Aug 14 2011 12:00pm

The Mysterious Disappearance of Etta Place

Katharine Ross as Etta Place with Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid/ Douglas Kirkland, CORBISEverybody loves a good vanishing act. Literally hundreds of mysterious disappearances lurk in American history. What happened to Amelia Earhart, the famous female aviator of the 1930s? Or to Judge Joseph Force Crater, who disappeared in the summer of 1930?  Or to Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters chief who went to meet a union official and was never seen again? One thing wee can safely assume is that these were involuntary disappearances. Earhart’s plane went down somewhere in the Pacific on a round-the-globe flight. Crater had some unsavory companions and was last seen carrying a great deal of money. (Though Crater’s young mistress, Sally Lou Ritz, did disappear within weeks of Crater and, like him, has never been seen since.) And Hoffa, well, Hoffa had a lot of enemies.

But the story of Etta Place is rather more mysterious because it would appear that she chose to disappear, not long after the reported deaths of her lover, Harry Longabaugh and his friend, Robert Leroy Parker, better known to posterity as the Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy.

The mysterious Etta Place, aka What makes her story doubly mysterious is that we know neither her real name or from whence she came. Katherine Ross did a wonderful job fixing her image in the public consciousness in the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, elevating her to near iconic status, but all that did was birth a generation of Etta Place fans.

I would never claim to be a true Etta Place aficionado; I happened on the conundrum she poses quite by accident.  In fact, I was a little surprised that the world had simply swallowed Etta up. But I quickly learned that except for about 12 years at the most, Etta Place didn’t exist.

The majority of the experts agree that Butch and Sundance probably met Etta at a bordello around 1900.  The Pinkerton Agency, which had a strong interest in Etta, described her as attractive, speaking with an educated tone.  Estimates of her birth year range from 1878 to 1882 or 1883.  Rumors suggest that she was a cousin of Longabaugh’s since Longabaugh’s mother was a Place.  Speculation is that she and Sundance had met sometime around 1900. 

The last recorded appearance by Etta was in summer of 1909 in San Francisco, the year after Butch and Sundance were reportedly killed in a gun battle with Argentinian soldiers.  Indeed, there are those researchers who say that Etta died in South America as well.  But a woman of Etta’s description attempted to secure documents declaring Sundance dead. She was unsuccessful, and  the woman known as Etta Place rode off into the sunset. 

Acquaintances, what few there were, called Etta beautiful and said that she spoke with a refined accent.  Without ever saying anything explicit, she indicated that she hailed from the East Coast. Pinkerton Detective Agency reports supported this as well. Only a handful of people knew her well enough as Etta Place to offer descriptions—Annie Bassett, Josie Bassett, and Laura Bullion among them. This trio of young ladies were the girlfriends of various members of the Wild Bunch, the outlaw gang of which Butch and Sundance were a big part.

Was Annie Bassett actually Etta Place?For years, Annie Bassett has been rumored to have been Etta Place, and recent photographic analysis claims that Annie and Etta were the same woman.  But too many documented elements of Annie’s life conflict with the documented elements of Etta’s life. During two separate periods, when Etta is known to have been in South America with Butch and Sundance, Annie Bassett was either under arrest, on trial, in jail or getting married in the US. Difficult to do if you’re in South America.  Odds are that Etta or Ethel Place was not her actual name.  The maiden name of Sundance’s mother was Place. Other claims, none substantiated, make her a music or school teacher. All that’s known for certain is that she spoke with a refined (possibly British) accent and claimed to have come from the northeast.

Intrigued by the mystery of Etta Place, I decided to see what I could add to the story.

I’m a firm believer in Occam’s Razor—in short, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Near unanimous consensus among researchers is that Butch and Sundance met Etta at Fannie Porter’s brothel in San Antonio sometime in 1900.

The United States census is a marvelous thing. Beginning with 1790, it has been taken every ten years. And, since I had a city (San Antonio) and a head of household (Fannie Porter), I thought it would be beneficial to look at the 1900 census of Bexar County, since that’s the nexus year, the year they all came together.  Lo and behold, there was Fannie Porter, running a “boarding house.” Euphemisms are great things.

The Wild BunchFannie, herself little more than a girl in 1900, claimed to be of British extraction. The birthdates did not help all that much. Of the five girls in Fannie’s “boarding house,” all were born in or around 1878-80.  One girl in the household intrigued me beyond the others.  Twenty-two year old Madaline [sic] Wilson appears in the census immediately beneath Madam Fannie. Like Fannie, she is listed as of English birth, immigrating to the United States in 1884 when she was six. Now here’s where the conjecture has to come in.  It is quite possible that she had changed her name, but does that dictate that she would have changed her date of birth, country of origin, and date of immigration?  And a British accent, tempered by  16 years in America, might be described as “refined.”

And, Madaline Wilson disappears after the 1900 census, when Etta was in her period of historical significance as the historians would say. Now, none of this proves anything, but it is worth noting, and adds yet another possible suspect to the continuing hunt for Etta Place.

At one point a woman named Eunice Gray, who appeared in Ft. Worth, Texas, running a brothel in the mid 20th century, was a candidate for “Etta Place.”  Eunice once told a friend that she had been in Ft. Worth since 1901 except for a trip to South America.  And records were produced later that showed that Eunice had been in South America at roughly the same time as Etta Place.  Eunice died in a fire in 1962.  But researchers have recovered photos of Eunice that, when compared with known photos of Etta, prove definitively that Eunice was not Etta Place.

Perhaps Madaline Wilson is a stretch, but Etta Place did exist.  And Madaline Wilson, the young prostitute from Fannie Porter’s is an intriguing possibility.

When Tony Hays isn’t traveling the world, teaching students, and adopting puppies, he takes time out to write the Arthurian Mystery series from Tor/Forge.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Terrie Farley Moran
1. Terrie
Intriguing. There are so many historical figures that we believe we know well, but actually we know very little about them. As you indicate, we often don't know even a real name.
Doc Gonzales
2. Doc
Have reason to believe I know who this woman was! If you know an author who would like to ghost write the story for me in collusion with me and a share of the monies ~ no hoaxers this is on the level and keep it real! NO SWINDLERS or BUNCO ARTISTS ~
3. susan j. sager
I have always found this woman, Ms. Etta Place (Ethel?) intriguing. She existed and than she disappeared not to be seen or heard of again by those that would have known her here in The States. Maybe on purpose?

After all, she was the friend / girlfriend (wife?) of notorious bank robbers, doubtful that she would want newspaper people or The Pinkertons to know where she was.

She was able to start fresh in South America; not surprizing that she could do the same once she came back to The States. And just maybe there was not contact ever again with old friends or family. A fresh start in a new State.
4. Doc
I repeat: There were several facts not widely known, except to me, which if followed by strenuous research could well substantiate my suspicions regarding the heretofore unknown ID of this woman! But, only serious researchers with integrity and true grit should contact me! I have already done considerable traveling to secure proof. The trail has been guarded carefully for these many years. Another person close to me attempted to follow-up on this as well and I think he knew! There were items she had which if located could probably cinche and finalize the truth of my suspicions. Those items disappeared after her demise! One of which would prove her ID! It has to do with the photo taken with Sundance!
5. GP
Fascinating stuff - the stuff of great imaginings and - well, myths and legends, perhaps. It just seem as if she would have nothing to lose, at the end of her life, by revealing some certain things. Maybe - just maybe - there's something out there that is yet to be discovered, just waiting and lurking in the pages of obscure historical notes. Someday - if we're lucky.
6. Dawn Fama
How do you know for certain she was not murdered by the two men and buried near their homestead in Argentina? Wasn't it Sundance that shot an officer sent to their home to put them under arrest. They may have had to reveal their past to her and she may have posed a threat to them.
7. JB
If you want to know who Etta Place was google "Cora Stanton" or Empire of the Wheel.
Adell Sharp
This comment is for Doc.The last post I found from you was in March 2013. I too, know who Etta Place was. I grew up in the same county
where she was born and raised. There were people in the community
that, at the time, knew she was with Sundance and Butch. I have two
pictures of her, one when she was about 15 yrs. old. and other things
and stories. Perhaps we can help each other. You sound like her
nephew. I hope that you are still researching her and I would like
to talk with you. Please contact me through my e-mail. If you would
like to talk, I think we could meet in person.
I know where and about the old mansion where her belongings and
pictures were stored after her death.
Hope that you are well and will contact me.
Post a comment