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June 9, 2017

The Mysterious Deaths of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Uncovered Manuscript Says They Didn't Die in a Bolivian Gunfight

Butch Cassidy waited along the trail, hidden in the bushes. He knew the banker, with a thousand dollars in his pocket, would be coming his way shortly. He didn’t have to wait long. The banker approached in a buggy, and, as luck would have it, stopped right in front of Cassidy’s hiding place to count his money. Cassidy stepped out of the bushes, six-shooter in hand, and said, “I’ll take those.”

This image is known as the "Fort Worth Five Photograph." Front row left to right: Harry A. Longabaugh, alias the Sundance Kid, Ben Kilpatrick, alias the Tall Texan, Robert Leroy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy; Standing: Will Carver & Harvey Logan, alias Kid Curry; Fort Worth, Texas, 1900.

There’s nothing unusual about Butch Cassidy robbing a banker. What makes this story unusual is that it allegedly happened several years after he and the Sundance Kid were supposed to have died in a famous gunfight in Bolivia.

According to Lula Betenson, Cassidy’s youngest sister, Cassidy and the Sundance Kid didn’t die in Bolivia. Betenson is the author of "Butch Cassidy, My Brother." She wrote the book in 1975. The information in her book came from a meeting she said she had with her brother in 1925, when Betenson was 41 and Cassidy was 59. Betenson died in 1980.

The childhood home of Robert Leroy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy, outside of Circleville, Utah. (Photo: Steven Law)

Cassidy was the leader of the Wild Bunch gang, a group of 10 outlaws famous for their train and bank robberies throughout the West. According to the legend, Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh (better known as the Sundance Kid) escaped to Bolivia in 1901 to escape the increasing pressures of being pursued by the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

In 1908, two outlaws were killed during a gunfight with Bolivian police. The two bodies were identified as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

A marker near San Vicente, Bolivia, which claims to be the final resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

So if Cassidy and Sundance didn’t die in a Bolivian gunfight, how did that rumor get started? Betenson says in her book, quoting from Cassidy, that the rumor was started by a man named Percy Seibert. Seibert was a native Bolivian living in Bolivia in 1908 and a friend of Cassidy and Sundance. It’s true that in 1908 two armed bandits died in a gunfight with Bolivian police. It was Seibert who identified the bodies as Cassidy and Sundance, even though he knew it wasn’t them.

“He knew this was the only way we could go straight,” Cassidy says in Betenson’s book. Cassidy had saved the lives of Seibert and his wife on a previous occasion. Seibert saw this — the false identification of the two bodies — as a way to pay Cassidy back. And with that, word was out that Cassidy and Sundance were dead, and the heat was off.

Harry Longabaugh (the Sundance Kid) and Etta Place, just before they sailed for South America.

They could come out of hiding. They were free to travel. They could finally go home. They could live out the rest of their days in relative peace if they did it under the radar and under an alias. And, Betenson writes, that’s exactly what they did.

Cassidy was born in Beaver, Utah, in April 1866 and grew up in Circleville. His real name was Robert LeRoy Parker. Sit down in a cafe in just about any town in Garfield, Piute or Iron county and ask about Butch Cassidy and it isn’t hard to find someone who has a Butch Cassidy story. Cassidy stories drift about here like cotton from the cottonwood trees. But verifying the truth of any of these stories is difficult to do this far after the fact. Anyone who knew Cassidy is long-since dead. Like the respectable outlaw that he was, he’s still a hard man to track down.

Wyoming State Penitentiary mugshot of Robert LeRoy Parker, AKA Butch Cassidy, 1894. (Photo: Wyoming State Archives)

One starts to feel like they’ve entered the realm of Sasquatch, Elvis and the Loch Ness Monster. A Butch Cassidy story often starts like this, “I heard this story from my dad/grandpa/grandma who heard it from his dad, who used to hang out with Butch Cassidy.” It’s folk hero meets conspiracy theory meets six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Dale Hollingshead, a resident of Beaver and owner of Arshel’s Cafe, admits this is true. “So much of it is conjecture and mystery, but that adds to the intrigue of it all.”

The special car of the Union Pacific Railroad for the mounted rangers organized by UP Special Agent Timothy Keliher to stop the Wild Bunch Gang led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, late 1890s.

The most reliable source for what truly happened to Cassidy is Betenson, who says she heard the stories and information straight from her brother.

The story of Cassidy robbing the banker on the side of the road is recorded in Betenson’s book, and the story is a favorite of residents of Butch Cassidy country. The rest of the story goes like this: Cassidy walked into a store (Betenson didn't give its location) to pick up some supplies. It was run by a widow, and Cassidy saw that she was “looking glum.” He asked her what was the matter. She told Cassidy that the mortgage on the store was due, she didn’t have the money and the banker was coming to take her store.

“A thousand dollars,” she said. “I just can’t make ends meet with my husband dead and gone.”

Cassidy told her to stop worrying and that he’d help her. Cassidy left the store and a short time later returned with ten $100 bills and told her to make sure she got a signed receipt for it, marked paid in full.

That’s when Cassidy went a ways out of town, hid in the bushes and waited for the banker to come along. And when the banker passed by, Cassidy robbed him and took his money back. Betenson quotes Cassidy as saying, “This was so successful that I paid off more than one mortgage in the same way.”

According to Betenson’s book, Cassidy spent very little time in southern Utah after he returned from South America, likely less than a few months. She wrote that he spent most of his remaining years in Wyoming, Oregon and California, moving often to maintain his cover, and always under an assumed name.

After word got around that Betenson was writing a book about Cassidy not dying in Bolivia, friends and acquaintances of Cassidy started sending her letters telling of times they had seen or worked with her brother. In her book she records more than a dozen of these letters coming from all over the West.

Loading the horses into one of the special cars of the Union Pacific Railroad for the mounted rangers organized by UP Special Agent Timothy Keliher to stop the Wild Bunch Gang led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, late 1890s.

So the big question is: where is Cassidy’s grave? And where are the letters that people sent Betenson claiming to have seen Cassidy? Cassidy is rumored to be buried in California, in Oregon, in a Salt Lake City cemetery and somewhere on a hillside outside of Circleville.

But Betenson writes in her book that “Robert Leroy Parker died in the Northwest in the fall of 1937. Where he is buried and under what name is still our secret. All his life he was chased. Now he has a chance to rest in peace and that’s the way it must be.”

“Lula claimed to know where Cassidy was buried,” said Bill Betenson, Lula’s great-grandson, “but if she did, she took that information with her to the grave.”

Like Cassidy himself, she was good at covering her tracks.




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