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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Bad Girls, Bad Girls Whatcha Gonna Do? Ladies of the Wild Bunch Gang, Part 1. Etta Place

Since my current work in progress involves outlaws and the women who ran with them, I've been researching the members of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch. Interesting characters indeed, but their female consorts are just as interesting, if not more so. I thought I'd write one single post about them, but their own stories are so rich, I'm take them in parts. We'll look at Etta Place, Laura Bullion, and the Bassett sisters, Ann and Josie separately.
Facts to keep in mind:
The Wild Bunch core members consisted of Butch Cassidy (Robert Leroy Parker), the Sundance Kid (Harry Longabaugh), Elzy Lay, the Tall Texan (Ben Kirkpatrick), News (Will) Carver, Camila "Deaf Charlie" Hanks, Laura Bullion, Flat-Nose (George) Curry, Kid Curry (Harvey Logan), and Bob Meeks.
The Outlaw Hideouts: Places  to shelter strung out along the outlaw trail where different gangs could rest, restock ammunition, and refresh horses. Place such as Hole-in-the-Wall, Robbers Roost, and Brown's Park. Often there was a give and take between the outlaws and the surrounding ranchers.

As I've mentioned on more than one occasion, because a classmate's father worked on the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, we were treated to a showing of that film every year from late grade school to jr. high. One of the results of those repeated screenings was that The Wild Bunch became my gate-way drug to a more serious addiction to all things western, and I am always delighted to return to this topic.

The "Wedding Picture" of the Sundance Kid and Etta Place. Later this picture would be used on "Wanted" posters to identify Etta

If you look up Etta up on Wikipedia, you find this information on her birth and death: "c 1878-?" Which about sums her up. Her life is bracketed in uncertainty and speculation. Nobody knows where she came from or where she went post Sundance, though in contrast the years between 1900 and 1907 are well documented as the Pinkerton Detective Agency was on the case enlisted by the Union Pacific railroad who'd had it with being robbed.

The Pinkerton Detective Agency's description of her says, "Classic good look, 27 or 28 years old, 5'4' to 5'5" in height, weighing between 110 and 115 lbs, with medium build and brown hair." It was reported by those who met her that she spoke in a refined and educated manner.

Another fun fact: she was one of only five women allowed into the hideout Robbers Roost in Utah.

We can also thank Pinkerton's for her name. Because it wasn't Etta but Ethel (...sometimes). When the first "Wanted" posters with her picture went up in South America, her name went from Ethel to Etta when a detective misheard her name spoken with the local accent.

And, Place was probably not her real surname. Longabaugh sometimes used the alias Harry Place, Place being his mother's maiden name.

There are various rumors of her origin. One says she left her two children and school teacher husband for Longabaugh, or that she was a school teacher herelf. Another version is that she was a prostitute from Texas who had relations with both Butch and Sundance.

Madame Fannie Porter ran a bordello in San Antonio frequented by the Wild Bunch. One prostitute there, Madeline Wilson, is sometimes put forth as Etta. Madeline was originally from England (thus the refined speaking manner) and disappears from the census after Butch and Sundance left the area. Another prostitute, Ethel Bishop, from a neighboring establishment is another likely candidate. She was an unsuccessful music teacher which reflects back on the stories where a school teacher is mentioned, and she has the right first name.

The infamous Fortworth Five picture, which helped identify gang members and went straight onto "Wanted" posters, necessitating the disbanding of the Wild Bunch. Sundance on the lower left, Butch Cassidy on the lower right. Note to outlaws: When on the run, don't stop to have your picture taken--even if everyone is having a good hat day at the same time.

Here's what we do know about Etta. In 1901 Longabaugh and Etta went to New York City. They had a photo taken and sent copies of it to friends and relatives, announcing their marriage (though if they were legally married or not is not known). Longabaugh wrote a friend that he "married a girl from Texas he had previously known." Sadly, when a copy of this picture got in the hands of the Pinkertons it was used to identify Etta and put on "Wanted" posters.

Not long afterwards, Etta, Sundance, and Butch set off for Argentina where they bought a ranch and tried to go straight. Under a new act, women were allowed to purchase land in Argentina for the first time, and Etta Place was the first woman to buy land there, which is an awesome fact to know. Reportedly, she was very happy on the ranch and kept it very clean and homey according to visiting neighbors.

Unfortunately, the long arm of the law was able to stretch all the way to South America, and  Pinkerton's were on to them. This could be because Sundance and Etta made a couple of trips back to the states. They went to visit his family in Pennsylvania and Atlantic City. They managed to fit in travel to such unexpected places as Coney Island and the St. Louis Fair as well as a couple of mysterious trips for medical reasons. All this to-ing and fro-ing  attracted the attention of the Pinkerton detectives, who also intercepted a letter from Sundance to his sister and were thus able to track them back to their ranch. Sadly, it was the Kid's devotion to his family back home that brought his downfall.

After that, it was back to bank robberies and life on the run. Etta even took place in one bank heist and it was reported in the newspaper she was a great shot. At this point Etta decided she'd had enough of this life and Sundance accompanied her back to San Francisco where he left her before returning to South America (sob), a six month round trip for him. There is no evidence they ever saw each other again, which breaks my heart because, bank robbers though they were, they did seem to have a solid relationship.

Then in 1909 Butch and Sundance were surrounded in their boarding house by soldiers in a dusty town in Bolivia. After an exchange of fire, the soldiers found both men dead in the house. It appeared the mortally wounded Sundance had been shot between the eyes by Cassidy, who then turned the gun on himself. That was the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (...or was it?*). It's at this point Etta Place walks off the pages of history.

Again, there are as many theories of her end as there are of her origins. She was variously reported as committing suicide, being shot and killed in a domestic dispute in South America, turning up as a school teacher in Colorado, marrying a wealthy South American landowner, and as well as turning up again in Texas and running a brothel of her own under the name Eunice Gray. Not that Eunice, who died in a house fire at an old age, ever claimed to be Etta, but they had similar stories of having to spend time in South America at about the same time. But photographs found of Eunice didn't match Etta.

The most interesting theory is that Etta Place was really Ann Bassett, who we will talk about in detail in the a later post. Ann and her sister Josie lived on a ranch near the hideout Brown's Park and both sisters were girlfriends of Wild Bunch gang members (there was some fluidity of romantic relations within the gang as we will find out later.)

The woman look very much alike. The Pinkerton's description of Ann is almost the same given for Etta. In this theory it is noted that whenever Ann disappeared from Brown's Park for a time, Etta showed up with Butch and Sundance somewhere else.

In modern times, Dr. Thomas G. Kyle of a computer research group used existing photos of the two women and enhanced them for comparison. He stated the women were almost certainly the same person. He also found what he thinks is a scar or cowlick in the same spot on their hairlines.

Ann Bassett on the left, Etta on the right.

So, this theory is sounding pretty convincing except at an important point the Superman/Clark Kent act falls apart. Ann Basset was getting married back in the states and subsequently getting herself arrested for cattle rustling at a time the Pinkertons knew Etta was in Argentina.

Plus, Ann, who later wrote her memoirs, never mentioned spending a considerable amount of time in South America, or having had an intimate relationship with the Sundance Kid. And, by the way, there is only one known image of Etta where her face is seen clearly--and photos can be funny things.

Where did Etta go? Who was she? I'm not an historian. I'm just a person sitting at her computer, but if you ask me I think Etta was Ethel Bishop, the prostitute/failed music teacher in Texas. It not a stretch to think that Ethel Bishop like many a bride took (one of ) the last names of her new husband and became Ethel Place. And, her prostitute past isn't something the young lady would want to broadcast. It was noted that the couple visited his family in Pennsylvania and Atlantic City, but there is no mention of them visiting her family, which makes me speculate her past wasn't something she wanted to revisit. I think she took she money from the sale of the ranch and the last bank robbery, which was considerable, changed her name, and kept out of trouble for the rest of her life.

One final possible sighting took place in 1909 when a woman matching Etta's description showed up at the US Vice Consul in Chili and asked if she could have a copy of Longabaugh's death certificate, but it was not available so she left empty-handed. I wonder if she ever got over him?

So, what do you think? Comparing the images above, do you think Etta and Ann were one in the same?

Next up: Laura Bullion

*There were those who say rumors of their death in Bolivia are greatly exaggerated. Some say the two Americans killed that day were not Butch and Sundance. The bodies were not positively identified by Bolivian authorities (remember there was no death certificate when the mystery woman came to claim it). The outlaws may have been happy to see that rumor spread as they could finally escape the law. Rumors of Butch living to an old age under an assumed name persist. Even Josie Bassett, who we will talk about later, claims Butch paid her a visit after the South American incident. In modern times there have been attempts to exhume bodies placed in unmarked graves in the cemetery in Bolivia, armed with DNA from surviving relatives, but to date no matches have been found. So for those of you looking for a happily ever after, I'm throwing that out there. By this time I have read more stories claiming Butch and Sundance went on to live under assumed names than I can count, and some of them have Etta and Sundance going off together. So, your guess is as good as anyone else's. I know what I'm going to choose to believe (wink). 
Wouldn't you like to imagine the Sundance Kid in Chili telling Etta, "You go over to the Vice Consul and get my death certificate so we can get the law off our backs once and for all. I'll meet you in the cantina across the road here."? HEA!

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  1. A fascinating piece. It positively sparkles with detail and obscure history. I'm not sure the pictures are of the same woman. One has a rounded end to her nose, where the other's is more pointed. Also the inclination of the brows is different near the root of the nose, as well as the philtrum appearing longer on the first lady. That doesn't change with age. There's also a nasolabial sulcus on the first lady, (lower cheek fold near the nose) which appears flat on the second. I'm going to follow your theory on the ex-music teacher called Ethel. I like to think she lived a long and happy life. No matter what she packed a whole lot in.

  2. Wow! You're like a Pinkerton with your eye for detail. I agree, they don't look enough alike to claim same woman. Besides there are other pictures of Ann B that look nothing like this picture of her! (she looks more like a young Eleanor Roosevelt in another picture). Photographs can be tricky things and to base a comparison on one photo has it's flaws. Thanks for the compliment! I just love reading about these people. Fascinating time.

  3. Having read the book on the Bassett family, the two are not the same. A friend also just published a bio of Ann.

    On the subject of Etta, your theory of her life is pretty darn solid. Like you, I hope she had a HEA of some sort. Doris

  4. Hi, Doris! Those Bassett girls were really something! What book did you read? I'd like to hear more about your friend's book. And, yes, as far as Etta, the simplest explanations are often the best. Thanks for stopping by.

    1. The book is called "The Bassett Women" by Grace McClure. My friends book is called, "Ann Bassett: Colorado's Cattle Queen" by Linda Wommack. (It was just released this past March). Can't wait for the next installment. Doris

  5. Patti,

    The stories of Butch, Sundance, and Etta have intrigued me since I first learned of them wayyyyyy back in my teenage years. :-) I like HEAs, so I hold firmly to the belief that they all lived to a ripe old age. I'm looking forward to your next articles.

  6. I have to say, the more I read about them, the more I come to believe they didn't die in Bolivia. Maybe just wishful thinking on my part, because the end of the Wild Bunch was like the end of the wild old west. I can't get enough of them! One of the thrills of my life was standing inside Butch and Sundance's cabin from Hole in the Wall, which is now part of a collection in Cody, WY. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. And thank, Doris for the information on books. For some reason I can't reply directly! Your friend has a lot of interesting looking books on Amazon.

  8. Patti --

    I'm just enraptured by all the history and mystery and possibilities of this and love all the info! I'm super intrigued with what you're going to morph this info into.

    I also find it intriguing that the bad guys look so... upstanding? normal? attractive? haha! Like, for them being bank robbers/outlaws, they don't look like criminals. And with all the back and forth of wanting to go straight, and caring for family (with all the visits and such) - it really puts into focus how "bad guys" can actually be good/do good things and how even the "good guys" can make bad decisions and find themselves in trouble.

    I can totally imagine myself immersed into their world - so what does that say about me? haha!

    But that group photo -- stinkin' LOVE IT! I can totally picture them being all cocky and joking about how they're wanted but yet, they still want to get a photograph made of all of them, for memory sake -- or maybe they also were joking about how at least they'd look good on the wanted photos...



    1. The money they got away with was staggering even by current standards. They weren't called the Wild Bunch because they were mean outlaws, and in fact were polite (!). They were called WB because they really lived it up in between jobs and spent lavishly. And I know you'll love this fact: Sundance as a boy in Pennsylvania was an avid reader and what did he read? Westerns! He just wanted to be a cowboy. Went out west at the tender age of 14 to do just that. Unfortunately, it was a bad time to be a cowboy as ranching had changed so much. Hard to get a steady gig. He turned to crime to survive and once he headed down that path...

  9. Oh, and me being the romantic at heart and wanting to believe that the goodness in them won out - I want to believe that Etta and Sundance chose to separate for a bit, and set up things (like the shootout) to help allow them to find peace in their older years.

    1. Their story breaks my heart! I'm with you! Let's go with your version.

  10. Sometimes real life is way more exciting than fiction. I loved the wedding picture of Sundance and Eta. They made a lovely couple. I think they ended up living a long and happy life together.
    A lovely blog, Patti.

  11. Thanks, Sarah! I agree with you that real life can be more exciting than fiction. I almost cannot stopping looking at that lovely wedding picture. Their story touches me. I'm going with they ended up together too.