Butch Cassidy, beyond the grave?

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 23, 2013

A few notes on the interesting work I finished, recently, Butch Cassidy: Beyond the Grave by W.C. Jameson.

Butch and his partner Sundance (who was probably not his closest friend or partner-in-crime, as Mr. Jameson observes in the process of brushing aside the many endearing myths about the pair) receive the briefest, one-line aside mention in Brilliant Deduction. But the Pinkertons’ interest in the pair was considerably more enduring (and indeed, as said aside notes, more enduring than that of their financier clients who were content to drop pursuit of the pair once they left the country). Thus they turn up repeatedly in the pages of Butch Cassidy, or at least their files do; William, Robert and a few agents appear in person now and then, but for the most part the Pinkertons are simply an agency, hovering in the background and compiling notes in preparation for a reckoning that never came.

Those files make, or contribute to, interesting reading a century later. Jameson writes that

During the time of the so-called shootout in San Vicente [the one dramatized in the much-loved film with Newman and Redford], the Pinkertons probably knew more about the location and activities of Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh [i.e. Sundance] than anyone. A thorough search of the files of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency yields no information to suggest that they ever believed Butch Cassidy had been killed in San Vicente.

As much as I love the 1969 movie, and its iconic ending, Jameson makes a compelling case that the Pinkertons’ skepticism about the banditos yanquis‘ alleged demise was warranted, too.

The later chapters of the book, exploring evidence for Cassidy’s survival and return to this country, make an interesting comparison with another episode from Brilliant Deduction: the remarkable Tichborne Claimant case. Both that affair and the story of the mysterious William T. Phillips featured a stranger claiming the identity of an individual presumed dead by most of the world, and looking in on the latter individual’s family, some of whom were entirely convinced and others of whom insisted ever after that he was an imposter. Also, while both claims seem (to me) to point toward fairly clear (if opposite) conclusions, some measure of controversy is likely to persist for as long as interest in the events remains.

Meanwhile, returning to the Pinkertons, one of my main sources comes in for a bit of kicking toward the end of the book. Jameson notes that “James D. Horan included treatments of Butch Cassidy in four books, the first of which was published in 1949, the last in 1976. Historian Frank Richard Prassel refers to Horan’s books as ‘less than entirely reliable’ and containing ‘numerous assumptions.'” I presume that one of those four books was The Pinkertons: The Detective Dynasty that Made History. This was a major reference for my chapters on the Pinkertons, though not the only one, and indeed Mr. Prassel’s (and presumably Mr. Jameson’s) assessment of Horan does not come as a complete surprise as Horan was repeatedly kicked in a more recent Pinkerton biography by James Mackay.

C’est la vie; my own conclusion after researching an entire book about people and events a century or more in the past is that establishing “the truth” with complete certainty is a difficult problem.

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