The Allure of the Celebrity Outlaw

From The Wall Street Journal:

Near the midpoint of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” director George Roy Hill’s 1969 buddy movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the outlaws barge into the office of a Wyoming sheriff. Anxious to evade the hard-charging posse tracking them after a pair of train robberies, the duo beseeches the lawman—who has a soft spot for the rogues—to intercede on their behalf with the federal government. Butch explains that they would happily serve in the Spanish-American War, adding gamely: “They don’t even have to make us officers.” But the sheriff demurs, insisting, in one of the film’s most quoted passages: “Now you shoulda let yourselves get killed a long time ago, while you had the chance. See, you may be the biggest thing ever hit this area, but you’re still two-bit outlaws. . . . Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody! And all you can do is choose where.”

Some readers of journalist Charles Leerhsen’s new biography of Cassidy will come to share the sheriff’s dim view of the sweep of Butch’s life and career, agreeing that he was scarcely more than a charming desperado. But Mr. Leerhsen himself drinks deeply from the watering hole of myth. The author of three previous books as well as the co-writer of Donald Trump’s “Surviving at the Top,” Mr. Leerhsen asserts that, contrary to the less-flattering portraits offered by scholarly “sourpusses,” Cassidy was “a good guy, a curiously good guy, a friend to you and the bane of your oppressors—a kind of hero, really, at a time when something like war was brewing between the haves and the have-nots of the intermountain West.” Alas, little in “Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw” supports such a generous assessment.

Robert LeRoy Parker was born in 1866 in Beaver, Utah Territory, the eldest child of young Mormon émigrés who had fled the grim industrial conditions of mid-19th-century England. As a boy, Bob seems to have tired quickly of his family’s destitution; according to lore, he committed his first theft—if one can call it that—at the age of 12, when he liberated a pair of overalls from a local store, leaving behind a signed IOU. By the early 1880s, he had earned a reputation as an excellent ranch hand, skilled with cattle and horses and apparently not above stealing the occasional animal, though never from his employer—“honor among thieves” was his credo, Mr. Leerhsen notes. It was also around this time that he adopted his alias, deriving, it seems, from a stint he pulled as a meat cutter coupled with an homage to an early criminal mentor named Mike Cassidy.

Butch graduated to bigger capers in the late 1880s when he fell under the sway of a bandit named Matt Warner. On June 24, 1889, Warner and Cassidy held up the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride, Colo., making off with $22,350 (more than $600,000 today). For the next decade, Cassidy worked long stretches as a cowboy throughout the West punctuated by bank and train heists committed by his gang, the Wild Bunch, which in 1896 added a moody and laconic Pennsylvanian, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, aka “the Sundance Kid.” Hounded by lawmen, the two escaped to South America in 1901, joined by Ethel Place, Longabaugh’s girlfriend. They went straight for a time but found the bandit life difficult to resist. Shortly after waylaying a mining-company courier and making off with the payroll, the two were discovered in San Vicente, Bolivia, where, after a shootout with soldiers and local police, they took their own lives on Nov. 7, 1908. Butch was 42.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)