Wild Wild West

Butch Cassidy and
The Snake Oil King

A recent movie about cowboys and aliens, although far from evoking classic westerns by John Ford and Howard Hawks, still managed, somehow, to inspire a revival of sorts of public interest in the genre and historical period.
Or at least, that’s what one would be led to believe with the recent bombshell news concerning one of the most beloved and mythical real legends of the old west: Butch Cassidy.
A 1934 manuscript, written by a machinist who died in Spokane three years later, has helped to ignite a furor over the legacy and mysterious fate of the famous character.
The manuscript, “Bandit Invincible: the Story of Butch Cassidy,” was written by William T. Phillips, and claims that the bank robber portrayed by Paul Newman in an immensely popular movie about him and his buddy, Sundance Kid, didn’t die in the 1908 shootout in Bolivia, as history had it.
More: according to the rare books collector who purchased the manuscript, there’s evidence that Phillips was no other than Cassidy himself, trying to rewrite his own saga in more favorable terms.
Phillips had in fact already published part of the text under the same title, but some details that could’ve known only by the man himself, had been omitted then.
Robert LeRoy Parker, Butch, and Harry Longabaugh, the Kid (played in the movie by Robert Redford) were far from the blue-eyed Robin Hoods of sorts the George Roy Hill’s story seems to portray.
By the time of their getaway to South America, they and their Wild Bunch had left a trace of robberies and killings big enough to attract the attention of then incipient international law enforcement agencies and soldiers of fortune, interested in getting the reward money posted for their heads.
According to the part of the manuscript previously unpublished, Harry did die in Bolivia, but Robert went on to Paris for some plastic surgery, and then back to the U.S., where he lived peacefully in Washington State for almost three more decades.
“Total horse pucky,” says Cassidy historian Dan Buck, who very much doubts the whole story. He may have a point, specially considering the state of plastic surgery in France, circa late 1800s.
But it’s unlike that the matter will be settled anytime soon as efforts by Buck himself and others to find Cassidy’s gravesite or DNA evidence about his whereabouts have so far failed.
A curious footnote on this story: many claimed they saw Butch Cassidy alive way after the shootout in Bolivia. And that was almost 100 years before sights of Elvis Presley eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches in diners across America began to appear.
“Thomas Harper, a cowboy, was hanged at Tucson, Arizona Territory, yesterday, for the murder of John Tolliday last September. His demeanor on the scaffold was cool and jaunty.
He made no confession, but left letters to Curly Bill, a well-known desperado, admonishing him to take warning from him and not be too handy with his pistol, and to ‘stand a heap from a man before you kill him.’”
The note above, published on the New York Times on July 10, 1881, was taken from Ghost Cowboy, a no longer active site “about real tales from the 19th century American frontier, when the Old West was still young.”

And here’s a newsflash for you: the original snake oil actually worked. The ointment made from water snake was used to rub the sore muscles of Chinese laborers, who worked on the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s.
Blame the pejorative taint associated with snake oil on those ever enterprising hucksters who learned about the success of the hard-to-find oil, and came up with versions of their own.
But while the original was found, years later, to be rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, therefore its restorative powers, the salesmen version had much less of it, and often, would be ‘enhanced’ with all sorts of not too kosher substances.
It all had to do with the quality of snakes used, you see. The water snakes used in the ancient Chinese oil have a very high amount of the acids. The salesmen’s was derived from an old Native American recipe, that used rattlesnakes instead, with much less of the good stuff in it.
Of course, the traveling charlatans were not about to let that small detail to get in the way of the big medicine show they’d put up to attract buyers. Puppetry, music, oddities and, of course, rattlesnakes, were all part of the selling “experience.”
You may say that little has change since. Take Clark Stanley, for example, known as The Rattlesnake King. A brilliant showman, he’d dress in Western garb and simulate onstage fights with live snakes, before pretending to extract the oil out of them.
Bottles of his Snake Oil Liniment, the formula of which he’d claim to have gotten from a Moki Pueblo tribesman, would fly off the shelves like, well, hot cakes, both at his traveling road shows and through wholesale.
His concoction was, of course, useless, and so were those of his imitators. By the time the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 was passed, the term snake oil salesman was synonymous with trickster and fraud.
That didn’t matter to Clark Stanley and others just like him, though, who by then were all comfortably wealthy.
But history reserved a different place for the Chinese immigrants, who brought the real stuff to the U.S.: there’s no record showing that any of them became rich during the same period.

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