Chapter 1: The Thorny Rose 1 THE THORNY ROSE
Start at the end, they say.
The last member of Butch Cassidy’s gang, the Wild Bunch, went into the ground in December 1961. Which means that someone who held the horses during an old-school Western train robbery, or had been otherwise involved with the kind of men who crouched behind boulders with six-guns in their hands and bandannas tied around their sunburnt faces, might have voted for John F. Kennedy (or Richard Nixon), seen the movie West Side Story or heard Del Shannon sing run-run-run-run-runaway—that is, if she hadn’t been rendered deaf years earlier during the blasting open of a Union Pacific express car safe. Her outlaw buddies were always a little heavy-handed with the dynamite.
Yes—she. The Wild Bunch, which some writers have called the biggest and most structurally complex criminal organization of the late nineteenth century, came down, in the end, to one little old lady sitting in a small, dark apartment in Memphis. Laura Bullion died in obscurity eight years before the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, revitalized the almost-forgotten semilegend in which she had played a minor but authentic part. Her obituary did not make the newspapers. If anyone saw the cryptic hint of a previous life on her headstone—“The Thorny Rose,” the inscription says—he didn’t question it publicly. Yet for a time, in a different world, a world where outlaws needed their horses held and their ashes hauled, Laura was in several ways a wanted woman. Reporters and Pinkerton detectives knew her name and sought her out for interviews.
Laura Bullion had been a gun moll before the term existed—not one of the all-time greats, perhaps, owing to her natural reticence and plain face. She stands, for example, eternally in the shadow of Ethel Place, Sundance’s mysterious inamorata (usually referred to, mistakenly, as Etta), who was every bit as beautiful as Katharine Ross, the actress who played her on the screen, and whom Cassidy once called “an excellent housekeeper with the heart of a whore.” Yet in terms of curriculum vitae, at least, Laura was a classic “Molly.” She had danced, as she put it euphemistically in Texas gambling halls, taken on a bewildering number of aliases—including Della Rose, a name she used while working in Fanny Porter’s famous sporting house on Delarosa Street in San Antonio—and traveled with the kind of bad boys who had pistols in their pockets and were happy to see her.
Laura’s first love, chronologically, was the dapper Will Carver, given the nickname “News” in the movie because he liked to see his name in the frontier dailies. She met him when she was fourteen and he was married to her Aunt Viana; they all lived together in a small house in West Texas, and Laura said she and her uncle “got brushed up a heap agin each other” in the tight quarters, which eventually caused romantic sparks. It was around then that Carver transformed himself from an honest ranch hand who worked for the standard dollar a day to an associate of outlaws like Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum and Butch Cassidy. Though inevitably cast in a supporting role by his crew leaders, Carver became over time almost a caricature of an old-time criminal, dressing “like a Texas gambler,” according to one lawman; affecting a haughty, R. Crumb-ish way of striding out in which his feet preceded the rest of his body; and talking like a dime-novel desperado. When he was confronted in a Sonora, Texas, bakery (where he had gone to buy grain for his horse) by a sheriff who wanted to speak to him about the very badass-sounding crime of killing a man in Concho County, Carver whipped out his six-gun—like other Wild Bunchers, including Cassidy himself, he was known as a superior marksman—but the barrel got tangled in his fancy suspenders, and the sheriff just shrugged and shot him in the chest. Carver’s last words were supposedly, “Die game, boys!”
Laura took the news with mixed emotions. In her diary she wrote: “W. R. Carver, killed Tuesday, April 2, 1901. He has fled. I wish him dead, he that wrought my ruin. O, the flattery and the craft, which were my undoing.” (She herself was no stranger to dime novels.) Before long, though, seeking consolation, she moved on to another member of the gang, Ben Kilpatrick. Laura and “the Tall Texan,” as he was known in those nickname-crazed days, made an odd-looking couple: he was in the vicinity of six feet; she, four foot eleven. But they became soulmates—and in a poetic sense, cellmates, who served long, more-or-less simultaneous sentences in far-distant penitentiaries after they were arrested in Saint Louis in 1901 with $8,500 in stolen banknotes. They stayed in touch while incarcerated. “I received the little lead pencil you sent and it just could not be prettier,” she wrote to Ben. “I think it is too sweet to be used and would not take anything for it”—and briefly reunited years later, following his release. They might have grown old together if Kilpatrick had grown old. Instead, while robbing the safe on a train full of oysters near Sanderson, Texas, in 1912, he had his skull fatally fractured by a railroad messenger wielding an ice mallet. Excited townsfolk prepared Kilpatrick’s body for the trophy photo that was practically de rigueur in those days after you’d assassinated a well-known outlaw, but rather than keeping him horizontal, they propped him up on his feet so the local shutterbug could get a better angle. (You can see the picture in the photo insert of this book.) He and his deceased accomplice, known as Ole Beck, look like a couple of high-end scarecrows.
Not every cowboy bandit came to such a calamitous and entertaining end, of course. Many were dim-witted, depressing, murderous men—“human donkeys,” to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain’s Western travelogue Roughing It—who simply disappeared from history. Or they went straight, settling for quotidian jobs like bartender or, in more than a couple of cases, lawman. I will not concern myself overly much with such ordinary criminals but will focus instead on the more evolved class of outlaws who embodied the populist spirt of the late nineteenth century and showed enough self-awareness and style to give the newspapers and other mythmakers something to work with. A few of that sort wound up serving as consultants on early Hollywood Westerns. The handsome and witty Elzy Lay, a likely ancestor of the potato chip magnate and Butch’s best friend in the years before he moved to South America with the Sundance Kid (ne Harry Alonzo Longabaugh), is buried in Los Angeles’s Forest Lawn cemetery among the movie stars he is said to have coached occasionally. He was sixty-five when he died in 1934—exceedingly old for an outlaw, though Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp lived to sixty-seven and eighty, respectively. Laura Bullion survived until age eighty-five, having supported herself in later life as a department store seamstress. Even in her final days, spent in a charity ward of Tennessee’s Shelby County Hospital, “she remained mentally alert and retained a sense of humor,” one relative said.
Butch Cassidy also had a well-honed wit—but the ones who left others laughing were the exceptions. Most Western outlaws, be they dashing or dull, wound up demonstrating the dreary dictum that crime does not pay—and, on the contrary, tends to extract a heavy toll on the perpetrator. So many died young after being pursued and shot at and penned up like animals until the morning they were led through a sea of gawkers to the gallows. None of them, as far we know, died rich. Yet—and this is what I think makes at least some of them worthy of our extended consideration—even though they knew just how awful the terms were, they persisted in making the bargain. Riding with the gang was all that mattered—if only because when you were doing that, you weren’t herding cattle or mending fences or shoveling horse manure amidst relentlessly picturesque scenery while the idiot wind howled. That cowboy crap gets old fast. The much-romanticized Western way of life was in practice often boring and nerve wracking at the same time. (Yes, you slept out under the stars, but the cowboy code said that you always woke up a colleague by voice, never by touch, because if you prodded or shook him, he might come to with a start, grab his gun, and kill you.) “I have worked six years in cow outfits and am fed up on cow punching so I am quitting,” wrote Reuben B. Mullins in his memoir, Pulling Leather, published in 1988, more than fifty years after his death. “Any young man who will punch cows for an extended number of years isn’t normal.”
As Caroline Fraser, the biographer of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairie, has noted, you can romanticize it all you want, but the life made possible by the Homestead Act of 1862 destroyed more people than it helped.
A new day was soon coming when many rural Americans, wanting something better for themselves and seeing how the little man was getting squeezed out of farming and cattle raising, would sell their homesteads and migrate to big cities, work only fifty hours a week, drive cars, and make enough money to go to ball games and photoplays (and develop all kinds of emotional and digestive disorders that their ancestors never knew existed). But that day wasn’t coming fast enough for the more restless members of the post–Civil War generation born out beyond the 100th meridian, the line that separated arable from arid soil on the great American grid. Those young men and women thirsted for a dose of excitement and a shot at wealth, and as fate would have it, the chance to try your luck at the game of “throw ’em up” (outlaws actually said this more often than “stick ’em up,” it seems) was as close as the nearest train or bank.
The nice thing about gang life, at least in the Wild Bunch, was that everyone seemed to understand his role. Ringleader was not a position many aspired to—for the most part, it was like being the alpha steer in a cattle herd; either you were or you weren’t, for reasons that are best ascribed to “nature” and left at that. As masterminds of a sort, Cassidy and Sundance probably took a bigger cut of the booty than their cohorts did, but by the time the money was divvied up and then squandered in the stupid but obligatory post-heist spree, not enough remained for anyone to get excited about. Especially in the early years of their careers, the Wild Bunch were like struggling actors who have to support themselves as waiters or dog-walkers; between gigs, everyone was equally in need of legit work. This kept them humble and meant that when the gang reconvened to pull a heist, the roles had been already assigned; office politics—or, rather, campfire, politics—were usually not an issue, and no one got stabbed in the back. At least not figuratively. Laura, Will, Ben, Elzy, Sundance, Ethel—all of them and a raucous gaggle of others were content to be mere ripples so long as Butch Cassidy was the stone.