The Mystery of Ann Bassett and Etta Place

Many women in the Old West had fascinating stories that were not recorded as well as they should have been. Digging up their histories sometimes raises more questions than it answers.

Ann Bassett (1878-1956) grew up as a cattle rancher's daughter on a spread in the Brown's Park area that extended into Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. Various members of a cattle baron's association wanted the ranch, and when Ann's parents would not sell out, they became victims of cattle rustling. Ann's mother, Elizabeth Bassett, was the boss of the ranch, and decided to take matters into her own hands by rustling from the cattle barons in return. This went on for a number of years, and Ann eventually took over the rustling game. She earned the nickname "Queen Ann" for her efforts.

The outlaw Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch were frequent visitors to the ranch, using it to move stolen horses and cattle through. The outlaws courted Ann and her sister Josie, and Ann had an on-and-off relationship with Butch Cassidy (Robert Leroy Parker) for several years, beginning when she was 15. The outlaws' association with the Bassetts in the ranch feud balanced the cattle barons' tendency to hire hit men. When Cassidy fled to South America in 1901, Ann Bassett never saw him again. She married Henry Bernard, the manager of a rival ranch, in 1903. Shortly afterward, Bernard was fired from his job and Bassett was arrested for cattle rustling (she was acquitted). The marriage lasted six years. Twenty years later, Bassett married another cattle rancher, Frank Willis, and remained in Utah for the rest of her life

Etta Place (1878-unknown) was almost certainly not her real name, but no one knows for sure what name she was born under. Little is known about her early life before she met Harry Longabaugh, aka the Sundance Kid. In fact, "Place" was Longabaugh's mother's maiden name. In 1901, Place accompanied Longabaugh to New York where this portrait was made. They are believed to have married around this time. In February, she traveled to Argentina with Longabaugh and Butch Cassidy, where the three bought a ranch. According to information from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Place and Longabaugh returned to the US in 1902 and 1904, but were gone before the law caught up with them. Place returned to the US for good in 1906, and Longabaugh (along with Butch Cassidy) is thought to have died in a shootout in Bolivia in 1908, although his remains were never positively identified. In 1909, a woman fitting Place's description requested Longabaugh's death certificate in Bolivia, but never received it. After that, the fate of Etta Place is completely unknown, although many have speculated about her later life under another name …many names, in fact.

The Sundance Kid is on the lower left; Butch Cassidy is on the lower right. This photo, taken circa 1901, helped Pinkerton detectives to identify the members of Cassidy's Wild Bunch.

Etta Place is mostly a cipher to history, except for the well-documented period between 1900 and 1907. Theories about her real identity have her as a runaway mother from Texas who was a schoolteacher, or a prostitute at Fannie Porter's place in San Antonio. Or a combination of the two. Or was she Ann Bassett? You may have noticed that both Bassett and Place were beautiful women. In fact, the photos resemble each other quite a bit. The descriptions of each woman by the Pinkerton Agency were almost identical. This also occurred to Doris Karren Burton, who investigated the lives of both women and published a book in 1992 claiming they were one and the same. Dr. Thomas G. Kyle of the Los Alamos National Laboratory compared the women's photographs by computer at Burton's request and concluded they were the same person -down to a small scar in the scalp.

The theory goes that Bassett took up with the Sundance Kid after her relationship with Butch Cassidy ended. The men of The Wild Bunch were known to alternate girlfriends, without animosity, and Butch Cassidy was said to have been associated with both Josie Bassett and Etta Place at various times. Supposedly, Bassett went by the name Etta Place when she left the ranch to run with the outlaw gang. At first glance, it appears that Etta Place and Ann Bassett were never in the same place at the same time, but alternated in the historical record …at least until 1903. When Bassett married Henry Bernard and was subsequently arrested for cattle theft, there is no doubt that she was in the United States. Etta Place was in South America at the time. The Pinkerton Agency traced Place and Longabaugh at several places in Argentina, Chile, and the US during 1904-1905. The Bassett Family Association does not mention a relationship between Ann and Butch Cassidy -only that he courted Josie for a while. Could the historical record be wrong? Or is this just a case of two women who looked very much alike? The mystery may never be solved to everyone's satisfaction.

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June 25, 2013 - 1:39pm
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