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Salt Lake City's Colorful History


When not watching the athletes, some visitors to the Salt Lake City Olympics are learning about the colorful history of the region. It includes tales of larger-than-life bandits, such as the 19th century outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Traditional story-tellers are keeping their memory alive, while sometimes blurring the line between fact and legend.

Everyone is understandably paying attention to Salt Lake City as a winter sports capital. Overlooked, at least for the time being, is the fact that the Olympics are taking place in what was once the American frontier, wild and sometimes lawless. But, if they want to turn their attention from the Games for a short time, visitors can capture some of the area's frontier flavor.

In the town of Richfield, Utah, they may encounter story-teller Paul Turner. The 70-year-old resident calls himself a legend spinner. "Washington has given spinning a bad name, but we connect the dots between historians and other events. Historians have names, dates, places, and they can be checked upon. We legend spinners have to connect the dots, and if your legend is better than ours, we'll change ours. We don't mind shifting gears at any time, with historians, with spinners, with others," Mr. Turner said.

One of Mr. Turner's stories concerns the widow Lizzie Jones, a Utah resident who needed $400 to pay the mortgage on her home. Butch Cassidy and his partner, the Sundance Kid, gave the widow the money, then hid nearby as the banker came to collect it. As the banker rode off, they stole back the $400, and robbed him of his gold watch, as well.

Mr. Turner also tells of the time when Butch was serving a two-year prison term in the state of Wyoming. The state governor came to visit, and Butch asked for an early release, saying he had been a model prisoner. Mr. Turner completes the story. "The governor said, 'I would, but you'll steal cattle and horses in Wyoming.' Butch said, 'no, I'm not going to do that any more because that's not where the money is.' And the quick-thinking governor said, 'well, that has to include banks too.' And Butch scratched his chin and said, 'OK, I'll give you that. If you'll let me out, I'll not steal cattle, horses, or rob banks in Wyoming.' So the governor pardoned him six months early. Butch later said, 'I'm surely glad he didn't include railway express cars, or I'd have to serve my last six months,'" Mr. Turner said.

Butch and Sundance went on to form a gang of bandits called the Wild Bunch.

Later fleeing to South America, the two resumed their career of crime. Historians say Butch and his partner died in a shootout in Bolivia in 1908. Story teller Paul Turner doesn't believe it. "We think he returned, and in fact, Butch is like Elvis. I think he's still out there somewhere. He'd be 133 years old, but he was a pretty good old stalwart," Mr. Turner said.

Mr. Turner speaks of many alleged sightings of Butch Cassidy over the years here in Utah. None has been verified, but Mr. Turner says that doesn't matter. It makes a better story to think he returned to finish his days peacefully. And for a legend-spinner, Mr. Turner says the story is what matters.

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