Were ‘Butch and Sundance’ among Sanpete railroad roustabouts
Forensic photography says, ‘Probably, yes.’
INDIANOLA—Like many places in south central Utah, one doesn’t have to go far in Sanpete to hear rumors about the infamous outlaw Butch Cassidy.
Sanpete’s history is steeped in tales, both documented and anecdotal, of Robert LeRoy Parker, aka “Butch Cassidy.”
Though not the only outlaw to claim place in Central Utah folklore, Cassidy might be the most notorious and the most popular with Wild West outlaw enthusiasts. Long after his death, Cassidy’s legend still sparks the imaginations of many, something demonstrated by one man’s devotion to unraveling the nature of a mysterious historical photograph.
New questions about Cassidy’s ties to Sanpete have been with that photo after it fell into the hands and curiousity of Chris Voorhees, a teacher with ancestral roots in Indianola. Voorhees mission to confirm the timeline of the picture, and the possible identities of Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh, (aka “the Sundance Kid,”) in it, led him on a six-month journey down a rabbit hole of amateur and professional research.
Voorhees is a social studies teacher at South Jordan Middle School. His family has historical ties to Sanpete County and are still the longtime owners of ranch property in the Indianola area.
Last year, Voorhees decided to build a house on the property. He says he wanted some local historical photographs for interior décor in the new house.
While searching a large collection of historical photos maintained at Brigham Young University, Voorhees says he discovered a collection of thousands of glass-plate photo negatives taken in the late 1800s and early 1900s by traveling photographer George Edward Anderson. According to Voorhees, the collection was meticulously labeled not only with BYU’s catalog system, but with a sequential labeling system developed by Anderson himself.
The railroad photo was labeled by Anderson as No. 9254.
“I came upon an old railroad scene in Indianola, which I could instantly tell was taken near our ranch,” Voorhees says.
The photograph depicted a group of nine men standing with tools around a railroad track on the Sanpete branch of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.
Voorhees liked the photo, so he set it aside to be framed and hung.
By chance, Voorhees shortly later came across a 1994 Deseret News article about lauded Springville artist, historian and photo archivist Rell G. Francis. The article stated Francis had deduced that one of the men in the old Anderson photo bore more than a passing resemblance to an infamous outlaw.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Good heavens, that’s Butch Cassidy,’” the article quotes Francis as saying.
BYU’s photo archivists agreed, though admitting they were not experts on Cassidy.
Francis theorized that Anderson took the photo in 1900 and that other members of Cassidy’s outlaw gang (sometimes referred to as the Wild Bunch or the Robber’s Roost gang) were also possibly in the picture.
After reading the article and Francis’s theory, Voorhees says he was determined to either confirm or disprove it, though he admits he did want it to be true. His curiosity about the photo ran wild, he says, and his colleague Brett Freeman soon followed Voorhees on is research quest.
By examining the sequential numbering of Anderson’s photos, Voorhees came to the opinion that the photo was taken in 1901, not 1900 as Francis had surmised.
Then, after comparisons to confirmed photographs of Cassidy’s criminal associates, Voorhees and Freeman were surprised to discover that one man in the photo looked very much like Cassidy’s friend Harry Longabaugh—the Sundance Kid.
“Everything points to the fall of 1901 and that his friend Sundance is there with him,” Voorhees says. “This will cause some controversy since at that time Sundance is supposed to be in South America with Etta Place.”
Despite that contradiction with the historical consensus regarding Longabough’s whereabouts, Voorhees insists the pair of bandits disappears from documented history between March 1901 and March 1902. Voorhees claims the first historical documentation of Cassidy in South America is from Aug. 10, 1902, in a letter to Elza Lay’s mother-in-law.
Voorhees and Freeman continued research included Voorhees’ call to hire a professional forensic photography specialist to examine the photos. Melissa Cooper, an experienced forensic artist with expertise in facial identification, took on the project.
Cooper says she used multiple methods to analyze the photo, including a technique called “morphological comparison.” The technique uses a computerized grid to compare multiple identically-proportioned photos of a person to find similarities in facial shape, structure and features.
Cooper also used a method of comparison in which photos are digitally layered over each other in varying degrees of opacity, and then compared.
Cooper’s modern forensic analysis of the photo brought good news for Voorhees and Freeman: Both men in the Indianola photo were positive matches for Cassidy and his longtime accomplice, Cooper determined.
Indeed, Cooper says she found features that were especially distinguishable for the pair, confirming their identities in the Indianola photo.
“It’s rare to discover one really distinguishing feature on a person, so when I find two in a comparison it lends strong credence to the likelihood of a match,” Cooper says. “It’s my conclusion that the photos are a positive match.”
Voorhees says there are still naysayers; some claim the striking similarities are due to the existence of a doppelganger for either or both of the men.
If the men in the photo were indeed Cassidy and Longabaugh, were they perhaps casing a new train robbery opportunity, or actually in employment just trying to make ends meet?
What the two bandits’ motives were at the time of the photo is unknown, but Cassidy and his fellows have a storied history in Sanpete County’s pioneer era; Anderson photo is far from the only documentation of it.
According to an award-winning historical essay written by Mary Louise Seamons and published in the Sanpete-focused historical series, “The Saga of Sanpitch,” a Denmark-born Mt. Pleasant resident named James Hansen reportedly hid Cassidy on his estates for about two weeks when the bandit was on the run from the law.
Seamons wrote the incident was just one example of Sanpete residents putting themselves at risk to help Cassidy in his hour of need.
“He earned a reputation for being a friend to the unfortunate, a somewhat latter-day Robin Hood,” Seamons wrote. “Many friends, acquaintances and even strangers helped him when he was hiding from the law.”
Seamon’s historical essay mentions that one of Cassidy’s cohorts was from Sanpete originally. Matt Warner, born as Willard Christiansen in 1864 to the fifth wife of a Mormon bishop in Sanpete County, met Cassidy in Colorado, where the two bet each other over race horses they each owned. The two got along so well they reportedly walked away from the race as partners in crime. Warner would eventually change his ways, ironically becoming a lawman, but not until after having been an outlaw for years, including a few with Cassidy’s Wild Bunch
Various newspaper clippings from around the turn of the century place Cassidy or members of his gang in Sanpete County on a regular basis.
A passage from an 1887 issue of the Manti Messenger states, “These bands do exist to the mortal terror of a great many and incalculable disaster to others. The problem of ousting them is a grave question. There is no use in attempting to dislodge them by force; a good, big military force would be inadequate. The only way would be to starve them out, and it is questionable if that is feasible.”
A clipping from the June 26, 1905, issue of the Salt Lake Herald reported that Cassidy was spotted in Thistle Canyon. The article reported a man who claimed to have spoken with an outlaw in the Thistle area. A Sanpete County sheriff’s deputy, initially believing the mysterious outlaw to be another man he was looking for, went to investigate. According to the article, the deputy turned around went home, however, when he found out the man’s outlaw contact had been Cassidy, claiming he “didn’t want Butch anyway.”
State authorities also documented the criminal activity practiced in Sanpete County by Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. In April 1898, Gov. Herber Wells released a public statement offering a $15,000 bounty for Cassidy and 11 others in his gang. The bounty offer was printed in the Rawlins Semi-Weekly Republican No.37.
The owner of Ephraim’s Thunderbird Bookstore, Ryan Roos, himself a Wild West enthusiast, says he has a theory why seemingly every little town in Utah has a legend about some outlaw, often Cassidy or Sundance themselves.
“I think we just don’t want our heroes to die,” he says.
He says he has seen a cottage industry blossom out of that very theory.
Voorhees says that even if the photo proves to not to contain the two bandits, he still would have thought it was a neat piece of history.
“I believe Rell G. Francis, the original finder of the photo, solved part of this mystery,” Voorhees said.