Today marks what would be the 151st birthday of Butch Cassidy. Most famously portrayed by Paul Newman in the 1969 classic, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cassidy led a fascinating life, which was followed by a mysterious demise. Here are some surprising facts about the infamous outlaw.
1. HE WAS BORN IN THE SAME TOWN AS A TELEVISION PIONEER.
Butch Cassidy was born Robert LeRoy Parker on April 13, 1866 in Beaver, Utah. The city’s other famous son is television pioneer Philo T. Farnsworth, who was born on August 19, 1906.
2. HIS LIFE OF CRIME BEGAN WITH A PAIR OF JEANS.
Cassidy’s first recorded criminal offense occurred around 1880, when he stole a pair of jeans. To his credit, the teen left an IOU. The store’s owner pressed charges, but the soon-to-be outlaw was acquitted. According to Larry Pointer's In Search of Butch Cassidy, Cassidy "had been raised with the frontier ethic that a man's word was his bond. The IOU was an inviolate pledge. The merchant's distrust was an unfamiliar response and, before the matter was settled, the humiliated youth was having mixed emotions over legal process and blind justice."
3. HE WORKED AS A BUTCHER, WHICH MIGHT BE HOW HE GOT HIS NICKNAME.
After leaving home in his teens to find work, Cassidy—then still known as Parker—took a variety of jobs on ranches and dairy farms. He spent some time working as a butcher in Rock Springs, Wyoming, which is how many theorize he came to be known as “Butcher,” which was later shortened to “Butch.”
Why Cassidy? That’s a trickier tale. During his time at one ranch, Butch reputedly met small-time cattle thief J.T. McClammy, who went by the alias Mike Cassidy. The legend goes that Butch came to see McClammy as something of a mentor and so adopted the surname. However, as with many things in Butch’s life, the accuracy of this is suspect. While the story is widely known, those who claim to be descendants of J.T. McClammy list his birth date as 1868, which would make him two years younger than Butch, which doesn’t fit the commonly held “older mentor” image.
4. HE WAS ONLY JAILED ONCE, AND IT WASN’T FOR BANK ROBBERY.
Cassidy was believed to be involved in his first bank robbery in 1889, when he and three others made off with more than $20,000 from a bank in Telluride, Colorado. However, the law didn’t catch up with him until 1894, when he was found guilty of horse theft. He was sentenced to two years in prison, but released after 18 months.
5. HE DISLIKED VIOLENCE.
As odd as it sounds to think of an outlaw who disliked getting rough, records and personal recollections from the era all describe Cassidy as a very polite man who avoided violence whenever possible. He may have waved a gun around when robbing trains and banks, but he didn’t use it. Those who knew him said that one of his proudest claims was that he never killed a man.
6. HE MAY NOT HAVE LED THE WILD BUNCH.
Although they were known as Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, with Cassidy serving as the intrepid leader, recent scholarship has questioned this idea as “romantic mythmaking.” Joe LeFors, who was one of the lawmen who chased the gang in the late 19th century, only mentions Cassidy once in his memoirs, and never mentions the Sundance Kid. The historians who subscribe to this theory think that Harvey Logan (Kid Curry) and Will “News” Carver were the actual forces behind the success of the gang.
7. HE AND SUNDANCE MAY NOT HAVE BEEN BEST FRIENDS.
Despite what was portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie, there’s little indication that Butch and Sundance were in fact best friends. They were both members of the Wild Bunch gang, but Butch was closer to William Ellsworth “Elzy” Lay. Butch and Sundance later owned property together in Argentina, although it is not clear whether they fled to South America together or if Butch joined Sundance at a later date.
8. THERE’S NO REAL EVIDENCE THAT HE WAS KILLED IN A SHOOTOUT.
Butch and Sundance were killed in early November of 1908 following a shootout with authorities in Bolivia … or were they? Some historians argue that there is no real evidence that the two men were involved in the payroll robbery that led to the shootout, or that they were even involved in the shootout itself. Several alternative theories have arisen, claiming that the outlaws were not killed that day.
Josie Bassett, an acquaintance of the Wild Bunch, claimed that Cassidy visited her in the 1920s and that he “died in Johnnie, Nevada … He was an old man when he died. He had been living in Oregon, and back east for a long time, where he worked for a railroad.”
By far, the most popular theory is that Butch may never even have gone to Bolivia. Rather, he left Argentina in early 1908, adopted the name William T. Phillips, got married, and passed away (anonymously) in Spokane, Washington in 1937. Butch’s younger sister Lula added credence to this in her 1975 book, Butch Cassidy, My Brother, saying that he visited her and their father at the family home in 1925. A handwriting analyst also claimed that Butch Cassidy, Robert LeRoy Parker, and William T. Phillips were one and the same. But the main proponent of this theory, Larry Pointer, has recently said that he was wrong and Phillips was not actually Cassidy.
In 2009, an unabridged copy of Phillips' Bandit Invincible, a Cassidy biography, emerged. And following clues, Pointer came to the conclusion that William Phillips was actually another Wild West outlaw named William Wilcox. So for the moment, the mystery lives on.