THERMOPOLIS — Tom O’Day rode his horse into Thermopolis on a lovely bluebird day not knowing things were about to get ugly, real fast.
O’Day was a member of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. He was one of many Hole In the Wall outlaws, a loose band of non-affiliated gangs that worked in and around Thermopolis when the West was still young and wild.
“This was the last time O’Day was seen in Thermopolis,” Thermopolis Tourism Director Jackie Dorothy told Cowboy state Daily. “He came into town and the sheriff recognized who he was right away.”
At that time, Thernopolis had a no-gun policy, so the deputy demanded O’Day’s gun the minute he saw him ride into town.
O’Day knew he might need the gun to protect himself. But he also had business in town. So he gave the gun up, but very reluctantly.
O’Day was known to frequent the Happy Jack Bar, but on this particular occasion, he went instead to a cafe that was next door. The reason for that deviation has been lost to the veil of time, but it’s among the many mysteries Dorothy is working to figure out.
Down the street from the café, was a haberdashery. Today, we’d think of it as dress shop or clothing store.
Hiding in that dress shop was a man who’d been hired to kill O’Day.
“They believe it was a local butcher,” Dorothy told Cowboy State Daily. “He had borrowed a gun from another guy, and I’m trying to picture it, and I want to talk to some gun experts about it, but the gun didn’t have a regular trigger.”
Instead, Dorothy believes the gun had a safety that, once removed, would allow the gun to fire somewhat automatically.
The man hired to kill O’Day burst into the cafe with the rigged gun, yelling something like, “Tom O’Day, your day is here!”
But, when the inexperienced gunman pulled back the safety, the gun started going off and he couldn’t quite control it. The first shot went into the ceiling giving O’Day a split second to react.
“O’Day hit the ground,” Dorothy said. “And now the guy doesn’t know how to control this gun. It’s shooting wildly and erratically.”
O’Day no doubt really wished for his weapon at that moment. But he was an outlaw, so he was good at improvising. He grabbed a tray of mugs and hurled it at the would-be assassin, keeping him off-balance long enough to escape.
“Tom gets out of the building, gets to his horse which is just loosely tied for a quick getaway, and rides out of town,” Dorothy said.
The story is one of Dorothy’s favorite outlaw stories from Thermopolis, tales she’s been collecting over the past year or so and polishing into what she hopes will become little tourism gems.
Butch Cassidy, Sundance Kid Frequented Thermopolis
Romanticized outlaws have long been popular in fiction and in tales of the old West. And they are something that Thermopolis has had in great numbers.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid frequented the Hole in the Wall Bar in Thermopolis, as did about 100 other gang members of the time period.
One reason they liked Thermopolis so much was its remoteness. It has always been far away from the county seat, and thus from law enforcement.
“Our county seat at one time was Basin, and just think of how far away Basin is,” Dorothy said. “And then the other time, when we were in Johnson County, they had to go to Buffalo. When we became part of Fremont County, it was clear to Lander.” .
But it wasn’t just the remoteness of the law that attracted them to Thermopolis.
There were also all these gullies and ravines and rock formations that made it easy for those who knew the territory well to hide.
So easy in fact, that the two outlaws who robbed the Wilcox train in 1899 were able to completely disappear, even though they had Pinkerton agents on their trail. Pinkerton’s detective agency was the forerunner of the FBI and the CIA.
“(The Pinkerton agent) walked the whole canyon and all he found were bear tracks,” Dorothy said. “He couldn’t find them. He lost them in this area.”
Dorothy said her research indicates they had traveled over Mexican Pass, which is south of Roundtop Mountain, down into an area with a series of gullies that is still in Hot Springs County.
“It looks like it’s a clear area above the canyon,” Dorothy said. “But it’s got all these draws.”
That makes it a little like the illusion at Hole in The Wall, for which many Thermopolis gangs were named, even though the Hole in the Wall is in Johnson County. The Hole in the Wall refers to a spot where the canyon wall looks entirely flat and unbroken.
But for those who know exactly the right spot, there’s a crack that a horseman can slip through and disappear, down into a valley that could hide cabins, men, and stolen cattle or horses with ease.
Schools Are On The Outlaws’ Trail
Dorothy has already had local schools getting interested in the stories she’s been compiling. Teachers are planning to use the materials for an interactive history program that’s taking the place of an essay contest the community used to stage.
“We’re going to rebrand it as a history competition in the schools,” Dorothy said. “They can do any project they want with their grade-level, say a computer, a website, or waxworks, or autobiographies and brochures.”
Students will have access to the magazine stories Dorothy has been writing for a twice-annual tourism magazine, as well as the podcasts she’s been creating.
“The teachers have told me they want more murder stories,” Dorothy said. “And we have plenty of those. We have murder mysteries, too.”
Among these murder mysteries is the story of Minnie Brown, who claimed she’d shot her husband because he was abusing her. She said the shooting was a case of self-defense.
But the location where Brown said she was standing didn’t match the forensic evidence collected at the scene. Investigators determined the bullet had traveled through a trap door instead, where she may have been hiding someone else.
Nor was the gun Brown said she used to shoot her husband the one that actually shot him. Her husband was killed by a bullet from a different gun.
Investigators concluded she was protecting whoever had shot her husband, but no one was ever able to figure out who. It’s a cold case that’s never been solved.
“So, I think the way we’re going to present it is all the facts, and here’s the list of suspects, and then let people decide who they think it is,” she said. “The kids are really excited about that, especially the eighth graders, the seventh and eighth graders.”
Dorothy said the outlaws who ran through Thermopolis were just as often as not law-abiding citizens. Sometimes their roles even changed according on scheduled days. Like Slick Nard, for example. He was a sheriff’s deputy on certain days of the week, and an outlaw on others.
“One day he was arrested, the next day they let him out of jail and he was back to being the deputy,” Dorothy said. “And he wasn't an exception of the rule. He was the norm.”
Dorothy believes the term outlaw was a bit relative, given what was going on at the time, and tells a story about Butch Cassidy to illustrate her point.
The tax man was coming to take away a widow’s land, so Cassidy loaned her the $75 she needed to save her farm.
That particularly disappointed the tax man because he wasn’t after the taxes at all. He was just using the law to take land away from homesteaders, Dorothy said.
“The funny part about the story is, and that’s why he’s Robin Hood, is that on the (taxman’s) way back, guess who got robbed?” Dorothy said, laughing.
Cassidy and his “Wild Bunch” saw such actions as justified, Dorothy added, because the law at the time wasn’t about protecting the little guys. She said it protected the powerful. Those with power and money wanted homesteaders’ land and would accuse them of being rustlers. Then they would hire assassins to kill the homesteaders.
“So, when they weren’t robbing or doing (outlaw) things, they were employed as cowboys for different ranches around here,” Dorothy said.
As she’s been working on individual outlaw stories, digging into the little mysteries that can be so intriguing and put a new slant on the old history.
Dorothy is also finding that many of the outlaws of that time period still have living descendants in Thermopolis. And some of them are able to remember details about their outlaw relatives.
Like the granddaughter of Wild Bunch gang member Elsy Lay, for example.
“We’re not talking great-granddaughter here,” Dorothy said. “We’re talking granddaughter.”
That modern-day connection is making the excavation of outlaw history in Thermopolis all the more interesting and compelling. It also makes the potential for tourism opportunities fantastic, and something Dorothy believes will ultimately turn into something truly one of a kind.
“I cannot tell you exactly where this is going to take us because we’re on the outlaw trail,” she said. “And we’re just following it to where it’s going to take us. I didn’t expect it to detour to the school and get the kids excited, but it did, and it’s been great.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.