I’me about halfway through a book about an attempt to prove what happened to Butch Cassidy and his sidekick after the shootout in Bolivia.
If you’ve seen the classic 1969 movie, you’ll know how it ends with the two desperados facing what seems like half the Bolivian army and jumping from the top of an adobe building – we don’t know what happens next.
I sort of assumed that it was ‘game over’, but what I didn’t realise was that there were persistent rumours that they didn’t die and that there were a host of impostors afterwards who claimed to be one or the other of the pair of outlaws.
This is quite interesting. When the Bolsheviks shot the tsar in 1918 there was a fictional account, persistent rumours that one of the princesses had survived, and a number of impostors that no one was able to fully discount.
While the facts of the executions were more or less known by the 1970’s there was no definitive documentation until the Cheka’s files were opened in the nineties, and they found the bones and of course nowadays could do some DNA testing.
Now as I say, I really didn’t know anything about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid – it wasn’t until I reread Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia that I remembered that they had set up a ranch at Cholila in the Argentinian Andes.
Chatwin, was of course an unreliable witness and possibly given to a bit of confabulation when it made a better story, but he claimed to have met an talked with a number of people who remembered Cassidy, Longbaugh and Place (Etta Place was Longbaugh’s girlfriend, possibly a music teacher who turned to a different game altogether, but one who drops out of the story before the two deperadoes payroll raid in Bolivia). We don’t seem to have Chatwin’s notes from his Patagonian trip, but he seems genuinely interested enough in the story to suggest that his account is rooted in truth.
And there it lay, until I happened across an article about Chatwin’s travels in Patagonia that mentioned that you could visit the cottage and gve a link to some articles and a book – Digging up Butch and Sundance – that gave an account of trying to establish the facts in the case.
On a whim I bought a second hand copy via AbeBooks – I’m not sure why – but it turned out to be a gem. Amusing, well written, it’s an autobiogrphical account of a search to track down what evidence there was (or not) that the San Vincente shootout really was the end.
Again just like the case with the execution of the Tsar there was no real definitive newspaper reports, just a lot of circumstantial evidence and not a few people with a vested interest in particular versions of the story.
However, what the book really does is ask questions about how one establihes truth in the case of historical incidents. e have a tendency to believe written sources, and perhaps these days online sources over others, perhaps because of ease of access. But of course these sources may be inaccurate, contradictory, or wrong.
Butch Cassidy and Harry Longbaugh met their end just over a hundred years ago in a time when there were newspapers, immigration files and the rest, and yet despite leaving a trail they vanished – how much more difficult is it to know what really went on in Langley Burrell in the 1640’s when we don’t have the luxury of a range of sources and accounts ….
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