THE LAST OUTLAWS: THE LIVES AND LEGENDS OF BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID
By Thom Hatch
New American Library, $26.95, 350 pages
Question: What do former Sen. Alan Simpson, Wyoming Republican, of Simpson-Bowles fame, and Butch Cassidy, leader of the Wild Bunch, have in common?
Answer: Alan Simpson's grandfather, Bill Simpson, a prosecutor who successfully put Butch Cassidy in jail then, on the basis of his word, let him out for a night to attend to some personal business. (According to one account, the senator's grandfather also once shot a banker in the ear.)
The story begins in 1866, writes Mr. Hatch, an accomplished historian with a journalist's eye and a novelist's touch. "The same year that the James gang held up their first bank and the Reno gang committed the country's first robbery of a moving train," when Robert Leroy Parker, who would come to be known as Butch Cassidy, was born into a Mormon family in Beaver, Utah. The Parkers, converts from England, were part of an extraordinary trek from Iowa City, Iowa, to Utah, pushing and pulling carts containing all their possessions across the Great Plains.
In 1867, Butch Cassidy's partner, the Sundance Kid, was born into a religious Baptist family in Pennsylvania as Harry Longabaugh. Nurtured on dime novels, he made his way west, learning the cowboy trade and how to handle a gun. In 1887, when he was jailed in Sundance, Colo., for horse theft, he apparently met Butch Cassidy, whose first major crime was a bank robbery in 1889 in Telluride, Colo.
Cassidy and Sundance teamed up, and with the Wild Bunch -- a changing assortment of hardened outlaws, men on the run, drifters, out-of-work cowboys -- executed a series of successful train and bank robberies from redoubts such as Robber's Roost in Utah and The Hole in the Wall in Wyoming. The holdups attracted news coverage and caught the attention of increasingly well-organized and effective law-enforcement organizations such as Pinkerton, which set out in hot pursuit.
They lived in a fluid, shifting society, with shifting identities. The lines separating cowboys, lawmen and outlaws were frequently blurred, just as the borders separating the territories -- Montana, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico -- were indistinct and often meaningless. A cowboy looking for work could ride freely between the Canadian border and Texas.
Unlike many of the immediate post-Civil War gangs who thought of themselves as Confederate irregulars still fighting the war, the outlaw gangs of the day were often largely made up of working cowboys who were between jobs or on the run. With the coming of the railroads, the growth of new towns, the consolidation of the cattle business and the increasing use of barbed wire, their range was slowly but surely constricting, and the free-riding cowboy was on his way to storied obsolescence.
To be sure, for the last two decades of the 19th century, it may have been the best of two worlds -- plenty of cattle, big payrolls, the establishment of banks in the new towns and settlements along the railroads, along with plenty of new money to be had. No ideology there -- no lost causes, no Robin Hood pretenses, just new supplies of money to be liberated and spent on wine, women, gambling and song, and light on the song.
It's part of the legend of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that they developed new and effective ways to liberate that money, and in the process did their best never to kill any of its guardians. When that last great free-ranging period began to fade, they sought to live it again in South America, ranging freely from Argentina to Bolivia, where they were finally hunted down and apparently killed.
Apparently. Yet, as Mr. Hatch points out, many people refuse to believe it, and the evidence is not conclusive. Some doubt the corpses identified were really their bodies at all, and a DNA test failed. Others, including some reputable sources, claimed to have spotted them in various places well into recent decades. Moreover, according to Mr. Hatch, to this day, the Pinkerton agency, their most dogged pursuer, has never officially declared them dead.
"It seems," writes Mr. Hatch, "that some notable figures in American history have refused to stay dead -- and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid can be counted among that number."
Did they really die in Bolivia, gunned down by a mixed mob of soldiers and civilians?
Back to Mr. Simpson and his grandfather: "In 1939, Will Simpson . . . claimed to have received evidence from two men who had traveled to South America to seek the truth that Butch and Sundance had indeed met their end there. This story was told to his grandson, Alan Simpson, the Republican senator from Wyoming."
And so, romantic fantasies aside, that's that. Who, after all, would want to argue with Alan Simpson's grandfather?
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of "Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement" (Wiley).