My Story

Homegrown Outlaw?



Tracking The Outlaw Butch Cassidy

By James Donahue

Sometime around 1978, while working as a bureau reporter in Sanilac County, a man named Harry Longabaugh entered my office with a request for help with a book he was working on. He heard I was a local historian and asked me to help research the origins of a young man named Robert LeRoy Parker, an orphan who he believed was raised by a family named Phillips living in our area in about 1870.

Longabaugh said he had reason to believe that Parker, who later became the noted western outlaw Butch Cassidy, was possibly born and raised in Sanilac County. Longabaugh was in Sandusky, the county seat, to see if the story might have been true.

Needless to say Longabaugh stirred quite a little excitement in the area that year. I naturally jumped into the project. We went to the courthouse and searched through old records. Unfortunately, the original courthouse that existed in the 1870s and all of the county birth records were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1881. We did, however, confirm that a Phillips family existed in the area at the time.

As Longabaugh told the story, Parker was an orphan raised by the Phillips family. When he was a young teenager, however, Parker got involved in some kind of a fight and struck another man in the head with a hammer. Thinking he had committed a murder, Parker fled the area and went west where he learned to work on a cattle ranch and eventually joined up with an outlaw gang.

Longabaugh said he also had evidence that Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did not die in a shootout in Bolivia, as depicted in the Hollywood film. He said he thought Cassidy returned to the United States, married, and lived out his life as William T. Phillips in Spokane, Washington, until his death in 1937. He planned to write a book about his discoveries.

What was interesting about the story was that Longabaugh produced photographs of Phillips that, when compared to pictures of Butch Cassidy, showed a striking resemblance.

Armed with all of this information, and copies of the photographs, I wrote a story for my newspaper that caused a sensation. While I thought people in and around the Sandusky area would be pleased to think the community might have been connected to such a well known outlaw, we discovered that descendents of the Phillips family, still living in the area, were not amused. The editors received a telephone call from an irate family member who wanted the story retracted. They did not like being associated with Butch Cassidy.

We could not retract the story since it was based upon information furnished by a western historical research project. We did, however, publish a follow-up story in which the Phillips family denied any connection to Butch Cassidy.

It may be interesting to note that someone else beat Longabaugh in producing a book that claimed Butch Cassidy’s ties to William Phillips of Spokane. Larry Pointer published “In Search of Butch Cassidy” in 1977, within months after Longbaugh made his visit to our area.

Searching the web for more information about this subject, we came across a letter written in 1938 by the widow of William Phillips who, even then, was denying rumors that Phillips was Cassidy.

What is interesting about her letter was that she said Phillips “was born and raised in an eastern state until he reached the age of 14 years, at which time he ran away and headed for the Black Hills.” She does not mention which “eastern state” he came from, or why he ran away from home.

Mrs. Phillips admitted in the letter that while working on a western ranch, Phillips met Cassidy and over the years, knew him well.

Did the secret die with Phillips?