DUCHESNE — Questions about the true identity of a man who died in November 1936 are still unanswered more than a year after his remains were exhumed from the Duchesne City Cemetery.
Was William Henry Long simply a destitute farmer with an enigmatic past and a bleak future? Or was he actually Harry Alonzo Longabaugh — the man history knows better as the Sundance Kid, living under an assumed name in a small northeastern Utah town years after his reported death in South America?
Jerry Nickle began his quest more than six years ago to flesh out his step-great-grandfather's real past. That search led to an exhumation of Long's remains on Dec. 12, 2008, by the executive director of Salt Lake City-based Sorenson Forensics.
A subsequent comparison of the genetic material extracted from Long's badly decayed skeleton and a sequence of DNA from known descendants of the Longabaugh family yielded an inconclusive result with regard to a familial relationship.
"I was disappointed because I know dang well it's him," Nickle told the Deseret News from his home in Gilbert, Ariz.
"I was just puzzled," he said. "As a kid I heard the stories about him riding with Butch Cassidy, that he robbed trains and banks. It was so fascinating to me."
Nickle said the presence of underground water in the cemetery where Long was interred, and the resulting disintegration of his wooden casket, makes it possible that his bones have been contaminated. An earlier exhumation by another relative in September 2006, which Nickle termed "unauthorized," raises additional concerns about contamination.
He speculated there's also the possibility that there may not be a genetic link between Long and the Longabaugh family because of "hanky-panky" somewhere in the past or possibly an adoption.
"You're never exactly sure because you never know what happened back there, like something that broke that genetic line someplace," said Nickle, who is working on a book and screenplay about the project.
Nickle plans to have Long's remains sent to another lab for additional DNA analysis. But no matter what the genetic tests reveal, Nickle believes the circumstantial evidence linking Long and Longabaugh is overwhelming.
According to Long's headstone, he was born in February 1860. His obituary says he was reared in Wyoming's Bighorn Basin, near the Hole-in-the-Wall hideout later used by outlaws but doesn't name a specific town. Nickle said no one has been able to locate Long's birth certificate.
Longabaugh was born in Pennsylvania in early 1867, according to the historical record, and moved to Colorado at 15 to homestead with a cousin. He earned his outlaw moniker after serving time in Sundance, Wyo., for stealing a horse and saddle in 1887. His association with Utah native Robert Leroy Parker — aka Butch Cassidy — and the Wild Bunch is believed to have begun nine years later in 1896.
Long had married Nickle's great-grandmother, Luzernia Morrell, two years earlier. The pair met while her first husband was still alive, but suffering from serious injuries that would later kill him.
Nickle said Long rode into the Morrells' camp after he was wounded in a gunfight in Cortez, Colo. Luzernia Morrell tended the wound and Long followed the family back to Wayne County, Utah.
When Long and Morrell wed in 1894, she was 36 and had six children from her first marriage. Long listed his age as 27 on the marriage license. That was seven years younger than he should have been according to the birth date listed on his headstone, but identical to Longabaugh's age in 1894.
Besides the family history, Nickle and Marilyn Grace, the owner of a St. George production company who worked for Nickle when Long's bones were exhumed, point to striking similarities found in authenticated photographs of Long and Longabaugh as evidence that the men are one and the same.
Their belief is bolstered by the work of University of Utah anthropology professor John M. McCullough, another person involved in the 2008 exhumation.
McCullough studied the similarities in the Long/Longabaugh photos. In court papers filed to obtain permission to exhume Long, the anthropologist declared: "It is clear that these two photographs are of the (same) person."
Grace said McCullough's photo analysis revealed identical traits in both men — including a notch in an ear, evidence of a broken nose, and a cleft chin. There are also matches in height, hair color and eye color.
Once Long's remains were unearthed, McCullough conducted a physical examination of the bones as well. That analysis revealed that Long may not have committed suicide, as his death certificate stated. McCullough found evidence that the .22-caliber bullet that killed Long entered his skull from an angle that indicates someone else shot him, said Grace, who is working on her own book about a Long/Longabaugh connection.
Two stories of death
Nickle knows two family stories about how Long died.
As one daughter told it, the Great Depression left her parents bankrupt. The woman said when she told Long she wouldn't be able to host her parents in her Wasatch Front home during the winter of 1936, he left his home and shot himself in the head.
"It was said that he robbed banks and then the bank robbed him," Nickle said. "I don't know how much money he had, but they were in desperate financial straits by 1936."
Long's other daughter said her father got into an argument with Matt Warner, a former Wild Bunch associate who left the outlaw trail and later became a Carbon County lawman. One possible reason for the dispute was Warner's plan to publish a book about his days on the wrong side of the law. The fight escalated and Warner killed Long, according to the family story.
"How do you explain two different versions? I don't have an explanation for it," said Nickle, who is unsure which account to believe.
What he does believe though is that a collection of documents he refers to as "The Pinkerton Files" offers solid evidence that Long was really Longabaugh. The handwritten or typed reports were compiled by agents with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
One of the reports, a copy of which Nickle provided to the Deseret News, indicates that Longabaugh visited a hospital in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901, where he was treated for a bullet wound to the leg suffered "in the Far West." Nickle maintains that the injury is identical to the one Long sustained during the Cortez shootout.
Nickle also points to a Pinkerton report that Longabaugh suffered from a chronic sinus problem. He believes the malady was the result of a severely broken nose sustained during the outlaw's legitimate time as a cowboy breaking horses. He said Long also had difficulty breathing through his nose.
"The Pinkerton Files are the best evidence for me," Nickle said. "They confirm everything."
Not all agree
But Dan Buck, a critic of the effort to link Long and Longabaugh, isn't so sure.
"I don't know specifically what Jerry Nickle is referring to in terms of Pinkerton information," Buck said. "I've never encountered a single document that indicates William Henry Long is the Sundance Kid."
Buck has researched and written about the history of Butch and Sundance with his wife, Anne Meadows, since 1986. Based in Washington, D.C., the couple has traveled to South America and visited the places where the outlaws lived and worked in the early 1900s.
"There's always room for debate about any historical controversy," said Buck, who was part of an unsuccessful effort in 1991 with Meadows and noted forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow to identify the remains of two men buried in Bolivia as Butch and Sundance.
Buck said he and Meadows, over the years, have identified 60 different versions of how Butch and Sundance died. In those stories the outlaws supposedly died in North America, South America or Europe.
"That gives you a sense of how much is out there in terms of folklore, personal stories, family stories, newspaper accounts and so on," Buck said. "History hates a vacuum."
Buck said Butch and Sundance "really did disappear" at the time of their deaths, which promoted the myth that the men survived the 1908 Bolivian gun battle where Buck and Meadows believe they lost their lives. Long, he said, is simply one more "pretender" being offered up in another of the "resurrection stories" that inevitably surround outlaws.
"There's a whole area of outlaw folklore about the disappearance and the return of the bandit; the return of the bandit representing hope for the community," Buck said. "I think Jerry Nickle has fallen into this because he's so determined to prove (Long is Longabaugh) that he will find any scrap of paper to prove it and not look at the entire picture."
Buck described the Pinkerton files in general as "functioning sort of like flypaper for facts, rumors, stories, informant accounts, letters from people who saw something in the newspaper."
"Everything is in the files," Buck said, "and you have to go through everything and try to piece together, if you can, an account of what really happened."
Nickle said he understands the skepticism surrounding his claims about Long and Longabaugh. He said he doubted a connection early in his own research; that he searched for evidence to disprove a link as much as to prove one.
But, he said, those critical of his findings are motivated by a jealous desire to have their own work recognized as the definitive answer to the question: What really happened to the Sundance Kid?
"Just wait until all my compiled research is presented in book form and then tell me where I'm wrong. You just can't deny it," Nickle said. "What is coming will knock people's socks off."