Thursday, September 23, 2021

Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw - Charles Leerhsen


Even today, it’s hard to avoid the names Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when traveling around the Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota area like I did back in July, so when I spotted a copy of Charles Leerhsen’s 2020 Butch Cassidy biography in Wall, South Dakota, I was intrigued enough to bring it home with me. Pretty much all I knew about Butch and Sundance to that point came via the entertaining 1969 movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as Butch and Sundance, respectively. We all know not to take movie biographies too seriously, however, and William Goldman, author of the screenplay, admitted that he knew only a handful of sketchy facts about the pair when he wrote the script. As it turns out, Goldman got the basic outline pretty much right and even captured the correct personalities of the two outlaws, but that was pure luck in the movie business of the day. Still, it was all a jumble of a few basic facts in my mind.


Robert Lee Parker, who tried several aliases before settling on Butch Cassidy, was born into a large and dirt-poor Mormon family in Utah on April 13, 1866. Amazingly, the last member of Butch’s “Wild Bunch” gang (a woman who may have sometimes held the horses for the gang while they were otherwise occupied) was not “put into the ground” until December 1961, only eight years before the movie making celebrity outlaws out of Butch and Sundance was released. Butch and Sundance, themselves, were shot down in Bolivia in November 1908. Butch was 42 years old.


A lot happened to Butch in those forty-two years. And Butch was a lot of different things to a lot of different people. He must have been one of the most charismatic men in the West during his day because even his victims often praised the way he handled his bank and train robberies, and the large ranchers who suffered cattle and horse losses to Butch’s rustling ways were often reluctant to charge him with the crime. Butch was just so damned likable, that it was hard for those who knew him to imagine him languishing in a jail cell. The Pinkerton Detective Agency used the threat of being robbed by Butch Cassidy to drum up business for the company, often knowingly attributing robberies to Butch and his gang when they knew the case to be otherwise. Butch refused to rob train passengers or bank customers, and went out of his way to limit violence during the robberies. The movie got that kind of thing pretty much right.


But, surprise, surprise. Butch was almost certainly gay or, perhaps reluctantly bi-sexual. Along with Sundance and Sundance’s partner Ethel Place (who was mistakenly re-named “Etta” on a Pinkerton wanted poster) he formed a threesome that raised a few eyebrows even at the time. Butch was not formally educated, but he was a reader and a natural loner who spent much of his downtime with his nose in a book. And by the time that Butch and Sundance were finally cornered and killed (there is some evidence that Butch killed Sundance before shooting himself in the head) in Bolivia, their celebrity-outlaw status was such that people refused to believe that they could be dead. Butch was the Elvis Presley of his day, and Butch Cassidy sightings in the US were reported for decades after his death. 


Bottom Line: Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw is both fun and informative, something that is a little rare in a biography. It explores the Parker family roots in some detail, chronicles the comings and goings of Butch during his forty-two years, speculates on what he was up to during the dead spots in his history, and tries to explain the man’s motivations as he alternated between periods of thievery and trying to go straight for good. Charles Leerhsen uses an irreverently humorous style to tell the story of Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, and he does much to debunk the many myths and legends that have become associated with Butch and Sundance over time. Surprisingly enough, the “true story” may just be even better than the myths.


Charles Leerhsen

10 comments:

  1. It's crazy how fascinated we are by outlaws like Butch Cassidy. It's not like he was a paragon of virtue or someone to admire, but he's just so darn interesting! And this sounds like a great biography of him! I'm adding it to my TBR list. :)

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    1. The writing is really good, and that makes Butch's story even more fun to learn about. The man must have had a tremendous amount of charisma if even his victims ended up liking him. I still find that amazing.

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  2. As someone who still has large chunks of the movie dialogue memorized-- and who's visited the ghost town where the "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" scene was filmed-- I have to admit that this sounds like a good'un. Adding it to my list!

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    1. Still one of my favorite movies of that era, too. B.J. Thomas was from Houston, and I remember that his new "fame" as singer of that song really bumped up his career nationally. According to this bio, that scene was almost cut from the movie because the thought was that it added unnecessarily to the length of the movie without adding anything to the plot. Glad they decided to leave it in.

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  3. It was an excellent movie, and the scenes remain visual. Now, an opportunity to know more of the truth about those desperados. :) Another one to add to the list.

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    1. The ending of the book is even sadder than the ending of the movie.

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  4. Like many, I remember that movie fondly. It's good to know they mostly got it right.

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    1. The key to the Butch Cassidy legend (Sundance, as it turns out, really wasn't his most common partner in crime) is the amazing charisma that oozed out of the man. The movie got that part right, and captured the personalities of the two men pretty well even though it may have been just a lucky accident that it did.

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  5. Wait ... did they really kill themselves before the shootout with the Bolivian army? That last scene in the movie is really good. And they were gay too? It's interesting to think of these Outlaws today ... how many bank robberies did they do? thanks.

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    1. The evidence indicates it was a "murder-suicide" decision that they must have agreed on rather than allowing themselves to be jailed in South America. Of the two, Butch is the one who was likely gay; Sundance had Ethel as a companion until he left her in Denver about to give birth to their baby before he headed back to South America where he died. Not sure how many robberies of banks; they did as many train robberies as bank robberies, I think. And they got credit for a lot of robberies that weren't theirs at all.

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