The story of Josie and Ann Bassett, and Etta Place
“A man can sleep around, no questions asked, but if a woman makes nineteen or twenty mistakes, she’s a tramp.” — Joan Rivers
Years ago, Arthur and Fanny Baxter moved to Colorado. Originally, they named their homestead Baxter Springs, but the years passed, and the Baxter’s and their heirs all died as we all must do. Then, the folks living in the area renamed it Artesia because they placed a high value on its refreshing water supply. That was back during the great Colorado oil boom of the 1940s.
Of course, there’s no telling what people will do if you leave them alone long enough. In the mid-1960s, townsfolk renamed their little corner of the world Dinosaur, Colorado — on account of the town’s location to Dinosaur National Park, a few miles further east along Highway 40. They’ve even named their streets after dinosaurs, which I think is quite interesting when you consider that no one alive has ever seen one. Well, not a live one, anyway.
Today, 243 people live in what used to be Baxter Springs. They mostly make their living from tourism in the national park — and by selling cannabis, of course.
Just down the road a bit further is a place that used to be known as Brown’s Hole. Now folks refer to it as Brown’s Nature Park. Our knowledge of this area came to us through a Catholic Priest who traveled through the region in 1650. In 1825, William H. Ashley led an expedition of fur trappers through the Green River valley — and Kit Carson traded there among the Ute and Shoshone Indians in 1827, the same year a French-Canadian trader showed up named Baptiste Chalifoux. He began calling himself Baptiste Brown, and I suppose it became his hole after some number of years.
When white settlers began moving into Brown’s Hole, the people already living there included Comanche, Shoshone, Ute, Blackfoot, Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Navajo. And, just so’s there’s no mistake, I should mention that the presence of these particular native groups was well-documented in 1803-1804 by the famed expedition of Lewis and Clark.
Of course, not all of these native groups were ideal neighbors, so in 1837, the US Army erected Fort Davy Crockett to serve as a trading post and a place of refuge for trappers, settlers, and travelers against the frequent depredations of the Blackfoot tribe. With the discovery of gold in California a few years later, almost everyone (except the Indians) moved away to seek their fortunes. Interest in the valley as a wintering ground for cattle re-emerged in the 1850s, and this favorable notice increased ten years later when outlaws discovered that Brown Hole was a great place to hide stolen cattle and horses.
From our every account, white settlers weren’t perfect neighbors, either. In the ten years between 1890 and 1900, for example, there were so many killings between Wyoming sheep farmers and Colorado cattle ranchers that government officials had to create additional counties so that criminal court judges could deal with all the murder and mayhem. One of these counties, named after railroad tycoon David Moffat, became the home of the Bassett family, whose ranch was so large that it took up a section of three states.
Herb and Mary Eliza Chamberlin Bassett moved to Brown’s Hole around 1877 from Arkansas. From what I understand, both Herb and Elizabeth (as Mary was called) were well-educated (for that time), and they claimed enough land to span the borders of Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. It was a great place to raise (or hide) cattle. They took with them their three-year-old daughter, whom they named Josephine — but who everyone called Josie. A year later, Elizabeth gave birth to another daughter, whom they named Ann.
From what we know about Herb today, he was a good husband, father, and provider — although he may have leaned a bit toward the libertarian side of politics. His property was situated in the middle of a regular route for moving misappropriated horses and cattle, and from every account, he made a good living by supplying beef, fresh horses, and other supplies to a wide assortment of cowboys.
We can’t say that all of those boys were outlaws — but several were wanted for questioning about one thing or another. For instance, Herb’s frequent guests included Butch Cassidy, Kid Curry, Black Jack Ketchum, and another fellow called himself the Sundance Kid. His real name was Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, from Pennsylvania. He only called himself “Sundance” because that’s where he spent time in prison, over in Wyoming.
Both Josie and Ann grew up to become good-looking women, an assessment that some folks argue is always relative to how long you’ve been in the saddle. Both women grew up “well educated,” and both girls had a wild streak. It may be hard for us to imagine what those two youngsters were talking about at night by the time they reached their teenaged years, but apparently, some of it had to do with those handsome outlaws camped out over yonder.
Well, it did become a bit complicated. At first, Ann became romantically involved with Butch Cassidy (which wasn’t his real name), and Josie favored Cassidy’s good friend, William Ellsworth Lay (who everyone called Elzy). But then, Cassidy went to prison — apparently for incorrectly answering questions posed to him by lawmen — and remained incarcerated for 18 or so months. While he was out of the picture, Ann took up with Ben Kilpatrick. A girl has needs, you know. Josie, meanwhile, made the leap from Elzy to Will Carver (who everyone called “News”). Since Josie wasn’t exciting enough, Carver switched over to a new girl named Laura Bullion so that when the authorities finally released Cassidy, Josie was the sister who welcomed him back into the fold.
But wait — there’s more. When Ann and Ben broke up, Cassidy re-entered … um, the picture, and Josie took a sabbatical. Yet, despite this somewhat unusual (for the period) circle of interpersonal relationships, the Bassett girls and their outlaw lovers managed to avoid any animosities. Both Josie and Ann remained close insiders to the so-called Wild Bunch gang. Josie and Ann were two of only five women ever allowed into the hideout location called Robbers Roost, over in Utah. The other females were Etta Place, Maude Davis, and Laura Bullion.
The Give and Take
The comfort of the gentler sex during cold winter nights wasn’t the only benefit of the outlaw’s relationship with libertarian Herb Bassett. He regularly supplied his outlaw friends with beef and other foods and with fresh horses when needed. In exchange, the outlaws protected the Bassett’s from the designs of powerful cattlemen who clamored for Bassett’s land.
After Elizabeth died in 1892, Herb went back east to Illinois, leaving the Bassett ranch in the hands of his two capable daughters — both ladies were experienced ranchers, wranglers, and shootists. Herb’s departure undoubtedly sent a signal to the local cattleman’s association that the time was ripe for acquiring the Bassett’s property. However, Josie and Ann had no interest in selling, which prompted the cattlemen to hire cowboy roughnecks. It was the job of these ruffians to convince the girls to sell, and they did this by threatening the ladies, stampeding their cattle, rustling, and more or less helping themselves to Bassett horses. Of course, neither Josie nor Ann were lightweights, so they returned the favor by helping themselves to stock belonging to the cattleman’s association.
While it is true that the sisters were full partners at the ranch, and both took an active hand during this period of poor neighborliness, it was Ann who was most visible among local area cattlemen and the newspapers. Ann’s rambunctious fight is how she became known as “Queen Ann.”
All of those outlaws could qualify as “a bit worrisome” to a rational cowpoke, but none of them instilled as much fear as the fellow known as Kid Curry. Curry’s real name was Harvey Logan (1867-1904), and he was the wildest, most uncontrollable member of the so-called Wild Bunch gang. Historians tell us that Logan killed more than twice as many men as Billy the Kid (who killed four), most of whom were lawmen. Logan/Curry approached several of the hired cowboys known to harass Josie and Ann, and with a calm, measured tone of voice, accompanied by a deadly stare, warned them to leave the ladies alone. Within a short time, everyone in the area of Brown Hole lost interest in buying the Bassett property.
Twentieth Century Ladies
In 1903, Ann Bassett married a rancher named Hyrum Bernard. Shortly after their marriage, lawmen arrested Ann for cattle rustling. Eventually, a jury acquitted Ann, and she was released from jail. Even though Hyrum and Ann divorced six years later, Hyrum stayed on to help Josie and Ann with the ranch.
By 1904, most of the Wild Bunch gang closest to the Bassett girls were either dead, in prison, or finding ways to irritate the Bolivian Army. In 1906, one-time-love-interest Elzy Lay visited Josie and Ann after his release from jail, but he continued his trip to California, where he remained for the rest of his life as an honest businessman.
Butch Cassidy (whose real name was Robert Leroy Parker), and his pal Harry Longabaugh, were both reported shot to death by the Bolivian constabulary in 1908, but Josie Bassett said it wasn’t so. She claimed Parker visited with her in Utah in 1930 when she was 53 years old.
Josie Bassett remained on her father’s property for most of her life as its principal manager. She was a noted outdoorswoman who camped out, fished, and hunted as her primary activities. In all, Josie married five times. She divorced four of those fellows, and folks around Brown Hole claimed that she poisoned her last husband, but then we all know how people like to gossip. Josie had two sons with one of her husbands, a fellow named McKnight. She named the boys Crawford and Herbert.
In 1913, Josie moved to a new homestead near Vernal, Utah. She and Crawford built a new cabin there in 1924. No one had much money during the Great Depression, and Josie was no exception. She made her own toiletries, sewed her own clothes, and provided for herself by tending a garden and hunting for game. She even shared her food with neighbors. She also gained a reputation for making her own whiskey between 1924-1933 but gave it up when she learned that prohibition agents were looking for her still. Although, some folks claimed that she never gave it up — only did a better job hiding it.
Ann and Frank Willis married in 1928 and established a ranch for themselves in Utah. They made it into a productive operation and remained together for the balance of their lives.
Josie, meanwhile, got into a heated argument with another rancher named Jim Robinson. In 1936, Jim accused her of rustling his cattle and butchering them for meat. Six other ranchers made similar claims, so the sheriff investigated and found the branded hides of stolen cattle on her property. Deputies arrested Josie and took her to jail. She claimed she didn’t do it — that someone planted the hides on her property. The county prosecutor took her to trial twice, with both trials ending up in hung juries. After that, the prosecutor dropped all charges.
Miss Etta Place is an enigma. No one knows when or where she was born, no one knows when or where she died, and no one is quite sure that such a person ever existed. We remember Etta Place’s character in the Robert Redford-Paul Newman film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Katherine Ross played that role. Hollywood mafia tells us that the film was the seventh greatest western film of all time. Well, maybe.
Etta Place became a companion of Robert Leroy Parker (Butch Cassidy) and Harry A. Longabaugh (Sundance Kid). Whether all three engaged in deeply personal relationships is unknown, but she did maintain a close relationship with Longabaugh. As the companion of two wanted men, Pinkerton’s Detective Agency took a keen interest in Etta Place. Pinkerton agents described her as good-looking, between 27 and 30 years of age, around 5 ½ feet tall, and weighing between 110 and 115 pounds. She had brown hair, brown eyes, and a medium build. Pinkerton believed she came from Texas, born around 1878. Of course, all of the preceding information is mostly conjecture.
Etta Place was an alias, but, interestingly, her assumed last name, “Place,” was also Longabaugh’s mother’s maiden name. In the one place where this woman is known to have signed her name, she signed as Mrs. Ethel Place. Her name may have become “Etta” after she accompanied the two outlaws to South America, where people had difficulty pronouncing Ethel. But this is only more conjecture.
In 1901, Etta Place accompanied Longabaugh to New York City where, at Tiffany’s, they purchased a lapel watch and stickpin and then posed for the portrait, above right. On 20 February, the trio sailed from New York on the British ship Herminius, destined for Buenos Aires. After purchasing a ranch in southwest Argentina (reportedly, 15,000 acres), Longabaugh and Place visited New York from March-July 1903 and again from July 1904 through March 1905. After learning that Pinkerton agents were tracking them down, Parker, Longabaugh, and Place sold the ranch and skedaddled.
On presentment of a Pinkerton demand for their apprehension, Argentine Governor Julio Lezana issued an arrest warrant, but an Argentine-Welsh lawman (who had become friends with Parker (and somewhat enamored with Etta)) warned them that their arrest was imminent, and the three outlaws escaped to Chile. Running low on cash, they returned to Argentina after a few months and robbed their first Argentine bank in a backwater town called Villa Mercedes, some 400 miles west of the capital.
Place, who was angry about the loss of their ranch and tired of running from the law, insisted that Longabaugh escort her back to San Francisco. He did that in the summer of 1906, and everything we think we know about Etta Place ends in the city by the sea.
There are far too many conflicting theories, statements, and opinions about Etta Place. We don’t know her real name, where she came from, or what happened to her. Speculation abounds. She was a school teacher who abandoned her husband and children, she was a prostitute, she was really Ethel Bishop, or maybe she and Ann Basset were one in the same person, or she was a brothel owner named Eunice Gray, or, perhaps, someone named Madeline Wilson.
There were reports of a “woman matching her description” living in Chile, Argentina, and Paraguay. One Pinkerton report suggested that someone shot to death a woman closely resembling Etta Place in an Argentinian domestic dispute. Or, maybe she committed suicide in 1924 — or died of natural causes in 1966.
The Ladies’ End
On 8 May 1956, Ann Bassett Willis passed away at her Utah ranch. Frank Willis loved her deeply, and even though she instructed her husband to spread her ashes over their Utah ranch, he couldn’t let her go. After Frank passed away in 1963, friends and family discovered Ann’s cremated remains in an urn in the back of Frank’s car.
Ninety-year-old Josie died on 1 May 1964. The previous December, Josie suffered a broken hip when a horse knocked her down, and she never recovered from her injury. Josephine Bassett Morris was the last remaining “associate” of the Wild Bunch outlaw gang and the last direct source of information about the gang members.
Etta Place … well, who knows?
- MacKell, J. Redlight Woman of the Rocky Mountains. University of New Mexico Press, 2009.
- Pointer, L. In Search of Butch Cassidy. University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
- Redford, R. The Outlaw Trail: A Journey Through Time. Grossett & Dunlap, 1976.
- Reeve, W. P. Just Who Was the Outlaw Queen Etta Place? Utah History to Go, 6/2011