Friday, July 6, 2018

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

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 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 the Pinkertons 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 the Pinkertons 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 were then able to track them back to their ranch.

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 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).

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Andrea Downing said...

Goodness gracious me, Patti, what a lot to think about--and what wonderful research you've brought out here. Thank you so much! As for me, I don't even think the two photos of Bassett and Place look the same so can't see them being the same person--eyes are totally different. So that's my 2 cents for today, but am looking forward to the next installment.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thanks, Andi! I totally agree with you about the eyes being different in the two pictures. And not only that but when you look at pictures of Ann Basset, some of them look so different from each other, you wonder if there's been a mistake somewhere identifying pictures of her. Thanks for stopping by!

Elizabeth Clements said...

Patti, I so enjoyed reading this. I've been a fan of Butch and Sundance ever since I first saw the movie decades ago. I make reference to them in my book. Research is so fascinating and delivers some wonderful ideas for plots. I love reading about these wild and feisty women of the Old West. I look forward to more of your beautifully-researched blogs.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thank you so much! I'll be posting these over at PRP too. I cannot get enough of this crew, so I've been in heaven these last few months scouring the internet and library for info. I think we love Butch and Sundance so much because they represent the end of an era. When they rode into the sunset, they took the old west with them in many ways. And Butch prided himself on avoiding bloodshed. Thanks for stopping by!

P.S., my current WIP was inspired by a footnote I found while researching Margarita and the Hired Gun. It said the Pinkerton's attempted to infiltrate Hole in the Wall by sending in undercover agents, but they tragically (for the undercover agents) unsuccessful. That got me thinking....