In an era in which cold-blooded killers such as Jesse James and the Younger Brothers terrorized the American West, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and their Wild Bunch gang took a smart and methodical approach to bank and train robbery. In the 1890s, their thrilling exploits -- robbing banks and trains and then seemingly vanishing into thin air -- became front-page news and the basis of rumor and myth, captivating Americans from coast to coast.
Born Robert Leroy Parker in 1866, Butch was raised in a devout but poor Mormon family. At age 13, he took a job at a nearby ranch and met a small-time cattle rustler named Mike Cassidy who schooled young Parker on the finer points of larceny. By the time he was 18, Parker was itching to strike out on his own. Famed for its saloons, gambling halls and houses of ill repute, Telluride, Colorado was the place for a young man searching for riches and adventure. Parker found work in the mines but quickly tired of the grueling, fruitless labor. Robbing the local bank seemed a much better bet, and on June 24, 1889, he and two cohorts successfully pulled off the heist. Knowing that hearing of the crime would break his mother’s heart, Parker changed his name to Butch Cassidy.
Across the country, in the grimy mill town of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, a young boy named Harry Longabaugh could only dream of a life of adventure on the open range. At age 14, he got his chance when he took a job on his cousin’s ranch in Cortez, Colorado. He quickly became an admired cowboy, but after a terrible winter that wiped out most of the herds, he turned to crime and was eventually arrested for horse stealing. When Harry emerged from his yearlong stint in jail, he had a new nickname -- the Sundance Kid. He retreated to the steep canyons and unforgiving terrain known as the Outlaw Trail that ran from Montana down to New Mexico, and soon met Butch. Says historian Thom Hatch: “They had a lot in common. They both loved horses. They loved to drink. They loved to gamble, and they could talk larceny all day long.”
Boosted by their newly formed gang, the Wild Bunch embarked on a daring and successful crime spree, robbing large banks, trains and coal companies across the West, and enjoying the tacit support of local farmer and landowners. The myth of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and the Wild Bunch grew, and powerful railroad executives, mining barons and cattle kings who were being robbed took action. They hired the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency to catch the gang. The Pinkertons had over 2,000 full-time agents and 30,000 paid informants and part-timers at their disposal, and Butch, Sundance and the Wild Bunch were no match; slowly but surely, members of the gang were captured or killed.
Butch and Sundance escaped to Argentina with Sundance’s companion, the mysterious Etta Place, but even in South America, the outlaws were unable to escape the long arm of the Pinkertons. Entering back into a life of larceny in their attempts to elude old and new enemies, Butch and Sundance met their end after a shootout in Bolivia. Yet even in the drama of their deaths, many refused to believe the era of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had truly come to an end.
My American Experience
From Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, George Custer and Geronimo, the real-life people who helped tame the west would shape the western heroes celebrated in film and television for decades.