VENTURA, Calif. — A piece of the Old West’s powerful mythos dangled from Bill Betenson’s fingertips, and he was loving it. He cradled a connection to perhaps the most famous outlaw in U.S. history, and a link to a relative.
"This guy," he said, nodding to the gun in his hands in a Ventura, Calif. showroom last weekend, "would have seen some major action in those times."
This "guy" is a .45-caliber Colt Single Action Army revolver -- not just any gun, but one once owned by Butch Cassidy.
Cassidy bought it in a hardware store in Vernal, Utah, in 1896, soon after he was released from prison in Laramie, Wyo., after serving time for stealing horses. He turned the gun in to Utah authorities in early 1900 in an unsuccessful, last-ditch attempt to gain amnesty.
The roughly four years in between is the stuff of American legend. That 1896-1900 period when Cassidy carried the Colt saw a string of notorious robberies -- a bank in Montpelier, Idaho, a railroad station in Castle Gate, Utah, and a Union Pacific Railroad flier near Wilcox, Wyo. -- that made Cassidy and his cohorts, including a man they called "The Sundance Kid," household names across the nation via accounts in newspapers and periodicals.
Some 112 years after Cassidy turned it in, the so-called "amnesty" gun is on the auction block Sunday at California Auctioneers & Appraisers in Ventura. But owning it will cost -- the gun is expected to fetch $150,000 to $250,000, business owner and auctioneer John Eubanks said.
"This is as interesting as anything we’ve done historically," said Eubanks, whose family has been in the auction business for almost 50 years. "Stuff from figures such as Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid are very sought-after today because they are real American history."
Not long after the "amnesty" gun offer backfired, and with the law reportedly closing in, Cassidy and Sundance fled to South America. They went first to Argentina to go straight as ranchers, and later to Bolivia, where they had a famous shootout with the Bolivian cavalry in November 1908.
Much of their story was immortalized, at least for modern audiences, in the Oscar-winning 1969 film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" that starred Hollywood icons Paul Newman as Cassidy and Robert Redford as Sundance.
Betenson is Cassidy’s great-grandnephew. His great-grandmother was Lula Parker Betenson, who was Cassidy’s younger sister -- and an adviser on the 1969 film. (Cassidy, who used many aliases, was born Robert LeRoy Parker in Utah in 1866).
The inside of the gun’s grip contains yet another Cassidy legend -- a series of numbers that supposedly are the combination to a Cassidy bank-vault stash in Denver. Betenson isn’t sure about that, and Jewels Eubanks, John’s son and fellow auctioneer, doubts that someone as shrewd as Cassidy would have ever left money in a bank.
"There’s so much myth and folklore surrounding his life," Betenson noted.
For one thing, Betenson said, the two names given to Cassidy and his cronies -- the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang and the Wild Bunch -- were entirely media creations. They didn’t use them.
Cassidy, he added, spent little time in Hole in the Wall (an actual geologic formation in Wyoming); his favorite hideout was Robbers Roost in southeastern Utah.
Here’s another one from Betenson about Cassidy that might raise some eyebrows: "As far as we know, he never did kill anyone."
Furthermore, Cassidy and Sundance (born Harry Longabaugh) didn’t go to South America to continue their robbing ways; they went to become ranchers. They did this in Argentina from 1901 to 1905, Betenson said.
But a 1905 bank robbery, some 700 miles from their ranch, was blamed on them. Betenson doesn’t believe they did it, although he admits it has earmarks of their jobs and that Cassidy and Sundance likely knew the two men who did it.
Regardless, it forced them on the lam to Chile. They eventually wound up in Bolivia.
"I think if the Pinkertons had left him alone, he’d have lived out his life in peace," Betenson said.
The Pinkertons were the detectives hired to pursue Cassidy and Sundance. In the film, they’re part of the relentless posse that Newman and Redford keep looking back at in bewilderment and saying, "Who are those guys?"
The movie ends with Cassidy and Sundance dying in the shootout with the Bolivian militia. But many people, including Lula Betenson, think Cassidy made it back to the United States. She claimed he lived a quiet life of anonymity until he died in 1937 in the Pacific Northwest.
"There’s still a lot of questions," Betenson acknowledged. "The mystery of what happened to him still fascinates a lot of people."
(Contact Brett Johnson of the Ventura County Star in California at BJohnsonvcstar.com