The True Story of an American Outlaw
By Charles Leerhsen
A quirky subgenre of narrative history has emerged in recent years that explores the lives of iconic heroes of Hollywood westerns. A good example is Charles Leerhsen’s worthy biography of Butch Cassidy, the former Mormon farm boy and leader of the Wild Bunch, a gang of five immortalized in an old studio photo. They were responsible for a succession of bank and train robberies across the intermountain West between 1896 and 1901. Despite a lengthy career that flip-flopped between dull but honest work as a ranch hand and his carefully plotted holdup schemes, Robert LeRoy Parker, a.k.a. Butch Cassidy, is better remembered today as the wisecracking lead character whom Paul Newman played in the George Roy Hill film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
The new genre has its limitations, and “Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw” can’t escape them. The movie heroes are larger than life, thanks to the actors’ quips and star power, whereas the real outlaws were smallish cowboys of dubious morals, whose backgrounds, behavior and life chronologies are prone to extreme sketchiness and heated historical disputes. The Wild Bunch, for example, featured a changing cast of bandits who weren’t that wild; they weren’t even a bunch. No wonder the dime novels and yellow press of the day exaggerated the facts surrounding the western gangs and gunfighters: Too often those facts won’t stand on their own.
Leerhsen, who is the author of biographies of Ty Cobb and the harness horse Dan Patch, amply demonstrates that cowboys are in his corral. He has taken the trouble to read the literature and track down the living descendants of the Wild Bunch in order to get the slippery details as straight as he can. Then he starts his own one-man posse in pursuit of the charismatic outlaw, visiting homesteads and following the historical trail all the way to Bolivia and Argentina, where Cassidy and his friend and fellow thief Harry Longabaugh, rechristened the Sundance Kid, spent their final years. At one point he says of his research, “I am standing in about six inches of llama poop.”
Yet even an investigator as diligent as Leerhsen can’t get close enough to the outlaw or lay his hands on enough original material to bring Cassidy, “a kind of backwater Anthony Bourdain,” to life. And that is too bad because Leerhsen does a fine job of recounting the events surrounding the heists — like the gang’s use of fresh horses spread out along their escape routes so that they could outgallop whatever lawmen were trailing along in dogged pursuit, thus stealing a trick from the old Pony Express. Cassidy, who was kind to shopkeepers and children, at first refused to rob anyone other than flush banks and railroads, which accounted for his Robin Hood-like appeal to the tabloids of the day.
Leerhsen also explores the motives behind the gang’s crime spree, citing the thrill of the heist, the desire for notoriety and, the chief allure, the hope of getting rich quick. But it is also true that opportunities to advance from cowhand to cattle baron had collapsed during Cassidy’s youth as the beef industry contracted, leaving ambitious cowboys more than a little disgruntled and primed for social unrest. The rise in bank and train robberies, like the rise in horse and cattle rustling, was often a reaction to the harsher financial realities on the open range.
Cassidy was one of those who had seen their prospects dwindle. It was no accident that after robbing a bank in Winnemucca, Nev., and bagging $32,500 ($1.1 million today), he and Sundance, accompanied by Sundance’s sweetheart, Ethel “Etta” Place, boarded a steamer in New York bound for Argentina. Gaucho country, years behind the United States in the rise of its ranching and meatpacking industry, beckoned as a land of opportunity where the three could be assured of lasting happiness and prosperity — assured, that is, of a Hollywood ending. The idyll lasted a few years. Then the robberies resumed. Bolivian soldiers and police tracked the outlaws to the mining town of San Vicente, high in the Andes. At sundown on Nov. 6, 1908, shots were fired. Their luck had run out.