Ethel “Etta” Place, Western Woman of Mystery

In some respects, stories of America’s Wild West feel like a young country trying to build itself a mythology from scratch. Legendary figures like Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Belle Starr and the Apache Kid had their exploits built up far out of proportion to the actuality. Among these figures, Etta Place has a strange position. Where did she come from? Where did she go? Who was she really? We don’t know, though she played a pivotal role in one of the West’s great legends. Perhaps that’s what makes her fascinating.

Even her name is a mystery. She’s most commonly known as Etta because that’s the name on her wanted poster, but that’s really just a corruption of “Ethel”, based on the South American pronunciation of her name. Most people called her Ethel, but that name might be as fake as the surname “Place” which she almost definitely wasn’t born with. She was born around 1878, we know that for sure. The Pinkertons later became convinced she’d been born in Texas, which seems maybe the most likely. It’s been speculated that she was born somewhere in New England, though she might even have been born in actual England. She could have been a school teacher at some point – she had a notably refined accent, which spoke to education of some sort. By 1900 she was in New York City, and that’s when she entered the annals of Western mythology.

Ethel "Etta" Place and the Sundance Kid - headstuff.org
Ethel and Harry’s famous wedding picture.

The reason why Ethel became famous had to do with the man she married in February of 1901: Harry Alonzo Longabaugh. Or, to give him his more famous nickname, the Sundance Kid. Harry had been a member of the Wild Bunch, a gang of outlaws who had formed in Utah in 1897. The law had caught up with the gang in early 1900 though, and several of the gang had been killed in shootouts. (One of them, “Flat-Nose” George Curry, would wind up having his skin made into a pair of shoes that the Governor of Wyoming wore to his inauguration ball.) The gang had been led by Robert Leroy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy. He and Harry had decided the best way to avoid the Pinkerton Agency detectives on their trail was to go East and lay low in New York City, and that’s where Harry married Ethel.

Their wedding photo is one of only two pictures of Ethel that survive, and the only one that shows her face clearly. She was considered extremely attractive by those who met her, with blue-gray eyes and dark brown hair. In the photo she is also wearing what appears to be an engagement ring, showing this was probably no whirlwind romance. Several copies were made of the picture, and they were mailed out to friends and relatives. Harry sent one to a friend in Wyoming saying that he had “married a Texas lady he had previously known”. From those few words an entire forest of speculation has sprouted.

Fannie Porter - headstuff.org
The infamous Fannie Porter. Source

The most common idea is that Ethel was originally a prostitute, and that Harry had met her in Texas previously while he was visiting a brothel. The Wild Bunch were known to have stopped by at Fannie Porter’s establishment several times when they visited San Antonio. Fannie had an extremely good reputation both for discretion when visited by outlaws and as an employer, ensuring that the girls who worked for her were not mistreated by clients and received a good cut of the profits. Several of her girls became romantically involved with members of the Wild Bunch and went along with them when they left, and it’s been speculated that Ethel might have been one of these. One possibility is a girl named Madeline Wilson, an English immigrant who was working there at the time. A slightly more likely candidate is Ethel Bishop, who had both the right name and a background as an unsuccessful music teacher. She was working in a brothel around the corner from Fannie’s place when the Wild Bunch came to town.

Whether Ethel was her real first name or not, her surname of “Place” probably came from an alias Harry used on a hotel register in New York where he signed in as “Mr Harry Place” and she signed in as “Mrs Ethel Place”. Place was his mother’s maiden name. It’s suggested that they came to New York after spending January in Pennsylvania with Harry’s family there. They had a brief honeymoon in the city (though whether they actually did get married legally or just agreed to be “common law” spouses is unknown) before the newlyweds along with Butch (who pretended to be Ethel’s brother “James Ryan”) bought passage on a British ship down the coast to Argentina.

The Sundance Kid and Ethel "Etta" Place - headstuff.org
Harry and Ethel on the ranch. Source

At the time the Argentinean government were still following a policy designed to foster immigration and rapid modernisation of the country where immigrants could qualify for land grants on the frontier if they showed they had the capital to develop the land. Luckily for the American trio, they weren’t that thorough in investigating how that capital had been acquired. (Back in 1900 the pair had robbed a bank in America of around $32,000 and that was probably where this investment money came from.) They purchased an existing ranch house on the Blanco River, and got 15,000 acres around it to develop between them (with 2500 in Ethel’s name). And there they settled down to live an honest life – at least for a while.

In 1902 the Longabaughs made a short visit back to America, once again traveling up to New York. It was shortly after this trip that the Pinkertons became aware of her, and they managed to get hold of the wedding photo which they then used for wanted posters of her. As part of that investigation they later retraced their movements, and found that the pair made a visit to Coney Island while they were in the city. By now Harry’s family had moved to Atlantic City, and that seemed to be one of the main object of their visit. Another seems to have been some form of medical treatment, as they visited a clinic in Buffalo and another in Denver before they returned to Argentina three months after they’d left. Exactly what this treatment was is unknown, but it might be worth noting that though they were married for several years the couple never had any children.

Ann Bassett - headstuff.org
Ann Bassett, in the picture where she most closely resembles Ethel. Source

Ethel spent 1903 on the ranch in Argentina, which is what disproves one of the more persistent rumours about her identity. Josie and Ann Bassett were a pair of sisters from a ranch that sat at the intersection of Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. Their father Herb was well known among outlaws as a man willing to sell them food and horses. Smaller independent ranchers did often have to consort with bandits for self-protection back then, as it would prevent the hired thugs of the larger ranchers from strongarming them into signing over their land. It was through this that the girls got involved with the Wild Bunch. Both Josie and Ann dated several members of the band and it’s been speculated (based on their resemblance and age) that Ann was actually Ethel. However in 1903, while Ethel was indubitably in Argentina, Ann was in Utah getting married and shortly thereafter getting arrested for cattle rustling. She was acquitted, and spent the next several years running the Bassett ranch with her sister and husband. Ethel, in the meantime, was doing other things.

In fact, one of those other things might even have been paying a visit to the Bassett ranch as in 1904 she and Harry made another return trip to the USA. Though they landed in New York again this time they headed south to visit the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, better known as the St Louis State Fair. This was the exposition where the x-ray machine was first revealed to the public, along with something that would change the frontier forever – the motor car. After the left the fair they went into Utah, and this may have been when Harry took her to “Robber’s Roost”, the famous hideout of the Wild Bunch. The Roost was never discovered by lawmen, and according to the stories only five women ever visited it. They were Ethel (of course), the Bassett sisters, Maude Davis (who was the girlfriend of gang member Elzy Lay) and Laura “Thorny Rose” Bullion, the only official female member of the Wild Bunch.

Laura Bullion - headstuff.org
Laura Bullion, the Wild Bunch’s Thorny Rose.

Laura was mixed-race (being part German and part Native American) and fell in with the Wild Bunch in the late 1890s. Whether Laura and Ethel ever met is unknown, though they might actually have been working in Fanny Porter’s brothel at the same time. Laura worked there part-time, though she also dated several members of the Wild Bunch while she was committing robberies with them. Sadly they would have been unable to meet during this visit as Laura was in jail, and wouldn’t be released until 1905. [1] By then Ethel and Harry had returned to Argentina, where they were forced to make some hard choices.

Harry and Ethel’s trips to America had allowed the Pinkertons to draw a bead on them, and they now knew not only that they were in Argentina but had even tracked down their ranch. They were probably helped by the fact that in February of 1905 a trio robbed a bank in Rio Gallegos. There was no evidence that they were involved but the method was close enough to that of the Wild Bunch that it let the Pinkertons get local arrest warrants. But by that time the South American winter had set in and they couldn’t get u to the ranch. It was around this time that they issued wanted posters with the name of “Etta Place” (the Argentinean pronunciation of Ethel). Since they reused that name on their posters in the US the corruption of Ethel’s name stuck. Before Frank Dimaio, the Pinkerton agent, could arrest them they were tipped off by a friend of theirs in the Argentinean police force. The local comisario Edward Humphreys was a child of Welsh immigrants who had become friendly with the trio (as a fellow English-speaking native) and he gave them the nod in time for them to flee across the border to Chile, a choice which would later cost him his job.

The bank in Villa Mercedes in Argentina - headstuff.org
The National Bank in Villa Mercedes. Source

That wasn’t the last time Ethel visited Argentina, though. In fact, only a few months later in December of 1905 she joined Harry, Butch and an unknown accomplice when they raided a bank in the city of Villa Mercedes. They got away with about $130,000 in today’s money and led a posse on a wild chase to the Chilean border. They had stashed supplies on the route, and though the posse managed to wound one of them with gunfire they weren’t able to prevent their escape. Ethel, who had always been a crack shot, reportedly handled herself utterly fearlessly and La Prensa (which gave her name as “Miss H. A. Place”) said that she was:

An interesting woman, very masculine, who wears male clothing with total correctness, and who is dedicated more to the occupations of men than to those of women…a fine rider, handles with precision all classes of firearms, and has an admirable male temperament.

Clearly in the eyes of La Prensa there was nothing less feminine than bravery and competency. Quite what Ethel would have made of that assessment is anyone’s guess. The Villa Mercedes job was the end of Ethel’s time with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. While they were hiding out in Chile, Ethel fell ill with appendicitis and Harry took her back up the coast to San Francisco. Once she’d been treated she decided to stay in America. She’d always been homesick, which was why she’d had Harry bring her back on those visits, but she’d consoled herself with making their ranch a home. Now that the ranch was gone, she had no wish to live her life on the run. So in 1906 after five years of marriage she and Harry said their goodbyes. And then, for all intents and purposes, Ethel Place vanished from history.

The Sundance Kid, Ethel "Etta" Place and Butch Cassidy - headstuff.org
Harry, Ethel and Butch on the ranch in happier times. Source

It wasn’t difficult, back then, for somebody to vanish. It helped if you had money, of course, and Ethel would have had her share of both the proceeds from selling their ranch (which a friend in Argentina had handled) and her cut of the Villa Mercedes job. All the Pinkertons had was a name and two photographs, only one of which showed her face properly. More to the point, once she was separated from Harry and Butch they had little interest in tracing her any more. Ethel makes one more appearance in their story though, after it ended in a Bolivian shootout.

When Harry returned to South America he and Butch went to work in for a Bolivian mining company. As befitted the eclectic code of honour the pair followed they were scrupulously honest employees. Butch, for example, was frequently responsible for transporting the company’s payroll and in taking cash into town to make purchases, both of which he carried out without any issues. The company did eventually find out who they were employing though, and in 1908 (after it was common gossip around town) they resigned their positions. According to their manager he believed they didn’t want any trouble to come to the employers who had done no wrong to them. The pair then headed across the border to Peru where they tried to rob a stagecoach carrying wages to a mine, only to find it was a decoy. They robbed a train in Bolivia, and then robbed a payroll courier before hiding out in San Vicente. There they were recognised and the Bolivian army surrounded the pair’s boarding house while they slept. A standoff and a gunfight ensued, ending with one of the two mortally wounded. The soldiers thought that one put his friend out of his misery before shooting himself with his last bullet.

Katherine Ross as “Etta” - headstuff.org
Katherine Ross as “Etta” in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Source

That’s where the legend of the Wild Bnch comes to an end though of course there were stories that the two had survived, either by bribing the soldiers or simply through not being the robbers who were caught. The bodies were buried in an unmarked grave, and researchers since then have been unable to find them (despite genetically testing many of the bodies in that cemetery against Harry and Butch’s relatives). Ethel makes her final appearance in this epilogue as well, as in 1909 she approached the US Vice-Consul in Chile to try and get his help in getting a death certificate for Harry. (At least, an unidentified woman approached him and she’s generally assumed to have been Ethel incognito.) No certificate was issued by the Bolivian government, and so Ethel left empty handed. And that was the last anyone ever knew of Ethel Place.

Of course, historians haven’t left it there. In addition to Ann Bassett (which, despite the contradictions, has been championed as a definitive identification by some historians) there was a popular theory for a long time that a madame in Texas named Eunice Gray, who set up her establishment in 1909. This was played up by one historian on fairly scant evidence though, and later investigators managed to find some photographs of Eunice that bear no relationship to Ethel. Other theories have it that she moved to Denver and became a teacher, though without any evidence this just smacks of somebody trying to give their story a neat ending. The truth is that Ethel Place’s story doesn’t have any such neat conclusion. Instead, like all good legends, she vanishes into the mists of history. Because legends never die.

Images via wikimedia except where stated.

[1] She went on to live a quiet life in Tennessee and died in 1961, the last surviving member of the Wild Bunch.

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