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This image provided by the Nevada Historical Society shows the famous group portrait taken in Fort Worth, Texas shortly after Butch Cassidy and his gang robbed the Einnemucca, Nev., bank in 1900. They sent the photo to the bank with a thank you note. Shown are Bill Carver, top left, the Sundance Kid, bottom left, and Butch Cassidy, bottom right. The other two members of the gang are not identified. A collector of rare books and documents has obtained a manuscript with new evidence that Butch Cassidy wasn’t killed in a 1908 shootout in Bolivia but returned to the U.S. and lived on in Washington State for almost three decades. (AP Photo/Nevada Historical Society, File)
Wyoming grad student chasing history of Butch Cassidy
First Published Oct 05 2012 12:23 pm • Last Updated Oct 05 2012 12:26 pm

Laramie, Wyo. • On a bright, clear Friday afternoon, John "Mac" Blewer stood outside the entrance to the Wyoming Territorial Prison, its heavy iron door once a demarcation line for convicts between a life of freedom and one substantially less sunny.

On this day, however, the centerpiece of Blewer’s discussion wasn’t the 1,063 men and women at one time locked inside the prison’s stone walls.

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Rather, it was about one convict in particular, the prison’s most famous.

"That’s where Butch came through, right there, in that archway," Blewer said.

"Basically, Butch reinvented himself as he was released from the prison and then (society) reinvented him."

Blewer is uniquely suited to give this tour and elaborate on Robert LeRoy Parker, a man of at least 10 known aliases, but commonly known in fact and fiction as Butch Cassidy, the notorious American West outlaw and leader of the Wild Bunch Gang.

The 41-year-old New York City native is a seasonal employee at the prison, providing tours, visitor services and historical interpretations at the facility originally built in 1872, and a University of Wyoming graduate student.

More precisely, he’s the architect of the master’s thesis, "Representations and Remembrances of Butch Cassidy in Wyoming and the American West: The Invention of an American Tradition," a 180-page volume that took 2½ years to finish.

He’s also the author of an upcoming book, Wyoming’s Outlaw Trail, a look at the "historic and folkloric path that meandered from Canada to Mexico" used by Butch, cohort the Sundance Kid, and other infamous outlaws like Frank and Jesse James.

Blewer’s research will be incorporated into an exhibit at the prison, today a state historical site, to be displayed in the old kitchen in the north cell block beginning in spring 2014.

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Attempting to define Cassidy’s life was no easy task, Blewer said.

The outlaw is steeped in mythology and folklore.

Small-time rustler, prisoner, gang leader, trickster, bad man, good man, a Robin Hood of the people, bank robber, social outlaw and the "bandit invincible" — these are some of the labels ascribed to Cassidy throughout time.

Mysteries have endured over generations from his life to his death to his burial site.

"He’s every one of those things," Blewer said. ". He is every single one of those folklore archetypes.

"I think that’s what makes Cassidy a fascinating study — he’s all these things to all people."

The researcher also summed up Cassidy this way: "Butch Cassidy, remember, is a myth and an invented tradition, as American as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone or baseball."

But, before that myth was cemented in national headlines describing his various robberies and escapades, Cassidy was Parker, a Beaver, Utah, native, convicted of larceny and sentenced to two years at the territorial prison, the site of his only extended incarceration.

He spent 18 months in the prison, from 1894 to 1896. Ironically, Cassidy’s brother, Dan Parker, also served a stint, probably around three months beginning in 1890, for robbing a mail coach near Rawlins.

The brothers’ misdeeds weighed on their mother, Ann Campbell Gillies, who Blewer said would "walk the fields, crying over her wayward sons."

At the territorial prison, Cassidy was known as a well-behaved prisoner, site superintendent Deborah Amend said. He was most likely housed in the south cell block, though it’s unknown which of the block’s 42 cells he stayed inside.

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