It wouldn’t be until just after their Aug 1896 robbery of the bank in Montpelier, Idaho of $7,000 that he would recruit one Mr. Harry Longabaugh, better known to the world as “The Sundance Kid.”

The next 4-5 years of Butch and his gang’s career follows a fairly predictable pattern of robberies in various Western states and then retreating to their hideout nicknamed the Hole-in-the-Wall. It was a geological formation in the Big Horn Mountains of northern Wyoming which gave the gang, and other outlaws, everything they needed: protection from the elements, an excellent vantage point, long lines of sight, seclusion, allies, food and ammunition stores, and easily defensible narrow passes. Butch loved the area so much, he would homestead there later in life in a ranch called the Blue Creek Ranch.

His reputation as a witty, charming, funny, brainy, considerate, non-violent man persisted his whole life. People always found him agreeable and when he would occasionally imbibe, he often drank less than most men. His only disdain were for those he felt had wronged him or abused their power:  big ranchers, bankers, and railroads often bore the brunt of this sentiment and is likely the result of a boyhood experience where his father lost land in a property rights dispute.

Butch’s father Maximillian was a “jack-Mormon” a term coined for inactive members, and when the land dispute arose it went to a “bishop’s court,” a customary thing in Utah at that time for both civil and occasionally criminal matters. The bishop ruled against Max in favor of a tithe-paying, active, church member and Max Parker’s family was thrown even further into poverty. Something neither Butch, nor his family would ever forget.  Butch’s rustling would frequently target the herds of “religious hypocrites.” While Butch is believed to only have used violence as a last resort, he surrounded himself with men who had no such ethical dilemmas.

Eventually the high-profile bank, train, and payroll robberies would earn Butch a little too much attention and the railroad giants, after trying to hire Butch to help guard their trains in exchange for amnesty, would hire the famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency to protect their trains. Pinkerton would form a special posse called the Union Pacific Mounted Rangers on a specially designed train with specially trained men.

The Wild Bunch was initially unconcerned and continued their robbing ways, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars.  However, it wouldn’t be long before the Wild West began to give way to modernity and the 20th Century. Many of the advances in technology shrank the world that Butch and his gang lived in and they began to feel the grip of law enforcement tightening around them.  Butch had thought previously of escaping to South America and that option got more attractive every day. So attractive, in fact, that Butch began robbing with the intent of saving enough money to make the trip and a life for himself in Argentina. During this robbing spree, the gang took the famous photo in Ft. Worth, Texas, now dubbed the “Fort Worth Five.”

The photo would ultimately hurt the gang deeply when the Pinkertons discovered it and used it to make wanted posters of the men.  Up until that time the law only had older descriptions of two of them men, including Butch’s prison photo.  It would not take long for Butch, Sundance, and Sundance’s longtime companion Ethel “Etta” Place, to feel the heat and on February 20, 1901 departed from New York City to Buenos Aires, Argentina aboard the British steamship Herminius.  They no doubt enjoyed the lavish New York lifestyle for several weeks prior to their departure.  To avoid detection aboard the ship, Butch would take the alias James Ryan and pretend to be Etta’s non-existent brother.  Upon arriving in Argentina, they quickly set up their own ranch and began living a successful life on the straight and narrow.

The pilfering pair would soon resume their lifestyle of robbing banks and trains in South America.  The “end” of Butch Cassidy’s story is clouded at best.  Most believe that the law began catching up with them in South America.  The trio would flee to Chile on several occasions, but continually return to Argentina.  Etta, for reasons unknown, would leave the group on June 30, 1906 on a ship bound for San Francisco.  Butch and Sundance tried to make an honest living for a time, by guarding a mine company’s payroll of all things.

Several robberies were attributed to “two American bandits” and eventually they were identified thanks to a mule.  A hotel owner would recognize either the animal or the mining company’s logo on its flank and report his find to a local Bolivian Calvary camping nearby.  The cavalry sent three men to investigate and after enlisting the help of local law enforcement, they surrounded the cabin where the two stayed and a fierce firefight erupted.  Now things become even further convoluted.

1.  Some sources say that after an extended period of quiet there was a scream, a single shot which silenced the screaming, and then, after a pause, a second shot.  Those sources also state that after several hours (some even say the next day) the cavalry finally looked in, discovered two bodies with numerous bullet wounds to their limbs; one body had a bullet hole in its forehead, the other with one in the temple.  The assumption was that Butch had put his long-time friend and partner out of his suffering and then ended his own.  This story and the next both claim to take place on November 3, 1908.

2.  Others say that Sundance, out of ammunition, attempted to reach rifles and ammunition across a small courtyard.  He made it to the rifles, but was gunned down while returning with them to the cabin.  Butch retrieved his friend from the courtyard, brought him back inside the cabin, but the damage had been done.  Sundance expired in that cabin and not long after Butch took his own life with his last bullet.  This is the most accepted of all the stories.

3.  A third story says that Butch survived somehow.  Maybe he got away from that cabin.  Maybe the two “Americans” weren’t Butch and Sundance at all, there were certainly other American outlaws in the country performing the same crimes as our pair.  Some folks state that Butch and Sundance moved back to the U.S. and lived the rest of their lives in hiding under aliases.  This story is backed by many first-hand accounts saying that Butch has visited them after his alleged South American death in 1908.  These “visits” by Butch would continue to be reported through the 1930s even by his own family members, however, the accounts often conflict.  Similar evidence exists for Sundance’s return to the states and eventual death in 1936.

4.  A more specific legend has Butch going to Europe for a time, then returning to the United States under the name William Phillips.  Once back, he began living in Michigan and married a woman named Gertrude Livesay in May of 1908.  They would eventually move to Arizona to live a straight life.  He would reportedly earn a little extra money by fighting with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution, but would eventually start the Phillips Manufacturing Company, watch it go bankrupt, make a few desperate trips back to Utah and Wyoming looking for buried caches, but ultimately find none.  Diagnosed with cancer, he would die on July 20, 1937.

5.  Still another version has Butch escaped from Bolivia, though Sundance was not so fortunate, underwent plastic surgery in France, reunited with a long lost love in Wyoming, and settled down in Washington State.  This version is detailed in a book called Bandit Invincible: The Story of Butch Cassidy written by a man named William T. Phillips -the same name allegedly used by Butch as an alias in version #4.  This means the book would not be a biography, but an autobiography!  However, this theory earns little credibility.  The book was initially considered fiction and historians say it bears little resemblance to Cassidy’s real life.  Especially damning to this theory is that after Phillips died, his wife Gertrude told a Cassidy historian that the couple knew Butch personally and that Phillips was not him.

6.  Others still report that Butch was stabbed in the slums of Paris, killed after a bank raid in Uruguay, or was shot in a New Mexico brothel.  Sundance also managed to die in any number of ways between 1920 and 1940 in Venezuela, Chile, and/or Argentina.  Even William A. Pinkerton, hearing all the conflicting reports, never officially closed the book on Butch and Sundance.

Famous photo of the “Fort Worth Five”  Left to right: Harry Longabaugh (“Sundance Kid”), William “News” Carver, Benjamin Kilpatrick (“The Tall Texan”), Harvey Logan (“Kid Curry”), and Robert LeRoy Parker (“Butch Cassidy”).

Whatever the ending of Robery LeRoy Parker’s story, it is a tale that has stood the test of time.  It also marks the end of the last great Western outlaws and some say the end of the Old West itself.  Thankfully, this gun endures as a connection to both the man and the era in which he thrived and Rock Island Auction Company is honored to have a temporary custody of such a historic firearm.  It was given by Butch Cassidy to a small time outlaw Joe Davenport, an occasional member of the Wild Bunch.  When Joe retired from crime and went straight, he took a job as a night watchman in Rock Springs, Wyoming.  He would later give this revolver to a dentist named Dr. Breihan possibly for services rendered.  The dentist would eventually pass the revolver on to his son, who would trade it to a man named Jack Wallace for his services as a machinist.  Jack would father a Lt. Col. John W. Wallace, who would inherit the pistol from his dad and document its vast history in the included affidavit.

Butch Cassidy is truly a man of his times.  He innovated his depraved art, just as the Industrial Revolution did with so many products and the young United States.  He enjoyed a sense of adventure as did so many Western-bound settlers in those days.  Perhaps most importantly, he lived and faded right along with his beloved Wild West.  They peaked together, but all the new technologies and innovations which had been used to such success would prove the end of both.  How perfectly fitting that they should fall together.  No one could ask for a more suitable man to herald the end of this age.

SOURCESPhillips, William T. The Bandit Invincible: The Story of the Outlaw Butch Cassidy. Hamilton, MT: Rocky Mountain House, 1986. Print.http://www.biography.com/people/butch-cassidy-9240908?page=1

http://www.utah.com/oldwest/butch_cassidy.htm