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Running down a legend.

ON NOVEMBER 7, 1908, two Bolivian policemen shot and killed a pair of North American bandits in San Vicente, a mining town in a barren, windswept bowl 14,000 feet up in the Andes Mountains. Although more than eight decades have elapsed, outlaw historians are still debating whether the men who died that day were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Indeed, some researchers have argued that the gun battle itself was fiction.

Thanks to Hollywood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (born Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh) became the most famous members of the Wild Bunch, a loose confederations of outlaws who roamed the U.S. Rocky Mountains a hundred years ago. Between 1889 and 1901, they robbed five trains, three banks, and one mine payroll for a total haul of more than $200,000 (worth roughly $2.5 million today). The group was known variously as the Train Robbers Syndicate, the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, Curry's Gang, and Butch Cassidy's Gang. Perhaps only the Frank and Jesse James Gang, which marauded through the Midwest in the late 1860s and 1870s, was more notorious in frontier history.

By the turn of the century, outlaw gangs were on their last legs in western North America. Telegraphs and telephones enabled posses to head the bandits off at the pass, photography helped lawmen identify them, and the Pinkertons and other professional detectives in the hire of railroads and banks dogged them long after the posses went home.

Most members of the Wild Bunch were dead, in jail, or on the run by March 1901, when the Sundance Kid and his companion Etta, using the aliases Mr. and Mrs. Harry A. Place, boarded the S.S. Herminius in New York and steamed south to Argentina. Butch Cassidy joined them in 1902, and the threesome ranched peaceably for several years in northern Patagonia's Cholila Valley, then a frontier land sparsely populated by Mapuche Indians and Welsh, Chilean, Argentine, and North American settlers.

Similar to the northern Rockies in climate and geography, Cholila might have made an ideal home for the transplanted members of the Wild Bunch. But if the environment seemed familiar, so did the neighbors. Rancher John C. Perry had been the first sheriff of Ozona County, Texas, before immigrating to Argentina and settling in Cholila in the 1890s. Mrs. Perry wrote home to the Ozona Kicker that they had visited some fellow North Americans in the region and found that they were Texas outlaws whom John Perry had known when he was a sheriff.

A couple of days' ride north, near the present-day resort town of San Carlos de Bariloche, Texas cattleman Jarred Jones and New York dentist George Newbery had sizable ranches. Jones and the Wild Bunch trio reportedly socialized on occasion. Newbery was the U.S. vice consul in Argentina and was in Buenos Aires when Pinkerton operative Frank P. Dimaio visited the city in early 1903, looking for members of the Wild Bunch. The Pinkertons had learned, perhaps from Perry or from post-office informants, that Butch Cassidy and his friends were in Argentina, and they dispatched Dimaio, who was on a job in Brazil, to locate them. Newbery recognized photographs of the outlaws as his neighbors on the Cholila ranch.

Dimaio cabled the Pinkertons in New York that the onset of the rainy season precluded his taking a posse to Cholila. Before returning to the United States, Dimaio told the Buenos Aires police to keep him advised of the Wild Bunch's activities, and he arranged for 150 wanted posters to be printed in Spanish with photographs of Butch, Sundance, and Etta on them.

Shortly before Dimaio's visit, the Pinkertons had attempted to raise $5,000 from their bank and railroad clients to send the celebrated cowboy detective Charles A. Siringo and another man to Argentina to capture the Wild Bunch and bring them back to the United States. But the Pinkertons' clients, satisfied that the outlaws were long gone, declined to support the venture.

Other American criminals who had fled the United States in the early 1900s and sought a haven in Argentina were routinely arrested and extradited home, but the local authorities apparently made no attempt to round up Butch Cassidy's gang. During his 1903 visit, Dimaio discussed with Newbery and the Buenos Aires police chief a scheme to lure the outlaws to Buenos Aires on the pretext of signing the title to their ranch, but there is no evidence that the ruse was ever attempted.

By early 1905, the Wild Bunch was riding the outlaw trail again. The exact cause of their departure from Cholila is unknown. Dimaio's posters might have made their way to Patagonia, or someone might have tipped the trio that the Pinkertons had located them. A popular story in the United States is that a cattle buyer from Wyoming had recognized Butch and Sundance and alerted police. Perhaps the bandits were simply bored or broke.

At 3 p.m. on Tuesday, February 14, 1905, two men entered the Banco de Londres y Tarapaca in Rio Gallegos, the capital and principal port of Santa Cruz Territory, in far southern Argentina. Brandishing revolvers, the men forced the bank manager to hand over 23,000 pesos in paper currency and 280 gold pesos or 282 pounds sterling (upwards of $300,000 in 1991 dollars). The bandits fled on horseback, and fifteen minutes later, according to the Buenos Aires Herald, "mounted police and a detachment of cavalry" set off in pursuit across the barren plains. The outlaw pair vanished north, and the authorities speculated that fresh horses had been waiting along the escape route.

Later that same year, on the afternoon of December 19, four bandits escaped with 12,000 pesos (about $100,000 in 1991 dollars) after holding up the Banco de la Nacion in Villa Mercedes, San Luis Province, 400 miles west of Buenos Aires. Suspicion fell on the Wild Bunch because witnesses said that the perpetrators had been drinking American whiskey and speaking English in a bar near the bank before the holdup. In view of the similarity of the crimes--bank holdups in broad daylight by English-speaking bandits who escaped on horseback--the newspapers retroactively credited Cassidy and company with the previous robbery in Rio Gallegos, as well.

On December 24, two Buenos Aires dailies, La Prensa and La Nacion, published detailed articles recounting the North and South American exploits of four outlaws rumored to be in Argentina: Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Etta Place, and Kid Curry. Photographs, courtesy of the Pinkertons, accompanied the articles, which blamed the Wild Bunch for several bank robberies.

Kid Curry, whose real name was Harvey Logan, had escaped from the Knoxville, Tennessee, jail in June, 1903, and had reportedly committed suicide in Colorado in June, 1904, following the holdup of a Denver & Rio Grande train. The dead bandit's body was never absolutely identified, however, and the Pinkertons believed that Curry might have escaped to South America. No credible evidence has ever been found to support that conclusion, but the Pinkertons quickly added Kid Curry to their Argentine wanted posters, making his presence in that country a "fact."

In January, 1906, soon after the Villa Mercedes holdup, Argentine newspapers reported that the North American bandits had sold their Cholila holdings and galloped over the Andes to Chile. Although no one has established with certainty where the Wild Bunch members were or what they were doing for the next year or so, once in Chile they apparently made their way north to Antofagasta, a busy port city with a large contingent of North American and European residents. According to a January, 1906 Pinkerton memorandum, the U.S. vice consul in Antofagasta, Frank D. Aller, had helped the Sundance Kid (alias Frank Boyd) settle, at a cost of $1,500, an unnamed "difficulty" with the Chilean government the previous year.

No one knows what became of Etta Place. Various tales have her returning to the United States, although she might have remained in South America. The standard story is that, pregnant or suffering from appendicitis, she returned to the United States in 1907, perhaps accompanied by Sundance, and ended up in a hospital in Denver. Leonard Sanders, author of the historical novel Fort Worth, claimed that Etta Place landed in Fort Worth and, calling herself Eunice Gray, ran the Waco Hotel until her death there in 1962 in a fire. Welsh writer Richard Llewelyn thought she had moved to Paraguay, married a government official, and raised a family. Outlaw researcher Kerry Ross Boren drafted Etta Place and the Sundance Kid into Pancho Villa's forces during the Mexican Revolution. No one, however, has documented her fate.

Place's origin and real name remain a mystery, as well. The first contemporaneous reference to her existence was a 1902 Pinkerton memorandum describing Mr. and Mrs. Harry A. Place's 1901 visit to New York City and noting that Mrs. Place "is said to be [the Sundance Kid's] wife and to be from Texas." According to Marvel Murdock, the daughter of Wild Bunch member Elzy Lay, Etta had originally been Butch's girlfriend during the winter of 1896-97. This story did not come to light until Murdock was interviewed more than fifty years later, and its veracity is uncertain.

Etta most likely acquired the name Place when she began traveling as the wife of Sundance, whose mother's maiden name was Annie Place. Even Etta's first name is in doubt. In a 1904 memorandum containing the earliest reference to her first name, the Pinkertons called her Ethel. Relying on post-office informants, who might have misread the mail, the Pinkertons later called her Eva and Etta. Researchers have been unable to determine which of the three she actually used--and whether it was her real name. The Pinkertons settled on Etta for their press releases and wanted circulars, so Etta she became.

After their flight to Chile following the December 1905 Villa Mercedes bank robbery, the Wild Bunch trio was not heard from again until 1907 when Butch and Sundance, alias Santiago Maxwell and Frank Boyd, were reported working at the Concordia tin mine in central Bolivia. As mine manager Percy Seibert, a Maryland engineer who had worked in several Bolivian railroad and mine camps, related the story decades later, he had hired the pair as payroll guards and found their behavior beyond reproach. They were not, Seibert conceded, above robbing other companies' payrolls. Seibert was the main source of many of the tales about Butch and Sundance's South American crimes, which might actually have been crimes by unknown foreigners that Seibert read about in Bolivian newspapers and retold as Wild Bunch exploits.

In the early 1900s, Bolivia was a rich frontier country, bustling with railroad construction and mining. Outlaws from far and wide were drawn to Bolivia's laxly guarded small-town banks and unescorted back-country payroll trains. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were simply the most famous.

In November, 1908, Bolivian newspapers reported that two foreigners--variously described as Yankees, Chileans, or Danes--had robbed the Aramayo, Francke & Company payroll and had later been killed in the village of San Vicente. A Buenos Aires newspaper ran a brief wire-service story indicating that the dead bandits were probably the same North Americans who had territorized Argentina a few years earlier.

Although the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had been front-page news during their lifetimes, word of their deaths was slow to make headlines in the United States. One of the first Americans to stumble upon the story was Yale University lecturer and explorer Hiram Bingham III, who later became famous as the discoverer of Petru's Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas.

Bingham was crossing from Argentina into Bolivia in November, 1908, when he encountered "two rough-looking Anglo-Saxons who told us hair-raising stories of the dangers of the Bolivian roads, where highway robbers, driven out of the United States by the forces of law and order and hounded to death all over the world by Pinkerton detectives, had found a pleasant resting-place." The next day, in Tupiza, Bolivia, Bingham learned more news of Anglo outlaws: "Two weeks before our arrival, a couple of bandits, one of whom had been hunted out of Arizona by Pinkerton detectives, had help up a cart containing twenty thousand dollars . . . and a party of fifty Bolivian soldiers went on the trail of the robbers, who were found lunching in an Indian hut. . . . After a fight, in which three or four of the soldiers were killed and as many wounded . . . the bandits [were] forced out into the open where they finally fell, each with a half dozen bullets in his body."

Published in 1911 as Across South America, Bingham's chronicle of his 1908 trip contained the first English-language account of the Bolivian shootout. But because he did not identify any of the bandits he had met, nearly eighty years passed before anyone connected Bingham's tale to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

A second version of the shootout, also overlooked by outlaw historians for eight decades, appeared in the May, 1913 Wide World Magazine, a British true-adventure periodical. In an article called "The End of the Oulaw," author A.G. Francis told of meeting Butch Cassidy and Kid Curry in August, 1908, while running gold dredges on rivers in southern Bolivia. According to Francis, Cassidy and Curry later held up a $16,000 Aramayo payroll. Chased by "parties of soldiers, accompanied by Indian trackers," the bandits forced Francis to help them escape, but they were later killed at San Vicente.

Despite these accounts, U.S. newspapers continued to report that Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Etta Place remained at large in South America long after the Bolivian gun battle. As late as 1921, the Pinkertons, who had received no information about the 1908 shootout in San Vicente, were responding to inquiries about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid by saying that they were alive in South America.

Word of the shootout finally spread in the United States in 1930, when Arthur Chapman, a New York journalist and author of the celebrated doggerel "Out Where the West Begins," got the story from Percy Seibert, who was then living in New York City. Although he had not seen the corpses, Seibert believed that the slain outlaws were the men he had employed and befriended at the Concordia mines in central Bolivia.

Chapman's account appeared in the April, 1930 Elk's Magazine and served as the basis for another story ("Butch Cassidy Ends Life After Losing Battle With Soldiers, 'Hole-in-the-Wall' Gang Leader, Once Notorious in Wyoming, Trapped With American Pal in South America"), which appeared later that month in the Denver Post. Thus, twenty-two years after they died, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were finally honored with a newspaper obituary of sorts.

In 1938, The Outlaw Trail, the first book-length study of the Wild Bunch, retold the oft-embroidered reminiscences of Seibert and other North Americans who had been to Bolivia. Author Charles Kelly related that before Butch and Sundance died (Butch putting the seriously wounded Sundance out of his misery, then shooting himself), they had killed or wounded at least forty Bolivian soldiers in a battle lasting several hours. Another Western writer, James Horan, recounted the San Vicente shootout with widely varying details and dates in several books published between 1949 and 1978.

In the 1960s, William Goldman turned the tale of the two amiable outlaws and the former schoolmarm (or prostitute--another unsolved mystery) into a screenplay, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which Twentieth Century Fox bought for a then-record $400,000. The 1969 movie made Butch and Sundance folk heroes again and sparked renewed claims that one or both of the men had survived the gun battle and returned to the United States.

Even before the duo's celluloid resurrection, historians, retired Pinkerton agents, and the outlaws' friends and relatives--including Cassidy's sister, Lula Parker Betenson--were arguing that the bandits had come back alive. The knoxville News-Sentinel published a report in 1930, the same year as the Denver Post obituary, that Butch Cassidy had "drifted to Europe" and that "on a spacious plantation not so far from Tennessee," the Sundance Kid, by then "a grayhaired, dignified old man, [held] forth as a country squire."

Many of the stories about the outlaws stemmed from the antics of Williams T. Phillips, a Spokane, Washington, machine-shop owner who began visiting Cassidy's Wyoming haunts in the 1920s and hinting that he was Cassidy returned to dig up bandit treasure. Because Phillips resembled Cassidy and knew a surprising number of details about the outlaw's early career, many oldtimers, including some who had known Cassidy, agreed that Phillips and he were one. Wyoming rancher Jim Regan dissented, saying he knew Cassidy and Phillips, but as two separate people. Financially ruined by the Depression, Phillips wrote an account of Cassidy's life, The Bandit Invincible, but failed to find a publisher before dying of cancer in 1937.

In the late 1970s, the University of Oklahoma Press issued a biography of Phillips, In Search of Butch Cassidy, by western writer Larry Pointer. Although Pointer mustered considerable evidence that Phillips was Cassidy, The Bandit Invincible revealed that its author was an imposter: Phillips claimed to have survived the Bolivian gun battle, made a perilous journey through the Brazilian jungle, and sailed to Paris for minor plastic surgery prior to his marriage in Michigan in May, 1908, which occurred six months before the San Vicente shootout actually took place.

Of course, when Phillips wrote his account, no one knew the date of the shootout. Forty years later, Pointer contacted American officials in La Paz in an attempt to go beyond the third-hand accounts of what had happened in San Vicente, but they found no record of the gun battle, and Pointer voiced doubts that it had ever occurred.

The first solid proof came to light in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1986, with our discovery of correspondence between U.S. vice-consul Frank D. Aller in Antofagasta, Chile, and U.S. consul Alexander Benson in La Paz, Bolivia. In a 1990 letter, Aller (who had earlier assisted Sundance) sought information about two men calling themselves Maxwell and Boyd--aliases that Butch and Sundance are known to have used--who had gone to Bolivia the previous year. Asking whether Benson could verify rumors that the pair had died in a battle with police following a holdup, Aller wrote that a Chilean judge needed a death certificate to settle Boyd's estate (which might indicate that Sundance had family, perhaps Etta Place, living in Antofagasta).

In response, Benson forwarded a Bolivian government report confirming the story and fixing the time of the shootout as early November, 1908. As for the identities of the slain bandits, he ascertained nothing more thanthat they were buried Ningun Nombre--nameless. Where the estate was and how it was settled remains unknown.

More details emerged in December, 1987, when we found a cache of Aramayo company documents in a musty shed in southern Bolivia. The heap of yellowing, dust-covered documents yielded a letter book containing the first detailed contemporaneous records of the payroll holdup, the pursuit of the outlaws, and their deaths in San Vicente.

According to the telegrams and letters meticulously copied into the book more than eighty years ago, the incident began on Tuesday, November 3, 1908, when Aramayo manager Carlos Pero set off from the mining company's Tupiza office to deliver the monthly payroll of 15,000 pesos Bolivianos (worth roughly $90,000 in 1991 in dollars) to the company's headquarters in Quechisla. Accompanied by his young son Mariano and a servant, Pero followed dry river beds north to the small settlement of Salo then turned west into the cactus-studded amber hills.

At 9:30 the next morning, November 4, two tall men wearing masks accosted the trio on the trail between Salo and Guadalupe. Armed with rifles and revolvers and draped with ammunition belts, the men politely persuaded pero to turn over the payroll and the mule that was carrying it.

When the assailants had departed with the loot, Pero hastened to a nearby mining camp and sent his boss an urgent telegram describing the pair as a skinny gringo and a fat Chilean named Madariaga. Later, Pero told officials that he thought he recognized the men as Yankees who had recently asked him for work, citing their experience at the Concordia mines in central Bolivia.

Within hours of the holdup, the Aramayo company had alerted the authorities throughout southern Bolivia. Police, soldiers, and armed miners (who stood to lose a month's pay as a result of the holdup) marched out in all directions. Three days later, on Saturday, November 7, a three-man Bolivian patrol, led by Captain Concha, bumped into the fugitives, who were resting in San Vicente, a few days' ride from the Argentine and Chilean borders. Guns blazed, and one of the Bolivians, Victor Torres, fell dead. In the brief battle that followed, the two remaining soldiers, perhaps assisted by villagers, killed both outlaws.

The soldiers recovered the 15,000-peso payroll and the mule, and a Bolivian court took tenacious custody of both, leaving Aramayo officials to gripe that the judges had caused more trouble than the bandits had. The company tendered a reward to Victo Torres's parents and petitioned the government for armed patrols to guard future payrolls.

The bandits' bodies were buried in a single grave in the San Vicente cemetery, and townspeople padlocked a chain around the concrete marker to prevent evil spirits from escaping. Years ago, according to oldtimers, the grave had a cross and a plaque, as well. Today, all that remain are a crumbling concrete marker and the never-ending debate about whose bones lie moldering in the cold Bolivian soil.

Anne Meadows is a writer in Washington, D.C., and Daniel Buck is a member of the advisory board of the National Association for Outlaw and Lawman History. They are contributing editors of the South American Explorer.
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Title Annotation:the legend of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in South America
Author:Meadows, Anne; Buck, Daniel
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Biography
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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