Wyatt Earp was an inept stagecoach robber, Wild Bill Hickock a cold-blooded murderer, and Buffalo Bill a showman and buffoon. Such revelations are hardly shocking to those of us inured to the "legends of the Wild Wild West" fabricated by the TV and other media. What is more suprising, and more difficult to accept, is that not all of the legends of the West were fabricated. Men such as Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, and Jesse James played an important, if largely symbolic role in what has euphemistically been termed "the taming of the West" - that is, the process by which the West was industralized and brought under the economic control of the North. Thus, Billy the Kid fought on the side of the small ranchers against the cattle barons during the Licoln War in New Mexico; Butch Cassidy played an indirect role in the Johnson County War in Wyoming, siding with small homestaeders against the poiwerful stock growers' association; and Jesse James, championing, the cause of embittered Southerners, waged a life-long struggle with the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the protective arm of Northern railroad and bank companies and a prototype for the later FBI.
Many of the tales told about these men are, of course, fictitious: Billy the Kid did not kill 21 men but nearer 4; Butch Cassidy, contrary to William Goldman's Butch Cassidy and the Sunday dance Kid, was often used them; and Jesse James was neither kind nor chivalrous. What is not fictitious, however, is that these and other western outlaws often receive the support of the people in the territories in which they lived; few of them could have survivied as long as they did without this support. A small number were really not so much "criminals" as "social bandits" - those who violate the law but live in accordance with local customs and mores, serving, in their communities and elsewhere, as symbols of cuccessful resistance to tyrannical authoritiy.
One of the characteristic features of such Robin Hoods is the near immortality conferre on them by myth and legend. Thus, countless tales are told of Billy the Kid, Jesse James , and Butch Cassidy surviving long after their reported deaths. Most of these stories, of course, have no factual basis; the evidence is clear tht Jessie James was shot down in 1882 by that "dirty little coward", Bob Ford, and that Billy the Kid was killed in 1881 by that "lackey of the cattle barons," Pat Garret.
The case with Butch Cassidy, however, is different. Though for years it was generally accepted that Cassidy died in a shoot-out in Bolivia (depicted in Goodman'd movie), many old-timers who had known the famous outlaw when he was the leader of the Wild Bunch stated that they had seen and talked to him long long after his reported death in 1906. Then, with the publication of Larry Pointer's In Search of Butch Cassidy, there seems to be little doubt that William Phillips, the man who died in 1937 in Spokane, Washington, was in fact Butch Cassidy. Pointer marshals an overwhelming amount of evidence to support this contention, including testimony given by a variety of persons who had been close to Cassidy (a brother, a son, a former lover; and scores of old friends), as well as a manuscript written by Phillips which only by Cassidy himself.
This last piece of evidence, Cassidy's autobiography, is especially interesting, for it provides much insight into Cassidy's personality - and into the Robin Hood myth which he strikingly embodied. A lomg paen of self-praise, the manuscript is replete with stories of him robbing the rich and giving to the poor and shows that Cassidy quite consciously cultivated his Robin Hood image. Among the virtues which the Utah outlaw celebrates in himself is a lack fo resentment toward those who treated him unjustly. The evidence infact supports this contention, showing that he didi not take revenge against the man responsible for his serving an underserved prison term when he was young and , further, that he did not kill a single person diring his entire outlaw career - an assertion that cannot be made about any major rancor, however, didi not stem, at least in Cassidy's eyes, from an incapicity for violence or ruthlessness. On the contrary, Cassidy paints himself as "the most dreaded . . . oullaw that either North or South America have had to contend with" - a "bandit invincible" who never let anyone or anything stand in his way. His Robin Hood image was spawned not out of humility but out of egotism, coupled with a strong self-control. he was not vengeful simply because he put himself above such higher standard of conduct that he maintained his right to do what the laws of society specify is no one's right - plunder other's possessions. With all the good conscience, and lack of irony, of a hero of the lliad, Cassidy says of himself (under the guise of Phillips): "I have never known a more courageous and kind-hearted man . . . his reputation for varacity (sic) and integrity in all his dealings, aside from hold-ups, is unquestioned." Cassidy concedes here that some might not see robbing banks and railroads as compatible with "varacity and intrgrity," but this clearly not his view.
Yet, in the end, Cassidy, like most of the Western outlaws, suffered a tragic fate. A victim of mordernization and the increasing regementation of life which made outlaws on horseback anachronistic, he spent his last years in poverty, estrangled from his wife and son, dying of bladder cancer, add still, in his sixtied, inventing plots to do what he always felt was his inalienable right - rob the rich. The plots, however, never got off the ground, for Cassidy could not find no accomplices and he was too wise to try to carry them out alone. In the end, he became a burden to his friends and family and was placed in a nursing home, where he died in 1937, at the age of 71.
Pointer's account of Cassidy's life of scholarly, well-written, and, like all good biiks on western badmen, athouroughly absobing. It stands as a welcome contrast to the protrayals given by TV and other media - portrayals which have transformed the social bandits of this country into glamorized and ultimately lifeless figures, drained of any capacity for ruthlessness or tragedy. Pointer's book, on the other hand, not only illuminates the imporatance of the western badman in U.S. history, but goes a long way in restoring his vitality, rekindling a vice that many of us have never quite been able to master: a childlike love of banditry.