Colorful, but misguided life

Robert Leroy Parker is a local legend and folk hero around here. Hikers like to poke around his remote digs at Robbers Roost in southeastern Utah and slip back into the days of the old west. Born in 1866 at Beaver Utah to respectable and hard working pioneer parents, Robert retained some of the virtues and the teachings of his family.  He was nice to people even as he robbed them. He gave some of his loot to the poor. And so much did he respect his family name that he stopped using it.

Robert did this soon after he fell in with a roustabout named Mike Cassidy. Robert also dropped his christened name and went simply by Butch.

What was he? Depended on whom you would ask in the old days.  Butch Cassidy was either a Robin Hood taking from the rich and sharing with the poor, a rowdy kid who hadn’t quite grown up, a wily criminal who would lie and steal at the drop of a hat, or the victim of a strict society that wouldn’t let him change and be the upstanding citizen he wanted to be.

He was a talented man for the trades of his day, good with a rope and a gun, fine horseman and excellent as a team leader.

For a later generation of moviegoers he was a likable lug played masterfully by Paul Newman with Robert Redford as his sidekick in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

His life of crime is documented in newspapers and court records. As a teenager he left the farm and floated among the gamblers, loose women, and borderline criminals of Colorado. He then went into business for himself robbing banks in Wyoming. He got caught, served time and was released when he promised he would rob no more banks in Wyoming.

Butch Cassidy was as good as his word but no better. Since he hadn’t promised not to rob banks in other states he continued his profession outside Wyoming. Since he hadn’t promised not to rob non banks in Wyoming he robbed other things in that state. Trains to be exact.

His well-organized heists were generally models of efficiency. But even the best laid plans of mice and bandits sometimes go awry. Setting up to rob the bank at Winnemucca, Nevada , Butch assigned one of his men to slip in unnoticed a while before the holdup and blend among the people in the lobby. But the incognito robber got waylaid by a skunk on his way. A few sniffs from the patrons and he was the most prominent attraction in the bank. They did get the money and get away however.

From our perspective of dealing with street gangs, drug cartels, and terrorists Butch and his cronies seem more amusing than dangerous. Even their name, The Wild Bunch sounds like a boys club. But Sundance and the others did gun down some people. Butch claimed he never did.

Butch and Sundance were killed in a shootout in Bolivia. Or not, again depending on whom you talk with. The alternative version is death by cancer in Spokane, Washington in 1937.

His sister Lula claimed Butch visited the family 16 years after he supposedly died in Bolivia. She said he was trying to go straight, but society wouldn’t let him. He told his father, “When a man gets down, they won’t let him up. He never quits paying his price.”

There is truth to that. The parable of the prodigal son is as much about his unforgiving brother as about the wayward one. We need to give people innumerable new leases on life when they sincerely change.

But it is also true that change takes effort, pain and sometimes payback. The price may have been more than Butch was willing to pay.

Mavericks and misfits make great folklore and legends. But colorful as he was, Butch Cassidy’s life is a tragedy. He would have made a great scoutmaster.