Elza Lay – Casssidy’s Best Pard


Wild Bunch, outlaw gang

Wild Bunch, aka: Hole in the Wall Gang (1896-1901) – Led by Butch Cassidy, the Wild Bunch terrorized the states of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada for five years.

William Ellsworth “Elza” Lay, who was also known by Elzy Lay and William McGinnis was an outlaw member of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch operating out of the Hole-in-the-Wall Pass in Johnson County, Wyoming, Lay also sometimes rode with the Ketchum Gang in New Mexico.

Lay was born in Mount Pleasant, Ohio on November 25, 1869, to James Landon Lay and Mary Jane Bellew. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to northeastern Colorado. At the age of 18, Lay left home looking for adventure with his childhood friend William McGinnis. McGinnis soon returned home but Elza stayed afield. Later, he would use the name “McGinnis” as an alias when working as a ranch hand.

In 1889, he met Butch Cassidy while working on a ranch in Wyoming. The two became close friends, and Lay began dating Josie Bassett, the daughter of a rancher that often sold beef and horses to the outlaws, while Cassidy began dating her sister, 15‑year-old future female western outlaw Anne Bassett. He worked briefly on the ranch of cattleman Matt Warner, and it was Warner who gave Lay his first tip for a robbery. From Warner, Lay learned that a shopkeeper nearby had a large sum of cash. Warner, his nephew Lew McCarty, and Lay robbed the man and split the money.

Lay then opened up a gambling house in Vernal, Utah. For a time, it was profitable, until it was shut down by Uintah County Sheriff John T. Pope. Following his business being closed, Lay moved back to Matt Warner’s ranch, where he renewed his relationship with Josie Bassett. He remained there until Butch Cassidy was released from an 18-month prison sentence he had been serving.

Elza Lay

Elza Lay

Riding with the Wild Bunch, Lay not only participated in many robberies, he also planned several of them. In April 1897, he participated in the robbery at Castle Gate, Utah, netting some $8,000. He continued to “work” with the Wild Bunch until the robbery of the Union Pacific train at Wilcox, Wyoming on June 2, 1899.

On July 11, 1899, he robbed a train with the Ketchum Gang in New Mexico. In the process, he was injured but still managed to escape. However, the law caught up with him on August 16th and he was tried, convicted, and sent to the New Mexico Territorial Prison. In 1906, he was released and went back to Wyoming, settling in Baggs, where he ran a saloon. Several years later, he married, had two daughters and moved to California. Other than an alleged visit to the Bassett sisters, Lay had no other known contact with members of the Wild Bunch after his release.

He died in Los Angeles in 1934 and was buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California, near Los Angeles.


© Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated August 2018.

Also See:

Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch

Ketchum Gang

Outlaws on the Frontier


2 thoughts on “Elza Lay – Casssidy’s Best Pard”

  1. I am Elzy’s Great Grandaughter. Elzy had 3 children…a daughter with Maud Davis and a son( James Walter) and Daughter (Mary Lucille) with Mary Calvert of Baggs, Wyoming. After his release from NM Prison, he opened a saloon in Thermopolis, not Baggs. The location was in the same spot that the historical society is now. He soon left the saloon business and was an oil prospector for a very short time. He met and married Mary Calvert and they moved to Shoshoni, then later to Imperial County California. He was a foreman on the California Aquaduct project in Riverside. He did keep contact with some of the old gang. I was told that he also kept in touch with Butch’s sister. However, Mary did not want the kids to know about Elzy’s past. They did not know until they were adults after the Charles Kelly book was published.

  2. Actually Elza did have contact with at least one member of the former outlaw group. Although not much was known about Clarence Levi Woodard being a principal member of the Wild Bunch I know he was well known by them. My father Donald E Woodard, his sister Rita, and his two half brothers Cleo and Darrell Madison used to talk about him often. They called him Uncle Elzy, This was in Shoshoni WY and Thermopolis WY off and on from about 1916 to 1930. My Grandfather was born in 1875 and came to Wyoming at a young age where he along with his older brothers Harry and Charlie had numerous run ins with the law! Grandpa lived with us in Riverton Wy until his death in 1965. I was 22 yrs old when he died. I actually have a picture of him and Elza together along with a check from Woodard & Co to William McGinnis. I inherited my Grandpas personal records etc, and they include dozens of business checks from 1914 to 1920’s. that are quite interesting. Like ones that say balance on cattle for a lot of money. I’ve often wondered where he got the money to go from being an outlaw in the Wyoming Territorial Prison and later the new Rawlins Prison to becoming a respected business owner in Shoshoni and then Riverton where he bought the Wyoming Hotel. If you read the history about Elzy, after he was pardoned from the New Mexico prison he eventually turned up in Baggs Wy as a wealty person involved in early oil exploration etc, I believe he recovered the reported cash that was stolen in the robbery that sent him to the prison. It was reported to be a substantial amount! I also believe its where Grandpa got the money to start Woodard & Company in early Shoshoni, with the Company part being William McGinnis. I’d like to talk to a writer that would be interested in writing about this theory. I have other fascinating data besides the checks. I talked to Larry Pointer a couple of times about it and he was very intrigued but no follow through. I got the feeling he’s pretty well retired? Sincerely, Lonnie L Woodard 307-840-6891 10/28/2019

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