Butch Cassidy and Sundance Square: Fort Worth’s Wild Past

Fort Worth's downtown was once the rowdy stomping grounds of the Wild West legends—until a portrait by a local photographer became the catalyst for the gang's demise.

Of all the folklore hailing from the Wild West, infamous tales of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid have remained some the most captivating. When they weren’t robbing trains or banks, the two outlaws and their three cohorts—also often referred to as “The Wild Bunch,” the “Hole-in-the-Wall Gang” and the “Fort Worth Five”—spent much of their downtime in Fort Worth. It was here that they, along with cowboys from the Chisholm Trail and fellow Western legends such as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, indulged at the many saloons, gambling parlors, dance halls and bordellos around town.

But if a picture is worth a thousand words, a black-and-white portrait taken by a Fort Worth photographer in 1900 has become priceless. It marked the beginning of the end of a long run for the five outlaws, directly leading to their downfall.

The legend goes like this: A few months after the successful robbery of a bank in Nevada, the “Fort Worth Five” gang—Robert LeRoy Parker (Butch Cassidy), Harry Longabaugh (the Sundance Kid), Harvey Logan, Will Carver and Ben Kilpatrick—arrived at the gallery and studio of John Swartz located at 705 1/2 Main Street, not far from their home base in Fort Worth's Hell’s Half-Acre. Speculation continues about why the five men were dressed in their best; whatever the occasion, they decided to have their photo taken in their finest formal attire. Apparently satisfied, each gang member ordered 6.5 x 8.5-inch prints to be picked up a week later, according to “Butch Cassidy: A Biography” author Donna Ernst.

John Swartz Fort Worth Five photo

Swartz proudly posted the portrait in his storefront window, unintentionally tipping off a detective who happened to pass by and recognize one of the outlaws. After ordering 50 copies the detective promptly “returned to his office, just one block up at 817 Main Street, and began the process of identifying the other four men,” Ernst wrote. It wasn’t long until “WANTED” posters identifying the members of “The Wild Bunch” circulated throughout multiple states, soon covering  trees, signs, saloons and Western establishments around the country. Accompanying the names of the criminals were mugshots of each criminal—cropped from Swartz’s iconic photograph, hailed today as one of the most important historical images in Wild West history. The photo can be seen at the Heritage Trail Marker between 5th and 6th streets downtown in Sundance Square.

Etta's Place Sundance Square Fort Worth

Today, this 35-block district of Fort Worth pays tribute to the legendary outlaw. Now a lively, thriving hub of new restaurants, retail shops and galleries—alive with the energy it had at the turn of the 20th century—Sundance Square continues to preserve the legacy of its namesake. Within the plaza, patrons can spend the night at bed-and-breakfast Etta’s Place, named for the Sundance Kid’s significant other whose real name of Etta Place. The 10-room inn’s decor pays tribute to the women of the “Wild Bunch” and Fort Worth’s history as a hub of the Wild West, naming themed and artifact-filled suites named after members and couples of the gang.

Sundance Square Plaza