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.
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.