By Robert Meyerowitz
The real Butch Cassidy, born Robert Leroy Parker, in Utah, in 1866 – a first-generation American, son of Mormon immigrants from England – likely would have been lost to posterity and myth-making were it not for the success of the 1969 movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” from a script by William Goldman, who pretty much made the whole thing up.
To judge from Charles Leerhsen’s new biography, “Butch Cassidy: The True Story of An American Outlaw,” the movie may have gotten one thing dead-on: The real Cassidy was as charming as the one Paul Newman played, and that bonhomie took him further in crime than his skills with horses or six-shooters. Yet without the movie, he would have been spoken of a little less with each passing decade, even in his old stomping grounds, which included Durango and Mancos (his partner The Sundance Kid, aka Harry Longabaugh, a Pennsylvanian by birth, learned to be a cowboy in Cortez). Instead, he has become an icon of an Old West that has nearly as little truth to it as Goldman’s script.
When Cassidy and accomplices wore masks to hold up at least one train, Leerhsen writes, they were not bandannas. They were napkins they’d stolen from a Harvey House, the nation’s first chain restaurant, begun along Western rail lines in 1878. This is not the West of wide-open spaces where a man or woman could slip the bonds of wage labor and consumerism – and for the white people who bought into that idea, it never was. When Cassidy and some of his accomplices weren’t working on a holdup, which could take weeks, they were working for months at one of a handful of large ranches, usually controlled by Eastern or European capital, as ranch hands and cowboys, for wages no better than what they could have gotten at a National Biscuit Company factory back East.
They never amassed any wealth from robbing banks and trains, but at least it was a break from the tedium and a way to try to stick it to the man. “That cowboy crap gets old fast,” Leerhsen writes. “Most of the trusting souls who followed the false advertising out West after the Civil War ... struggled to feed even their own families.” Cassidy, he writes, was born into a “welter of hatred, violence, fear and stupidity.”
He got a start riding Betty, an unimpressive mare, in races against local favorites in Durango and other places in Southwest Colorado, and cleaning up – until some Navajos in McElmo Gulch realized they’d been hustled and one of Cassidy’s companions shot one of the Navajos dead. Next, Cassidy and company robbed Telluride’s San Miguel Valley Bank, in 1889, getting away with $22,350 – something like $600,000 today, none of which they saved or invested, because now they were outlaws and would spend the rest of their lives on the run, wanted dead or alive in Colorado.
Fans of the movie will know roughly how this ends, not in a prison cell in the Centennial State but with the same twist that drew Goldman. Cassidy, Sundance and a female companion fled to Argentina in 1901, to a place they imagined would be more like the Old West than the Old West ever was, and set up as ranchers. Pursued by Pinkerton agents, they fell back on what they knew, robbing banks, and fled to Chile, then Bolivia, where soldiers cornered them in a lodging house and, rather than surrender, Cassidy apparently killed the wounded Longabaugh and then put an end to his own sojourn in the vale of gold and tears.Robert Meyerowitz is the former editorial page editor of the Herald.