Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Photo of the 1900 Often in the west the life of an outlaw is seen in a darker light. A life full of violence, running, hiding, sleeping under the stars and living the life of an outcast. According to the stories of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, told by the popular 1969 movie, many of these myths were true. But how many of these myths about this duo of bandits are true?

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, otherwise known as Harry Longabaugh, came together through “the Wild Bunch”, a gang of robbers headed by Butch. Both had lead lives of crimes, but it wasn’t until the formation of this gang that they became infamous throughout much of the west. The gang, hiding out in the Hole-In-The-Wall area of Wyoming, operated for from 1896 to 1901, becoming one of the most successful train robbery gangs in western history1. By 1901 Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch had pulled off numerous robberies of both trains and banks. But after a few close calls in Fort Worth, Texas Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and Etta Place (Sundance’s lover) left the United States for Argentina2.

One of the major ideas in the 1969 film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, directed by George Roy Hill, revolves around Butch’s skill at formulating brilliant plans3. This myth plays well into the ideas that many people have about outlaws in the west. Typically seen waiting for trains in just the right spot or robbing banks when least expected outlaws supposedly have a knack for planning. And according to the film Butch Cassidy was no exception. Of his gang, “the Wild Bunch”, he was the one who everyone looked to for the next plan, to say when and where they would pull off robberies. Often when the main duo gets into serious trouble, whether it be in the US or Bolivia, Sundance asks “So what’s the plan?”3. While it is certain that the film may meet expectations of outlaws, did the actual Butch?

In The Washington Post’s article from April 24th of 1898 titled “Defies the Governors,” some of the tactics employed by Butch Cassidy and his men in evading capture are explained. After explaining some of the structure of the outlaws, as well as the approximate placement of their hideouts, the article lays out how the gang keeps their hideouts secret. Often a thin shelf must be ridden on to reach the hideouts, and “Holes have been drilled, into which in case of close pursuit dynamite can be placed and the trail blown from the face of the cliff and into the chasm below, thus baffling all pursuers”4. This is a clear mark of a gang with a leader who is capable of creating a plan not only of attack but also of escape. The article also outlines the dangers that the networks of trails can put to a posse trailing Butch or some of his men. The deep ravines in which sharpshooters are able to hold off any amount of deputies, and the dead-ends that many posses are lead to4. This clear thinking and calculating outlaw leader is one who is dreamed up in many western myths and one who was truly alive in Butch Cassidy.

Another of the more common western outlaw myths is focused on violence, whether it be against innocent bystanders or the lawmen standing between outlaw and freedom. The idea of the deadly shootout is not infrequent in western lore, but did this idea have any basis in fact? According to the “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” film it did indeed, at least for the Sundance Kid. A cold and calculating killer, the Sundance Kid would kill someone over a false accusation just as quickly as he would to save his own skin. In the movie’s final scene in a shootout between the outlaw duo and the Bolivian army Sundance’s gun blazed away, spitting bullets at any target he could find, killing many3. But was this the actual Sundance Kid? Did this supposedly violent behavior have any truth to it?

According to Richard Patterson, Sundance was not the hardened killer that many believe5. Even after Sundance, or Harry Longabaugh more formally, had been in the Wild Bunch for three or four years from 1897 to 1900 he had not killed anyone during any of the gang’s robberies6. While his southern exploits are less well known it is clear that while Sundance was a western anti-hero he did not take a life as was so often thought. But that does not mean the gang was not the typically violent outlaw bunch. The Washington Post’s 1898 article, previously mentioned, indicated that posses had often come to violent confrontations with Butch’s gang, very frequently ending in deaths4.

One myth surrounding outlaws in the west comes from the law-enforcement side. Many modern films, movies and TV shows portray huge posses chasing after bandits and other law-breakers. But the “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” movie portrays a different western manhunt. While they are at one point chased by hired gunmen, the posse idea is not shown. In fact, while the robbery duo hides out a US marshal tries to rally a town into a posse to no avail, the townspeople are much more interested in a brand new bicycle3.

But in reality the bandits did have many problems with posses giving chase after robberies. In the Philadelphia Inquirer’s June 25, 1899 article “Western Manhunt Chasing ‘Hole in the Wall Gang’ Over Many Miles of Territory,” the dangers that posses posed is clearly outlined.  The article states that three “Hole in the Wall” gang members had dynamited a train during a robbery and “made off with a price of thousands of dollars on each of their heads”. According to the article the trio had been pursued by over five-hundred men. “Sheriffs… marshalls… cowboys and prospectors, and old Indian fighters” men from all walks of life were eager to capture the bandits7. Based off of this article it is safe to assume that posses were much more common than the 1969 movie makes them out to be.

This all points to the fact that while these western myths are exciting, and often have a basis in reality, they are not applicable to every western anti-hero. Violence may have ruled the west for a time, but it apparently did not rule either Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid. These myths have their place, but before assuming that every outlaw was a cold hearted killer, or a calculating thinker one must actually look at the facts.

  1. Richard Patterson, “Butch Cassidy A Biography,” University of Nebraska Press, Pg. 124.
  2. Richard Patterson, “Butch Cassidy A Biography,” University of Nebraska Press, Pg. 184.
  3. George Roy Hill, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Movie, 110 minutes, October 24, 1969.
  4. “Defies the Governors,” The Washington Post, April 24, 1898, October 15 2015.
  5. Richard Patterson, “Butch Cassidy A Biography,” University of Nebraska Press, Pg. 183.
  6. Richard Patterson, “Butch Cassidy A Biography,” University of Nebraska Press, Pg. 124.
  7. “Western Manhunt Chasing ‘Hole in the Wall Gang’ Over Many Miles of Territory,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 25 1899.

William Shields

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