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 Elzy Lay and William McGinnis also knew, 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 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. In the meantime, 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 Warner 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 Uintah County Sheriff John T. Pope shut it down. After closing his business, 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 participated in many robberies and planned several of them. In April 1897, he participated in the robbery at Castle Gate, Utah, netting about $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 16, and he was tried, convicted, and sent to the New Mexico Territorial Prison. In 1906, he was released and returned 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 Alexander/Legends of America, updated June 2023.

Also See:

Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch


Ketchum Gang

Outlaws on the Frontier