The Mysterious Case of Etta Place Pt. I  

Posted by Tony Hays

There are, literally, hundreds of mysterious disappearances lurking in American history. What happened to Amelia Earhart, the famous female aviator of the 1930s? For that matter, what happened to Judge Joseph Force Crater, who disappeared in the summer of 1930? Or, a more recent case, what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters chief who went to meet a union official and was never seen again? But we can safely say that these were involuntary disappearances. Earhart's plane went down somewhere in the Pacific on a round-the-globe flight. Crater had some unsavory companions and was last seen carrying a great deal of money. In all fairness though, Crater's young mistress, Sally Lou Ritz, disappeared within weeks of Crater and, like him, has never been seen since. Hoffa, well, Hoffa had a lot of enemies.

But the story of Etta Place is rather more mysterious because it would appear that she chose to disappear, not long after the reported deaths of her lover, Harry Longabaugh and his friend, Robert Leroy Parker, better known to posterity as the Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. What makes it doubly mysterious is that we don't even know her real name or from whence she came. Katherine Ross did a wonderful job fixing her image in the public consciousness in the 1969 movie "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," elevating her to near iconic status. But all that did was birth a generation of Etta Place fans.

I would never claim to be a true Etta Place aficionado; I happened on the conundrum she poses quite by accident. In fact, I was a little surprised that the world had simply swallowed Etta up. But I quickly learned that except for about 12 years at the most, Etta Place didn't exist.

The majority of the experts agree that Butch and Sundance probably met Etta at a bordello around 1900. The Pinkerton Agency, which had a strong interest in Etta, described her as attractive, speaking with an educated tone. Estimates of her birth year range from 1878 to 1882 or 1883. Rumors suggest that she was a cousin of Longabaugh's since Longabaugh's mother was a Place. General consensus holds that Sundance met Etta at Fannie Porter's bordello in San Antonio about 1900. By 1909, Etta had ridden off into the sunset, while Sundance and Butch were said to be dead in South America. Indeed there are those researchers who say that Etta died in South America as well. Acquaintances, what few there were, called Etta beautiful and said that she spoke with a refined accent. Without ever saying anything explicit, she indicated that she hailed from the East Coast. Pinkerton Detective Agency reports supported this as well. Only a handful of people knew her well enough as Etta Place to offer descriptions – Annie Bassett, Josie Bassett, and Laura Bullion among these. This trio of young ladies were the girlfriends of various members of the Wild Bunch, the outlaw gang of which Butch and Sundance were a big part.

Assuming, as seems certain, that Etta (or Ethel) Place was not her real name, I set out to see what I could do to add to the mystery. (Notice I said "add.")

The United States census is a marvelous thing. Beginning with 1790, it has been taken every ten years. And, since I had a city (San Antonio) and a head of household (Fannie Porter), I thought it would be beneficial to look at the 1900 census of Bexar County, as the researcher consensus says that's the nexus year, the year they all came together. Fannie, herself little more than a girl in 1900, claimed to be of British extraction. The birthdates did not help all that much. Of the five girls, all were born in or around 1878-80. One girl in the household intrigued me beyond the others. Twenty-two year old Madaline (sic) Wilson appears in the census immediately beneath Madam Fannie. And like Fannie, she is listed as of English birth, immigrating to the United States in 1884 when she was six. Now here's where the conjecture has to come in. It is quite possible that she had changed her name, but does that dictate that she would have changed her date of birth, country of origin, and date of immigration? In the second part, I'll explore those questions and see if Madaline Wilson is a legitimate candidate for Etta Place.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 7:23 AM . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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