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Butch Cassidy, Wayward Mormon, Surfaces Again

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 17, 2011

The outlaw Butch Cassidy was born as Robert LeRoy Parker on 13 April 1866 in Beaver, Utah, son of Maximilian Parker (a 12-year-old handcart pioneer of 1856) and Ann Gillies Parker (a 9-year-old traveler with the Hodgetts Company, the wagon company that followed after the Martin Handcart Company and shared their disastrous experiences in the Wyoming blizzards). While Robert Parker was still a small child, the family moved across the mountain range to the smaller, newer town of Circleville in Piute County. All the evidence (and I’m something of a Piute County history fanatic) says that the Parkers were an industrious, well respected, compassionate family. I find Max Parker, for example, riding almost 50 miles on horseback to the nearest telegraph station to send word to distant family members that Max’s neighbor – a passenger with Sam Brannan on the 1846 Brooklyn voyage to San Francisco – had died in a cabin fire in 1897. The next year, Max drove a wagon all the way to Salt Lake City to take a neighbor with appendicitis to the hospital. Max’s obituary reflects his neighbors’ opinion of his service: “He was a quiet, unassuming man and was often called the silent giver.”

Butch, on the other hand … well, everybody knows something about the outlaw Butch.

What we don’t know is when and where and under what name he died. Almost everybody believes he survived the Bolivian gunfight which closed the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. His much younger sister swore that he visited the family in Circleville in the 1920s. There are any number of theories as to where he lived out his days, and under what name or names.

The theory with the greatest following in the past generation is that Butch Cassidy returned to the United States and lived in Spokane, Washington, under the name William T. Phillips, until his death in 1937. Historian Larry Pointer’s 1977 book In Search of Butch Cassidy popularized that theory, drawing on documentary evidence, photographic likenesses, handwriting analysis, and most heavily on the manuscript of a short novel called Bandit Invincible, written by Phillips, but never published, a few years before his death. Pointer concluded that the novel was really a thinly disguised autobiography.

The mystery made the news again this week when Brent Ashworth, a Provo attorney and collector best known for his involvement in the rare Mormon book and document trade, but apparently also a collector of other types of records, announced his acquisition of a previously unknown, longer version of Bandit Invincible, also written by Phillips. The additional details contained in that longer version, with follow-up research of the new biographical and historical details, has convinced Pointer and many others that Phillips was not Butch Cassidy, but that he was an associate who had served time with Butch in the Wyoming Territorial Prison in the 1890s, and apparently was in close touch with Butch at other times during his life.

So it’s back to the drawing board for those who want to know what became of this famous wayward son of Mormondom.

(See the Deseret News and the Associated Press accounts for a fuller report on why Ashworth’s newly announced acquisition has changed the minds of Butch buffs.)

Despite all the work I’ve done on Piute County history and biography, I have deliberately steered clear of the What-happened-to-Butch debate – its solution is going to lie far outside Piute County, and in secular history as well as in LDS history I prefer to concentrate on the people that nobody else is looking for. Butch has more than his share of attention; I’ll focus on his townsmen.

Besides, even if somehow I miraculously did solve the puzzle, Butch’s legions of fans would be unlikely to accept anything I could write, if it went against their cherished theories. That’s the usual way with history, and religion, and probably many other fields, isn’t it?

It’s bad enough that I’ve been tempted to debunk another cherished legend of local history: Max Parker’s old cabin on the Sevier River just south of Circleville has long been advertised as the former home of Butch Cassidy. Promotional materials tout it as the place where Butch grew up, locals point to it with pride as their claim to wider fame, it has been the frequent destination of tour buses. Wow, just wow – look where the famous outlaw lived!

Only Butch Cassidy almost certainly did not ever live there, even if he did visit his family once as claimed by his sister Lula.

The old Parker cabin is located squarely in the mouth of Circleville Canyon, out of which burst the full fury of the flood following the 1914 Hatchtown dam collapse. Max Parker was one of the heavier Circleville losers in that flood, eventually claiming $524.00 in damages. Given his cabin’s location and the value of his losses (which consisted chiefly of damage to real estate, not to stock and personal property – there had been sufficient warning for the residents of Circleville to drive their stock to safety in the hills above town, as well as to remove most of their household goods), it seems extremely unlikely that a small cabin like the one standing today could have survived the flood, or that had his house somehow survived, Max could have racked up such substantial financial losses. It seems far more likely that the present cabin dates to 1914 or later, long after Butch Cassidy left town.

But nobody likes to have cherished lore scrutinized by naysayers … so I haven’t mentioned this to Butch’s True Believers. I trust Keepa’ninnies can survive the shock.



40 Comments »

  1. Glad to have your spin on this — I just heard a radio report on the new manuscript this morning.

    Comment by Paul — August 17, 2011 @ 10:24 am

  2. Thanks for this summary. I’d forgotten what I knew of the Butch Cassidy survival theories; you’ve just mended that!

    Comment by Mina — August 17, 2011 @ 10:32 am

  3. Thanks, Paul, it gave me a chance to say some nice things about Max Parker, a really sweet man who must have grieved terribly over both his son’s actions and his absence.

    Mina, like the Comforter, Keepa aims to “bring all things to your remembrance.” (John 14:26) Excuse me while I put up my lightning rod …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 17, 2011 @ 10:38 am

  4. Keepa didn’t bring much to my remembrance in this post, since I either remembered it from whenever I first heard it or I had never known it so couldn’t be reminded of it.

    This post did remind me, however, of Theron Luke’s column in the Provo Daily Herald about 40 years ago in which he speculated that Robert Leroy Parker may have been the Church’s first “Senior Aaronic.” Ten years later and he would have been just another prospective elder whose prospects were rather dim.

    Comment by Mark B. — August 17, 2011 @ 11:16 am

  5. What would we, in the shallows of history, do without you, Ardis?

    Comment by Mommie Dearest — August 17, 2011 @ 11:23 am

  6. Mark, Theron Luke, as an old Piute County boy, had every right to speculate so cleverly about his homie!

    Mommie, you would flounder and sink. :P (Isn’t an outrageous answer the only possible response to an outrageous question?)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 17, 2011 @ 11:31 am

  7. Ardis, I also heard another rumor about Butch Cassidy that perhaps you could dispel. I was told that Butch does NOT look like Paul Newman! Can you imagine my shock when I heard that rumor????

    Comment by Rameumptom — August 17, 2011 @ 11:35 am

  8. You may have to check with Robert Redford for the definitive answer to your question, Rameumptom. Alas, I would only be speck-a-latin’.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 17, 2011 @ 11:44 am

  9. Being Robert Redford lives near you, could you perhaps check with him for me? Perhaps you could discuss it over dinner or something….

    Comment by Rameumptom — August 17, 2011 @ 11:53 am

  10. If only there were a suitable place for us to meet for dinner … someplace cool … and lovely … maybe in the mountains. If only.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 17, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

  11. Haven’t yet read the link on the new manuscript (my disclaimer before I start!)

    I bought Lula’s book back in 1978, and it has survived many book culls and much re-reading since then. The real tragedy in the whole episode is the sadness of his parents, particularly his mother, who never gave up on Butch and prayed for him every night, and whose heart was broken, Lula says, by the absence of her son. Her faith was tested, not only by the lifestyle choices of her son, but also by the judgment she felt exercised by her neighbours towards her because of her son….a subject (namely, to what extent should parents be judged by the behaviour of their offspring) which occupies much of the news agenda here even today. One would have to be inhuman not to be touched by the situation and I can’t help but feel for Max and Annie.

    Personally, I’ve never bought into the “Butch was Phillips” theory. It’s my belief that we should do as he and the family wished, and let him rest in peace wherever he is…. the wisdom of their decision not to reveal his final resting place seems even more wise today than it did when I first read the book.

    With regards to Butch’s claimed visit home…Lula records that he went to the ranch, where his brother was working, because Butch had no idea his family had moved away from the ranch; the brother took him to the ‘brick built house in Circleville’ in which his father was then living, and it was to this house that the family gathered to meet with Butch. Makes sense, as obviously Butch would return to the place he left, and would likely have no idea his family had moved. So if the tourist guides are touting a cabin as the place to which Butch ‘returned’, they’d better hope I’m never on their bus!

    Thanks for the post!

    Comment by Anne (UK) — August 17, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

  12. Thanks, Anne, both for your notes on Lula’s book and especially for your compassion toward Max and Annie. I’ve visited their graves — simple, home-poured cement slabs under a shady bush instead of carved granite headstones, as modest in death as they were in life.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 17, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

  13. I had no idea Theron Luke was from Piute County, but I’m more than happy to cede any claim to being his “homie” to you, Ardis. (My only connection was reading his essays in the Provo Herald and seeing his daughter Jayne at school from time to time.)

    Comment by Mark B. — August 17, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

  14. Similar theme, but more obscure, that has stayed with me: “Killer of three bank employees in ‘67 Overton robbery dies.” The part that stays with me comes at the end with the encounter of the killer’s father with a waitress in Mesquite.

    Comment by John Mansfield — August 17, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

  15. That will stay with me now, too, John. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 17, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

  16. The descriptions of Butch Cassidy’s voice are similar to those of Jack Dempsey—high-pitched and even squeaky when excited. It shows how the line of famous wayward Mormons with tenor voices has improved with time. A murderous outlaw, then a prize fighter who sounded like a girl but didn’t punch like one. Current heir to the line is rock singer Brandon Flowers. With the squeak under control, no telling what the next step up in respectability will be.

    Comment by John Mansfield — August 17, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

  17. Hmmm… This is the same Brent Ashcroft that bought thousands of dollars worth of documents from a certain Mark Hoffman? A new version of a biography that was”previously unknown”? Provenance people!

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 17, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

  18. I hafta admit that’s the first thing that crossed my mind, Clark!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 17, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

  19. Ardis, do you know what happened to Butch’s siblings? Did they stay in Circleville, leave the area because of reputational pressures, etc.?

    Comment by back row elder — August 17, 2011 @ 5:05 pm

  20. back row elder, they stayed in the general area (many of them right there in Circleville) their whole lives. One brother died early in Telluride, Colorado, but he was only a transient worker there expecting to go back to Circleville. Two brothers served in the military during World War I. One sister married the sheriff. Most were active in the church. They were all solid citizens — the worst I’ve ever learned about any of them is that one brother once pleaded guilty to “befouling the waters” after taking a sheep herd into a newly created national forest without following regulations.

    Public records don’t disclose cold shoulders and taunting, if there was anything of the kind, but what survives on the public record is something any family would be proud of.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 17, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

  21. The shallows of history have been treacherous lately for would-be Robin Hood type characters. First, DB Cooper a couple of weeks ago, and now Butch Cassidy. Who’s next: Warren Buffett?

    Comment by kevinf — August 17, 2011 @ 5:44 pm

  22. Ardis-
    I know we’re not supposed to talk about this, but you know that once Butch Cassidy stayed at my Great-Grandpa’s lumber camp in Ogden Canyon and they shared a bowl of beans. The good news is, no gospel secrets were discussed around the campfire.

    Comment by Grant — August 17, 2011 @ 10:31 pm

  23. Then things are looking up, Grant, and there’s hope for us yet. But we’d better not talk about it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 17, 2011 @ 11:07 pm

  24. Re 17. Hoffman bamboozled a lot of other people besides Brent Ashworth, including professional historians and the FBI, for quite some time.

    Brent is a trustworthy person.

    Comment by Steve — August 18, 2011 @ 10:46 am

  25. Thanks for sticking up for him, Steve — I have no reason to doubt his trustworthiness.

    To those of us who don’t know him personally and are familiar with his name only through the news, he is unfortunately, unfairly, and probably forever, linked with Hoffman. That doesn’t mean we think he has any of the faults of Hoffman — I certainly don’t.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 18, 2011 @ 11:19 am

  26. Has Butch’s temple work been done?

    Comment by Bookslinger — August 18, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

  27. New Family Search gives a 1945 date for his work.

    I’d be surprised if it hasn’t been done dozens of times, under the names Robert Leroy Parker, Butch Cassidy, and even George Parker or George Cassidy, which is an old misidentification of him (nothing shows up in NFS under “Butch Cassidy,” though).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 18, 2011 @ 7:10 pm

  28. But, has it been done under the name “Paul Newman”?

    Comment by Mark B. — August 19, 2011 @ 11:22 am

  29. Re: Anne in UK’s comment about “Lula’s book”-what is the title or other information-I’d like to read that!
    Thanks.

    Comment by DisasterDiva — August 20, 2011 @ 11:12 am

  30. DDiva, it’s Butch Cassidy, My Brother by Lula Parker Betenson and Dora Flack. (The link is to the Amazon entry.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 20, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

  31. mark b: according to wikipedia,
    Paul Leonard Newman (January 26, 1925 – September 26, 2008)

    I don’t know what the church’s policy is now on temple ordinances for recently (less than 100 years) deceased celebrities.

    Does the change in church policy for proxy temple work for Jews (ie it has to be approved or submitted by a living descendent) apply to _all_ submitted names who aren’t direct ancestors of a living member?

    I think there is a special section of the church’s temple dept that does royalty and famous people, as members were told at one time to not submit names for royalty/famous people, and to now ONLY do your direct ancestors.

    So my question is, what rule applies to the royalty/famous department for recently deceased celebs? Would they have done paul newmans’s tmple stuff?

    Comment by Bookslinger — August 20, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

  32. Would some department have done his temple work? I’m sure some random person who has forgotten the charge to make sure the temple work is done for our own families and loved ones will have taken care of that. (For example, last year in the Washington DC Temple. But what do I know. Perhaps the work was done by a relative of the deceased actor.)

    But it does remind me of attending Relief Society in my grandmother’s Salt Lake City ward about twenty years ago. An elderly sister was teaching a lesson about genealogy and temple work and she said that the temple department kept getting requests from patrons who wanted to do the temple work for Elvis. “And the funny thing about it,” she said, “Is that he’s not even dead!”

    Comment by Researcher — August 20, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

  33. /snort!/ Thanks for that, Researcher.

    Bookslinger, I would add to what Researcher said by saying that the policy hasn’t changed in years and years regarding whom one may do temple work for: You do it for your own direct ancestors, and for branches off that direct line for which you can demonstrate a clear link (i.e., it’s okay to do the work for the brothers and sisters and other near relatives of direct ancestors), and you don’t do work even for those near relatives if they’ve been deceased less than the required time or having living spouses or children unless you get permission for a living spouse or child.

    If people would just adhere to that longstanding policy, there wouldn’t even have been any need to make special mention of Jewish genealogy. You would do the work for your direct ancestors and their near relatives — Jewish or not — but not for others. The issue was raised because church members who were violating that policy in order to do temple work for celebrities were including Holocaust victims among those “celebrities.” But if Holocaust victims *are* your immediate family, you have every right to do their work, still. There’s been no change in that.

    And as Researcher discovered, Paul Newman’s work was done. If it was done by or at the request of a close family member, okay. If it was done by a fan who submitted his name because he was a celebrity, shame on that fan.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 20, 2011 @ 7:32 pm

  34. Ardis: If I remember correctly, wasn’t the Jewish controversy was due to what I think was called the “Name Extraction Program”? My understanding is that as vital records were micro-filmed around the world, volunteers put those micro-filmed names into the temple-system to have their work done, all under direction of the church.

    Or are you saying the “extraction program” was a grass-roots thing that LDS genealogists did on their own? You got me confused now.

    I was inactive when the Holocaust victim controversy came up, and when the ordinance records were first put on CDs, so I lost track of what was going on then.

    Comment by Bookslinger — August 21, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

  35. I don’t recall now whether the project was church-conducted as part of the name extraction program, or only done by one or more overzealous church members who had access to microfilmed records and thought it was a good idea. That difference in records submitted pre-New Family Search isn’t easily identifiable in the public database. Either way, the church is committed to their agreement with the Jewish groups involved: no bulk submissions of Holocaust victim names by either the church or individual patrons, and the removal of names that can be shown to have been submitted in error (i.e., by unrelated persons). They are not removing all Jewish names, or all Jewish-sounding names, whatever that means, as demanded by a very bitter few, but the church does investigate complaints.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 21, 2011 @ 6:36 pm

  36. i drove to circleville this past summer. There are stories that float around our family of my great uncles and great grandfather having known butch cassity. I was skeptical.
    I was eating lunch at one of the few cafe’s in circleville when I noticed an old school picture. I was shocked to find out that I had two great uncles in the picture as well as butch cassitys younger sister. So, I now realize that my great uncles really did know butch cassity.

    Comment by scott — August 22, 2011 @ 3:24 am

  37. For some reason I didn’t subscribe to this post and get the follow-up comments. I should have put a :-) after my comment in #17 to indicate that it intended, at worst, as a snarky/witty remark, and not as a character-smear of a fellow saint I’ve never met in person.

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 22, 2011 @ 11:47 am

  38. I know this is a little off topic, but when discussing the holocaust victims’ temple work, it should be remembered that Jewish groups have repeatedly discovered that temple work has been done over a period of a decade or so. Apparently the church has removed records only to have new ones added in subsequent years after making agreements with various Jewish organizations.

    Since the Church is repeatedly being embarrassed by the disclosure of these problems, I suspect that, at least in recent years, it isn’t the Church that is adding the records, but zealous members.

    What logic leads these members to think this is a good idea is beyond my comprehension.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — August 25, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

  39. Interesting and well thought out. Thank you.

    Comment by Carol C — September 2, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

  40. Butch’s Temple work has been done many times. The first was in the 1940’s by Butch’s family. At that time they listed his death date as 1909.

    The Phillips – Cassidy Theory has been disproved for many years, but has just kept on resurfacing. Larry Pointer was just not willing to let it die until he was confronted with this latest evidence. Even now he has it all wrong.

    Whether or not Butch returned will always be a controversy. The biggest problem however is that the supposed family gathering with Butch in Circleville in the 1920s was really with this Phillips Character. How he was able to dupe Butch’s own family may well be a bigger mystery than whether Butch returned.

    Good article Ardis. I have always wondered about that cabin. Now I know. For everyone’s information The Parkers moved from Beaver in 1879. At the time Butch was working for Pat Ryan at the Hay Springs Ranch south of Milford as a horse trainer and jockey. Bob (Butch) didn’t get to Circleville until 1880 or after, he started working for Jim Marshall shortly after and lived at the Marshall ranch. By 1884 he had gone to Telluride. I really doubt anyone could say that Butch was raised in Circleville.

    Comment by GhosttownBob — September 26, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

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