Eunice Gray had her own wild times without the Wild Bunch.
In the early morning hours of January 26, 1962, passersby noticed a plume of smoke rising from the shabby Waco Hotel, in a rundown section of downtown Fort Worth, Texas. Inside the hotel, amid the flames, Eunice Gray’s lifeless body lay on the floor of her Victorian suite beside her mahogany canopy bed. Surrounding the 82-year-old owner and operator of the Waco were decades of memories. Turn-of-the-century cabinets encased delicate French tapestries, crystal glassware and fine china. Hanging from a wall was a portrait of Christ kneeling in prayer, given her by a priest. The old woman died alone, virtually forgotten except by a few old-timers and Fort Worth Press city editor Delbert Willis.
The Fort Worth Press ran Eunice Gray’s death as the day’s headline.Willis’ eulogy for the former madam was a tribute to a longtime friend from his cub reporter days. It was also a rare homage to the passing of a time and place. In Eunice’s death came the finale of Hell’s Half Acre, Fort Worth’s notorious red-light district.
The Acre once hummed with saloons, gambling houses, opulent brothels, dope dens and prostitute cribs. It was the town’s first tourist attraction and very lucrative. Though the Acre could be brutally violent, lawless and unforgiving, its way of life was also exciting and cavalier.
On that cold January day in 1962, Eunice’s death would not be the last page of her story, but the first of a new chapter that would catapult her from anonymity into the chronicles of Western lore, making her Fort Worth’s most mysterious historical female. Eunice, many people said, was the equally mystifying Etta Place (aka Ethel Place), girlfriend of infamous Wild Bunch outlaw Harry A. Longabaugh, the Sundance Kid.
On October 25, 1970, in a Fort Worth Press article headlined DID THE SUNDANCE KID’S GIRL PERISH IN FW? Delbert Willis brought Eunice Gray to the forefront of Fort Worth fame. Katharine Ross had recently portrayed Etta Place in the popular 1969 Hollywood-Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Western enthusiasts were craving for more about the trio, and Willis gave them something to chew on. His article linked Eunice Gray with Etta Place, drawing parallels between the two women. “They both came to Fort Worth in 1901, about the time the Wild Bunch had the famous photograph taken by John Swartz,” he wrote. “They both worked in a ‘sporting house’ (quaint term for bordello). They both were said to be classic beauties, slim and graceful, with chestnut hair. Both fled to South America. Both came back, and both used aliases with the first name beginning with the letter E.”
With Willis’ compelling comparison, Fort Worth began a love affair with Eunice Gray and Etta Place. Over the next four decades, the legend grew.Within the circle of well-knownWild Bunch“chasers,” Willis’ observations and Eunice’s quotes would appear in numerous books and articles (though most historians dispute the revelation).
In his 1984 epic novel Fort Worth, Leonard Sanders blended fact and myth, mingling well-known historical characters with fictitious ones. Among the characters in his book is Eunice Gray, a local madam who is actually Etta Place. “Local historians—including one close to the handling of Eunice Gray’s estate —have convinced me that Eunice Gray and Etta Place were one and the same,” Sanders wrote.“But perhaps we will never know for certain.” The author said that after the release of the 1969 movie, he, too, wrote a newspaper column in which he speculated on the similarities between Etta and Eunice.
My own cousin, local storyteller and preservationist Charlie McCafferty, knows a good story when he hears one. Like Sanders, Charlie added his own personal flare, telling historian and author Richard Selcer: “As I was walking downtown with my father one day, Eunice Gray was walking toward us. She greeted my father; he returned the hello. After Eunice passed us, my father leaned down and asked if I knew who that woman was? I replied, ‘Eunice Gray.’ It was then my father told me, ‘That’s Etta Place.’” Now, McCafferty is family, and he can tell a fine tale, but it’s up to others to determine how much is truth and how much is a good yarn.
The lives of the two women did run parallel at times. In 1907, 27-year-old Ermine McEntire stepped off a train in Fort Worth under the alias of Eunice Gray and opened for business. She ran her first brothel above a downtown grocer, not a plush bordello like that run by predecessor madam Mary Porter, whose famous house covered half a city block on Rusk Street. Nor did she have as many girls working for her as madam Porter. The 1910 census recorded Eunice as a boardinghouse operator on Houston Street. Residing with her were two single, “unemployed” young women.
Eunice was actually in South America (technically Central America) at the time of the census.Things had changed noticeably in Fort Worth since Butch and Sundance had walked the streets 10 years earlier. Suffragettes, ministers, good citizens and town officials now threatened the redlight district of Hell’s Half Acre with extinction. It was illegal to operate a brothel, and authorities were aggressively rounding up those who continued to flout the laws. Eunice had been indicted for running a “disorderly house” and hightailed it out of town. Eunice’s sister happened to have married a Spanish count and was living in Panama, so Eunice joined her. But her stay was temporary. On the passenger manifest of SS Turrialba, sailing out of Colon, Panama, on May 11, 1911, for the Port of New Orleans, is 30-year-old Eunice Gray. Her destination: Fort Worth. She was soon back in the pleasure-for-sale business.
Adding to the Eunice/Etta intrigue was the worth of Eunice Gray’s estate, valued at more than $100,000. Almost half that amount was in U.S.Treasury notes, found by firefighters within the charred walls of the Waco Hotel. Then in 1969, as workers prepared the hotel for demolition, a contractor found stuffed up the chimney flue stacks of yellowed World War I Liberty Bonds. He stopped counting at $27,000. As the bonds bore no insurer’s name, the U.S. Postal Service believed the certificates had been stolen. The notion Eunice would conceal such a large amount of money raised suspicion as to her true identity: How could an elderly woman who operated a skid row hotel in the heart of old Hell’s Half Acre have amassed such a fortune? Given the evidence, including the timeline of Eunice Gray’s arrival in Fort Worth and all the loot stashed in the walls of the Waco, believers mounted in numbers. This Eunice Gray just might be Etta Place, they figured.
In the Tarrant County, Texas, probate records, within the “Last Will and Testament of Eunice Gray,” was a list of heirs. After hours of Internet searching, this author discovered one of those heirs was still living. I flew to Wickenburg, Ariz., to meet Beverly O’Leary, niece of Ermine McEntire, alias Eunice Gray.Within minutes of my arrival, the case was closed. In the hallway of O’Leary’s home, I gazed upon the portrait of a handsome woman sporting a large yellow hat and a Mona Lisa smile (photo on opposite page). This was not the same woman seen in the famous New York City portrait of Etta Place and the Sundance Kid.
Before opening a brothel in Fort Worth under the name Eunice Gray, Ermine McEntire had grown up in Sweet Springs, Mo. She hailed from an affluent family and was well educated. She participated in public recitals with the Longfellow Society. Conflict with her stepmother caused her to join for a while her brother in Shawnee, Okla., where she graduated from high school in 1897. Ermine could have become a schoolteacher or married a man capable of supporting her. Instead, she chose the life of a prostitute and eventually would claim the unofficial crown of “Queen of Fort Worth’s Underworld.”
Why did McEntire/Gray choose the path of a prostitute? To hear her tell it, her fate was decided by a broken heart. The only man she’d ever loved, Eunice told editorWillis, was a childhood sweetheart in Missouri. They were a happy couple, the best dancers in Saline County. But when her man reached marrying age, “he chose the cloth,” Eunice said, “while I chose a life of selling sex and sin.” Down the road, he had a change of heart and offered to give up the priesthood to marry her. She turned him down this time, saying, “Your life is the church.” Years later as the priest lay dying, Eunice rushed to his bedside. At his funeral, she wore black and played the part of his wife. Upon her own death in 1962, the praying Christ portrait he had given her remained on the blackened walls of the Waco Hotel. It was still there when contractors tore down the hotel in 1969.
The woman who called herself Eunice Gray—thought by some to be Etta Place —had lived a long and prosperous life. In her business, she could have encountered the Sundance Kid or his pal Butch Cassidy, but there is no record she ever did. Toward the end, Eunice put her own life in perspective: “I never was really bad. After all, there was only one sin I broke regularly.” Could the real Etta Place have made the same claim?
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.