Outlaw-Imposture Syndrome

September 7, 2011

The targets of impostors are not only the noted but the notorious also. Numerous persons have claimed that they were an erstwhile presumed-dead outlaw, like Jesse James or—the latest target—Butch Cassidy. So similar are the features of such cases that they define what I now call the Outlaw-Imposture Syndrome.

Although previously an unnamed phenomenon, it is very well known, as I indicated in my entry, “Outlaw Impostors,” in Gordon Stein’s Encyclopedia of Hoaxes (1993, 112-13). Consider, for example, what happened after John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, was shot in a Virginia barn on April 14, 1865. Over the next decades, some forty persons—not long before their deaths—each “confessed” he was the notorious Lincoln assassin. At least thirty-nine, and I would suggest all, were fakes.

Then there was legendary Missouri bank robber Jesse James (1847-1882) whose death was also popularly doubted, even though a coroner’s jury made a positive identification of his corpse, based on considerable evidence, including a pair of scars on the right side of his chest and a missing left middle fingertip. Stated folklorist Richard M. Dorson (in his American Folklore 1959, 243), “In the tradition of the Returning Hero, who reappears after his alleged death to defend his people in time of crisis, ancient warriors have announced that Jesse James lives in their emaciated frames.” Seventeen such claimants have been counted, the last being one J. Frank Dalton who died in Texas in 1951, and whose handwriting did not match that of the legendary American outlaw.

Still more examples of the Outlaw-Imposture Syndrome were exhibited by several individuals who maintained they were the notorious Billy the Kid. Each claimed to have escaped the trap set for him by Sheriff Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in 1881. One purportedly lived on as Ollie L. “Brushy Bill” Roberts who died in 1950, just a week prior to his ninetieth birthday. It turned out that “Brushy Bill” had also once claimed to have been Jesse James’ brother Frank, and a computer photo analysis proved that his facial features were not the same as the Kid’s (see my Camera Clues, 1994, 88-89).

Today, some are claiming that Butch Cassidy—who, with his friend the Sundance Kid, was ostensibly killed in a shootout in Bolivia in 1908—actually escaped to die peacefully in old age. While there have been purported sightings of both Butch and Sundance, those of the former predominate. Now, writer Larry Pointer and Utah book collector Brent Ashworth claim that a book manuscript—Bandit Invincible: The Story of Butch Cassidy by the late William T. Phillips—is not biography but actually autobiography! It has Butch escaping the shootout and making his way to Paris where he has plastic surgery, then returns to the United States to reunite with an old Wyoming girlfriend. It is rumored that Phillips, who possibly knew Cassidy, told the couple’s closest friends he was the famous outlaw. (See “Butch Cassidy survived, according to newly acquired manuscript,” Associated Press, August 15, 2011; online at https://www.nola.com/books/index.ssf/2011/08/old_text_new_wrinkles_did_butc.html, thanks to Blake Smith for the heads up.)

Brent Ashworth’s previous foray into credulousness was when, as a devout Mormon, he purchased what turned out to be bogus Mormon historical documents by the notorious forger Mark Hofmann. Ashworth thinks elements in the rather fictionalized biography match aspects of Cassidy’s life too convincingly to have been penned by anyone other than the outlaw himself. However, a Cassidy historian, Dan Buck, says of the manuscript: “Total horse pucky. It doesn’t bear a great deal of relationship to Butch Cassidy’s real life, or Butch Cassidy’s life as we know it.”

Given that assessment, and the application of the principle of Occam’s razor (that the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct), it appears that the Phillips-as-Cassidy claim is unlikely. Whether Phillips himself ever actually made the claim, or whether others make it for him posthumously, it would appear to be just another example of the Outlaw-Imposture Syndrome.