c 2024 by Jan MacKell Collins
Parts of this article are excerpted from Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains (University of New Mexico Press, 2009)
Of all the outlaw ladies who hitched up their skirts and traipsed after outlaw Butch Cassidy’s notorious Wild Bunch, Etta Place remains the most intriguing. Maude Davis Lay, Ann and Josie Bassett, Laura Bullion, Lillie Davis Carver, Annie Rogers Logan, a handful of other miscellaneous wives and a plethora of respectable rancher’s daughters certainly deserve recognition for daring to date the notorious gang. But it is Etta who stands out as the most sophisticated, beautiful and mysterious, and her story—or lack thereof—has fascinated historians for decades.
The simplest facts are these: Etta Place had a brief courtship with Butch (nee Robert Leroy Parker) before becoming the girlfriend of Harry Longabaugh, alias the Sundance Kid. She accompanied Sundance and Butch to Bolivia for a few years, ultimately returned to the United States, and disappeared into obscurity. The rest of Etta’s story is a true mystery that has been speculated on by hundreds of researchers, historians, writers and even the Pinkerton Detective Agency who tracked the Wild Bunch all over the West and beyond. Three burning questions remain to this day: Where did she come from? What was her real name? And what became of her?
Pinkertons believed Etta was born between 1875 and 1880. Theories as to her origins are numerous. She may have been Laura Etta Place Capel, the illegitimate daughter of actress Emily Jane Place of New York who was a distant cousin of Sundance’s mother, Annie Place Longabaugh. Her father may have been George Capel, the Seventh Earl of Essex from England. When the unwed Emily became pregnant George fled to Wyoming and began rustling cattle under the alias George Ingerfield. Etta eventually joined her father and but fell in with her father’s outlaw friends after George was killed at Tombstone in 1892.
Others say Etta was born in Pennsylvania. According to an alleged autobiography penned by the lady herself in 1928, she was born November 25, 1876 near Dublin, Ireland. Or, she may have been Ann Parker, a cousin to Butch Cassidy. Pinkertons identified Etta as Ethel, Eva and Rita. They also believed Etta’s parents might have resided in Texas. Historian Donna Ernst, a niece of Sundance, believed Etta may have been Ethel Bishop, a prostitute in San Antonio at the turn of the century. Others think she worked for Madam Fannie Porter in El Paso.
So how did Etta meet Butch and Sundance? One story reports that Butch rescued her, at the age of 16 and going by the name Laura, from Fannie Porter’s and took her to Utah to live with a Mormon family named Thayne. There, Etta took the name Hazel or Ethel and taught school for a short time before meeting the Sundance Kid. In 1970 a man claiming to be Sundance’s son said Etta’s real name was Hazel Tryon, the half-sister of his mother Anna Marie Thayne. Neither Hazel nor Anna appear in census records, but Etta later used the alias Anna Marie Place. Longabaugh Jr. also claimed Etta abandoned her husband and two children to run off with the Wild Bunch.
Another historian, Art Davidson, agreed with young Longabaugh’s claim that Etta died in Oregon. Davidson also claimed Etta had an older sister, Marion Bennion, and a brother named Hiram who was really the Sundance Kid. Marion, said Davidson, eventually married Butch Cassidy and gave birth to a daughter who later became a silent film star. At least one author maintains that Butch and Sundance first met Etta Place in 1893, when they used money from one of their robberies to pay her tuition at the State Normal and Training School in New York. After graduation Etta worked in Telluride, but soon found the life of a teacher boring and rejoined her outlaw friends at Robber’s Roost in 1895.
Most historians agree that In 1896, Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay were living in a cabin north of Vernal, Utah. After Elzy married his companion, Maude Davis, the couple shared the cabin with Butch Cassidy and a woman thought to be Etta or Ann Bassett, a local rancher’s daughter. Maude later said Etta was one of the most beautiful women she had ever seen. The foursome remained at the cabin until March of 1897.
Three years later Etta was still in the picture, this time as the girlfriend of the Sundance Kid. When Butch and Sundance decided to high-tail it to South America, the latter convinced Etta to come along. Traveling with a woman would provide good cover for the outlaw pair, Sundance explained to Butch, and besides she was a good cook and housekeeper. She was also adept with firearms.
The winsome threesome spent three weeks in New York prior to their departure, during which time Sundance and Etta spent some time at a convalescent spa in Buffalo. The couple also had their portrait taken at DeYoung’s studio and took a jaunt up to Niagra Falls. With Butch, they also visited Tiffany’s. Etta ended up with a $150 gold lapel watch and Sundance bought a diamond stickpin. In February of 1901, the trio checked out of their West 12th Street boarding house and checked in for passage on the S.S. Herminus for Buenos Aires.
Although her time there was sporadic, Etta appears to have influenced how the outlaws lived in South America. During their time at a ranch house in Cholila, a burgundy-and-gold brocade wallpaper adorned the walls. Primo Caparo, an Italian immigrant who spent a night at the ranch in 1904, later recalled, “The house was simply furnished and exhibited a certain painstaking tidiness, a geometric arrangement of things, pictures with cane frames, wallpaper made of clippings from North American magazines, and many beautiful weapons and lassos braided from horsehair.” Caparo also noted that Etta was well-dressed. She was reading when he arrived, but later made dinner. There was also a white picket fence in front of the cabin and curtains in the window. The threesome also kept a springer-spaniel.
Opposite from Etta’s feminine influence were descriptions of her noting that although she was an elegant woman she “never wore dresses, just pants and boots.” She was also described as “good-looking, a good rider, and an expert with a rifle, though not with a revolver.” Although one rumor claims Etta may have had an affair with a neighbor, news of her dedication to Butch and Sundance floated back to the United States. Etta assisted her outlaw men in at least one robbery, but she also returned to the States with Sundance on numerous occasions. The last of these was in 1906, when Etta and Sundance evidently parted company. Sundance returned to South America and Etta disappeared into obscurity.
Although several theories speculate on what happened to Etta—two of the strongest accounts leave her in Denver or San Francisco—one thing is clear: she was not with Butch and Sundance when they allegedly met their end in Bolivia in 1908. So where did she go? Butch supposedly later told his family (who maintained the outlaw did not die in Bolivia) that Etta moved to Mexico City with Sundance. Fort Worth newspaper editor Delbert Willis claimed Etta was actually one Eunice Gray, a Fort Worth prostitute who died when her Waco hotel burned in 1962. Other historians have placed her at Florence, Arizona.
More outlandish stories of Etta’s ultimate fate include marrying an Irish adventurer and actually killing Sundance, marrying Elzy Lay and living out her life in La Paz. Or marrying Sundance and retiring to Wyoming or Chile. She could have been Janette Magor, who wed a Paraguayan government official before running an Arizona sanitarium. She might have been the mother of Betty Weaver who led her own gang of bank robbers during the 1920’s and 30’s. The stories, from bloody endings to obscure motherhood, go on and on.
lines have been compared time and time again looking for similarities. This particular controversy has been carried on for years; most recently the majority conclude that Etta and Ann could not have possibly been the same person.
Alas, the love affair between historians and Etta continues to this day. The enigmatic lady’s true story may in fact never be known, must to the angst who love her and admire her adventuresome spirit. The on-going mystery just seems such an unfitting end for the lady who was indeed the Belle of the Bunch.
Etta Place and The Sundance Kid. This photograph, taken in New York City in 1901, is the only verifiable portrait of the mysterious Etta Place. Courtesy Pinkerton Archives.