Early last year, a woman told us her grandmother “knew Etta Place and had visited her several times in Denver” in the 1940s.
Sensing we doubted her story about the Sundance Kid’s famous companion, she said if we didn’t believe her, we should call her grandmother, Anne Charter. Reached at her home in Montana, Charter sighed, “No, that’s one of those myths that come around. It was my husband’s father who was connected with those people.” Her late husband was Boyd Charter, whose father, Bert Charter, was a pal of Butch Cassidy in the 1880s. Anne Charter is the author of Cowboys Don’t Walk, a book about her family’s life in the West. “It was rumored,” she continued, “that Janet Magor was Etta Place. But I never met her, and Magor was not Etta Place.” Magor, who was Bert’s sister-in-law, was born in 1889 and therefore too young to have run off to South America in 1901 with the Sundance Kid.
Charter added, “People hear things; they remember things, then improve them.” Sometimes, rather than deliberately improving things, they simply misremember them.
This happened a few months later with Utah writer Garth Seegmiller, who mentioned in a phone call that he had “met Etta Place in the 1950s at her ranch along the Utah-Colorado border.” He described it as “a big ranch. She hired men to come in and work the cattle and cut the alfalfa. She had an unusual home— clean as could be, but it had a dirt floor.” He promised to look up his notes about his visit with Place. Two weeks later, he called back: “I had just started to go through this stuff that I haven’t looked at for so many years, and I screwed up. I goofed. It wasn’t Etta Place I met; it was Butch Cassidy’s girlfriend Josie Bassett.”
If Anne Charter and Garth Seegmiller had not been around to answer questions, their alleged encounters with Etta Place would have been recorded as bona fide, first-person sightings, and percolated through literature for years to come. Such tales murmur on long after their tellers have died.
Because so little is known about the Sundance Kid’s paramour, she is featured in many fanciful tales. A case in point is the yarn spun by former Pinkerton detective and Deputy New York City Police Commissioner George Dougherty. In 1913 he told a reporter that Etta Place had participated in the Wild Bunch’s bank holdup in Winnemucca, Nevada; had inspired Butch and Sundance to rob a bank in Argentina; and later had gone on a shopping spree in Europe and taken “a cure at the gaming tables in Monte Carlo.” At the present time Dougherty confided, she was “working with the band around Cape Horn.”
Dougherty’s comments, which bore no relation to the truth, were juiced up in a Texas newspaper a few years later. Place was no longer just a member of the gang, “She became its leader.” Like a mythical Amazon woman, she “bore the brunt of attacks by aroused citizens and was always the last in the getaway.” In Argentina, she allegedly became the “virtual ruler” of the Cholila Valley, where she ranched with Sundance and Butch in the early 1900s. “She lorded over the simple natives and they voluntarily became her abject slaves.” You could say she became the Wild Bunch dominatrix.
Another Place fabulist, who called himself both Robert H. Longabaugh and at other times Harry Longabaugh, Jr., (the newspapers dubbed him “Sundance, Jr.”), jaunted about the Rocky Mountains in the early 1970s, giving colorful lectures at county libraries on his supposed links, familial and otherwise, to Old West bandits. At times he said that Etta Place was his mother, Anna Marie Thayne, whereas on other occasions he claimed Place was his mother’s half sister, Hazel Thayne.
In 1990 Jane Fish wrote to True West magazine with the startling news that Place “was a gal from Door County, Wisconsin.” In subsequent correspondence with outlaw researchers, Ms. Fish said that Place was her father’s cousin, who had “got mixed up in a bad crowd,” and that her uncle had been murdered in 1894 in Winnettka, Illinois, possibly by the Sundance Kid. She worried that she had opened a “kettle of fish.”
Wisconsin is only one of several of alleged home states in a sea of Place folk tales. Several researchers casting for the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend reeled in letters from Florence Lind in Washington. When Lind was a child, she visited her grandmother in Tacoma. “Grandma went to a home and met with a very refined, quite beautiful woman,” Lind wrote. “Grandma gave her some money and said, ‘That’s all, there won’t be any more.’ The woman I’m sure was Etta.” The mystery woman had a male friend who had gone to Portland, but her grandmother didn’t want any of the money going to the man, who Lind was “sure was Sundance.”
Place discoverers often pounce on the fact that they have some ancestor named Etta or Place, unaware that neither was her real name. The name Etta was a Pinkerton error, perhaps a mistranscription by one of their post office spies. The agency’s detectives found a New York hotel ledger that she signed “Ethel Place,” and the authorities in Argentina said she went by the name Ethel while she was there. She became famous as Etta because that was the name used on most of the Pinkerton wanted posters. Place was Sundance’s alias—and his mother’s maiden name—which Etta adopted because she and Sundance traveled as husband and wife.
Retired Pinkerton detective Frank P. Dimaio, who had investigated Butch and Sundance in Argentina in 1903, recalled decades later, “I know nothing of Etta Place’s background, but have the impression that [Sundance] may have met her in a house of ill-fame, and that afterwards she became his common-law wife.” He mentioned that “she evidently ha[d] parents in Texas,” but he provided no further details.
Outlaws often found their mates in brothels, and Sundance recreated in San Antonio and Fort Worth before heading east with Place in tow for his escape to Argentina with Butch. Wyoming rancher John Gooldy wrote in his memoirs that a friend had received a letter from Sundance “with a picture of him and his wife, saying he had married a Texas lady he had known previously.”
There are some who say that Place was at first Butch’s girlfriend while they were in Robbers Roost during the winter of 1896-1897. But this tale surfaced decades later. In any event, there is no contemporary account of her existence until she appeared at Sundance’s side in 1901. The Pinkertons compiled information about the pair’s trip to New York in early 1901 while they were en route to Argentina, and about their return visit from Argentina in early 1902. The Pinkertons noted that she was “said to be [Sundance’s] wife and to be from Texas,” lamenting that the pair had had their portrait taken at the DeYoung studio, right under the agency’s nose: “What a great pity we did not get the information regarding the photograph while this party was in New York. It shows how daring these men are, and while you are looking for them in the wilderness and mountains they are in the midst of society.” A Buffalo clinic that treated Place and Sundance in May 1902 told the Pinkertons that she was “age 23 or 24—5 ft. 5. 110 #, Med Comp., Medium dark hair, Blue or grey eyes, regular features. No marks or blemishes.” She was, by any standard, a head-turner—well coifed and smartly dressed—a classic Gibson girl.
In Argentina the Wild Bunch trio’s neighbors remembered Place and her well-appointed house. Primo Caprera, an Italian immigrant who passed through Cholila in 1904, spent a night with the gang and wrote about it later.
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. The men were tall, slim, laconic and nervous, with intense gazes. The lady, who was reading, was well-dressed. I had a friendly dinner with them. Other neighbors recalled that she kept perfumed water in the house’s wash basins, spoke some Spanish, and rode and shot like a man.
The only holdup in which Place took part was the December 1905 robbery of the Banco de la Nación in Villa Mercedes in west central Argentina. The culprits numbered four. Butch, Sundance and Ethel were positively identified from Pinkerton photographs. After outrunning the Villa Mercedes posse, Place left South America for good. One of the bandits’ Cholila neighbors told police that the last they heard she was in San Francisco, going by the alias Ethel Matthews. That was in March 1906; she had arrived just in time for the earthquake.
What became of Place after she returned to the United States is unknown, although stories abound, none of which has ever panned out. Some report she ran a brothel in Fort Worth; she married an American boxing promoter in Paraguay; she married a Paraguayan diplomat; she enlisted with Pancho Villa or Emilio Zapata (take your pick); she was actually Ann Bassett. (That Bassett—whom no one ever accused of being publicity-shy—did not mention this startling fact in her racy memoirs is a minor detail.) Frank Dimaio passed along a story he had heard from a traveling salesman: She was killed together with Butch and Sundance in a shoot-out with police near a town named Mercedes. Later Dimaio guessed it must have been Mercedes, Uruguay, “as it is supposed to have an important hotel for salesmen to stay at.”
Ohioan Michael Buchtel nominated a shirt-tail ancestor for the role of Sundance’s girlfriend. But Maretta (“Etta” or “Etha”) Lynn Buchtel was a stocky, horse-faced, Kansas woman who looked absolutely nothing like the comely Place. Buchtel said that Buchtel-Place “became part of the hierarchy of the Wild Bunch” and “helped with the planning for robbing banks and trains” well into the early 1900s. He added that when she was not riding the outlaw trail, she took eleven husbands (not all at the same time).
A Nebraska man named Place suggested that Etta “could be buried in an unmarked grave” in his family plot. Still another man named Place offered yet one more candidate. He wrote that his father told him about “visiting his grandparents in Portland in the ’40s and meeting an aunt Etta (Place) who was an older lady . . . a retired school teacher.” His grandparents were “sort of ashamed of her for reasons that weren’t discussed.”
A Colorado flea-market habitué came forth with a photograph taken in Indiana of an unidentified thirty-something lady dressed in the Gibson-girl style, as were several million others of the period. To explain why the woman didn’t look like Place, he said she was “older.” To explain why she was wearing turn-of-the-century clothing in a portrait that he was compelled by her age to surmise was taken in the 1920s, he submitted that she was still in mourning over Sundance’s death and had made a vow to wear the same clothes she had worn when they were first together.
An old timer, Harold “Salty” Elkins, surfaced in Oklahoma in the 1970s, saying he had “married unknowingly an outlaw, Bettie Weaver”—though he hastened to add that he himself was “not an outlaw”—and that her mother, Laura E. Place, was Etta Place. He said his wife had told him so on her death bed. Could the story be true? Consider the title of a 1978 Yukon, Oklahoma, newspaper story about him: “Tall, Wild Tales Come from Pioneer Elkins.” “Looking backward down memory lane has made me a story teller,” Elkins told the reporter. “Some say I’m a little windy, but you see, not everyone can tell a story. The way I look at it, some have it and some don’t.”
Daniel Buck and Anne Meadows are contributing editors of True West. Meadows is the author of Digging Up Butch and Sundance (Bison Books, 1996). A bibliography of their outlaw history publications can be found at:
They live in Washington, D.C.