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The Mystery of Ann Bassett and Etta Place

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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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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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5 Things You Didn't Know About Sally Ride
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are five things you might not know about the astronaut, who passed away five years ago today—on July 23, 2012—at the age of 61.

1. SHE PROVED THERE IS SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TENNIS PRO.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. HOME ECONOMICS WAS NOT HER BEST SUBJECT.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. SHE HAD A STRONG TIE TO THE CHALLENGER.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. SHE DIDN'T SELL OUT.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

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Space
Remembering Comet Hale-Bopp's Unlikely Discovery
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Comet Hale-Bopp was a sensation in the mid-1990s. It was visible to the naked eye for 18 months, shattering a nine-month record previously set in 1811. It inspired a doomsday cult, wild late-night radio theories about extraterrestrials, and plenty of actual science. But a year before it became visible to normal observers, two men independently and simultaneously discovered it in a coincidence of astronomical proportions.

On the night of July 22-23, 1995, Alan Hale was engaged in his favorite hobby: looking at comets. It was the first clear night in his area for about 10 days, so he decided to haul out his telescope and see what he could see. In the driveway of his New Mexico home, he set up his Meade DS-16 telescope and located Periodic Comet Clark, a known comet. He planned to wait a few hours and observe another known comet (Periodic Comet d'Arrest) when it came into view. To kill time, he pointed his telescope at M70, a globular cluster in the Sagittarius system.

Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through a starry night sky.
Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through the sky over Merrit Island, Florida, south of Kennedy Space Center.
George Shelton // AFP // Getty Images

Hale was both an amateur astronomer and a professional. His interest in spotting comets was actually the amateur part, thought it would make his name famous. Hale's day jobs included stints at JPL in Pasadena and the Southwest Institute for Space Research in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. But that night, peering at M70, he wrote, "I immediately noticed a fuzzy object in the field that hadn't been there when I had looked at M70 two weeks earlier." He double-checked that he was looking in the right place, and then started to get excited.

In order to verify that the fuzzy object wasn't something astronomers already knew about, Hale consulted his deep-sky catalogues and also ran a computer search using the International Astronomical Union's computer at Harvard University. Convinced that he had found something new, Hale fired off an email very early on the morning of July 23 to the IAU's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, telling them what he had found, along with detailed instructions on how to verify it themselves. Hale also tracked the object as it moved, until it moved out of view. It was definitely a comet, and it was definitely new.

Meanwhile, Tom Bopp was in Arizona, also hunting for comets. At the time, Bopp was working at a construction materials company in Phoenix, but he was also an accomplished amateur astronomer, with decades of experience observing deep-sky objects. That night, Bopp vas visiting the remote Vekol Ranch, 90 miles south of Phoenix, known as a great location for dark-sky viewing. He was with a group of friends, which was important because Bopp didn't actually own a telescope.

The Bopp group looked through their various telescopes, observing all sorts of deep-sky objects late into the night. Bopp's friend Jim Stevens had set up his homemade 17.5-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope and made some observations. Stevens finished an observation, then left his telescope to consult a star atlas and figure out what to aim at next. While Stevens was occupied, Bopp peered into Stevens's telescope and saw a fuzzy object enter the field of view, near M70. He called his friends over to have a look.

The Bopp group proceeded to track the fuzzy object for several hours, just as Hale was doing over in New Mexico. By tracking its movement relative to background stars, they (like Hale) concluded that it was a comet. When the comet left his view, Bopp drove to a Western Union and sent a telegram to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. (For historical perspective, telegrams were extremely outdated in 1995, but technically they were still a thing.)

Brian Marsden at the Central Bureau received Bopp's telegram hours later, after getting a few followup emails from Hale with additional details. Comparing the times of discovery, Marsden realized that the two men had discovered the comet simultaneously. According to NASA, it was the farthest comet ever to be discovered by amateur astronomers—it was 7.15 Astronomical Units (AU) from our sun. That's 665 million miles. Not bad for a pair of amateurs, one using a homemade telescope!

The Central Bureau verified the findings and about 12 hours after the initial discovery, issued IAU Circular 6187, designating it C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp. The circular read, in part: "All observers note the comet to be diffuse with some condensation and no tail, motion toward the west-northwest."

Four men smile, posing outdoors next to a large telescope at night.
Comet hunters (L to R): David Levy, Dr. Don Yeomans, Dr. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp pose next to a telescope during a public viewing of the Hale-Bopp and Wild-2 comets.
Mike Nelson // AFP // Getty Images

Less than a year later, Comet Hale-Bopp came into plain view, and the rest is history. It was a thousand times brighter than Halley's Comet, which had caused a major stir in its most recent appearance in the 1980s. Comet Hale-Bopp will return, much like Halley's Comet, but it won't be until the year 4385. (And incidentally, it was previously visible circa 2200 BCE.)

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