Letter from Wild West – December 2011

By Gregory Lalire
10/6/2011 • Butch Cassidy, Jesse James, Outlaws, Wild West Editorial, Wyatt Earp

What’s an Iconic Western Photo Worth? Well, the Forth Worth Five Is Valuable
But the one-of-a-kind Billy the Kid tintype soars above the rest

A picture is worth a thousand words—or $2.3 million, as the case may be. This so-called Editor’s Letter, constrained by space to about 700 words, is not worth even one full picture, though you can read it for $5.99 or less (even free if you play your Web cards right). My words this issue concern pictures, specifically those from frontier days. If you truly want your money’s worth, by all means turn back the pages and feast your eyes on the cover image—one of the iconic photos of the Wild West era. Taken in Fort Worth near the end of that era, in November 1900, it is still wild enough, even if the five Wild Bunch outlaws are all duded up and the big two, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, look nothing like Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

Florida billionaire Bill Koch caused a sizzle last summer when he purchased at auction the one and only authenticated Billy the Kid tintype for a measly $2.3 million (including the buyer’s premium). Koch, a fan of Montana and the Old West, planned to loan it out for exhibit, starting with the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Mont. “That’s good news,” said Bob McCubbin, a fellow collector with not quite as deep pockets. “It’s the No. 1 Wild West photograph and maybe the top historical photo of any kind.” No need to feel sorry for McCubbin. He might not own the Kid, but he is the proud owner of an excellent tintype of Texas killer John Wesley Hardin as well as a “cool version” of the Fort Worth Five photo (Will Carver, Ben Kilpatrick and Harvey Logan posed with Butch and Sundance) on this month’s cover. Another version sold at auction for $85,000 in 2000, even though the image isn’t one of a kind. For the record, McCubbin rates the top five gunfighter photos: 1, Billy the Kid; 2, Dodge City Peace Commission (featuring Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Luke Short); 3, Fort Worth Five; 4, Jesse James in 1864 guerrilla garb; 5, John Wesley Hardin.

It is uncertain exactly why the Wild Bunch quintet decided to dress up and pose for a formal portrait in the Fort Worth studio of John Swartz, but authors Richard Selcer and Donna Donnell consider the possibilities in this issue. More important, they reveal that it was little-remembered Fort Worth Detective Charles R. Scott, not a Pinkerton operative or Wells Fargo detective, who put the soon-to-be-famous photo into circulation—an act instrumental in bringing down the Wild Bunch. Scott’s tale is certainly enlightening. But the authors also suggest that as Carver and Logan are the two outlaws standing in the photo, the gang considered them the most important of the five. McCubbin doesn’t buy this “standing” argument, nor does Wild Bunch expert Dan Buck. Selcer and Donnell counter that lawmen in 1900 considered Logan the big shot of the gang. Buck contends the gang had “no single leader,” that Carver “was a minor actor in the saga” and that Cassidy was as famous as Logan at the time Swartz took the picture. Cassidy biographer Richard Patterson chimes in: “I doubt that Butch really served as a strong leader of the gang. I believe that idea was largely created by accident…but it’s not surprising—he was an interesting and sympathetic character.” Donna Ernst, who writes often about the Wild Bunch, has a somewhat different take, suggesting that Carver and Logan were probably better known than Butch and Sundance in Texas but that Logan “deferred to Cassidy, the leader of the gang.” A July 1899 article in the Rawlins (Wyo.) Republican, she notes, reads in part, “Nine of Butch Cassidy’s Gang….”

These experts do agree that the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid distorted the image of the gang and resurrected the legend of the title characters. If a picture such as the Fort Worth Five is worth a thousand words, then certainly that popular motion picture is worth ten thousand more.

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