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