Monday, July 27, 2015

Sundance With History: In Search of Ethel Place

By Doug Vehle, For The Daily Bosco

I shouldn't watch those YouTube videos about Butch and Sundance. For one, I happen to realize their alleged death as depicted at the end of the 1969 film was exposed as a hoax at the time the claim was made - 'Oh, we MISPLACED the graves we buried them in.' It was never seriously attached to the legend until screenwriter William Goldman decided it would create a touching finish to the film. It might have made a nice touch to cook up some closure for Ethel Place, too. Oops, did Goldman call her 'Etta?' I guess this means it's time for me to get touchy about depictions in history again. But this time, not for the obvious reason.

So up pops this webpage of the 'Life History of Ethel Etta Harvey.' Out of the blue, as though I was somehow meant to see it This is headed by a photograph of a woman (Lower right) who bares considerable resemblance to the mystery woman Ethel Place in the only known photograph with Harry Longabaugh that I'd ever seen. Longabaugh is of course better known by his alias as Sundance. (Notice I didn't put 'Kid' at the end of that?) Indeed Place is held to be an alias, creating one of the more popular mysteries of the old west. One that has some complicated, even complex theories but no perfect explanations. So, using the best of those I'm going to come up with the most complex of all, which solves what problems I know with the other theories. All in fun, yet also with the same deadly interest with which so many historians screw up their theories.

We can thank and dismiss Madame Harvey as suspect at this point; 11 years old in early 1901 as Ethel place is boarding a South America bound ship for the first time, she was too young to do anything other than serve as the inspiration for my bolt from the blue that came as I read her name and looked at her picture. She reminded me of how little you can be certain of in a case like this, although people pretend they know for a fact.

Let's start with the prime suspect: Many see Ann Bassett as Ethel Place, case closed. The most effective law enforcement of the old west, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, literally gave identical descriptions of the two in their files. Dr. Thomas Kyle of the Los Alamos National Laboratory conducted photo analysis of the two (Upper right photos) and concluded they were one and the same, right down to a matching scar/birthmark. Both have been named as among just 5 women known of have been allowed in the Hole in the Wall hideout. Ethel Place is known to have told a doctor she was born in 1878. Bassett, indeed, was born in 1878. Place was in Colorado when she gave the birth year, the Bassett ranch has parts in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado.

Place is said to have been excellent on horseback and with a rifle. As a cattle rustler trying to recover lost inventory from those hired to drive her family off their ranch, Bassett proved herself with both. Place has been described as having a "Refined" accent, be it English, of or New England. Bassett was well known for affecting accents, which she is said to have done well. If you think Place handled herself well in the company of outlaws and while on the run, remember Bassett is known to have been in the company of those outlaws in action, (The girlfriend of Butch at 15) as well as herself having to elude none other than Tom Horn, who was hired to kill her. Certainly we have a qualified candidate.

What mostly works in her favor is the fact that noone ever saw the two of them in the same place at the same time. What does not work is that shortly after Place apparently accompanied Longabaugh on a second trip to South America in later 1902, Bassett was arrested and had a short stay in jail before her acquittal. She would be out before the pair returned. While she had married rather quickly after she would have returned from the first trip, that hardly seems out of character for a woman who is known to have been involved with Butch Cassidy, Sundance, plus others of the Wild Bunch. She and her sister Josie (A third woman who went to the hideout) traded boyfriends at times. The new husband provided needed help with the family land, as their father was some 40+ years older than his daughters.

So you might have to agree that this dismisses Bassett as a suspect. Or do you? While Bassett would seem to have returned to the ranch and her husband for several years before divorcing him, we're back to lacking real proof she remained at the ranch this whole time. Place, Longabaugh, and of course Butch himself - Robert Parker - all owned land in South America, one would expect if Bassett were in fact Place she might have returned with Longabaugh on the third trip. And perhaps she did.# So now you get the idea I'm partial to the theory that Ann Bassett was indeed the 'Real' Ethel place. To make that theory hold up, I would have to come up with the plausible explanation that past historians have been unable to resolve: How could Ethel Place be in South American while Bassett is in jail and on trial?

Enter another suspect. In 1962 a fire destroyed the Waco Hotel, killing the mysterious owner, known as Eunice Gray. While she had identification as Gray giving a birthdate in 1884, she was positively identified as Ermine McEntire, born 1880 and possibly from England. As Gray, she had turned up in Ft. Worth, Texas in 1909 and opened a 'House of ill repute.' In the only interview she ever granted, she made the statement "I've lived in Fort Worth since 1901. That is except for the time I had to high-tail it out of town. Went to South America for a few years . . . until things settled down."

McEntire is believed to have been one of several girls raised but not employed in another such business in a mother daughter sort of relationship with the owner. This was one of the two such places that legend holds that Butch and Sundance met Ethel Place. There is no explanation where the rumor was started, but it was long the supposition of the Ft. Worth community that indeed this Eunice Gray was in fact Ethel Place. Prior to the photographic analysis, she'd been considered the leading candidate to be Place, though of course there was no proof. Although she was known to have surfaced in Ft. Worth by 1909, she was listed as returning to the U.S. from Panama by ship in 1911. This after a woman meeting the description of Place had been trying to obtain a copy of a death certificate for the legendary outlaws. But there was no death certificate, the two outlaw heroes were not named as the outlaws killed for some time afterward.

To make this theory work, first I need to complete the sequence of events. Place makes her third and believed to be final trip to South America in 1905. Her land, as well as that of her more famous companions, is sold as part of what is believed to be a plan to leave forever. The boys had been moonlighting to deal with money trouble, it's not easy to hide out when you have a ranch to look out for. Also the Pinkerton Detectives have been poking around, there would be wanted posters for all three, with the woman referred to as 'Etta Place.' Ethel Place and Harry Longabaugh found their way to San Francisco, where she is said to have been in 1907.

When two Americans fought to a standstill a group of soldiers, police and local officials in San Vincente, Bolivia in 1908, they killed one soldier and wounded another. When the shooting wound down hours later, the two men were wounded and trapped, unable to escape. Apparently one shot the other in the forehead, then took his own life. The men were named as the suspects in a payroll robbery, but buried unidentified. Then the Pinkerton Agency did some due diligence on reports of two American outlaws,even if those outlaws had been in Argentina, not Bolivia. Local authorities basically responded 'Sure, we'll take the reward.' But there was simply no proof that it was indeed Butch and Sundance at a time when American outlaws were routinely hiding out in countries both sides of the Equator. No body was ever identified as potentially either Parker or Longabaugh, even with later DNA testing. Nor is there a shortage of lesser known American outlaws who suddenly vanished in the mists.

Now, with that background in place, it's far easier to explain my theory about Madame Place. Eunice Gray/Ermine McEntire is considered definitively dismissed as the Ethel Place in the famous 1901 photograph. Long the favorite in the identification derby, it would be 45 years after her death when a historian was able to connect the Eunice Gray of the 1911 voyage to a niece, who provided the only two known photographs of the woman, the lower left photo being just 3 years before the Ethel Place portrait. Photo identification eliminated her as a possibility. But not so fast:

My theory, which solves the fatal problems of all the other theories, is that Ann Bassett did indeed take up the alias of Ethel Place, the last name being the same as the maiden name of Harry Longabaugh's mother, as a way of moving freely on a frontier where rival cattle land owners were trying to driver her family out and she had gained considerable notoriety of her own while in her teens, including being a target of Tom Horn. (Legend has it the Wild Bunch intervened with a friendly warning to Horn, who killed the others he was imported to exterminate but left the Bassett sisters alone.) Thus is Place then placed in that region.

When Longabaugh seeks to lay low for awhile, a trip to New York probably sounded terribly exciting to Bassett, who wanted to travel as incognito as her companion. A trip to Tiffany Jewelers then to a photographer for the now famous photo, such a whirlwind trip. Seems Longabaugh hadn't learned his lesson from the famous portrait with Butch, the REAL Kid/Kid Curry, etc. The photographer was so proud of it he displayed it prominently, leading to the recognition by those who'd seen them and the first known photographs becoming available for wanted posters. Now, too, was there a solid clue to the identity of Ethel Place.

So as Mr. and Mrs. Place boarded a steamer in the company of her "Brother" Jack Ryan, (Guess who) they were putting in action a long discussed but always dismissed plan to flee to a foreign country and start over again as ranchers. The Parker family owned a ranch until the Mormon Church ordered him off the land so they could give it to someone they considered more Mormon than Butch's father. As Parker slowly drifted farther into crime, he continued to work as a ranch hand. He was even known to be "Ranching" in the Hole in the Wall hideout. After more than a year Place and Longbaugh return to the U.S. to visit family, reportedly Place was homesick.

Here's where the usual Bassett theory falls apart. When the couple identified as Mr. and Mrs. Place return to Argentina, Ann Bassett was apparently still in Utah, getting married and arrested. Which only proves she did not sail away in later 1902. I don't think that's enough to dismiss her as Ethel Place just yet, especially with the photograph match.

One possibility is that there is a misunderstanding: Perhaps Longabaugh returned alone. If she's meant as part of his cover, Longabaugh might try to maintain the fiction that she's with him somewhere, out on the ranch land where noone can see her. Another is that she did accompany him but returned unnoticed and, for whatever reason, married one Henry Bernard at an unknown time for a six year marriage that hardly sounds romantic. She would then be available for the third trip.

Or was Longabaugh ever really alone in Argentina on that second trip? Here is where I bring our other suspect back into the picture. Certainly she, too, fits the description that the Pinkerton's have for Ethel Place, at least close enough for this. The casual acquaintance, especially those who simply haven't seen the original Ethel Place in some time, would probably easily mistake the two. Gray/McEntire would be expected to know the outlaws, having grown up in a cathouse they were known to frequent. It would certainly explain the belief that Place came from there. Nothing is known of McIntire during the decade of Ethel Place sightings.

And tied up in this is the issue of the first name of Madame Place. She used Ethel in Utah, New York, Argentina, all documentation of her was as Ethel. In South America Pinkerton Detectives were dealing with Spanish speaking women who repeated the name as variations of 'Etta,' as the wanted posters were going out there the decision was made to use 'Etta.' Yet there were also reports of 'Eva' and 'Rita.' A mistake, but by whom?

So let's say that the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man from either England or New England (Or maybe just Missouri) is being hidden away once and for all after the death of her mother. The women keeping these tenderloin establishments in that era had been known to take in nieces, other relatives, or just girls in need and to raise them as princesses, the fantasy childhood they never had for the daughter they'll never have. Barely grown up, still going by Ermine McIntire, she finds herself on the run, seeking out any of the Wild Bunch she can find when she flees to Utah.

Bassett hardly seems romantic about any of her relations with these outlaws. Perhaps enjoying their companionship but never growing possessive, it might not have bothered her to see McIntire taking her place as Place. Not the deft operator that Bassett was, perhaps McIntire had trouble remembering 'Ethel,' occasionally letting slip withs Rita, Eva, even others that were lost in time. With plans in place to sell the land, they might feel the need to bring back Bassett, or McIntire might have returned with Longabaugh the thrid and become the Ethel Place in San Francisco in 1907.

If Butch and Sundance were planning to abandon South America, why did Butch remain behind? Why did Sundance return to him? Possibly there was some unfinished business, perhaps they felt safer pulling one or two last jobs there before returning. Or perhaps Butch had accompanied them under another name, Sundance buys a ticket but doesn't sail back to South America to create a false trail, the possibilities are many. Family and friends of both, Ann and Josie Bassett included, have claimed the pair had remained in contact with them after returning from South America as they did what many of the Wild Bunch did; as they went straight. While no definitive identification of the later Robert Parker/Butch Cassidy was ever made, DNA tests comparing the remains of one Henry Long to relatives of Henry Longabaugh came as close as one could hope without Longabaugh's own DNA to test, Long was deemed a probable relative to relatives of Longabaugh.

Even with the occasional visits of the outlaw boyfriends after they got out of jail, Ann Bassett herself seemed also to go straight, remarried; at her death her husband of 28 years kept her ashes with him the final 7 years of his life. At his death they were found in his car. Sister Josie doesn't seem to have left outlawing behind. She confessed to a game warden of poaching when he jokingly accused her of it, no charges were filed and she cooked him some venison. She was openly supporting herself running a still, in her 60s she was again accused of rustling and selling the meat in town, this time butchered carcasses were found on the family land. She claimed the evidence was planted over some dispute with an old enemy; this being a woman who divorced one of her 5 husbands with a frying pan and was suspected of poisoning another to death. Like her sister she was never quite convicted of anything. She was conned out of the family land in 1945 and lived off nature to her 90's, when a fall from a horse broke a hip and led to her death. Her cabin remains a tourist attraction.While a photograph of a young Josie has eluded me, you have to consider the sister just 4 years older than Ann is another candidate to look like the portrait of Ethel Place, etc.

Certainly that is more how I want to look at Ethel Place in the aftermath of nearly a decade with Butch and Sundance. In less than a decade after the 1969 film, television took two stabs at the 'What if?' The first featured Elizabeth Montgomery as an innocent looking teacher who hears the reports that maybe Sundance is alive and running about America, so she heads off incognito to find him. Then Katherine Ross reprised her role in the feature with a star turn, taking up with Pancho Villa while fleeing the Pinkerton's and looking like a star the whole time, just as Montgomery had. If there's anyone in history who could have pulled that off, it's gotta be Ethel Place.

Eunice Gray/Ermine McIntire accumulated a great fortune before turning her brothel into a hotel. Over the years the local community came to accept that she was in fact the real Ethel Place --- Although she is not known to have EVER claimed to be. How this rumor got stated is lost to history, some of the less polite death notices made reference to it. There is another rumor that Place fled to Paraguay and married a wealthy American who retired there. The rumor includes references to Edith Mae, the wife of boxing promoter Tex Rickard, who hid out in Paraguay and Argentina 1910-15 and maintained ranches there.

So it was the striking resemblance of Ethel Etta Harvey (Isn't that name a coincidence?) to the only picture I'd ever seen of Ethel Place that made me think of the possibility of more than one woman in the role. As I put together the composite while writing this, my thoughts drifted to possibly finding that OTHER photo of Ethel Place. Occasionally there's a reference to 'Only two known photographs,' yet never do I see the second photo included. Yet on a google image search, up popped an innocuous looking shot of a woman standing between two men. Even though it looked plenty old, I was dismissing it at first. This being the bottom center shot. But note the appearance of the man included. The other had a large head much like the photos of Butch. The image had no caption on some pages, others merely captioned it as "Etta Place." The file was even named "*Etta_Place." Note the picture, which could possibly be 7 years after the McIntire picture it resembles, bares less resemblance to the famous portrait. (And it's Ethel. ETHEL!)

Or maybe Ethel Etta Harvey really IS Ethel Place. My Father, for example, was born on a farm before World War II and had no birth certificate. That was common enough that he was able to attend college and even get the highest civilian security clearance to work in the military industrial complex. So how hard is it to imagine that this woman with such resemblance to Ethel Place might have simply taken a new identity claiming an age too young to have gone to Argentina, etc. You'll drive yourself crazy if you get too caught up in looking for the answer. And people do, people do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fun and easy flowing prose - good work Dougie!