Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in fact and on the screen
Few figures of the old West have exercised such a fascination on the public imagination as those of the outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The 1969 movie with Paul Newman as Butch and Robert Redford as Sundance, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, was a huge hit, all over the world and not just with Western fans. It was a buddy comedy that everyone went to see. It was a poor film qua Western and very inaccurate historically but the theater-goers in their droves didn’t care; they lapped it up. It produced a trail of ‘son of…’ spin-offs like Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, the 1970s Hanna-Barbera TV series, a made-for-TV movie named The Legend of Butch and Sundance and a version of Butch’s old age in Blackthorn. We’ll have a look at some of these in the coming days. The TV aliases ‘Smith’ and ‘Jones’ hid Wild Bunch escapees and Murphy and Davis were more than a little Butch and Sundance-ish. Soundtrack CDs, Butch Cassidy comics, T-shirts, Cassidy/Sundance tours, it has become quite an industry.
There is also an almost infinite supply of books on Butch Cassidy & Co. Some have titles like Butch Cassidy, My Brother or Butch Cassidy, My Uncle, and some purport to tell the ‘truth’ about really happened to the boys, such as Butch Cassidy: The Lost Years, or Butch Cassidy: The Untold Story or Butch Cassidy: Beyond the Grave (that last one should be interesting). Some concentrate on the search, with titles like Finding Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or In Search of Butch Cassidy or Digging Up Butch and Sundance (don’t like the sound of that one much). The outlaws also of course appear as chapters in many anthologies of Western heroes and villains. I think you would have to be very dedicated to read all the books there are on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and very gullible indeed to believe them all.
Even when Parker and Longabaugh (to give them their proper names) were alive there was huge interest in their doings and newspapers couldn’t get enough of them. The police forces of half the country, federal, state, county and private, were constantly on the hunt for them.
Why all the fuss? There were, after all, plenty of other Western outlaws, even in the 1890s. What was so special about this pair?
The Wild Bunch
Actually, Butch and Sundance (useful shorthand) were only two members of a large gang of shifting membership known as the Wild Bunch or the Hole in the Wall Gang, after one of their hideouts. They operated chiefly in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah (the Hole in the Wall was a usefully remote pass in the Big Horn Mountains of Johnson County, Wyoming) but were also very wide-ranging. The gang operated sometimes together, sometimes independently, and they came and went. There might be up to a hundred at one point, then ten. They had little formal structure and, despite what movies show, no clearly-defined leader. At the heart of the band of ne’er-do-wells, however, was a handful of big names in the outlaw world, of which Butch and Sundance were two.
One problem for lawmen at the time (and historians later) was that they cheerfully swapped names among themselves and adopted aliases (even perhaps Smith and Jones, who knows). Butch Cassidy, for example, was born Robert Leroy Parker, in Utah in 1868. As a young man Parker met a rustler who called himself Mike Cassidy (probably itself an alias for John Tolliver McClammy) who became his mentor, and Parker later adopted the Cassidy name in honor of his friend. (The ‘Butch’ came from a stint as a butcher in Rock Springs, WY).
Another member of the Wild Bunch, Harvey Logan (1867 – 1904) met and befriended a man named ‘Flat Nose’ George Curry and Logan adopted Curry’s name and became known as Kid Curry. It all must have been very confusing for the Pinkertons.
The Sundance Kid
Harry Alonzo Longabaugh was probably born in Mont Clare, Pennsylvania, in 1867. Aged 15, he traveled west with his cousin, George. In 1887 he stole a horse, a saddle and a gun in Sundance, Wyoming, and was sentenced to eighteen months. It was there, apparently, that he got the nickname Sundance Kid. Later he worked as a cowpuncher up in Alberta, Canada. He didn’t go straight, though, because he was strongly suspected of taking part in a train robbery in 1892, and in a bank robbery in 1897 with five other men. He gained a reputation as a sullen and drunken man who talked too much and fought too much – not exactly Robert Redford.
Sundance seems to have had a reputation as a man skilled in the use of firearms but unlike Kid Curry, Longabaugh did not certainly kill anyone (he might have killed a deputy sheriff in 1896, though this is not documented). At any rate he was no gunfighter or serial killer. Butch Cassidy was still less a gunman. The two were armed when they robbed banks and trains but rarely fired any gun – certainly not at anyone.
Butch’s first exploit seems to have been with accomplices Matt Warner and Bill and Tom McCarty: they robbed the San Miguel Valley Bank in July 1889. Cassidy then headed for the Hole in the Wall while the others went to Oregon and called themselves the Invincible Three. It wasn’t a terribly accurate moniker as they were captured and imprisoned, and Bill McCarty was later shot dead during another robbery, so they were quite vincible, really.
By 1890 Butch was building a thriving business based on rustling and it lasted till mid-decade. But he was caught and got a year in the pen. He was paroled in January 1896 on the promise that he would leave Wyoming and never return.
The Wild Bunch attracted women, though Butch seems to have disapproved. Nevertheless he appears to have taken a shine to Sundance’s girlfriend Etta Place. Little is known for sure about Etta and both her origin and fate are uncertain. Even her name is in doubt: she may have been Ethel and ‘Etta’ a Spanish-speakers’ version when she moved to South America.
The Pinkerton Agency described her as having “classic good looks, 27 or 28 years old, 5'4" to 5'5" in height, weighing between 110 lb and 115 lb, with a medium build and brown hair.” Judging by her 1901 photograph, that was about right and she was certainly attractive.
The West’s most successful robbers
In August 1896 the Wild Bunch struck for the first time as a cohesive group. They held up the bank at Montpelier, Idaho and escaped. The gang rapidly became the most successful robbers in the history of the West. An especially daring hold-up occurred when Butch and another member of the gang, Elza Lay, rode together into a mining camp apparently seeking work and sauntered into the paymaster’s shack, put a pistol in his face and came out with $8000. A raid on the bank in Belle Fourche, South Dakota netted $30,000. And so it went on.
Law enforcement in the 1890s was still a hit and miss affair. Town marshals were reluctant or not empowered to pursue criminals outside their city limits and county sheriffs hesitated equally to cross county lines. Both were anyway often political appointments and many were cowardly and corrupt. US marshals were more of a threat to badmen and had no problems of local jurisdiction, though their effectiveness has been exaggerated by movies and TV. Very few states or territories had rangers, and these forces were always undermanned and underfunded. In many ways the only really effective police force was the private Pinkerton Detective Agency, out of Chicago and Denver. When the Pinkertons started to take a close interest in the Wild Bunch the gang decided to lie low for a while.
Butch and Lay worked as cowboys on a ranch in New Mexico. Butch gained a reputation as a steady hand but Lay couldn’t keep away from the temptations of the outlaw life and robbed a train in Folsom, NMT. A posse caught up with him and Lay was taken and sentenced to life imprisonment. In Arizona, Harvey Logan/Kid Curry and Ben Kilpatrick were robbing banks. Curry got enough money together to travel to France but didn’t like it and was soon back in Wyoming where he, Sundance and fellow gang members stole $30,000 from a train. They got away but Sundance insisted on resting and the Pinkertons surrounded them. In a sharp fight Curry killed a sheriff and the posse withdrew.
Back to hold-ups
Meanwhile, Butch accurately planned a hold-up of a bank in Winnemucca, Nevada, positioning horses carefully along the escape route, and grabbed $32,000 in September 1900. It was in Fort Worth after this raid that gang members, all in new derbies, had a photograph taken, which was a mistake because a passing Pinkerton man saw it in the photographer’s window and recognized the men. Now their likenesses were known.
In the next planned robbery, in Sonora, Texas, gang member Bill Carver was sent ahead into town to check it out but a sheriff recognized him and shot Carver dead. Butch and the others, shaken, headed back to the Hole in the Wall. Their last coup was a raid on the Northern railroad near Malta, Montana, where they netted $50,000. Then the gang dispersed.
The end of the Wild Bunch
Ben Kilpatrick was arrested in St. Louis and got fifteen years. Kid Curry was trapped in a saloon in Knoxville and was sentenced to 130 years. He escaped, however, and with three strangers robbed the Denver & Rio Grande in Parachute, Colorado, but a dogged posse trapped them. A wounded Curry waved the other two off to freedom and held back the lawmen. When the posse rushed the rocks they found him dead.
Butch Cassidy tried to work out a deal for amnesty with the governor of Utah, and since no murder charge hung over him, the governor and even the Union Pacific were interested. But it fizzled and he, Sundance and Etta sailed from New York to Buenos Aires. They bought a ranch near the Chilean border and worked it. They made occasional return trips, once for Etta to have an appendicitis operation in Denver.
This is where the story ends, as far as certainty is concerned. We do know that Butch and Sundance robbed several banks and mines in South America and were the objects of intensive manhunts. The most historically accepted version of their fate was their death at the hands of Bolivian soldiers after a mine hold-up. Some rumors said that the boys held the army off for a whole night and then committed suicide. No one knows. Rumors persist and abound that they got back to the States and lived out their lives peacefully. It was the same with Jesse James and Billy the Kid; many believed they escaped death and there were several later pretenders claiming to be them. It all adds to their mystery and charisma.
Whatever the truth of it, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had done enough to earn themselves a place in the history, and much more importantly the legend of the West.
Long before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 Butch and Sundance had appeared on the screen. The first outing (that I know of) was when Slim Whitaker played Butch Cassidy in the 1933 Tom Tyler epic Deadwood Pass (no sign of Sundance though).
From then on Butch and, less often, the Sundance Kid made regular appearances. Walter Sande played Butch in Dakota Lil in 1950, with Rod Cameron as Kid Curry and George Montgomery as Tom Horn but it was little more than a cameo appearance for Butch and again there was no sign of Sundance. Montgomery returned in 1951 in The Texas Rangers and this time both Butch (John Doucette) and Sundance (Ian MacDonald) were there (as well as Dave Rudabaugh, Sam Bass and sundry other outlaws, including the excellent John Dehner as John Wesley Hardin).
1954 saw Columbia’s Wyoming Renegades, with Gene Evans as Butch Cassidy and William Bishop as Sundance Kid. That year too the Stories of the Century TV show had to get in on the act, as it always did, railroad detective Matt Clark having captured every outlaw from the 1850s to the 1900s, remaining always in his forties (nice trick). Joe Sawyer was Butch and this time there was no Sundance but ‘The Smiling Kid’, played by Slim Pickens, no less, who I don’t think ever looked like a kid and certainly not in 1954 but we’ll let that pass. Matt captures the pair twice (they escape jail the first time), he and Frankie track them to South America and the boys are killed in Mercedes, Uruguay by the Uruguayan police. You can watch it on YouTube, but quite frankly it isn’t worth the bother, despite Slim.
Talking of TV, Butch was also in a 1955 Buffalo Bill Jr episode, which is prefaced by the disclaimer: The characters and incidents portrayed and the names used herein are fictitious, and any similarity to the name, character, or history of any person is entirely accidental and unintentional. Well, that’s fairly clear. Harry Lauter is Butch but there’s no Sundance. You can watch that too on the Tube should you be desperate enough.
Howard Petrie was Butch (though a smallish part) back on the big screen in Republic’s The Maverick Queen in 1956, a Barbara Stanwyck/Barry Sullivan vehicle a year before Forty Guns, and the great Scott Brady was Sundance, the principal badman. The same year we saw the excellent pairing of Neville Brand as Butch and Alan Hale Jr as Sundance in The Three Outlaws. In ‘58 Brand did it again in Warners’ Badman’s Country, which featured, as well as Brand as Butch and Russell Johnson as Sundance, George Montgomery as Pat Garrett, Buster Crabbe as Wyatt Earp, Gregory Walcott as Bat Masterson and Malcom Atterbury as Buffalo Bill Cody, pretty well a Western Who’s Who.
In 1958 an episode of Tales of Wells Fargo (written by DD Beauchamp the Great) was dedicated to Butch Cassidy, with Charles Bronson as Butch. James Coburn was ‘Idaho’ but there was no Sundance. Butch also appeared in an episode of Frontier Doctor, played by Joe Sawyer – no Sundance; the Kid did seem to get overlooked, didn’t he. Bronco Layne came across Butch and many Doolins (including Jack Nicholson) but no Sundance in the episode The Equalizer. So, one way or another, TV liked Butch Cassidy.
Below, three Sundances: Russell Johnson in Badman's Country, Arthur Kennedy in Cheyenne and Robert Ryan in Return of the Badmen.
A famous film Butch was in Cat Ballou. Oddly, perhaps, he was played by Arthur Hunnicutt who, though in fact only 55 at the time, specialized in old-timer roles and played Butch as an old outlaw regretting the robbing days of yesteryear. Yet it’s Wyoming in 1894, when Butch was only 28 and was in the heyday of his larcenous career. Oh well, poetic license, I suppose.
Then came Newman and Redford. But you see they had many precursors, on the big screen and small.
There were a spaghetti rip-off Butch and Sundance obviously, Jack Betts (as Hunt Powers) and Giancarlo Prete. I haven’t seen it, nor do I want to, but if you would like the pleasure it was called Adios Compañeros or occasionally Giù la testa…hombre. It will certainly be crap.
The 1973 TV animated Hanna-Barbera series Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids had Chip Hand’s voice as Butch, and Mickey Dolenz voiced Harvey, but no Sundance. It was not a Western but about a pop group of secret agents. Or something. Tom Berenger and William Katt were Butch and Sundance in Fox’s Richard Lester-directed prequel Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, and they did rather look like a younger Newman and Redford. Jarion Monroe was Butch in The Dream Chasers (1982) and Butch, Sundance and Etta appeared in Kenny Rogers’s Gambler V (Scott Paulin, Brett Cullen and Mariska Hargitay, respectively).
There have been nine or ten Butches since then, including a 2006 TV movie, The Legend of Butch & Sundance, with David Clayton Rogers and Ryan Browning as the boys, with much of the ground already covered by Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, and a nice 2011 movie, Blackthorn, which imagines that Butch survived Sundance and has Sam Shepard as an elderly Butch who has changed his name to James. I see no sign at all of a diminution of Butches and (to a lesser degree) Sundances; indeed, if anything, their number is on the rise. Expect future representations.
Farewell for now, boys
So yes, the outlaws Parker and Longabaugh do seem to have captured the public imagination, while they were alive and ever since. They were prolific robbers, it is true, and perhaps it is that. Or perhaps it is the mystery surrounding their fate. It could also be that they genuinely did seem to be unhomicidal robbers. Whatever the reason, you can confidently talk of Butch and Sundance even to non-Western lovers (poor dears) and they will know who you are talking about.