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The Sundance Kid: The Life of Harry Alonzo Longabaugh

 by Donna B. Ernst, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2009, $29.95.

The names Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are inevitably linked in that order in stories about the Wild Bunch, just as the names Frank and Jesse James are forever linked in James Gang tales. But all four outlaws can of course be sized up as individuals. Certainly, Frank lived quite well after an assassin’s bullet bit the back of Jesse’s head. In the case of Butch and Sundance, they weren’t blood relations and went their separate ways often enough in the early years and perhaps even in the later years in South America, though only Ethel Place knows for sure, and she disappeared without saying. Then they died side by side—an end some dispute, though not the author. As research-writing duo Daniel Buck and Anne Meadows state in the foreword, “Butch and Sundance will forever roll off the tongue as a single word, thanks to the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Well, not necessarily Ernst’s tongue. She has been more apt to say, “Harry A. Longabaugh, alias the Sundance Kid,” ever since fall 1976, when she learned that the outlaw was her husband Paul’s great-great uncle, a discovery that led her to write Sundance, My Uncle (1992).

Paul D. Ernst writes the introduction to his wife’s updated biography, which makes use of much new information uncovered in the past 16 years by the Ernsts, Buck, Meadows and others. Among their findings are the true location of the 1899 Wilcox, Wyo., train robbery; evidence that Sundance couldn’t have participated in the 1897 Belle Fourche bank robbery; a note from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency files that clears Sundance and Butch (see, Sundance can come first sometimes) of the 1900 Tipton, Wyo., train robbery; and a detailed route of Sundance’s escape after the successful 1900 Winnemucca, Nev., bank robbery.

Sundance did not keep a diary or leave many letters behind, so there remain loose ends in his biography, especially with regard to his wife, Ethel. But this 233-page book provides enough reliable answers about Butch’s pal to be highly rewarding. It’s clear that Butch and Sundance (to revert to the usual order) were accused of far more crimes than they actually committed, but this is not a whitewash. Ernst recognizes that Sundance, while not a hardened killer, was certainly no Robin Hood. “He wanted easy money,” she writes, “plain and simple.”

Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.