By Hunter Rothwell
“I steal their money just to hear them holler”
As the old 1886 story goes, a cowboy lent Butch Cassidy $25 to help him get to Butte, Montana. A year later the cowboy received $100 by mail. A note accompanying the money read: “If you don’t know how I got this, you will learn someday.”
Twenty years earlier, the man we know as Butch Cassidy was born Robert LeRoy Parker in Beaver, Utah. Son of a poor Morman couple and the eldest of 13 children, he was still in his early teens when he set out on his own. While working as a cowhand, he met a shady rancher named Mike Cassidy who taught the young man a variety of cowboy skills, including small-time rustling. A few years later, he took the name George Cassidy as an alias; a stint as a butcher in Rock Springs, Wyoming gave him the nickname Butch.
When he was 16, Butch let himself into a closed shop, and took a pair of jeans and some pie. After a long journey, he’d found the shop closed, so Butch left an IOU promising to pay on his next visit. He was arrested and although acquitted after a jury trial, the experience left young Butch with little respect for authority. This experience taught him the law protected the interests of the rich, consequently prosecuting common folk. In 1894, a rustling job landed Cassidy an 18-month vacation at the Wyoming state prison in Laramie.
After doing his time, he and Harry Longabaugh, aka ‘The Sundance Kid’, formed a gang called the Wild Bunch. The gang lived in hideouts up and down the Outlaw Trail that stretched between Canada and Mexico. Targeting the impersonal rich, Cassidy led them to rob trains, banks and cattle barons.
“I steal their money just to hear them holler,” he wrote. “Then I pass it out among those that need it (sic).”
Because he was so generous in sharing his loot with widows, children, and friends, the public adored him. This ‘Robin Hood of the West’ never committed murder, not once.
The Wild Bunch pulled off some of the greatest heists of the Old West. In July 1901, they held up a Union Pacific train near Wagner, Montana and stole $60,000. After that, the law nearly caught Cassidy. The Wild Bunch disbanded, and he took off for Argentina.
Cassidy’s death is a mystery. In a 1908 shootout in an Argentinean mine, two men, both fatally wounded, were identified as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. However, many respected historians believe Cassidy faked his death, returned to the United States under the name William Phillips, and died in Spokane, Washington in 1937.
In American folklore, Butch Cassidy lives on as a hero of western adventure who embodied the spirit of a legendary wild land.