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Did Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid Die in Bolivia? Yes, but . . .

Legends: New evidence backs traditional view of their deaths. But the belief that one or both actually survived and came back to U.S. remains strong.

January 14, 1996|BOB MIMS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SALT LAKE CITY — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their maker in a dusty Bolivian town on Nov. 6, 1908. Historians say they are dead. What refuses to die is the legend that they survived that shootout and lived on.

Now comes a batch of new research that tends to lay the legend in its grave. But don't bank on it.

A husband-and-wife team of researchers, Daniel Buck and Anne Meadows, after 10 years of digging, have exhumed long-lost Argentine police files that appear to locate the two desperadoes just where conventional wisdom says they should have been in the late 1900s, Bolivia.

Their findings are in the January issue of True West, but Buck is the first to concede that they do not constitute proof positive.

"There's never a final word," Buck said from his home in Washington, D.C. "You can only build circumstantial cases here. No one identified them when they were buried, and there are no photographs [of the bodies].

"But, then, no one has proven they came back, either. Then you build a positive circumstantial case that they were the two guys who died in Bolivia."

Butch Cassidy was christened Robert Leroy Parker by his Mormon pioneer parents. The Sundance Kid's real name was Harry Longabaugh. The two and their gang, known as the Wild Bunch, held up banks and robbed trains in the Rocky Mountains in the 1890s.

With the law on their heels, they fled to Argentina in 1901, along with Sundance's girlfriend, Etta Place. The three homesteaded a ranch in the Cholila Valley. By 1905, though, they were back to robbing banks.

Most historians believe that Butch and Sundance died in a shootout in San Vincente, a town in Bolivia, across Argentina's northern border, where a patrol discovered them holed up in a rented hut.

*

A gunfight ensued, ending when darkness fell. Later that night, townspeople reported hearing screams and two shots. In the morning, they found both outlaws dead, both shot in the head.

The writers Buck and Meadows believe that rather than be captured, Cassidy shot Sundance, then himself.

Since 1985 they had chased a rumor that police files would nail down the pair's identity. In September they finally received a nine-pound, 1,500-page package of photocopied reports on outlaw bands that terrorized southern Argentina in the early 1900s.

A letter and three notes in the package of material were in Cassidy's handwriting. They also found a Spanish translation of a letter from Sundance, and two other letters referring to the outlaws.

Cassidy, under his alias of "J.P. Ryan," wrote on Feb. 29, 1904, to Dan Gibbon, a Welsh immigrant friend living in the Andean foothills of Chubut:

"I have been laid up with a bad case of the Town Disease and I don't know just when I will be able to ride, but as soon as I am able I will be down. Look out for my horse."

The letter was posted in Cholila. (And Cassidy probably had gonorrhea.) The papers included a receipt for Ryan's purchase, for 150 pesos, of a chestnut stallion. Ryan added a postscript transferring ownership of the horse to Gibbon.

Another document details expenses by Ryan and "H. Place," an alias used by Sundance, for routine ranching expenses.

The police record also held a June 28, 1905, letter from Sundance, translated into Spanish, and also addressed to Gibbon. It was posted in Valparaiso, Chile:

"I don't want to see Cholila ever again, but I will think of you and of all our friends often. . . . ." The letter also mentions leaving with his "wife," presumably Etta Place, for San Francisco.

A June 30, 1905, visit by Sundance and Etta Place to his brother, Elwood, who lived in San Francisco, is recounted in Donna Ernst's book, "Sundance, My Uncle."

Jim Dullenty, founder of the Western Outlaw Lawman History Assn., says the papers are not conclusive, but "this is additional evidence that Butch and Sundance died in Bolivia."

"I strongly believe it hasn't been proven one way or the other," he said from Hamilton, Mont. "This is still an unsolved mystery . . . [but] I would say the evidence is beginning to weigh more on the side of them dying in South America."

Still, tales of one or both of the outlaws escaping back to the United States are unlikely to fade.

*

William T. Phillips, a Spokane, Wash., man who died in 1937, wrote an article titled "The Bandit Invincible," in which he claimed that Cassidy survived the shootout, had plastic surgery in Paris, married and eventually moved to Spokane about 1910.

Buck says recent research has shown Phillips to have been most likely an impostor born in Michigan who picked up on the outlaw's legend when he moved West.

Harold Schindler, who has written extensively on the Old West for the Salt Lake Tribune, remains unconvinced by Buck and Meadows' discovery.

Schindler favors a 1991 account by a retired Utah Highway Patrol trooper, Merrill Johnson, who has since died. Johnson said his father-in-law, John Kitchen, introduced him in 1941 to "an old friend of the family, Bob Parker--Butch Cassidy."

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