The trail of Butch Cassidy
Here’s one of Spokane’s enduring mysteries: Did the outlaw Butch Cassidy return to live out his life in Spokane under the name William T. Phillips? The quick answer: Maybe. Or maybe it’s all bunk. No one knows for sure or probably ever will. However, after an energetic debate last month on our Inland Northwest History blog we thought it was time to bring this mystery up to date and to recap the issue for those who weren’t around in the 1970s. That’s when the debate was raging in Spokane and in Western history circles, sparked by the success of the 1969 movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Here’s the gist of the William T. Phillips theory: “The famed outlaw Butch Cassidy did not die in a shootout in Bolivia in 1908, as is popularly believed. That death was either staged or simply made up to take the heat off one of the most wanted men in America. “ He returned to America and settled down in Spokane under an assumed name with a woman he married in 1908. He worked as a machinist and engineer and even had his own shop. “ Phillips kept the secret for most of his life, but he returned to Wyoming to hunt for loot he allegedly had buried. “ Phillips died of cancer in 1937 in Spokane and was cremated. This is the one single fact, out of all the above, that is beyond dispute. This story first hit newsprint in Spokane in 1940 after a Wyoming state treasurer discovered that a number of people in that state swore that a man named Phillips from Spokane traveled to Lander, Wyo., in 1934 and was instantly recognized by many old friends as Butch himself.
However, the theory didn’t gain traction until 1973 when Spokane Chronicle reporter Jim Dullenty did a multi-part series about the issue. The series’ conclusion was expressed in the headline on the final story: “Summary Leans Toward ‘Yes’ Answer.”
The theory made an even bigger national splash with the publication in 1977 of “In Search of Butch Cassidy,” by Larry Pointer. This book is based largely on a manuscript written by Phillips himself titled “The Bandit Invincible” in which Phillips claims he was a close friend of Cassidy and tells his life story. Pointer’s book makes a persuasive case that this was actually a thinly veiled autobiography and that Phillips really was Butch Cassidy.
“His book swayed many outlaw writers, including yours truly,” writes author Richard Patterson, author of the 1998 book, “Butch Cassidy: A Biography.” “However in the two decades since the book was published, generally accepted thinking on the subject has tended to drift in the other direction.”
A 1994 book titled “Digging Up Butch and Sundance” by Anne Meadows, contains a detailed debunking of the William T. Phillips theory. For one thing, Meadows and husband Dan Buck found evidence of the existence of Phillips’ mother – in Michigan, not Utah, where Cassidy’s family was from.
More recently, Meadows and Buck have concluded that Phillips’ manuscript was woefully uninformed about Butch’s Bolivian adventures. They also concluded that he couldn’t have returned from Bolivia in time to get married in Michigan in May 1908 under the name of William T. Phillips.
“We suspect that Phillips never got any closer to Bolivia than the map room at the Spokane Public Library,” wrote Meadows in a recent e-mail to The Spokesman-Review. “In our view there is no doubt that Phillips was a hoaxer.”
Detailing all of the conflicting evidence is beyond our scope on these pages – it has filled books. See the related box for a brief synopsis.
Complicating the issue further is a controversial contention by Cassidy’s sister, Lula Parker Betenson, who adamantly insisted that “Robert,” as she called Butch, came to visit her and other family members in Utah in 1925. She said Cassidy told them that the Bolivia shoot-out story was a ruse made up by a friend to take the heat off of Butch and Sundance. He had then settled down “in the Northwest.” She said the family later learned he “died in the Northwest in 1937.”
Sounds like confirmation of the Phillips story. However, when she told her story in her 1975 book, “Butch Cassidy – My Brother,” co-written by Dora Flack, Betenson adds this confounding sentence: “He was not the man who was known as William Phillips, reported to be Butch Cassidy.”
So he died in 1937 in the Northwest, but wasn’t Phillips?
“Where he is buried and under what name is still our secret,” she wrote.
She took the secret to the grave with her in 1980.
Paul Applegate, Betenson’s grandson, sent The Spokesman-Review an e-mail recently from his home in Albuquerque, saying that there is no doubt among the family that Cassidy came back from Bolivia and visited his grandmother in Circleville, Utah.
The only mystery is the question of “where did he go after he left Circleville, since his family would never talk about it,” wrote Applegate.
Why has the truth been so hard to root out? For several excellent reasons:
“Cassidy and all of the outlaws from the Hole In the Wall Gang were constantly changing aliases. In fact, the name Butch Cassidy itself was an alias. Cassidy’s real name was Robert LeRoy Parker, although he was also called George. These shifting names are a nightmare for researchers.
“ Most of the supposed post-Bolivia sightings of Cassidy were from people who hadn’t seen him for 30 or 40 years and whose memories may have been faulty.
“ Phillips was cremated, precluding any DNA testing.
Most others who have studied the issue remain ambiguous. Megan Breen, a former Spokane resident now living in Portland, has written a book and co-written a screenplay about Cassidy entitled, “The Last Bandit.”
Does she believe Phillips was Cassidy?
“In all likelihood,” she said, and then paused. “Well, I better pull back from that. I think he may have been. Nobody can say with absolute certainty.”
Even Dullenty, who helped popularize the Phillips theory in the Spokane Chronicle in the 1970s, is no longer certain.
“I believe it hasn’t been proven one way or the other,” said Dullenty, now a reporter at the Lewistown (Mont.) News-Argus. “In Spokane, I leaned toward it. Now, I think it unlikely that Phillips was Butch Cassidy.”