Tangled Webs: The Wild Bunch and Their Women

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Separating fact from fiction when it came to some members of the Wild Bunch and their women got downright confusing because of the stories handed down over the years and picked up by writers. One of those was the relationship between Butch Cassidy, Elzy Lay and the Bassett sisters of Brown’s Park. I went to some experts on the subject.

Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay were about the same age, good friends, both were popular with the ladies and truth be told the title of the 1969 film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford might well have been called “Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay.” But of course, that wouldn’t have worked. As Wild Bunch author, Donna Ernst so aptly put it, “Elzy’s friendship with Butch would have been an entirely different story and probably not as interesting.”

The lair of the Wild Bunch was Hole in the Wall, Wyoming. Surrounded by ridged walls the entrance was guarded by formidable mountains and riders could be seen approaching from a great distance. And, it was easily defendable. Naturally, pursuing posses were reluctant to enter the area.

To the south of Hole in the Wall was Brown’s Park, a large isolated valley along the Utah-Colorado border that was home to a number of settlers.  Locals had no love for railroads and banks and therefore were friendly with and even socialized with the outlaws. In return, the outlaws were careful not to commit any crimes in the valley.

One of those ranches was owned by Herb and Elizabeth Bassett who homesteaded on the Colorado side. Herb was the kind of guy who figured what a man did for a living was his own business. They were known for playing host to weary travelers and never asked questions.  Among those were Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay.

Herb was not in good health and Elizabeth ran the ranch. She needed help and Butch hired out where he made the acquaintance of another hand, Elzy Lay. They were the same age and became fast friends.

The Bassett’s had two daughters, fifteen-year-old Josie and nine-year-old Ann. The latter had a big crush on Cassidy. Butch was a likeable, affable and social guy and he probably escorted Josie to dances on Sunday. Years later Josie and Ann each claimed having a romance with both Butch and Elzy. It might be said they were quite adept at embellishing their youthful years. Wild Bunch author Dan Buck says, “Both Ann & Josie were story tellers, competitive story tellers and where fact ends & fiction begins with them is hard to discern.  Worse, people repeated the Bassetts’ stories, improving them, which is to say distorting them.”

One story says the sisters got into a knockdown, drag-out fight over Butch but Linda Wommack, who’s currently working on a biography of Ann Bassett, says “Josie, a young teenager at the time, claimed she and Butch had a “thing” goin’ on one summer, but the there’s “no truth to the sister fight story.”

Another member of the Wild Bunch was Will Carver. He was born in Texas in 1868 and worked as a cowboy for a few years. In July, 1891 he married a woman named Vianna Byler but she died of the fever a year later. Less than a year after Vianna’s death Carver took up with her niece, Laura Bullion.

When he and Laura split the blanket she paired off with Ben Kilpatrick. In October, 1900 Carver met Lillie Davis, a prostitute working in Fannie Porter’s brothel in Fort Worth. They married two months later. Lillie’s real name was Callie May Hunt That marriage didn’t last long either. On April 2nd, 1901, he was shot to death was shot to death in Sonora, Texas while casing the local bank.

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Etta Place

The best known of the women who ran with members of the Wild Bunch was Ethel (or Etta) Place. She was quite pretty, tall and slender with auburn hair and green eyes. She was also a good horsewoman and shooter. Nobody seems to know where she came from, what she was, or where she went. She might have been a runaway mother from Texas, a schoolteacher or she might have been a prostitute at Fanny Porter’s bordello in Fort Worth. There’s even a theory that she was really Ann Bassett. Her real name is a mystery too.  She called herself Ethel, although than may have been an alias.  A Pinkerton detective copied “Etta” erroneously off a hotel register and that’s how she was listed in their files.  Their wanted posters referred to her as Etta and the name stuck.  Sundance was using the alias, Harry A. Place, the surname of his mother and while living as his significant other she took the name Place.

On February 20th, 1901 Butch, Sundance and Ms. Place boarded a steamer bound for Argentina. For two years they lived quietly on their ranch in Patagonia, living within the law, raising cattle and sheep.  But in 1903 Pinkerton informants intercepted a letter Sundance had written to his family in Pennsylvania. The Pinkerton Agency immediately sent flyers to Argentina to be on the lookout for America’s most famous train robbers.

Sometime in 1906, Ethel might have been stricken with appendicitis. Sundance took her to the United States and left her at a hospital in Denver then returned Argentina.  From that time on she remains one of the West’s most famous missing persons.

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