The Last Outlaws: the Lives and Legends of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid****, by Thom Hatch


I read this interesting nugget on an e-reader. I found it fascinating, but for some folks it will be considered tmi. It depends how much detail you are up for, and how well you deal with ambiguity.

If you want a real cut-to-the-chase telling, you may do better to look for historical fiction, because the thing about famous outlaws is the whole not-getting-caught part. You can’t leave a broad, wide trail for historians to trace while remaining safely anonymous while the law is looking for you. Consequently, Hatch gives us what is believed to have happened at the end, along with a couple of other remote possibilities, and an outright case of fraud, just to cover the bases.

The story does not start with Butch and Sundance, but with their predecessors. Actually, the writer starts clear back in 1866 in order to set context. 50,000 people in the USA die from Typhus, and before the Latter Day Saints, or Mormons, head west, they first send missionaries to Europe to recruit amongst the mill workers. Hatch does a fine job of painting the setting for us: all those dirt-poor city slickers from England come over, desperate, ragged, and ready for a new start, but being city folk, they ignore the seventeen-pound-per-adult and ten-pound-per-child limit, and instead haul all sorts of stuff with them, so they are trying to shove four hundred or five hundred pounds across the plains and up the mountain sides in handcarts. Well, a lot of them die. Of course they do. There’s no Medic One. But the reader should be prepared to slog through a lot of detail in order to get to the shooting and the robbing. It’s not an action movie, it’s good solid history. Be ready.

The 1969 movie reawakened a certain amount of interest in the public, and so there were historians checking journals and anthropologists checking bone and metal fragments in South American graves. In short, the lives of two interesting thieves somehow inspired the expenditure of all sorts of money.

Hatch wants us to understand that neither of these men, nor the Wild Bunch with whom they often associated, was a Robin Hood sort. Whereas it is true that they avoided robbing poor folk (and where’s the margin in that anyway?) they mostly robbed from the very rich for their own benefit. They focused on the railroads at first, because stage coaches and railroads were, before technology reached in and touched us all to one another, incredibly easy to rob. Unlike most of the Wild Bunch, neither Butch nor Sundance approved of the use of gratuitous violence. They tipped generously and were kind to children. Who can say whether it was heartfelt sentiment motivating them, or good sense? The neighbors are much less likely to point their finger in your direction when the sheriff comes calling if they remember that you helped put up their fence or paid for your drink.

One way or another, I found myself cheering them on as they boarded a ship with the Pinkertons darting around, one step too many behind them. But guys like this don’t settle down and become gentleman ranchers for life. Their whole lives have been adrenaline rushes; they become addicted to being in a perpetual state of emergency.

If you want to know more, you can get the book and read it yourself. Our local library had a digital version available. But roll up your sleeves, and be prepared to dive into an in depth version.,

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