Friday, July 31, 2015

MYSTERY WOMAN OF THE WEST - ETTA PLACE

By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

Her name has become infamous, recorded in history books, and even portrayed on film as Etta Place, yet it is widely believed the name she used was false. To this day, she remains one of the most mysterious women of the American West. Despite the fact many books have been written that address her possible identity, we still know little about her.

Was she an innocent young woman seduced by handsome snake oil salesman Harry Alonzo Longabaugh before he became the Sundance Kid? Was she a schoolteacher? A housekeeper at a sporting house? A prostitute? The proprietor of the Waco Hotel in Fort Worth, Texas? All of the above? Or, are all these simply speculation?

Looking at the only known image of Etta Place, photographed here with her dashing outlaw lover just before they sailed in 1901 (with Butch Cassidy) to South America, it’s hard to believe that so classic a beauty was not a properly raised, articulate, educated young lady. There is a delicate refinement to this young woman, in the innocence of her expression, and in the way she stands with such sweet elegance. Let’s face it; she hardly looks the part of a bank robbing, train robbing outlaw’s woman. Then again, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh hardly looks like a notorious outlaw either.

Does this photograph reflect the true image of these people? They appear to be a handsome young couple in love and devoted to one another. The truth is, there are two sides to every coin. Harry and Etta might have appeared to be nice, quiet, law-abiding citizens, but they also had a living-on-the-edge, dangerous secret identity.

If you are just as curious as me about the true identity of Etta Place, you may find this post of particular interest. Without question she is a fascinating historical figure, and I would like to share with you some of the theories and facts that have been made about her.

According to Richard E. Selcer, author of Hell’s Half Acre: The Life And Legend Of A Red-Light District, it was “believed” Etta Place worked as a housekeeper at Fannie Porter’s Sporting House (in other words, a brothel) in Fort Worth, Texas. And it was there she met the Wild Bunch. [It should be noted however, that there was also a Fannie Porter's Boarding House located in San Antonio, Texas.] Also in Selcer’s book, the real Etta Place reportedly returned to the United States from South America in 1907 and lived the remainder of her life as a schoolteacher in Denver or in Marion, Oregon.

Another claim about Etta Place by the Good Housekeeping Women’s Almanac is that she was a married schoolteacher in Fort Worth before she met the Sundance Kid at a community dance.

An additional, compelling possibility came to light in June 1970. An alleged interview took place in San Francisco, California, between historical fiction author Cary Holladay and a 92-year old woman claiming to be the "real" Etta Place . Ms. Holladay’s interview with this mystery woman makes for interesting reading. However, no actual evidence or documentation (including her real name) are provided. Since Ms. Holladay is an author of historical fiction, one cannot help but wonder if this interview was written as fiction purely to entertain the reader. Then again, it is possible Ms. Holladay left out the woman's real name to protect her identity. But why be interviewed at all if you are not going to 'come clean' at the grand old age of 92, and prove you are indeed who you claim to be. At least that's my thinking. There is no indication that it is a fictional interview. Yet without proof, it's just another story. I would like to point out that I have contacted Ms. Holladay for further details regarding the validity of this interview, but have not as yet received a reply.

Regardless, this elderly woman claimed she was born in 1878. This year coincides with the approximate age attributed to Etta Place by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The woman also claimed that in June 1897, at the age of 19, she met Harry Alonzo Longabaugh in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. At that time, the Sundance Kid was working with a medicine show selling fraudulent pills that claimed to cure tapeworms. Having been sent to town to buy medicine for her ailing mother, the young woman brought the handsome stranger home and slept with him that very night – with her mother in the next room. Rather scandalous to be sure. She also claims she had black hair, but the description of Etta by the Pinkerton detectives was that she had brown hair, was articulate, and refined in both manner and speech. Although the manner in which this woman speaks in the interview is not the proper grammar one would expect from an educated, refined woman, she does relay some curious information.

For example, this alleged Etta Place made a point to claim credit for suggesting Longabaugh start robbing banks as an alternative vocation. When he left to steal his fortune, he asked her to “wait for him” and they remained in contact for three years. In 1900, Longabaugh sent for her. She traveled by train to St. Louis where they were married by a preacher. This alleged marriage ceremony also fits the information that has been claimed by historians; however, no proof of a marriage has ever been found.

The anonymous woman claimed to have traveled to South America with Butch Cassidy (whom she didn't like) and the Sundance Kid where they owned a ranch in Argentina. This was a well-known fact about Etta and her outlaw companions, even in 1970. Much was known about the life and history of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Etta Place. Not to mention the blockbuster movie, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" had been released in 1969. In fact, the woman claimed she saw the film during the interview. She also addressed the dramatic ending to the film and the much publicized story that both men were killed in Bolivia in 1908. On the contrary, according to this professed Etta Place . She stated the famous outlaws killed each other in a drunken argument over a piano on their ranch in Argentina. She also claimed they were buried on the ranch.

Unfortunately, for ancient Etta's story, according to Pinkerton evidence, the ranch in Argentina was sold in 1905. After learning the Pinkertons were closing in on them, the outlaws (and Etta) fled to Chile.

There is also documentation Etta was upset they had to sell the ranch and tired of trying to stay one step ahead of the law. She wanted to leave South America for good. Consequently, Sundance (still alive and well) accompanied his wife back to the United States in 1906. He returned alone to South America where he met his fate two years later.

But back to the 92-year old woman. She stated her second husband (no name provided) owned a grocery store in Oregon, and they had a son named Percy. It should be noted here that author Richard E. Selcer claimed one of the places rumored to be where Etta Place lived after returning from South America was Marion, Oregon. A random coincidence or two connecting pieces of the Etta Place mystery puzzle?

As for the confirmed historical facts about the real Etta Place, she had already returned to the United States when both outlaws died in South America. What happened to her afterwards, and how she evaded the law, continues to be the stuff of rumor and conjecture. Even the Pinkertons couldn’t find her, and that says a lot.

Another intriguing candidate for the true identity of Etta Place was a woman named Eunice Gray, owner and manager of the Waco Hotel in Fort Worth, Texas. In the book titled, Fort Worth by Leonard Sanders, the author addresses the identity of Etta Place and references Pinkerton files.

Sanders cites that according to Frank Dimaio, a Pinkerton detective who pursued Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Etta Place to South America, the detective agency had definite evidence Etta had been a schoolteacher before the two outlaws met her as a prostitute living in Fort Worth, Texas. Of course, I’d like to believe she was—as claimed in the Good Housekeeping Women’s Almanac—simply a schoolteacher, or the housekeeper at that sporting house, but the Pinkerton National Detective Agency findings indicate otherwise.

In any event, on what was to be her last trip back to the United States with Sundance, Etta became ill and underwent surgery in Denver, Colorado. Furthermore, while she recuperated in the hospital, a drunken Longabaugh shot a policeman in the leg then fled back to South America. Contrary to reports he accompanied her to San Francisco in 1906, Pinkerton records documented that after Etta was released from the hospital, her whereabouts became unknown. Their attention was focused on Sundance and his return to South America. Consequently, this provides further confirmation that she was not in South America when Sundance and Butch Cassidy were killed. Neither was she present when and if they shot it out over a piano.

For certain, it seems Etta was finally fed up with the desperado lifestyle. The Argentina property she had in her name had been sold. While recovering from surgery in Denver, Colorado, her 'husband' got in trouble again with the law, abandoned her, and high-tailed it out of the country. What happened when she walked out of that hospital? Where did she go? All we know for certain is that she successfully eluded Pinkerton detectives from that moment on.

However, according to Fort Worth author Leonard Sanders, at approximately the same time Etta Place vanished from the hospital without a trace, a woman named Eunice Gray arrived in Fort Worth, Texas. Noted for her striking beauty, Eunice became a courtesan for very prominent men in Fort Worth. Those that knew Mrs. Gray said she also often spoke of her adventures in South America. Is it another coincidence that Eunice Gray and Etta Place (same age, both beautiful) both happened to live in South America for a time, or yet another piece of a puzzle? And there is also the Fort Worth connection.

According to public records, Eunice Gray operated the Waco Hotel in Fort Worth, Texas for 40 years. On 26 January 1962, she died in a fire at the hotel. At the time of her death, she was the only person living at the hotel, and occupied a lavishly decorated 3-room suite that looked like it belonged in a European estate. Interestingly, after her death, firemen found bank stock worth $90,000 behind a wall. More bank stock was found when the hotel building was torn down to make way for the Tarrant County Convention Center. [Note: The location of the hotel was in Hell’s Half Acre, not a respectable part of Fort Worth, and an area where sporting houses and brothels were abundant.]

Still, historians of Fort Worth, and an individual handling the estate of Mrs. Gray, convinced Leonard Sanders that Etta Place and Eunice Gray were “one and the same”. Even more of a red flag was the fact that after he wrote a newspaper article about the comparison between the two women, Sanders was contacted by a Pinkerton detective. The detective wanted to know the source of his information. When Sanders asked why, he was told, “The file has never closed on Etta Place.” Mind you, the year was 1984.

So, I decided to do some research on my own, particularly since the Pinkertons were interested in a possible connection between Etta Place and Eunice Gray. I located the official Death Certificate for Eunice Gray. She did indeed die from burns and suffocation on 26 January 1962 at the Waco Hotel. Her birth name was listed as Ermine ‘Eunice’ McEntire, and she was born in Saline County, Missouri on 23 April 1880. Although the approximate birth year for Etta Place, according to the Pinkertons, was 1878, a two year difference is not unusual. Additionally, the Death Certificate states her body was to be returned to Missouri for burial. The information provided for the Death Certificate was from a family member.

From genealogical information I was able to obtain, Eunice was the daughter of Thomas S. McEntire, a watchmaker. The US Census records for 1880 in Saline County, Missouri showed that Thomas and Mollie McEntire lived in Brownsville, Saline County, Missouri, and had three children, two boys and an infant girl. The Census was taken in June of 1880, and Eunice McIntire would have been 2-months old at the time. Subsequent research found her mother died in 1885, nine days after giving birth to Eunice’s baby sister. Her father remarried two years later, and had another son. According to the 1900 US Census, Eunice (then 20) was still living at her family home.

Remember, in December 1900, the real Etta supposedly married Harry A. Longabaugh (who had used the alias Harry A. Place) in St. Louis, Missouri. In January 1901, the couple went to Montgomery County, Pennsylvania to visit his family. Another discrepancy which discredits Eunice Gray being Etta Place is that the Pinkerton National Detective Agency believed Etta was living in Texas during 1899-1900. Eunice McIntire (not yet having assumed the surname 'Gray') was still living in Missouri with her family, and by her own admission did not move to Fort Worth until 1901.

Additionally, in February 1901, the real Etta Place and Harry Longabaughh went to New York City where he purchased the famous watch pendant for her at Tiffany's and they had their portrait taken. On 20 February 1901, together with Butch Cassidy, they sailed to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Thus, Eunice Gray was living in Fort Worth, Texas in 1901 while Etta Place was aboard a ship en route to South America. Still, the two women did both live in Fort Worth, Texas for a time. And they both spent time living in South America. Eunice Gray left Fort Worth for a 5-year period, and documentation shows her on a 1911 passenger list returning to the United States from Panama. What do you think? Here is a photograph of Eunice McIntire Gray made public on the FindAGrave website. Although she has a dimple in her chin like Etta Place, she does not (in my opinion) resemble the real Etta Place.

So, who was Etta Place and what happened to her? Her name is fictitious. Her surname is, in fact, the maiden name of Harry Alonzo Longabaugh’s mother. There is evidence her first name might have been Ethel since she signed her name as Ethel Place at one time. It is rather ironic that we have no idea what her real name was, or where she was born. She traveled back and forth to South America using a variety of names. She was admitted to a hospital in Denver for an appendectomy yet disappeared afterwards.

Despite the fact that many women have been believed to be her, and a 92-year old woman in 1970 claimed to be her, we still don't know the truth. Was the mystery woman in San Francisco the real Etta Place? Or, was she simply a woman obsessed with the life of Etta -- like the woman who professed for years to be the Princess Anastasia. Only DNA testing proved after her death that she had lied for years and that the skeletal remains of a female found in an unmarked common grave with a male skeleton turned out to be the true Princess Anastasia with her brother.

So, despite my efforts and my fascination with Etta Place, she continues to be a mystery--one that may never be solved. But if you are interested in the actual documented facts about the woman who loved the Sundance Kid, here is the official timeline:

TIMELINE FOR ETTA PLACE ~

1. In a 1906 Pinkerton memoranda, Etta Place was described as about 27 or 28 years old, making her estimated year of birth 1878. She had brown hair and was 5’5 or 5’6” tall, and weighed about 110-115 pounds.

2. Pinkerton records state she was very attractive, educated, and spoke with a refined manner. Without providing any detailed information as to her origin or background, she claimed to be from the East Coast, and Pinkerton records substantiate this information.

3. In December 1900, using the alias of Harry A. Place, the Sundance Kid married Etta in St. Louis, Missouri. However, no supporting documentation of this marriage exists.

4. In January 1901, Sundance and Etta visit his family in Mont Clare, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

5. In February 1901, Sundance and Etta go to New York City. He buys her a watch pendant at Tiffany's and they have their portrait taken.

6. On 20 February 1901, Sundance, Butch Cassidy, and Etta board the British ship Herminus for Buenos Aires, Argentina.

7. Upon arrival in Argentina, Butch and Sundance purchase a 15,000 acre ranch, of which 2500 acres are deeded to Etta. She is the first woman in Argentina to own land. Before this date, no women were allowed to own land.

8. In March 1902, Etta returns to the Untied States with Sundance. Pinkerton agents obtain evidence she was homesick and wanted to visit family. However, they were never able to locate or identify any family members.

9. In April 1902, Sundance and Etta take up temporary lodgings in New York City at Mrs. Thompson's Boarding House.

10. In July 1902, Sundance and Etta (posing as stewards) return to Buenos Aires from New York City aboard the Honorius.

11. On 09 August 1902, Sundance and Etta register at the Hotel Europa in Buenos Aires.

12. On 15 August 1902, they depart by boat for their ranch in Argentina.

13. In the summer of 1904, Sundance and Etta returned to the United States. At this time the Pinkerton detectives traced them to Fort Worth, Texas, and also the World's Fair in St. Louis.

14. In 1905, having returned to Argentina, the ranch is sold because the law was closing in on them. Sundance, Etta, and Butch Cassidy flee to Chile.

15. By December 1905, the trio returns to Argentina. Butch and Sundance rob another bank, forcing them all to flee once more to Chile.

16. On 30 June 1906, Sundance accompanies Etta back to the United States then returns alone to South America.

17. In 1907, Etta is reportedly living alone in San Francisco.

18. In 1909, a woman matching the description of Etta Place attempts to obtain a Death Certificate for Harry Alonzo Longabaugh. No certificate is issued and the woman is never seen again. Since the law (and the Pinkertons) believed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were dead, Etta Place fell off their radar.

Additionally, if you are interested or curious about the full interview posted by Cary Holladay from 1970, here is the linkt: http://freightstories.com/Holladay.html

As always, thank you very much for stopping by today. I do apologize for the length of this post but, as you can see, there was a great deal of information to share on this subject. Perhaps one day someone will learn the truth about Etta Place. After all, every mystery needs to be solved. ~ AKB

NOTATION:
After posting this article, I did receive a reply from author Cary Holladay as to my questions regarding the validity of her interview. Please scroll down to the Comments below to read what Ms. Holladay had to say about the interview, and my feelings on the matter. Thanks. ~ AKB

Sources:
Fort Worth by Leonard Sanders, 1984
Hell's Half Acre: The Life And Legend Of A Red-Light District by Richard F. Selcer, 1991

18 comments:

  1. I agree that the Etta Place photo and Eunice Gray photo are not the same woman. The shape of the face is not the same and I think Etta was prettier. It is a mystery that will probably never be solved, but makes very interesting reading.

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    1. Caroline, knowing how much you have done doing genealogy research, we both know that many people avoided having Census info taken (especially after the Civil War), and many records were destroyed by fire, but it is strange that Etta was able to vanish and not have a single trace of info about her. Frustrating, and fascinating.

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  2. Holy smokes, Ashley, you really dug in and did some serious research here. You've put forth a great deal of effort, time and energy to write this post. I enjoyed reading it.
    I love a good mystery and it's so much fun to try to figure out if Etta Place was who she said she was, or if she was just a great inventor of her own fiction. What would life be without some mystery and unsolved suspicions of what might be?
    All the very best to you, Ashley.

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    1. Thank you so much, Sarah J. I think that Sundance wanted to protect her as much as possible, and taught her well how to not be found or have her family relations bothered. Still, with all the traveling they did together (in the states and overseas), something must be out there. I would LOVE to sit down and read the entire file the Pinkertons had on her. There must be something! And I love a challenge. :)

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  3. Thank you, Ashley, for sharing your in depth research on this mysterious woman. She's the stuff of legend for sure.

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    1. Thanks, Lyn. Whatever happened to her, I hope she found peace and happiness, as well as security.

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  4. Wow, lots on interesting info to digest. Now you have me wondering about Marion, Oregon since I live in Oregon. One of these days I may have to check out their records.

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  5. Ooh, let me know if you find out anything, Paty. Denver would also be a good place since she was hospitalized there. Love playing detective, but time to focus and get my next book out. :)

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  6. Lots of great info. In my head, Etta and Sundance will always be a handsome couple madly in love. 💗 the teacher-lady scene in BCATSK still gets my heart racing!

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  7. Thanks, Tanya. And I love that scene, too. 😊

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  8. This has always been an intriguing story. I've researched her some, too, as probably others have. But never this much detail that you discovered and recorded in this post. Excellent.
    She was a bit like Anastasia, I think.
    Thanks for the wonderful photos and perfect post.

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    1. Thank you, Celia. Without question, the statute of limitation for her liability to any involvement in crime - especially as an accessory - has long since been dead and buried. I hope she did live a long life,,and found love again. Perhaps a descendant will come forward with proof and answer all our questions.

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  9. Just to follow-up on this post, I heard back from author (and English professor) Cary Holladay about the validity of the 1970 interview she posted with a woman claiming to be Etta Place. The interview is fiction. She included some historical elements, but made up the entire thing. As I noted in my post above, I did question the validity of the interview -- which is why I contacted Ms Holladay. I even waited a day before posting my article, hoping for her response. To be certain, the interview did make for interesting reading; however, it should have had (in my opinion) clarification that it was indeed fake.

    Admittedly, it upsets me as a writer and one who loves history when something is presented as fact that is either not properly researched or made up. But it also demonstrates the importance of questioning books, articles, or alleged interviews. All too often people post erroneous information on historical figures. And many publish this information as fact.

    You must be thorough and seek other sources to confirm everything. I love historical fiction. I write historical fiction. I have even included famous figures from history in my books. However, I do intensive research to ensure the accuracy of their portrayal - as well as verification they were in the location of the book at the time it takes place. Readers of historical fiction are savvy. We want accurate details. Although Ms. Holladay wanted to do a "fun" fictional interview (which she did), she should havve added something like, "I hope you enjoyed this make-believe interview. Although some of the facts are historically correct to help embellish the story, no such interview took place."

    Much as we want to entertain readers, as writers of historical fiction, we have a responsibility to make sure the public is informed whethet that work is fact or fiction. Readers want to have -- and expect -- accuracy in historical fiction (and non-fiction). There is nothing wrong with writing a fictitious story about a famous figure from history or weaving a fantasy about what happened to them, just respect the audience enough to "identify" your work as fiction. And with someone like Etta Place, a person historians have been searching for details about since the late 1800s, making public any type of false information -- and not clarifying it IS fiction -- can have a snowball effect that perpetuates confusion and muddies the waters of accurate historical research.

    I do appreciate Ms. Holladay responding to my inquiry, but I hope she will now add that is indeed fiction, intended for entertainment purposes only. - AKB

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  10. You've done an amazing amount of work and found information that is truly interesting. Thanks for sharing everything. I, too, have found Etta to be an interesting person. Great post, Ashley.

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    1. Thank you, Paisley. I am happy you found it of interest. :)

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  11. Great detective work, Ashley. I am amazed that Ms Halladay would publish that interview without making clear the fact that it was fiction. That is really a violation of the tenets she should be teaching. Good for you for pursuing this.

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  12. Etta Place was thought to be from Texas according to the Pinkerton Memo dated July 29, 1902. The May 1902 Pinkerton note from Detective Frank Dimaeo has her as 24, No Blemishes, 5 foot 5 to foot 6 . The note is suspected to be her physical description taken form Dr . Pierces Invalids Hotel where she and Harry Longabaugh (The Sundance Kid ) Checked in so he could get a gunshot wound in his left leg repaired . She left with Harry and Butch Cassidy on Feb 20th aboard a freighter ( The Herminius ) Bound for Buenos Aires out of the Atlantic Pier in Brooklyn in 1901. I have more - But for now , I hope this helps -

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  13. Can the public access the Pinkerton records on Etta ? Can her signatures be accessed ?

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