By Sarah Pridgeon
A new claimant for the title of great-grandson of the Sundance Kid rode into town on horseback last Thursday to present Mayor Paul Brooks and Sheriff Steve Stahla with copies of his new book. Jerry Nickle was accompanied by his wife, Judy, and C.J. Del Barto, the author who helped him tell his story.
In his book, Nickle challenges almost every traditional theory about the Kid, claiming he was not Harry Longabaugh, did not hail from Pennsylvania and certainly did not commit suicide or die in Bolivia.
According to Nickle, the story of the Sundance Kid is one of dual personalities and hidden truths. An outlaw by trade, the Kid was also a family man with a wife and eight children waiting for him back home in Utah, not one of whom ever knew the truth.
“The family history says that my great-granddad rode with Butch Cassidy, but we didn’t know which member of the gang he was – there was no Bill Long,” he says of his great grandfather and the long search to uncover his identity.
“He didn’t even tell the family where he was born. Everyone, even his sisters, disagreed on how he died. His sisters even disagreed on where he came from,” says Del Barto.
In 2008, at Nickle’s request, the body of William Henry Long was exhumed and its DNA tested against known descendants of Harry Longabaugh. The results were inconclusive – unsurprising if Nickle is right that Longabaugh was not the Sundance Kid at all.
“Since he was not Harry Longabaugh, the DNA doesn’t make any difference,” he says. “We don’t care any more, now we know that.”
Nickle has plenty of circumstantial evidence that Longabaugh was not the real Kid and that his name was merely stolen to serve as Bill Long’s alias. According to Nickle’s research, Longabaugh was not only in Canada while the Sundance Kid was in jail, he also owned the bar in the Calgary Hotel.
“All that robbing going on down south, and he’s up there,” says Del Barto. “Bill Long, in effect, became the first successful identity thief.”
Nickle first visited Sundance six years ago, when his quest to uncover the truth about his outlaw relative began.
“When I first stumbled onto this I said, you know, I’ve got to go to Sundance,” he says. “I went to the museum and picked up the leaflet they had. That was one of the first pieces of information I got and it was really one of the most important ones, too.”
Rocky Courchaine, Crook County Museum Director, provided Nickle with a record that confirmed Crook County’s Commissioners never paid the reward to Sheriff James Ryan for catching the Sundance Kid. Why, Nickle asked himself, would they have refused to pay up if they were sure he had jailed the right man?
He concluded the only possible reason was that they knew that the man identified as Harry Longabaugh was not to blame for that particular crime.
“Everything else he did, but not that. Still, we conclude that he escorted more than a few men to their grave,” says Del Barto.
Another part of the puzzle fell into place for Nickle when the inconclusive results of the DNA test were published online. Among the 2000 commenters was a professional genealogist who provided Long’s census information, revealing his family connections for the first time.
“Even the most stubborn of my critics are now coming round to my point of view,” Nickle claims.
“My own family agreed that my great-granddaddy was an outlaw but they said he wasn’t the Sundance Kid. But Jack Ryan is a really important part of the story – I think when you show they had the wrong man in jail, identified as Harry Longabaugh, that’s when it becomes clear. When people understand the timeline, the circumstances – nobody’s ever published that information.”
Nickle even disputes the theory that Harry Longabaugh returned to Miles City in Montana for a second time, this time via Canada. Two thousand miles in five weeks is impossible on horseback, he says, especially in the snow-drenched months of February and March.
“When people understand the timeline, the circumstances – nobody’s ever published that information,” he says.
Even so, Bill Long never spoke of his outlaw past to his family. His death by gunshot was ruled a suicide, but Nickle argues an alternative version of events.
“He had two daughters and the first said he committed suicide. The second daughter, whose name was Evinda, said there was another outlaw by the name of Matt Warner who was going to write a book,” he explains.
“Before the book was published, Warner went over to see Long, they didn’t live far away from each other. He either went to tell him he was going to expose him or to ask him for permission to reveal how he was involved with the gang and who he was. Bill Long never wanted anyone to talk about his involvement – even he wouldn’t talk about it. They got into an argument and he shot him, Matt Warner was that kind of person.”
The book in question was Matt Warner’s Last of the Bandits Riders. Though Nickle and Del Barto readily admit there will never be a way to know for sure why Warner killed his friend, they maintain there is irrefutable evidence he did.
“The fact is that a forensic examination of the skull where the bullet pierced is not consistent with suicide,” says Del Barto. “Matt Warner was a member of the gang and a hot-headed kind of guy, he lost his temper a lot. He could have done it.”
In the movie version, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid died in Bolivia. But, says Del Barto, those bodies were dug up and subjected to DNA testing and the results proved they did not belong to the outlaw pair.
“People think they did because Cassidy and the Kid were still down there when those two guys were killed,” he explains.
“They thought that, if they could get those death certificates in their names, they would be left alone by the authorities. They never did, but the owner of the tin mine did his part, telling people it was Butch Cassidy and Sundance.”
As to why Bill Long wouldn’t want anyone to know who he was, Del Barto says there are two schools of thought. In the first, Long was wanted all over the West and none too keen on the idea of going back to jail.
But it’s the second theory that Nickle and Del Barto strongly advocate. Bill Long wanted to hide the knowledge that he had run around with another woman, the infamous Etta, from his wife, eight kids and grandchildren.
“You be the judge,” nods Del Barto. “If he was identified as the Sundance Kid, his kids would know that, all those years since they were little, Daddy had girlfriends. If I were the Sundance Kid, I could care less about the jail part as opposed to my children finding out.”
Long loved his wife and family, Del Barto says, enough to keep his mouth shut. He was an innocent man who became un-innocent, but he was also a father and a husband.
“You don’t live with a woman for getting close to 50 years because you don’t like her,” he goes on. “You live with her because you obviously love her and you love your children. When you go home after all that gallivanting and stealing a ton of money, you’re just Dad. You’re just Bill Long.”
Nickle and Del Barto have written a screenplay telling Bill Long’s story and believe it’s high time the Sundance Kid returns to the silver screen. This time, they would like to see the ‘real’ story told: one where the Kid returns home and lives out his life as a family man, until the day Matt Warner betrays him.
Was Bill Long the real Sundance Kid? Has the mystery finally been solved? Bringing Sundance Home is available from Amazon.com