I-Team: Butch Cassidy's grave may be in Nevada

LAS VEGAS - Western outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are as alive today as they were at the end of the 19th century.

They are among the best-known bandits in American history, but there are serious questions whether the official story is correct.

Some historians think at least one of the gunmen ended up in southern Nevada and is buried about 15 miles northeast of Pahrump in a place called "Johnnie."  It was one of countless Nevada mining camps a century ago and attracted some people who wanted to live off the grid. Still does. 

The story that Butch Cassidy spent his last days in Nevada has been around a long time, long enough that a dirt road near Johnnie is named Butch Cassidy Pass. So how did that tale get started?

"It's very difficult to prove anything where outlaws are concerned," said Kerry Ross Boren. "They change names as often as they change horses."

Outlaw researcher Kerry Ross Boren has spent decades trying to unravel the dozens of competing theories that have clouded the story of Butch and Sundance. The two bandits have inspired dozens of books, hundreds of articles, movies and TV shows but Western historians disagree on almost every detail.

The tale is made murkier by imposters who have claimed to be Butch or Sundance. William Phillips of Spokane looked enough like an older Cassidy to fool some of his former associates, and historians, at least for a while.

What's known for sure is that the gang plundered banks and robbed trains, then Butch and Sundance relocated to South America, along with the mysterious Etta Place. The duo reportedly died in a shootout in Bolivia 1909, the same story told in the hit movie.

The graves of the banditos yanquis became something of a tourist attraction, but when a world-famous DNA detective analyzed the remains in the 1990s, it was proven conclusively the dead men were not Butch and Sundance.

Hundreds of people, including relatives, friends, and lawmen, reported seeing the men in the years after they supposedly died. Butch's sister, Lula Betensen, wrote a book about Cassidy's 1925 visit to a house in Circleville, Utah.

Boren says one of the strongest hints that the bandits returned is that the Pinkerton agency, which had pursued them for many years, even into South America, kept looking.

"Privately their records show they were still looking for them into the 1920s and William A. Pinkerton, head of the Pinkerton agency, declared that neither of the two men had died in South America, and the case was still open," Boren said.

If Butch Cassidy returned to the states after 1909, he may have been drawn to Nevada. The discovery of rich ore turned Goldfield into a boomtown, which attracted fortune hunters and outlaws, even the Earp's into the 1920s. 

Back in 1984, the I-Team interviewed Nevada historians who thought it likely that Cassidy would have been there.

"This would have been logical. There was as big strike," said UNLV Professor Ralph Roske.

"If he was alive, he was here," said Virginia Ridgeway, Goldfield historian. "Everyone else was."

Kerry Boren says it's not just speculation. He says, Cassidy lived in Goldfield under the name Frank Ervin, that he wrote three letters from Goldfield to the daughter of his former Wild Bunch partner Matt Warner. The authenticity of the letters is still debated, but Joyce Warner says she has no doubt because Cassidy, as Ervin, visited her home.

Boren's book includes Cassidy-like photos of Frank Ervin working as a payroll guard in Goldfield, alongside another guard who resembles another Wild Bunch outlaw named Elzy Lay.

According to Boren and others, Cassidy's trail came to an end at the isolated mining site, the Johnnie mine in Nye County. Millions in gold was mined in Johnnie in the early 20th century, and some claims are still being worked today. 

In the 80's, Nevada writers Deke Low and his wife Celeste told us that Cassidy had lived and died at the Johnnie mine. In 1944, an accident with a giant pulley wheel caused Cassidy's death, according to Boren and others, and that Butch was buried near the mine in an unnamed grave.

Former Wild Bunch girlfriends Ann and Josie Bassett both verified the story. Ann Bassett visited the Johnnie mine in the 1930s. So, did Butch's sister Lula Parker Betensen. She made the long trip just prior to her death in 1980, and Kerry Boren came with her.

"We walked out into the desert where Butch is buried. She stood at the grave. I expected her to be very emotional but she wasn't. She reached down and picked up two small stones. She put one at the head of Butch's grave and the other she stuck in her purse.  She asked me at that time that I never reveal the location of the grave while she was alive and I kept that promise," Boren said.

The large pulley wheel that was involved in the accident that killed Butch Cassidy has been removed from the mine site. The property is now owned by the Pahrump Historical Society which not only says its off limits to the public, they don't even want us to tell you that it exists. But it does.

As for the grave site, it's not easy to find and we're going to honor the promise made to Butch's sister Lula. As for what happened to Sundance and Etta? That's a story for another time.

Additonal links:

Butch Cassidy: The Untold Story

The Mystery of Ann Bassett and Etta Place

The Mysterious Deaths of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

 


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