One of the most famous names of the Old West, Butch Cassidy began his life of crime as a cattle rustler and horse thief and became notorious for sticking up banks and trains. From the origins of his famous name to the mystery surrounding his death, get the story on this legendary American outlaw.
The eldest of 13 children, Butch Cassidy was born Robert LeRoy Parker on April 13, 1866, in Beaver, Utah. His grandparents and parents were Mormons who moved from England to America in the 1850s in response to Brigham Young’s call for overseas members of the Church of Latter-day Saints to help establish communities in Utah. In 1879, the Parker family moved to a piece of property near Circleville, Utah, where they farmed and raised cattle. To help contribute to his family’s finances, the future Butch Cassidy left home to work at other ranches in the area. At age 13, while working at one of these ranches, he had his first run-in with the law after being accused of stealing a pair of overalls from a store. As the story goes, he’d made a long ride into town only to find the store closed, so he let himself in, took the pants and penned a note promising to return with payment. Instead, the store owner had him arrested. Although the teen was let off, the experience reportedly left him resentful toward the legal system and people in authority.
In the early 1880s, while working at a Utah ranch, Robert LeRoy Parker met Mike Cassidy, a cowhand and small-time cattle rustler and horse thief. Parker admired the older man, who taught him about training horses and shooting a gun. However, after getting into trouble with the law, Mike Cassidy fled the area, and Parker himself departed Utah in search of new opportunities after turning 18 in 1884. Over the next few years, he spent time in the mining boom town of Telluride, Colorado, followed by Wyoming and Montana. On June 24, 1889, Parker pulled off his first bank robbery, when he and several companions absconded with more than $20,000 from the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride. Not long afterward, Parker starting using the surname Cassidy, in honor of his former mentor, and referred to himself as Roy Cassidy. He eventually moved on to Rock Springs, Wyoming, where he landed a job in a butcher’s shop and, according to popular legend, became known as Butcher Cassidy, which morphed into Butch Cassidy.
In 1894, Cassidy was found guilty of stealing a horse worth $5 in Wyoming and sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary. He was convinced he’d been set up by cattlemen who didn’t want him around. After 18 months behind bars he was released for good behavior, although reportedly not before promising the governor he’d leave Wyoming’s ranchers alone.
After prison, Cassidy reunited with members of the Wild Bunch—a loose-knit band of men who started out at rustlers and horse thieves—and turned to robbing banks and trains. He and his fellow bandits developed a pattern for committing these crimes that involved doing reconnaissance on the place they planned to rob, as well as stashing supplies and extra horses along their intended getaway route. While Cassidy became notorious for pulling off holdups throughout the West in the 1890s, he wasn’t known for excessive gun violence. In fact, when not committing crimes, Cassidy was considered friendly and had a reputation for being helpful to his neighbors.
Thanks to the Academy Award-winning 1969 film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the real-life Sundance Kid, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, is often thought of as Cassidy’s best friend. In fact, that role was filled by Wild Bunch member William Ellsworth “Elzy” Lay (1868-1934). Cassidy and Lay likely met around 1889 while working at a ranch in Browns Park, an area near the borders of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming that served as a sometime hideout for outlaws. In 1899, Lay was convicted of killing a sheriff following a train robbery near Folsom, New Mexico. He received a life sentence but was pardoned in 1906 after helping to stop a prison riot.
Longabaugh, the Pennsylvania-born son of a laborer who moved west as a teen, earned his colorful nickname (and an 18-month jail stint) after stealing a horse near Sundance, Wyoming in 1887. In the mid-1890s, Sundance met the woman who became his companion, Etta Place, and later became affiliated with the Wild Bunch, after he and Place resided in a tent near Butch Cassidy at Robbers Roost, a remote outlaw hideout in southeastern Utah.
With bounties being offered for his capture and posses and Pinkerton detectives pursuing him, Cassidy decided to make an escape. In early 1901, Sundance and Etta Place traveled to Argentina. It’s unknown whether Cassidy was with them or if, as some historians believe, he stayed behind and in July of that year took part in a train robbery near Wagner, Montana. By some point in 1902, Cassidy was in South America and he and Longabaugh, using assumed names, had purchased land in Argentina’s Cholila, where they ran a ranching operation. By the end of 1904, concerned that the Pinkertons had discovered their location, the American outlaws sold their livestock and left the property, later finding work at the Concordia Tin Mines in Bolivia. Throughout their time abroad, Cassidy and Sundance continued to carry out heists, although South America was home to other U.S. outlaws who were committing holdups during this period, and its likely that some of these crimes were attributed to the more famous Butch and Sundance.
Some accounts hold that on November 4, 1908, near the town of Tupiza in southern Bolivia, two men thought to be Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbed a payroll as it was being transported to the Aramayo mine. Three days later the supposed bandits arrived in San Vicente, Bolivia, but after villagers became suspicious that the strangers were connected to the robbery, Bolivian soldiers were called in and a shootout ensued. During the shootout, the Bolivians reportedly gunned down the suspects, or one of the outlaws killed his partner then turned the gun on himself. Afterward, the bodies were buried in unmarked graves in a San Vicente cemetery. In fact, there is no conclusive evidence linking Cassidy and Sundance to the robbery and shootout. In the late 20th century, researchers exhumed remains thought to be those of the payroll bandits from the San Vicente cemetery and determined they weren’t from the two American outlaws.
Meanwhile, following the alleged deaths of Cassidy and Sundance in South America, there were multiple reports the two men had returned to the United States (it’s unclear whatever became of Etta Place), where they lived for a number of years under aliases. More than a century after their presumed deaths, the true fate of Butch and Sundance remains a mystery.