Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid

The Last Robbery

The "last days" of Butch Cassidy are still hotly debated, and it is partially due to this dispute that Butch developed into the object of lore and mythology that he has become today.

What happened on November 4, 1908, in a remote region of Bolivia has been described and conjectured in countless retellings of the story, so it is now nearly impossible to separate fact from legend.

The bare facts state that a man and a mule made the difficult journey along a remote trail in Bolivia, carrying the payroll of a mining company. Somewhere along his expedition, two English-speaking bandits held up the courier. The outlaws were polite but intent on relieving the carrier of his money. After taking the payroll money, the pair rode off, leaving the man to report the robbery to local lawmen.

The two bandits, instead of going into hiding, went to a small village called San Vincente and spent their days and nights in a boisterous manner, drawing much attention to themselves — and generally behaving in ways that Butch and Sundance, being professional bandits, had never previously behaved so soon after a heist.

Three nights after the robbery, the two men were surrounded in the small house where they were staying. Researcher Anne Meadows, after many years of investigative searching, unearthed the original report on the events of that night as written by the Bolivian authorities — and she printed it in Digging Up Butch and Sundance, her detailed chronicle of her investigation into the final days of the two bandits. The official document states that the village's mayor, miscellaneous village officials, and two soldiers went tothe house where the two bandits were holed up. One of the soldiers approached the house and was shot by someone from within. The soldier retreated to care for his injury, and a few more volleys of gunfire were exchanged, although no sounds came from within the house after midnight. As the sun came up the following morning, the men outside cautiously approached the house again and, upon entering, found both men inside dead. The money from the mining company payroll heist was also inside and was later returned to the company. The bodies of the two outlaws were soon buried in a local graveyard.

Later, some time after the hasty burials, the pair was conjectured to have been Butch and Sundance, and a common belief grew that Butch shot Sundance before turning the gun on himself.

Almost immediately after this "identification," doubt about the identities of the dead men spread, and rumors and sightings of Butch and/or Sundance became commonplace and widely reported. Matt Warner, Mormon Church officials, and his family claimed sightings of Butch after his "death". In her biography of her brother, Butch Cassidy, My Brother, Butch's sister Lula cites several instances of people familiar with Butch who encountered him long after 1908, and she relates a detailed impromptu "family reunion" that included Butch, their brother Mark, their father, and Lula herself, in 1925.

Conversely, some researchers point to the cessation of all correspondence from Butch after the San Vincente episode (Butch periodically wrote to his family up until 1908) and other circumstantial evidence to prove that Butch and Sundance did indeed die in the dark confines of that small house in Bolivia (but not in the "blaze of glory" manner depicted in the final frame of the Oscar-winning 1969 film).

Blaze of Glory, Newman & Redford (CORBIS)
Blaze of Glory, Newman & Redford

If a small force of Bolivian officials did not manage to kill the famous outlaw who had successfully eluded countless American lawmen and Pinkerton Agency detectives, it would not be the first time that Butch Cassidy survived his own "death." In May of 1898, a group of lawmen crept up on a sleeping gang of bandits, took two outlaws prisoner and killed two others. Every member of the posse thought that one of the killed brigands was Butch, as did many others who later saw the body lying in state. It wasn't until after the local newspapers had printed declarations that the infamous outlaw was dead that the body was identified as that of a minor outlaw.

Before the truth came out, however, Butch was so amused at the situation that he persuaded a friend to drive a horse and cart slowly by the mortuary. Hidden beneath some straw, Butch was able to view his "corpse" and the lines of people queued up to get a brief glance at the legendary outlaw.

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