By Jenny Lower
Back in October 1899, things were looking a little thin for Robert LeRoy Parker, a.k.a. Butch Cassidy. It was only a few months before a brand-new century. After years of cattle rustling, horse thieving, train hijacking, and bank robbing with his gang, the Wild Bunch, the bandit lifestyle was drying up. His friends were getting arrested or killed.
So the notorious outlaw contacted the governor of Utah to see about receiving amnesty. The governor said, fine — as long as you haven't murdered anybody. Cassidy said he hadn't. And so, according to a court document, he “surrendered in good faith” his trusty Colt .45 Single Action Army revolver to the Juab County sheriff, Parley P. Christison. But the deal fell through. Amnesty was denied.
Disgusted, Cassidy lit out for New York and then Argentina, eventually making his way to Bolivia. He never got his gun back. Legend has it (at least according to the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) that he died there with his friend, the Sundance Kid, in a hail of bullets from Bolivian police.
Now the infamous “Amnesty Colt,” serial number 158402, will go up for auction Sept. 30 (with a public preview this afternoon) at California Auctioneers in Ventura. Held until now by a private collector in Ill., bidding is expected to wind up between $150,000 and $200,000.
Looking at the revolver, it's clear it belonged to an outlaw — and a well-to-do one at that, says Jewels Eubanks of California Auctioneers. The shiny nickel plating was more expensive and more durable than standard bluing. The compact 4.75-inch barrel made it quicker on the draw, and its .45 caliber cartridges were more powerful. The black leather shoulder holster, hand-tooled by renowned saddle-maker August Brill, was meant to be worn next to the heart, concealed inside a jacket.
“It was like a Wild West machine gun,” says Eubanks. “If you owned one, you were at a distinct advantage over other people.”
Most incredibly, etched inside the handle grip are the numbers 22-14-8 and 213. They're believed to be the combination to a safe, or the number of his safety deposit box in Denver.
Despite its 100-plus year history, the six-shooter comes with a wealth of documentation. The original manila tag that Sheriff Christison labeled “George Lee Roy Parker” (Cassidy's alias at the time) remains intact. An eyewitness who rode with Cassidy identified the revolver with the eagle grips as the same one he lusted after in his youth. And Lula Betenson, Cassidy's younger sister, verified the serial number in her 1975 book Butch Cassidy, My Brother.
Bill Betenson, Lula's great-grandson, published his own account earlier this year titled Butch Cassidy, My Uncle. He says the scoundrel's enduring popularity lies in his geniality. When Cassidy resettled in South America, he taught Chilean immigrants how to become ranchers. He was the kind of guy who, when his friend Matt Warner was arrested for murder, robbed a bank to cover the legal fees. He succeeded in getting his friend off with manslaughter.
“He was half-hero, half-gentleman, half-outlaw. He was like Robin Hood,” says Eubanks.
Those wanting a piece of the n'er-do-well's legend or the Wild West will have a chance to vie for an array of items at Sunday's auction. Also up for sale are a beaded jacket belonging to Crazy Horse, an engraved rifle given to Buffalo Bill Cody by the son of a Russian czar, and a Navy Colt belonging to Frank James, older brother of Jesse James.
Bids can be placed both online and in person, and it only takes a driver's license and a credit card to participate.
“Story of the Wild West” Auction Preview is today until 5 p.m. and the auction is on Sunday. California Auctioneers, 8597 Ventura Ave. (Highway 33), Ventura. (805) 649-2686. californiauctioneers.com