The First "Wild Bunch"
By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)
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Before the Judge, the General, Tex, Hipshot and Dutch of the Single Action Shooting Society Wild Bunch, before Pike, Dutch, Lyle, Tector and Angel of Sam Peckinpah's Wild Bunch, there was Butch, Sundance, Elzy, Flat-Nose, News, Tall Texan, and others of the Old West Wild Bunch. They were the real deal, outlaws who spread their trade over a huge swath of the Old West even as it was passing into history and legend.
In all of the Old West history, no outlaw gang, not the James Gang, not the Doolins, none of them, were as successful at their craft or enjoyed so much popular support as this hardened group of free-wheeling cowboys, gleefully chasing a life of adventure and high drama.
And yet, many of those who rode with the Wild Bunch remain but hazy figures in the shadow of Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, their real names unknown or forgotten, their personalities and deeds not recorded. But they were indeed an interesting and diverse group, men and women both, whose lives and exploits are more interesting than the fictional stories made up about them. Membership in the gang was entirely voluntary and many came and went as whim dictated; there were probably up to a hundred who rode with the gang at one time or another.
All of them were expert cowboys, skilled in their trade, and adapted to the hardships forced upon them by the land and the lifestyle they lived. Expert marksmanship with handgun and rifle was expected and universal among them, yet their creed was to avoid bloodshed at all costs for most of them. Unusual intelligence and intellect were not uncommon; many were well educated, personable, cultured and generous, influenced by the personality of their accepted leader, Butch Cassidy. All were addicted to the adrenalin rush and adventures of the outlaw life. Those adventures are the legend of the first Wild Bunch and grand stories they are.
It's time to take a look at who these people were men and women both whose lives were one of the Old West’s most colorful chapters at the closing days of the Old West.
William Ellsworth "Elzy" Lay was an early leader of the gang and a close friend to Robert Leroy Parker (Butch Cassidy). He was a highly intelligent man, well read, and popular with the ladies. He left his family at the age of 18 to find adventure in the West and soon met up with Parker and his associates in Brown's Hole. He and Josie Bassett became lovers for a time and later parted. Lay then married Maude Davis and fathered a child, but refused to quit the outlaw life as she demanded. He participated in the planning and execution of several bold robberies. Captured, convicted and sentenced to prison, he was a model prisoner and was pardoned following his rescue of the warden's daughter, taken hostage in a prison riot. He "went straight," met and married Mary Calvert, and moved to Southern California where he worked as a supervisor in the construction of the Colorado River Aqueduct. He and Mary raised a son and a daughter before his death in Los Angeles in 1936. He is buried in the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. Needless to say, this short sketch does little justice to his eventful life; there will be more in the story of the Wild Bunch.
Butch Cassidy (Robert Leroy Parker) evolved as the leader of the Wild Bunch through a process of natural selection. The son of a devout Mormon family, Parker never really rejected the values impressed upon him by his parents. He was a good-looking, genial, intelligent man who loved to read and spent many hours at the home of Herb Bassett, working his way through Bassett's extensive library. He was sweet on Ann, the beautiful younger Bassett daughter. Most men on the outlaw trail took up an alias and Parker adopted the name "Cassidy" from a cowboy friend by the name of Mike Cassidy who had befriended him. "Butch" was added later when he worked for at time as a meat cutter in a butcher shop. Not only was Cassidy a top cow hand, he was expert in planning and executing some of the most daring and successful robberies in Western outlaw history. His deeds, both good and bad, are the stuff of legend and are still retold along the "outlaw trail." We all know the tale about how Cassidy and his friend, Sundance, were killed in a picturesque shoot-out in Bolivia, but there were folks in Utah, including the Bassett sisters, who claimed that he returned and lived well into the 1920s in Leeds, Utah. It could be; after all, there is good evidence that Ann Bassett was truly Etta Place and she lived until 1957.
Tall Texan (Ben Kilpatrick) was one who moved in and out of the Wild Bunch and had been associated with Black Jack Ketchum's gang. Ketchum was a cold-blooded killer and his violent nature did not sit well with Kilpatrick; the more sophisticated nature of the Wild Bunch suited him well. Taller than most at 6 feet 1 inch, Ben was an amiable, well-liked lady's man who enjoyed the fast-paced outlaw life. Captured and imprisoned in 1901, he was released in 1911 and was subsequently killed attempting to rob a train in 1912.
Sundance Kid (Harry Alonzo Longebaugh), like Parker, was a blend of scholar and outdoorsman. Son of a devout, strict Union Civil War veteran, young Harry was an above-average student and enjoyed reading and learning. A romantic at heart and too liberal for his father's approval, he dreamed of the "Old West" that was obviously passing into history and he ran away to experience it while it was still there. Already an expert marksman, he quickly learned the cowboy's trade and became a top hand and superb horse trainer. Drifting from Colorado to New Mexico to Utah, he dabbled in the horse racing circuit where he most likely met up with Butch Cassidy and other members of the Wild Bunch. Eventually he came on hard times. Desperation drove him to theft, for which he was hunted, captured and imprisoned in Sundance, Colorado. Pardoned, he carried the "Sundance" moniker for the rest of his life. As he drifted on, he fine-tuned his skill with his Colt and developed a reputation as one of the fastest men around and a man not to be trifled with. But Harry was not a killer, far from it, and his reputation kept would-be challengers at bay. There is no record that he ever killed anyone. He did become involved in a couple of poorly planned robberies that proved to himself that he was no criminal genius and he returned to Brown's Hole where he quickly took Elzy Lay's place as Butch's co-leader, since Lay had been captured and imprisoned. As Butch Cassidy's closest friend, he remained co-leader of the Wild Bunch until their departure for South America. It is very possible that he returned to Utah and lived to a ripe old age under another name.
Matt Warner (Willard Erastus Christiansen) was born into a devout Mormon family in Utah. In a fight over a pretty girl, Willard beat a local bully to a bloody pulp. Fearing he had killed the lad, Willard hurried home, packed up and fled. The name Matt Warner came to him as an inspiration and he later legally adopted it. Finding Brown's Hole, he fell in with a small rancher who taught him the skills of the rancher and the rustler. He started a small ranch and began riding the racing circuit where he mixed up with Tom McCarty and Butch Cassidy and moved into the exciting outlaw life. Complications arose when he fell head-over-heels in love with and married Rose Morgan, a pretty 18 year-old blonde. Though he tried to go straight, there was a price on his head and he remained on the run. Rose's sister turned him in; he was captured, but managed to avoid trial, only to be convicted shortly afterward for manslaughter in a self-defense shooting. Rose died while he was in prison. Matt "went straight" after that, even became a lawman and even a justice of the peace in Carbon County, Utah. His autobiography, Last of the Bandit Riders, written in 1937, makes for entertaining reading.
Gunplay Maxwell (James Otis Bliss). There are good reasons that no one ever heard of Gunplay. He was the worst combination of stupidity, arrogance, meanness, drunkenness, and incompetence to be found in one fool braggart. Oh, how he wanted to be known as a fearsome gunfighter. Only problem was, no one would take him seriously. On at least three occasions, his intended victims disarmed him, beat him senseless, tied his battered body to his horse, and sent him down the road. Attempting to replace the Wild Bunch with his own gang, he robbed a bank in Springville and tried to flee in a buggy, followed by several irate townsfolk on horseback and at least one lumber wagon. Captured, he went to prison for two years. Later he met and married a wealthy San Francisco woman and pawned most of her jewelry. He met his predictable end in a drunken shoot-out in Price, Utah. Some say it was with another of his kind named "Shoot 'em Up Bill" in a Bar. Another says it was Deputy Sheriff Edward Johnstone. So much for the wannabe Gunplay Maxwell.
Isom Dart (Ned Huddleston) was one of the only black men involved in the Wild Bunch. Born a slave in Arkansas and freed after the Civil War, he moved on to the Texas-Mexico border area where he found work training horses, a profession for which he showed great talent. Contrary to many at the time, Ned gentle-trained his charges into superb cow horses and he became a master horseman, stunt rider, and rodeo clown. His criminal activities began with a partnership with a Mexican bandit named Terresa, rustling horses in Mexico and selling them in Texas. A job as a drover on a cattle drive to Brown's Hole brought him to Wild Bunch country. Narrowly escaping death in an incident with the notorious Tip Gault Gang, he headed into Brown's Hole under a new name Isom Dart. He quickly established himself as a top hand and started his own ranch, building up his herd like everyone else did by taking a few cows here and there from the large ranchers surrounding Brown's Hole. He became fondly known in Brown's Hole as "Black Fox." Elizabeth Bassett, one of the leading ranchers of Brown's Park, gave Dart a fine sorrel saddle horse, which Dart prized above all else. On one occasion, a daring deputy sheriff managed to arrest him and attempted to transport him out in a buckboard. When the buckboard overturned and injured the deputy, Dart freed himself, saved the deputy's life, repaired the wagon, and took the deputy into town for treatment. Then he had a drink and turned himself in to the sheriff. He was tried, quickly acquitted by an admiring jury, and returned to Brown's Hole a free man. The big ranchers were not finished with Dart. A man named Hicks soon appeared along with Dart's hired hand, Matt Rush. Hicks was both a good hand and generous with his whiskey. Dart and Rash both liked the man. In a turn of bad luck, Rash offered to buy Dart's prized sorrel, then mischievously took the horse to his own remote cabin, where Rash was killed. The killer even shot the prized horse. Immediately everyone realized that Hicks, who had suddenly disappeared, was really the dreaded Tom Horn. It was only a matter of time before two .30-30 slugs, Horn's signature, took Dart's life, to the great mourning of the residents of Brown's Hole.
Kid Curry (Harvey Logan). Cassidy’s influence on the Wild Bunch against unnecessary killing was strained on Curry. More than once, it was only Cassidy's restraining voice that stayed his itchy trigger finger. He was more wanted and feared than any in the gang and killed without hesitation or remorse. The Kid had a long violent history behind him before joining up with Cassidy. He adopted the last name of Flat-Nose George Curry, whom he admired and emulated. A top hand and expert with horses, Curry was liked and respected by his fellows, but his temper flared with the first drop of liquor and a sour mood overcame him. He had originally offered himself as leader of Butch's newly organized "Train Robbers Syndicate," but abdicated that claim when his first job turned into a fiasco and amiably recognized Butch's leadership thereafter. Most of Curry's murders, and there were many, were of lawmen who had captured or killed either friends or family. He had little hesitation in hunting them down and challenging them in an open gunfight. When Butch and Sundance split for South America, Curry attempted to assume leadership again, but he quickly displayed his lack of Cassidy's expertise and was quickly trapped with his gang following a botched train robbery. Shot through the lungs, he stayed to hold off the pursuing posse while the others escaped and took his own life with his well-worn Colt.
News (William Carver). Will Carver loved to see his name in the newspapers, thus his nickname. A Texas cowboy, Carver drifted north to Wyoming and fell in with the folks in Brown's Park, becoming friends with Ben Kilpatrick (Sundance). He was one of Josie Bassett's suitors and lovers. He rode with Black Jack Ketchum's gang and eventually drifted into Robbers Roost and joined up with the Wild Bunch. Apparently, Carver was a lady's man, as he kept up a long dalliance with both Josie Bassett and Laura Bullion, a prostitute who mixed with the Wild Bunch. After a short series of train robberies, Carver was tracked down and killed in Sonora, Texas by Sheriff Briant who was attempting to arrest him for a murder for which he was posthumously cleared. His last words, the stuff of legend: "Die game, boys."
Matt Rush. Not much is known about Matt Rush before he appeared in Brown's Park and joined up as a hand with Isom Dart. Matt was a master of the Colt and an expert horseman and the two became close friends, working and rustling together. It didn’t take long before a serious romance sprang up between Rash and the beautiful Ann Bassett of the prominent Bassett family. His guileless prank of "stealing" Dart’s prized saddle horse gave Tom Horn, in the guise of a cowboy named Hicks, the opportunity to spread word that the horse had indeed been stolen and that Dart was ready to kill Rash for the deed. The intended blame did not materialize after Horn killed Rash and the horse and Horn had to disappear until he was able to kill Dart from ambush several days later. Rash's death infuriated his intended Ann and fueled her hatred of the cattle barons who had hired Horn. The Hoys and the Two-Bar outfit lost a lot of cattle to her depredations in vengeance for her lover's death.
Josie Bassett was romantically involved with more than one of the Wild Bunch. The older daughter of Herb and Elizabeth Bassett of Brown's Park, Josie liked men and they liked her. She was attractive and capable of doing any of the ranch chores the men did, including rustling an occasional cow. She was partial to Elzy Lay and Butch and was married five times to other men. Widowed once, rumor had it that she had poisoned the man but it was never proven. Josie lived until the 1960s in her small cabin near what is now Dinosaur National Park in Colorado.
Ann Bassett was Josie's very beautiful younger sister. Where Josie was just as happy keeping a house as riding the range, Ann was wild and out of control, frequently acting without concern for the consequences. She took after her remarkable mother and carried on a vendetta with the local cattle barons, rustling and even killing their cattle without remorse. She was romantically involved with both Elzy Lay and Butch (causing sisterly conflict with Josie) and it is probable that she was the same Etta Place who went to South America with Butch and Sundance. Ann lived into the 1950s in Jensen, Utah. vLaura Bullion was a hardened young lady with a good figure and a way with men when she met up with the Wild Bunch in a Sheridan, Wyoming dance hall. She liked the wild life and took a liking to Kid Curry, but soon discovered her true love in Ben Kilpatrick, the Tall Texan, and became his common-law wife for several years until his untimely death while attempting to rob a train in 1912.
Annie Rogers, an uncommonly pretty woman who worked in a Texas bordello, was a favorite of Kid Curry, the most dangerous and uncontrollable of the Wild Bunch. In spite of his bloodlust, he genuinely cared for Annie and showered her with expensive gifts. When the end came, he provided testimony that absolved her of involvement in their crimes. As Curry went to prison, Annie drifted back to Texas where she faded from history.
There were many more tales of the Wild Bunch and the interesting characters who rode the Outlaw Trail in the waning years of the Wild West. As technology eventually reached the wilds of southern Utah it became harder and harder to make a dishonest living and many of the old outlaws who were not in prison or had been shot and killed by determined lawmen faded away into their own private worlds, probably nurturing to their dying day the heady memories of those exciting days of yesteryear.
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