Matt Warner was a victim of circumstance. Had conditions been different when he was about 15 years old, he might not have led the outlaw life. Even though he turned into an outlaw, he was a kind-hearted one. Warner is a little-known, but important facet of Western history because he didn’t fit the regular mold of a bandit. Unlike most outlaws that immediately come to mind, such as Billy the Kid and Jesse James, Warner preferred not to raise his gun if he didn’t have to – he only acted in self-defense. Also unlike most outlaws of his day, Warner was a family man. However, what probably separates him the most from other outlaws he associated with is his concrete record. There is no doubt as to when he was born, what robberies he committed, and where and when he died. He was the only member of his gang to leave behind a published memoir.
That memoir contains useful insights that show how different Warner was, recounting the circumstances to which Warner became victim. “I always will believe that my life might have been different if it hadn’t been for something that happened to me one summer night when I was between fourteen and fifteen years old” (Warner 7). In a squabble with another boy his age over a girl they both liked, Warner beat the boy’s head in with a scantling from a fence and thought he had killed the lad, so he left town in a hurry thinking the law was after him and afterwards he fell into shady company with those who were on the wrong side of the law. He said later that when he found out he hadn’t killed the boy after all that he thought life had played a big trick on him. “[Life] shoved me out on the bandit trail for a murder never committed and that didn’t happen. When I found out I wasn’t a murderer, it was too late; life had already made an outlaw out of me” (Warner 18). Warner was an example of what former President Theodore Roosevelt described when he said:
“Often [outlaws] are people who in certain stages of civilization do, or have done, good work, but who, when these stages have passed, find themselves surrounded by conditions which accentuate their worst qualities and make their best qualities useless” (MP 203).
Like his cohort in the Wild Bunch gang, Butch Cassidy, Warner was a gentlemanly outlaw. He lived the Robin Hood persona by sometimes taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Of one such incident while in Brown’s Park, he wrote in his memoir, “Suddenly their poverty wrung our hearts. We was [sic] convinced the only right and manly thing to do was give these goods to the poor and lowly of Brown’s Park” (Warner 20). Most outlaws, like Billy the Kid, are perceived as killers – men desensitized who don’t think twice about pulling the trigger. Warner said that killing, for outlaws, “becomes an appetite and has to be fed like hunger or thirst” (Warner 15). Warner admitted he didn’t like being associated with killers (Warner 86). Warner shot only in self-defense, and in one case he said he shot “to scare him and not to kill him” (Warner 87).
Most outlaws became desensitized to and in some cases craved violence and lawlessness, but not Warner. He had a conscience. He knew he was paying a price by living the way he did and he realized he wanted to get out of it. “Your whole outlaw past is just one big trap, just one big spider’s web, that has purty [sic] near a death grip on you, and you have one hell of a time breaking out,” he said (Warner 99). One experience Warner endured helped cure him of the outlaw life. On what was going through his mind while fording the Columbia River in flood stage trying to escape a posse and nearly drowning, he wrote, “as I am struggling I am promising this Judgment and Death thing that if I can only have life back I will do the right thing. I will never rob or gun fight again. I will prove myself” (Warner 97). After fording the Columbia he did leave the outlaw life, eventually.
Another reason Warner left his life of banditry was because of the love he had for his family. Since most outlaws were always running from the law, many of them never felt like they could settle down, get married, and raise children. Butch Cassidy was one example of this. He never married. Warner was different, however. He had a wife, Rose, and a daughter, Hayda. When pregnant with their second child, Rose was stricken with cancer and died soon after delivering a son. Matt attended the funeral as a prisoner, and the episode became the source of some of his greatest regret:
“I guess a man never went through more agony and lived than I did when they took me handcuffed between two guards to see my dead wife lying their in the coffin and that weak, puny, shriveled, half-dead baby in the arms of its accusing grandmother. That was all my past, all my responsibility rising up all together and handing me a knockout right on the chin” (Warner 124).
When that son, Rex, was adopted by one of Matt’s friends, Frank Taylor, of Salina, Utah, Rex didn’t even know Matt was his father. On this occasion Matt’s conscience and his love for his family displayed itself as he wrote, “This is the price I had to pay for my outlaw life. It is the biggest price a man can pay for anything” (Warner 125). When Warner was released from prison, he married again and had two more children from that marriage.
It may sound like nothing, but another aspect of Matt Warner’s life that sets him apart from the rest is he left behind a first-hand narrative, something most other outlaws never did. Because of this, the facts on Warner’s life are not in doubt like his famous cohort Butch Cassidy. Cassidy’s life is shrouded in legend. No one knows where or when he died or even what holdups he was committed. The general consensus portrays his death as coming in a shootout with Bolivian troops in 1908 after he had fled to South America when things got a little too “hot” in the United States. However, other evidence suggests he survived that showdown and returned to his old haunts under an alias and died of stomach cancer in 1937. His sister, Lula Betenson, claimed he was present at a family gathering in 1925 and other reports say he died as late as 1941. Another thesis indicates there could have been multiple Butch Cassidys because other members of his family were outlaws (Pointer x-xi). This may explain why controversy abounds over which robberies he did or didn’t commit. No mysteries cloud the fate of Matt Warner though. Thanks to his narrative, all facts of his life are set in stone and there is no chance of deviation.
Most outlaws Warner associated with had no “civilian” life after they finished their banditry. Many, like Wild Bunch members Harvey Logan, George Curry and Ben Kilpatrick, were killed in an act of robbery. Unlike so many bandits before him, Warner had a “civilian” life when he “went straight” after serving time in the Utah State Penitentiary for manslaughter, killing a man in self-defense.
During his post-outlaw career, unlike during his time as an outlaw, Matt was well respected. “Matt succeeded in his dedication to life as a free and honest man, earning the respect from the same men who wished to see him behind bars for the remainder of his life, just years before” (Warner 157). Warner became so honest that he made a complete turnaround to the other side of the law. Once a notorious bandit, Warner became a justice of the peace in Price, Utah near the end of his life. As a law-enforcer, his reputation as a law-breaker proceeded him, but in a positive way. “It is said that never in one of these collections did [Warner] resort to force of any kind or display his gun. He did not have to. All that was necessary were a few mild hints or wisecracks from Matt Warner” (Warner 6).
Most outlaws went to their graves in the midst of carrying out dastardly deeds, but Matt Warner recognized his folly and repented. He was a model outlaw who only turned to a life of crime because of an unfortunate turn of events when he was a teenager. No other outlaw, save Butch Cassidy and Elza Lay, came close to being the man of character that Warner was. The James Gang and Billy the Kid, two of the more famous outlaw names, thrived on violence, but not Warner. He did not want anything to do with it if he did not have to. Unlike Cassidy and most other members of the Wild Bunch, Warner had a family that he loved dearly. Warner’s narrative will live on as a tangible, unadulterated story of an outlaw gone good.
“Butch Cassidy was a good-natured outlaw. Like me, he turned to the wrong side of the law because of an event that happened when he was a child. At 18, he thought the deputies in his hometown of Circleville was out to get him for thieving a horse, so he skipped town and fell with the likes of cattle rustlers. Though he was a dead-shot, Butch didn’t like pulling the trigger. Any accounts saying he was a madman are bull honky. He was revered even among lawmen. He was a smart cuss. If he would have put his mind to it, he could have been and done anything.”
From research and the testimony of his sister, Lula Betenson, historians have been able to surmise that Butch Cassidy was indeed a gentlemanly outlaw. He never killed a man during his career in the United States. The only time he ever killed any one was during his supposed last stand in Bolivia. Betenson said Cassidy was kind-hearted and intelligent, but it would have been extremely valuable to hear it not from one who was related to Cassidy, but from one of his partners in crime.
Milner, Clyde, et al. Major Problems in the History of the American West. Boston, Massachussetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Pointer, Larry. In Search of Butch Cassidy. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
Warner, Matt, et al. The Last of the Bandit Riders . . . Revisited. Salt Lake City: Big Moon Traders, 2000.