Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Please welcome back award winning Texas author Earl Staggs with his latest installment of his History’s Rich With Mysteries series. After taking a look at Billy The Kid last time, this installment he considers the question, who was Etta Place?

When I look at the past, I find stories about people which fascinate me, particularly those in which there is a curious mixture of fact, legend, and mysterious uncertainty.  In this series of articles, I want to explore some of those stories.  I think of them as mysteries swaddled in legend.  While truth is always desired in most things, truth easily becomes staid and boring. Legend, on the other hand, forever holds a hint of romanticism and an aura of excitement borne of adventure, imagination and, of course, mystery.

By Earl Staggs


Everyone remembers the beautiful young woman portrayed by Katherine Ross in the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Butch and Sundance rode and robbed their way into legend as members of the infamous outlaw gang known as The Wild Bunch, and she became a legend of her own by hanging out with them. She even shared space with them on Pinkerton’s Most Wanted List where she was described as having, "classic good looks, 27 or 28 years old, 5'4" to 5'5" in height, weighing between 110 lb and 115 lb, with a medium build and brown hair." When the Butch and Sundance fled to South America, she went with them.  

She has come down to us through history as the best known female outlaw of that period and some say, the most beautiful. And the most mysterious. No one is certain where she came from before she hooked up with Butch and Sundance or where she went after the boys allegedly died in Bolivia. Many researchers and historians have offered glimpses into who and what she was. Some have said she was a refined, well-educated, and musically-trained woman born and reared somewhere in the northeast. Or possibly in Colorado or Oregon. Others claimed she was a married schoolteacher who deserted her husband and two children to become an outlaw. Another concluded she was a prostitute in Fort Worth and San Antonio brothels and the mistress of Butch Cassidy (real name Robert Leroy Parker) before she moved over to The Sundance Kid. Some even feel she died in South America alongside Butch and Sundance.

Claims and conclusions aside, no one knows anything certain about her life before or after her adventures with two of the most infamous men of American history.

Mysterious?  Definitely.  Legendary?  Absolutely.

Her real name is still an unsolved mystery, but there is an interesting story about how she became Etta Place. It’s unclear if she and Sundance ever married, but they often traveled as husband and wife. Sundance’s real name was Harry Alonzo Longabaugh. His mother’s maiden name was “Place,” and he sometimes used the alias “Harry Place.” When our mysterious lady traveled with him, she is known to have signed her name as “Mrs. Ethel Place.” When she moved to South America, the Spanish-speaking natives had trouble pronouncing “Ethel” and it came out as “Etta.” The Pinkertons, who had referred to her as "Ethel", "Ethal", "Eva" and "Rita" at various times, finally setted on "Etta Place" for their wanted posters, and that name came to us via history and legend as hers.

According to researchers, in February 1901, Etta, Butch and Sundance left the Wild West and traveled to New York City, and from there, moved to Argentina to evade the army of lawmen  hot on their trail.  While in New York, Etta and Sundance posed for a portrait. It is one of only two known images of her.  

In 1904, the pair again visited the US. The Pinkertons tracked them to Fort Worth and to the St. Louis World Fair, but were one step behind them and they returned to Argentina. Early in 1905, Butch, Sundance, and Etta took part in a bank robbery in Villa Mercedes, 400 miles west of Buenos Aires.

In June 1906, Etta and Sundance traveled to San Francisco. Tired of living as an outlaw, she decided to remain there. Sundance returned to South America, and there is no evidence they ever saw each other again.

There is also no conclusive evidence telling us where she went after that, under what name, or where she eventually died. There are, however, reports that in 1909, a year after Butch and
Sundance reportedly died, a woman fitting Etta’s description attempted to obtain a certificate of Sundance’s death.  She was unsuccessful since his remains were never positively identified. 

Over the years, a number of women have been suggested as being Etta Place. Among them are Eunice Gray, who died in a fire in Fort Worth in 1962, and Madeline Wilson, who is known to have worked as a prostitute in Texas. The most likely, however, was Ann Bassett.

Ann Bassett was a well-known cattle rustler in Utah until she traveled to Texas, arriving about the same time Etta Place showed up there. In Texas, she met Butch and Sundance and is said to have traveled with them. Records indicate she also used the alias, “Etta Place” at different times. She eventually returned to Utah and died there in 1956. 

Doris Karren Burton, a writer who investigated the lives of Etta and Ann and published a book in 1992, sent photographs of both women to Dr. Thomas G. Kyle of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Dr. Kyle performed a computer comparison of the two women and concluded they were the same person. 

Was he right? Was Ann Bassett (left) really Etta Place (right) a few years and a few pounds later?

We’ll never know for sure, but one fact is irrefutably clear. Except for the few years she  traveled with Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, there are no definitive records of her.

Whoever she was, wherever she came from, and whatever happened to her, in the short period of time she appeared in history, she became one of the most intriguing, endearing, and mysterious legends of the Old West.

Earl Staggs ©2015

Earl Staggs earned a long list of Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION and has twice received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. 


Caroline Clemmons said...

Very interesting, Earl. She was very attractive, wasn't she?

Georgia Ruth said...

Great stuff, Earl. Her life has always intrigued me. She and Frank James.

Mark Troy said...

Great research, Earl. We'll probably never know for sure, but she's an intriguing part of history. Thank you for bringing her to our attntion.

Kaye George said...

Wow--good stuff, Earl! There's a lot of research here and I think you've covered most, if not all, of the bases. Thanks!

Jan Christensen said...

Fascinating article, Earl. I wonder if what happened to her history could happen in today's world with all the need for licenses, ID cards, insurance, and so on. Plus the internet. Thanks for delving into what is known about her and sharing it here.

Earl Staggs said...

Yes, was, Caroline. She was also good with horses and an excellent shot. What more could a man ask for?

Earl Staggs said...

Thank, Georgia. Frank James is on my list for this series. We hear so much about Jesse and forget that Frank was a very interesting man, too.

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks for coming over, Mark. You're right. We will most likely never know more about her than we do now. But we do love mysteries, don't we?

Earl Staggs said...

I wished I could have learned more, Kaye, but she didn't leave tracks or prints. Clever girl.

Earl Staggs said...

You're right, Jan. In today's world, she would have been easy to track. She would have signed a book deal and made the talk show circuit. We'd learn anything we wanted to know about her on Facebook. Or we could text her. Times are so different now, but you know what? People haven't changed. When people from the past are only words and pictures in history's pages, we forget they were once real people just like us with the same needs, desires, likes, dislikes, feelings, and emotions as we do now. Research brings them back to life and I'm enjoying getting to know them up close and personal.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

This seems to be an incredible failure by the NSA and the FBI and I think there should be congressional hearings.

Earl Staggs said...

Better than that, Kevin, I'll put Tall Chambers on the case.

judyalter said...

Earl, a theory rose in the 1990s that Butch Cassidy did not die in that shootout but it was another gang member--a really unsavory one though his name escapes me. I once wrote a short story about a reunion many years later between Butch (who took the name Phillips, married, had a son, and was a respectable businessman in the Northwest). For that story I stuck to the legend that had her running a house in Fort Worth. I used to know a man who swore his daddy made him, as a tiny youngster, to her and they said sotto voce, "You know who that is, son? That's Etta Place.'

Earl Staggs said...

Judy, thanks a ton for that story. It's a perfect postscript to my blog piece, and I'm adding to my Etta file. Several historians believe she worked as a prostitute. I've also heard the stories about Butch escaping Bolivia and returning to the US and a long and productive life. There was no official autopsy and the bodies of Butch and Sundance were never positively identified. The truth? We'll never know for sure, and that's what is so intriguing about these stories.