The Search for Etta Place—The Wildest Woman in the Wild West

“I’m 26, I’m Single, I’m a schoolteacher, and that’s the bottom of the pit.” The line, spoken by actor Katharine Ross as Etta Place in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, stood out. After all, I too am a 26-year-old unmarried woman and I cringed at the line. Sure. That might have been true for many women on the frontier in the 1890s. But it wasn’t just dismissiveness, it was the overt neglect by screenwriter William Goldman to develop Etta’s character at all. (Goldman won an Oscar for the script, BTW.) Goldman and the producers had spent eight years researching the origins of Butch and Sundance, tracking down childhood homes and first-hand accounts so they could tell the story. So what of Etta Place? If she was indeed a trusted member of The Wild Bunch and an accomplice to Sundance and Butch during their escape to South America, as the film depicts, surely she was more than a doe-eyed love interest. I wanted to learn more about this woman. I wanted to know: How did this school teacher become one of only five women in The Wild Bunch? What led her to a life on the run? Unlike Goldman, I wanted to find the real Etta Place. 

Robert Redford, Katharine Ross, and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection.

Despite Etta’s noteworthy role in the bandit group, her life before is obscure. Only one known photo of her remains, taken by the famous portraitist De Young in 1901 after her wedding to Harry Longabaugh in New York.  

Ms. Place: She was born around 1878 in either Castle Gate or Price here in Utah, but other accounts place her birth in Texas or Pennsylvania. She was well-spoken, arrestingly beautiful and may have been educated on the East Coast. Skilled on horseback and an even better shot with a rifle, historians believe she first joined The Wild Bunch at their Hole-in-the-Wall hideout around 1896. And from the De Young portrait we know she was married to Sundance around 1900. After that photo was taken Sundance, Etta and Butch boarded the SS Herminius in New York bound for Argentina under the names Mr. and Mrs. Harry Place and James Ryan, according to the ship’s 1901 registry.

How Etta came to meet two of the Wild West’s most infamous outlaws remains a mystery, as does her fate after fleeing to South America. Throughout my hunt for the truth, three central theories about her origin emerged.

Theory No. 1: The Calculating Courtesan

Etta might’ve first encountered Sundance Kid and the Wild Bunch gang during their many (many) visits to Texan bordellos. High-class ladies of the night worked at Fannie Porter’s brothel in San Antonio, where it’s possible Etta Place took up residence as a young woman. Porter offered her girls’ hospitality to high-paying customers, including outlaws flush with ill-gotten cash. Fannie Porter’s was a rendezvous for The Hole-in-the-Wall gang after fleeing the scene of various train robberies and stick-ups. 

Front row left to right: Harry Longabaugh, alias the Sundance Kid, Ben Kilpatrick, alias the Tall Texan, Robert Leroy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy. Standing: Will Carver, alias News Carver, and Harvey Logan, alias Kid Curry; Fort Worth, Texas, 1900. Photo credit Wikepedia Commons.

Etta married Sundance in 1900 and joined The Wild Bunch in their escapades, assisting them with getaway horses and posing as a distraction. Although no marriage license exists, a Pinkerton Agency memorandum from July 29, 1902 states Mrs. Place “is said to be [Sundance’s] wife and to be from Texas.” The Pinkerton Agency, a private security force paid by the railroads to protect trains from robbers and hunt outlaws, was always one step behind the outlaws. After getting ahold of Sundance and Etta’s 1901 De Young portrait in New York, agent William A. Pinkerton complained in a letter to his brother “It shows how daring these men are, and while you are looking for them in the wilderness and mountains they are in the middle of society.” 

Although it’s unclear if Etta was truly a high-priced prostitute, she almost certainly was not a schoolteacher. This piece of revisionism as depicted by the film, can be attributed to screenwriter Goldman who didn’t want to portray his ingenue as a prostitute. “To me, she had to be a schoolteacher,” Goldman recalls in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. And so our Etta went from soiled dove to eye-batting school teacher on the silver screen. 

Theory No. 2: The Noblewoman

Accounts depict her as a woman of class and education. So it’s not far-fetched to believe that Etta might’ve come from a well-off family. Biographer Ed Kirby notes in his book Rise and Fall of the Sundance Kid that Etta was the daughter of George Capel, the son of the sixth Earl of Sussex. (The surname “Capel” just so happens to be an anagram of “Place,” coincidence?) Kirby believed Etta’s mother was actress Jane Place, who happened to be a sister to Anne G. Place Longabaugh—none other than the Sundance Kid’s mother. Was Etta actually related to Sundance? An article from a Sept. 29, 1991 issue of St. George newspaper The Daily Spectrum corroborates the theory, writing “Etta Place was in fact, Sundance’s cousin, not his lover as popularized in the movie.” 

Theory No. 3: The Rancher Turned Rustler

The most popular theory, supported by timeline comparisons, lifestyle similarities and photo analysis posits that Etta Place may have actually been Ann Bassett, another bold frontier woman who lived during the late 19th century. Members of the Outlaw Trail History Association have been chasing this theory for some time, particularly researcher Doris Karren Burton. 

In her book, Queen Ann Bassett (Alias Etta Place), Burton notes similarities between the two women. Bassett, also born in 1878, was raised by cattle ranchers in Brown’s Park (on the Northwest border of Utah and Colorado). Citing the 1962 book Where the Old West Stayed Young by John Rolfe Burroughs, Burton describes Ann as an actress, “She could play the role of a cultured young gentlewomen; or she could be a perfect little hell-cat. She was spirited and high-strung, and a tempestuous daredevil.” 

Ann Basset. Photo courtesy of Uintah County Regional History Center

Life on the ranch was hard, and hostile competition among Cattle Barons necessitated the Bassett sisters take up shooting and horsemanship. During this lawless time, the family often turned to illicit methods in order to protect their land. The sisters became cattle rustlers (cattle thieves) who formed alliances with outlaws laying low in the area, including Butch Cassidy himself. Burton believed the sisters formed close, perhaps even romantic, relationships with the Wild Bunch members. “Ann was in love with Butch Cassidy,” she writes. Although she quickly turned her attention to Sundance, “Ann Bassett soon tired of one man,” says Burton. “And Sundance liked the women.” Eventually, Ann is chased out of Brown’s Park for rustling and travels to Texas in February of 1901. In 1902, she returned to her family home, citing her time away as traveling in South America. Hmm.

In addition to their penchant for mischief, educational background and notable event timelines, the two women also share striking physical resemblance. Burton asked Dr. Thomas G. Kyle of Los Alamos National Laboratory to compare Etta’s De Young portrait and a verified image of Ann using NASA’s facial recognition technology. 

The finding reported the two images were likely the same person, with the odds being 5,000 to one. Burton concludes “The 1-5000 chance is based only on the photo analysis, and greatly increases adding the fact Etta and Ann were in the same areas at the same time and knew the same people.” 

So, mystery solved? Nothing involving women and history is ever so simple. What seems like conclusive evidence is challenged by reports of Ann’s later life. In which she stood trial for cattle rustling during the same period Etta would’ve been in South America. Ann settled in the Southwestern Utah town of Leeds until her death in 1956, not once confirming her alleged double life as Etta Place.

Katharine Ross as Etta Place in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection.

What of Etta’s Fate?

What happened to Etta once she left for South America with Butch and Sundance is as much a mystery as her origin. Between March 1901 and June 1904, Etta might’ve made several visits back to the United States to visit family and receive medical treatment. The Pinkertons even traced Etta and Sundance to the World’s Fair in 1904. Researcher Doris Burton claims Etta visited Denver in 1904 for appendicitis treatment, other historians believe she faked her own death and returned to Fort Worth under the name Eunice Gray. Another theory purports that Etta left Butch and Sundance in South America and traveled to Paraguay where she married famous boxing promoter Tex Ricar. Other historians assume Etta was accompanied by Sundance from Chile to San Francisco in 1905 and remained there while he returned to South America. 

Etta Place remains the true mystery in the otherwise well-researched history of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, an ethereal and elusive figure. The Wild Bunch might’ve intentionally obscured her identity, but I suspect this is just another case of history giving little attention to women. One thing is sure. She was a damn good criminal. As Robert Redford’s Sundance says, “No one expects a woman.”  

Meet Four More Outlaw Ladies of Note

Laura Bullion aka ‘Rose of the Wild Bunch’

Wanted For: Bank Robbery, Train Robbery and Forgery

Born to a Texan train robber, Laura Bullion became acquainted with outlaws William Carver and Ben Kilpatrick at the age of 13. After working on and off at Fannie Porter’s brothel, a popular hideaway for the Wild Bunch and other Western outlaws, Bullion made her way to Utah with Carver where she met Cassidy and the others. Known to sell stolen goods, disguise herself as a man during robberies, and provide the outlaws with a steady supply of horses, Bullion quickly caught the attention of detectives and national media. In 1901 Bullion was found in possession of $8,500 in unsigned stolen banknotes and was arrested for forgery and robbery. After her sentence, Bullion would go on to live a civilian life in Memphis under the alias Freda Bullion Lincoln

Fannie Porter

Wanted For: Harboring Criminals and Vagrancy

Madam Fannie Porter ran a high-end ‘boarding house’ in San Antonio in the late 1800s. The luxurious bordello became a popular hideout for Butch Cassidy and the rest of the Wild Bunch and is theorized to be the place that Sundance Kid met Etta Place, who may have been working as a prostitute for Porter. Although she was well connected and respected, Porter was arrested briefly in 1880 for vagrancy (read: prostitution). Her boarding house remained a pitstop for outlaws on the run, and its rumored she threw Sundance and Butch one last going away party before the outlaws fled the country. 

The Basset Sisters Ann and Josie

Wanted For: Cattle Rustling, Assisting Outlaws and Suspected Mariticide

Ann and Josie Bassett became respected troublemakers for defending their homestead ranch in Brown’s Park against cattle barons (think Kevin Costner’s Yellowstone). Capable frontier women, the sisters also received formal education on the East Coast and were known for their silver tongues and striking good looks. The sisters formed close relationships with famed gunslingers, including Butch Cassidy who Ann dated at 15. Josie would go on to date Wild Bunch member Elzy Lay, and the sisters were two of only five women to know the location of the gang’s hideout, Robber’s Roost. Ann and Josie both lived into their 70s, Josie married five times with one husband suspected of having died of poisoning. Josie also claimed Cassidy visited her in 1930 and lived in Utah until his death in the late 70s. None of her claims have ever been corroborated. 

Stops and Sights on the Outlaw Trail

Stop #1 Robber’s Roost

A hard-to-find desert hideaway, Robber’s Roost lives up to its elusive legend. To find the hole-in-the-wall, make your way to Hanksville near Capitol Reef. Head north on S.R. 24 for 16 miles and keep an eye out for a brown sign for Hans Flat Ranger Station, then take a right. All that remains of the rugged refuge is a crumbling stone fireplace and an underlying tone of mischief.

If You Go… Bring plenty of water and some emergency supplies, there aren’t any Wild Bunch women to offer supplies and fresh horses should your life of crime lead you astray.

Views from the Cassidy Trail

Stop #2 The Cassidy Trail

Beneath courtly red rock cliffs and otherworldly hoodoos lies a trail frequented by both well-meaning hikers and wanted criminals. The Cassidy Trail winds through Red Canyon inside the Dixie National Forest and was a popular route for Butch to evade the law and pursuing Pinkertons. The trail was also a major location for the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

If You Go… Cassidy Trail starts at Red Canyon trailhead in Red Canyon, look for a discreet parking lot at the first left after passing the visitor center. 

Stop #3 Brown’s Park

An isolated valley along the Utah and Colorado border, Brown’s Park has been home to fur trappers, cattle rustlers, cowboys and outlaws since the 1800s. Its remote location and protection from harsh weather made it a frequent pitstop to Butch Cassidy, Sundance Kid, and the Basset Sisters. Referred to as a place where “The Old West Stayed Young,” Brown’s Park has become a ritzy outdoor destination. 

If You Go… There’s lots to do inside Brown’s Park, but if you just have a day or
are passing through, take the Brown’s Park Scenic Backway. Traveling through
Diamond Mountain, into Brown’s Park and crossing the Green River, the 2-hour drive will give you a peek into what life on the trail looked like for Cassidy and
his Wild Bunch. 

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Avrey Evans
Avrey Evans
Avrey Evans is the Digital and the Nightlife Editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has been writing for city publications for six years and enjoys covering the faces and places of our salty city, especially when a boozy libation is concerned.

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