Privacy laws: a new 'villain' protects Old West's outlaws

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Butch Cassidy, Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane, the Sundance Kid. These western outlaws may not have been as colorful as folklore and movies have portrayed them , but they are part of American history.

Now, people who do serious research on these and such lesser-known badmen as Harry Tracy and "Gunplay" Maxwell say they've uncovered a new villain: new federal and state privacy laws.

Since the federal statute was enacted in 1977, many states also have passed laws restricting access to such personal documents as death certificates.In some instances, state archivists have been shredding records of value to researchers, claims western historian Jim Dullenty, an officer in the National Association and Center for Outlaw and Lawman History.

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Mr. Dullenty's organization, affiliated with Utah State University here, is particularly concerned about recent difficulties encountered in obtaining access to old prison records, which officials are becoming reluctant to divulge.

Prison records used to provide a wealth of information about badmen whose backgrounds, naturally, were often fuzzy.

Records based on the old Bertillon System, teh first scientific method of identifying criminals by recording their precise measurements, are especially useful to the modern historian, Mr. Dullenty said.

Knowing the exact height of Butch Cassidy was a vital piece of information in helping prove Mr. Dullenty's contention that Cassidy died under an assumed name in Spokane and not in a Bolivian gunfight as is popularly believed.

Since prison officials began clamping down on access to old prison records, some western writers have gone to the extreme of cultivating sources inside prisions in order to obtain documents. "We're virtually having to steal records ," Mr. Dullenty says.

Besides prison records, many states have adopted policies preventing the release of vital statistics such as birth certiticates to any but close family relatives.

Mr. Dullenty, who is writing a book on Harry Tracy, a desperado who escaped from the Oregon State Prison in 1902 an killed seven lawmen before a posse cornered him near Spokane, ahs been stopped cold in his efforts to obtain vital statistic information on Tracy's relatives.

The outlaw history association advocates keeping records of living persons secret but allowing them to be made public to legitimate researchers after the individual has passed on. At the very least, it believes states should adopt the practice of Utah, which has a special committee to screen requests for documents and pass judgment on the historical value of state documents before they are destroyed.

Committee member Melvin T. Smith said he believes that, with rare exceptions, all such documents should be made available to the public while holding researchers liable for defamatory interpretations.

But he adds that many on the records committee beleive that documents embarrassing to friends and relatives should remain private.

While prison records have been the chief subject of controversy, privacy laws would restrict access to medical records and to government documents relating to the controversy over radioactive fallout in southern Utah, Dr. Smith said.

"We feel that no record should ever be destroyed," Mr. Dullenty says. "What looks like junk today may be vital history tomorrow."

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