E. Dixon Larson is to guns what Little Big Man is to Old West history.
Below is a an excerpt from "Butch Cassidy Sought Amnesty, Fact of Folklore?," Daniel Buck, Wild West History Association Journal, December 2012, which provides some background on Larson and his link to supposed Wild Bunch guns. The endnotes, too long to post here, will follow in a separate post. Dan
Hard evidence, however, of any surrender gesture on Cassidy’s part in Utah is thin on the ground. Enter “Butch Cassidy’s amnesty Colt .45,” supposedly actual proof of his heartfelt desire to put down his arms (literally), seek a pardon, and be a good citizen.
The revolver first came into public view in the 1970s, with the publication of “Legends and Facts,” by E. Dixon Larson, a Utah businessman, writer, and gun collector.[i] According to Larson, picking up on Kelly’s story, Sheriff Christison had arranged a meeting for Cassidy with governor Wells in order to request amnesty, and Cassidy had surrendered his Colt (serial number 158402), along with a Winchester 1873 carbine (serial number 64876), to Christison as an “act of good faith,” to demonstrate his honest intentions. The Colt had added value to Cassidy because he had scratched on the inside of a grip, or so Larson claimed, the combination to a Denver bank safe holding the bandit’s ill-gotten booty.
Larson provided no basis for his treasure tale, nor did he explain why a bandit wanted by the authorities would turn in his weapons, including one that might lead someone to his loot. As for Larson’s potted version of the narrative, it went as follows: Wells said a conviction must precede a pardon, but agreed to help Cassidy effect a truce with the UP. Preston and a UP official, en route to a rendezvous with Cassidy in Powder Springs, Colorado, suffered buckboard wheel trouble, and arrived late, to find Cassidy’s note: ‘Preston you and the U.P. can go to hell.’” As for what happened to his guns, apparently Cassidy was so busy writing angry notes to his old friend Preston that he forgot to retrieve them, not to mention all that loot locked up in the Denver safe. Larson ended up with the Colt.
Larson had an uncanny ability to locate Wild Bunch arms, a hyper-active imagination, or both. He suggested that he might have located another Colt, in the ruins of the Castle Gate, Utah, mine office held up by Cassidy in 1897. It could have been dropped by the bandit or by one of the payroll defenders, Larson said, covering his bets.[ii] He also claimed that he owned C.L. “Gunplay Maxwell’s Colt .44-40 and one or more of Harvey Logan’s Colt .45s.[iii] Larson was a celebrity-outlaw gun magnet.
In a 1969 article for Guns, Larson said that he had found a Colt .45 that Logan had traded to a “close kin” of Cassidy’s family for a “four-year old sorrel mare.” In case there was any doubt, the Colt was conveniently inscribed “H.L.” As proof of the trade, Larson produced a tattered note, signed W.R. Parker, that looked more like a comic-book illustration. He described the Wild Bunch as a gang that “reached army proportions”; related that Pinkerton detective Frank Dimaio, which Larson spelled “Dialo,” had chased Logan, which he never did; and told the cornball tale of Logan having given a woman “a brooch and helped her across the street” during the Winnemucca holdup.[iv]
Seven years later, Larson disclosed that he had located Logan’s “most favored” gun, a factory-engraved Colt .45 Single Action Army that he had taken off Charles Judd, “a well known trick shot artist” and Colt salesman, during the 1899 Wilcox holdup. According to Larson, deputy sheriff Fred Carlson had retrieved the gun from Logan’s body after his suicide at Parachute in 1904. An inconvenient fact is that no passengers were robbed during the Wilcox heist, and a second is that there’s no record of a lawman named Fred Carlson being involved in the 1904 chase. Larson further egged the omelet by asserting that Logan re-stole the Judd Colt while escaping from the Knoxville jail in 1903, kidnaping the sheriff in the process. He did escape, but with his guards’ weapons and without abducting the sheriff.[v] Several months after his escape, Logan’s two revolvers were still in the custody of a federal court in Knoxville.[vi]
The Judd Colt story is even more convoluted. There’s yet another Colt linked to Logan, which he reportedly stole “from a firearms salesman on a train,” and later gave to a friend, and which still later was sold to collector John E. Bianchi, who subsequently sold his collection to the Autry Museum. Larson’s name hasn’t surfaced directly in reference to this particular Colt, because its precise provenance is sketchy, but William Darby, the friend Logan gave it to – as the story goes – figures in the history of the Cassidy amnesty Colt.[vii]
Long a fixture in the antique weapons community, Larson “flourished at a time when gun magazines didn’t fret much over historical truth,” Wyatt Earp biographer Jeff Morey said.[viii] Other veteran writers and gun authorities had similar views. “Back in the 1950s and 1960s,” Wild West gun columnist Lee Silva recalled, “when I was horsetrading guns with Dix, he had a lot of guns with questionable provenance. So I was always doubtful about most of the guns that he credited with having outlaw and Old West history.”[ix]
Larson “had a bad reputation in the gun world,” California historian John Bossenecker said. “I have seen a few guns from his collection offered at sale at the big Vegas gun show, and experienced collectors will not touch them. Some had phony inscriptions engraved on the gun, some had phony documentation.”[x]
“I never put a lot of faith in Larson’s articles,” collector Richard Ignarski said. I was suspicious of his ability to find famous guns.”[xi]
Fakery and fraud abound in the antique gun universe. Old guns are altered in any number of ways, for example, by replacing parts, adding engravings or inscriptions, or altering serial numbers. Modern reproductions of antique weapons are distressed to make them look old. A legitimate antique weapon can have its value increased by inventing an important provenance with forged documents. “Greed and money,” said veteran Colt authority John Kopek, drives fakery.[xii]
The amnesty Colt was offered at auction in October 2011 by James D. Julia, and bidding reached $135,000, but did not meet the seller’s minimum.[xiii] The revolver was offered again by California Auctioneers this past September, minimum bid $75,000, estimate $150,000 to $250,000. This time around, the Colt’s owner had a public relations company, RMK Services, produce a video and issue a press release promoting the item.[xiv] The gun sold for $175,000 to an anonymous overseas, online bidder, perhaps a museum.[xv]
The pivotal document authenticating a link between Butch Cassidy and the amnesty Colt was a January 2, 1900, Mammoth City, Utah, Justice of the Peace receipt releasing the weapon from court custody. The document contained several minor, arguable anomalies and one huge, unarguable one. Among the arguable anamolies, the bandit is referred to as “George Lee Roy Parker,” which is not one of his known aliases; Mammoth did not become “Mammoth City” until it incorporated in 1909; Cassidy’s attorney’s name is misspelled; the handwriting appears too modern for a document of that period, and, finally, the document has an excessive number of details about Cassidy’s supposed surrender gesture, as if it had been written with the intention of establishing provenance for the weapon at a future sale rather than simply releasing the Colt from court custody. The huge irregularity was that the Justice of the Peace signing the 1900 document, Alfred Moyle, did not assume office until 1908. The Mammoth JP from the 1890s through 1902 was Whitney Goodrich. Whoever forged the document knew enough about Utah history to know that Moyle had been a JP in Mammoth, but not enough to know precisely when.[xvi]
If the 1900 document is eliminated as a forgery, the remaining evidence supporting a link to Cassidy, most of which had been collected by Larson, falls off precipitously. A document Larson provided, said that he had purchased the gun in 1967 from a California man, John W. Neilson. In the document, Neilson said that the Colt had been surrendered to Sheriff Christison around 1900 by Cassidy as part of a pardon appeal, but as for provenance all he could verify was that it had “come into my family through my father through his association with others not known to me.” His summary of Christison’s role read as though it had been copied from Kelly.[xvii] Larson elicited another document, a 1973 letter from Sheriff Christison’s son John P. Christison, saying that his father had been instrumental in arranging the amnesty intervention on Cassidy’s behalf with Wells, adding a sentimental angle, that he had done it at the request of Cassidy’s mother, who the son claimed had spoken with his father while living in Levant, Juab County, saying that her son denied having committed murder “as he was charged of,” and that if Governor Wells would drop the murder charge, he would turn himself in and “stand trial on the other charges.” Sheriff Christison supposedly contacted Wells, who refused to drop the murder charge. There is no record Cassidy’s mother ever lived in Levant, that Cassidy was ever charged with murder, that Sheriff Christison ever contacted Wells, or, for that matter, that Cassidy even knew the sheriff. John Christison’s letter, moreover, made no mention of Cassidy turning over any weapons.[xviii] Cassidy’s sister, Lula Parker Betenson, told Larson that she had never heard of Sheriff Christison nor of the amnesty Colt.[xix]
In his letter, John Christison also said that he “only thru conversing with him [his father] in later years did some of these happings come o light” and that “had we of known that these so called bad men swould some day have their names capitalized on by the cinema, TV and the media we really would have had a documented gold mine.” He said due to the “number of inquiries” his family had received, they were attempting to come up with “historical events and facts” concerning their father, along with what they already had “from memory of what we were told and herd,” though he emphasized that everyone in his family was in “good health and above all good minds.”
“Maybe who knows,” Christison said, “we could come up with a best seller if a historian were interested.”
In spite of his efforts, Larson was only able to harvest two statements linking the Colt to Cassidy, neither one even remotely convincing. William Darby, age 90, said he recognized, or thought he recognized, the Colt as one he’d seen 70 years earlier, when he rode with Cassidy.[xx] Phenomenal memory aside, Darby is not known to Cassidy researchers.
Charles Rich “Charlie” Hanks told Larson in 1969 that as a boy in Utah, about 50 years earlier, he had twice met Cassidy, “long after he was reported killed in Bolivia.” Even though “he had made up his mind before he saw the gun that it couldn’t be” Cassidy’s, Hanks told Larson, from “the feeling he got and the sensation from seeing the gun, it had to be” Cassidy’s. “He said he had a ‘gut’ feeling this is ‘Butch’s’ gun, just has to be.”[xxi]
A Colt Industries historian wrote Larson that the revolver had been shipped to a Kansas dealer in 1895, which was a year before Cassidy was released from prison in Wyoming. From that simple fact, Larson speculated that a certain store in Utah could have bought it from the Kansas dealer, and that Cassidy could have bought it from the Utah store after he was released from prison. “The revolver is believed purchased by Cassidy,” Larson surmised, “at the Ashley Hardware in Vernal.”[xxii] Based on Larson’s flight of fancy, RMK Services stated in a news release that the Colt had been “purchased by Cassidy from a hardware store in Vernal, Utah, in 1896,” and California Auctioneers began its description of Lot # 550, the amnesty Colt, with “”One of Cassidy’s first acts as a free man was to rearm himself, and he purchased a .45 caliber Colt Single Action Army model from a hardware store Vernal . . . . serial #158402.”[xxiii] In fact, there is no record that this particular Colt was ever shipped to Utah, or that Cassidy purchased it there, or anywhere else.
An unresolved question is where the Colt and the Winchester came from in the first place? And who created the fake 1900 Mammoth JP document? A Texas gun collector, who owned the Winchester several decades ago, said he bought it from Larson, who provided him with a copy of the Mammoth document at the time of sale.[xxiv] Strangely, there’s no mention whatsoever of the Winchester in Larson’s documents online at California Auctioneers, with the exception of a brief reference to his conversation with old timer George “Peg” Taylor, described as a horse trader and Wild Bunch historian, who “reminisced and recognized the revolver . . . also recalling the Winchester.”[xxv] But that does not explain when or where Larson got the Winchester. In “The Wild Bunch,” an article in the 1975 book, Guns of the Gunfighters, Clair Rees has more clues. The “Cassidy Colt is now owned by Ron Lucas of Chicago,” Rees wrote, and the Winchester “appeared not too many years ago and is now in the Jim Earle collection in Texas.” Rees’s article discusses Larson’s gun collection, and Larson himself has two chapters in the book, one on Doc Holliday and the other on Tom Horn.
After Larson bought the Colt from Neilson in 1967, could he have become so enchanted by the Cassidy surrender story that he added, perhaps in the late 1960s or early 1970s, a Winchester to the mix and attempted to authenticate both weapons by creating a fake 1900 court receipt? Neilson’s 1967 letter to Larson makes no reference to any additional documents about the Colt. In any event, by 1975, Larson had sold the Winchester to a Texas collector, and the Colt, also presumably sold by Larson, was in the hands of an Illinois collector, each of whom had the 1900 document.[xxvi]
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Here are the endnotes to the just posted excerpt from "Butch Cassidy Sought Amnesty, Fact or Folklore?":
[i]. “Legends and Facts . . . Butch Cassidy: Are the... more
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