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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Old West legends trail Garland house as it goes on market

Mike Schmeltzer The Spokesman-Review

What will $200,000 buy in today’s heated Spokane real estate market?

Rick Tannehill is offering a recently renovated 4-bedroom Craftsman in the Garland district that comes with fresh paint and a new roof, updated kitchen and bath, charming original woodwork, fireplace and claw-foot tub – plus a colorful tangle of Old West outlaw tales.

The house at the southwest corner of Providence Avenue and Monroe Street was once the home of William T. Phillips, a seemingly respectable local businessman – he was married with a son, owned a North Side machine shop and belonged to the Elks Temple – who in younger days may actually have ridden with Butch Cassidy’s notorious gang of bank and train robbers. Some accounts even portray Phillips as Cassidy himself, safely returned after fleeing to South America with the Sundance Kid, quietly reformed and hiding out under an alias in sleepy Spokane.

Tannehill, a remodeling contractor and real estate broker who purchased the property in May to renovate and resell, isn’t sure what to make of the Phillips-Cassidy connection.

“I didn’t know anything about it until I was working on the house this summer and people started stopping by and telling me these crazy stories,” he said. “One guy actually asked me if he could dig in the yard. I guess he thought he was going to find buried loot.”

At first, Tannehill and his partner on the project, Jimmy Holt, smiled and listened politely when people showed up with stories to tell. “After a while, to be honest, it got to be kind of a bother,” he said. “Every day it takes to get a house ready to sell costs me money. We just had to start saying, ‘Thanks, but we’re trying to work here.’”

Work on the place drew attention in part because it had fallen into such apparent disrepair. Prior to Tannehill buying the house out of foreclosure, it sat vacant for perhaps a decade. It was boarded up and tagged with graffiti. The giant root ball of a tree torn from the ground by a windstorm a few years back sprawled across the front yard.

“It did look like a mess from the outside,” Tannehill said. “But the house just kind of called to me. I liked it and once I got inside and saw what was here, I knew we could make it nice again.”

The house at 1001 W. Providence Ave. was built in 1916. William T. Phillips and his wife, Gertrude, bought it in 1925, paying $5,000. They moved in with their 6-year-old son – christened William Richard but dubbed “Billy Dick” by his dad – and, according to city directories, remained there until 1932. That would be shortly after Phillips’s machining business was dragged under by the Great Depression.

Phillips died in 1937. An obituary in The Spokesman-Review listed his age as 72. At some point late in his life, Phillips penned a manuscript, which he titled “Bandit Invincible.” It was unpolished but filled with remarkably accurate details about Cassidy’s outlaw life. Many years later, that hand-written manuscript came to the attention of a Spokane Daily Chronicle reporter Jim Dullenty, as well as a Montana historian and author, Larry Pointer.

Dullenty and Pointer were both fascinated by the document and began digging further, working together for a time and later independently. One thing they discovered was that several people who knew Cassidy during his outlaw days in Wyoming had told researchers for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration writers’ project that they had seen and talked with Cassidy when he returned to visit Jackson Hole, Lander and other old haunts in the 1920s and ’30s. Among those people were the one-time mayor of Lander and the peace officer who escorted Cassidy to the state penitentiary in 1894. Another thing they said was that Cassidy told them he had gone straight, assumed a new identity and settled into respectable life as a businessman in Spokane.

Pointer took the story and ran with it, turning out “In Search of Butch Cassidy,” a book published in 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press, in which the author concludes that Phillips and Cassidy were the same man.

But a few years ago the story took another twist. In 2009, an antiquarian collector in Utah acquired a longer version of Phillips’s “Bandit Invincible” manuscript. Pointer, who had long heard that a more complete version of the manuscript might exist, jumped at the opportunity to examine the document.

Pointer discovered that this manuscript, typed on the back of “W.T. Phillips Machine Work” stationery, was nearly twice as long as the one that had helped build the foundation for his first book. It also provided numerous new leads for further research. And one of those leads led to yet another turn in the story.

The result was a 2012 book, “Butch Cassidy’s Story: Bandit Invincible,” in which Pointer makes a compelling case that William T. Phillips was indeed an Old West outlaw – but just not Butch Cassidy.

Instead, Pointer believes that the man who lived in Spokane as Phillips was actually William T. Wilcox, who in fact served time in the Wyoming penitentiary with Cassidy (whose own true name was Robert LeRoy Parker). Among the author’s evidence are Wyoming prison records, including mug shots of both men. The two convicts were released from prison within a few months of each other and both headed to the Lander area. Wilcox, Pointer contends, rode for a time with Cassidy and likely committed at least a couple of robberies with him.

That updated storyline would seem to agree with what William T. Phillips’s widow, Gertrude, said in answering a 1938 letter from Utah historian Charles Kelly, who at the time was at work on his own Cassidy biography, “Outlaw Trails.” Gertrude Phillips began her reply to Kelly by stating that her late husband absolutely was not Butch Cassidy. But then she went on to say that her husband “rode the range with Cassidy” and that “we each knew Cassidy.” It agrees as well with what Cassidy’s younger sister, Lula Parker Betenson, said in her 1975 book about her brother: “He was not the man who was known as William Phillips.”

Part of the continuing fascination with Cassidy is undoubtedly owed to the popularity of the 1969 Paul Newman-Robert Redford film, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” – which of course ends with Butch and Sundance dying in a gun battle with Bolivian cavalry troops. But Cassidy’s reputation has always been tinged with a sort of Robin Hood romance not associated with other Old West outlaws. Yes, he robbed banks and trains, but Cassidy was also said to sometimes share his loot with the needy. He was reputed to be friendly, polite and kind to children. And this outlaw was never accused of killing anyone.

Likewise, those who knew William T. Phillips had fond memories of the man. In a 1987 interview, then-73-year-old Cleo Lundstrom Sigg recalled Phillips as a close family friend. Her bartender father, Bill Lundstrom, and Phillips were “as close as friends could be,” Sigg said. She described Phillips as an outgoing, good-natured man who typically arrived at the Lundstrom home with sacks of candy or other small gifts for herself and her sisters. “He liked animals and kids,” she said, “and you couldn’t help but like him back.”

Athol Evans, who was interviewed that same year when he was 82 years old, worked for Phillips from 1921 until 1930, when Phillips’s business went under. Evans recalled Phillips as “the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back.” But Evans said Phillips was also something of a playboy, married or not, who probably lived beyond his means. “He was a handsome man and he lived like there was no tomorrow,” Evans said. “He always wore nice clothes and I don’t think I ever saw him in a car that was more than two or three years old. … He always had a bottle of good Canadian bootleg during the dry years, but I never saw him drunk. The man could hold his liquor.” Evans also recalled that Phillips had a series of girlfriends, including a woman who worked as a floor detective at The Crescent, long Spokane’s most fashionable department store.

Fitting for a man with an Old West outlaw past, Phillips was also described by Evans as “bowlegged, like a man who had spent a lot of his life on a horse.” And, “He was good with a gun. He could shoot from the hip with a rifle and not miss a thing. I saw him do it.”

For Rick Tannehill, the charms of a certain 102-year-old Craftsman home in the Garland district stand just fine on their own, without the help of dusty outlaw legends.

“If there’s any truth to it, I guess maybe it’s kind of interesting,” Tannehill said, reflecting on the story of past owner William T. Phillips. “I need to get this house sold and I’m not sure whether buyers are going to see that outlaw stuff as good or bad. But I think this house should sell itself.”

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