Sundance and Ethel: Every Picture Tells a Story | HistoryNet
In 1901 notorious outlaw Harry Longabaugh (aka "the Sundance Kid") and Ethel Place posed for this cabinet card photo in a New York studio, then sent copies of the image to friends in the West. Several of those prints survive.

Sundance and Ethel: Every Picture Tells a Story

By Mark Mszanski
5/27/2016 • Wild West Magazine

We have ordered copies of a photograph which Longbaugh [sic] had taken of himself and the woman with him at this time by De Young, this city. When they are completed, a copy will be sent to each office. The woman with him is said to be his wife and to be from Texas.

—Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency memo “Re: Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, alias Frank Jones, alias the Sundance Kid,” July 29, 1902 (Pinkerton files, No. 7111)

BY 1901 PINKERTON AGENTS and other lawmen had run Butch Cassidy (Robert LeRoy Parker) and the Sundance Kid (Harry Longabaugh) out of the American West. Members of a bandit gang known today as the Wild Bunch, Butch and Sundance had hatched a plan to homestead a ranch in the Argentine Republic, where they would be safe from extended prison terms or worse. Their journey first took them to the East Village of New York City, where that February they made arrangements to travel by steamship to Buenos Aires. Accompanying Sundance on the long voyage to South America was the beautiful and mysterious Ethel Place.

Not much is known about Sundance’s female companion. She had signed her name as Ethel Place on a boardinghouse register acquired by the Pinkertons, who later learned the outlaws’ destination. Her name was almost certainly an alias, as Place was the maiden name of Longabaugh’s mother. To date historians have not been able to determine her true identity, origins or fate.

While in New York, Longabaugh found time to pose for a portrait with Place at Joseph B. De Young’s Photographic Gallery at 826 Broadway and 12th Street—advertised as the “Largest Photographic Gallery in the City.” On discovering the photo, the Pinkertons wasted no time in alerting their field offices, and soon members of the law enforcement establishment possessed a clear image of the wanted criminal and the woman they suspected to be his wife.

The couple in the photo scarcely look like a weathered outlaw and his soiled dove. In fact, the image reveals a handsome couple, most likely posing for their wedding portrait. Sundance sports a formal evening coat with a bowtie and holds a top hat. Ethel wears a walking dress with a matching bolero jacket, and her hair is pinned high with a bow in the “Gibson Girl” style of the day. The couple stares serenely into the camera lens, seemingly unaware of their place in history. Click.

A Wyoming rancher named John F. Gooldy wrote in his memoirs of a close friend who received a photo from Sundance and his new wife—a portrait taken in New York. The friend was later discovered to be Gooldy’s brother-in-law, David Gillespie, who had worked with Sundance on the Reader Ranch in Colorado’s Snake River Valley.

Hot Springs County Museum Photo

Minnie Brown (in white) poses with an unidentified woman. Brown’s estate donated a copy of the Sundance/Ethel Place portrait to the Hot Springs County Museum in Thermopolis, Wyo. (Courtesy Hot Springs County Museum)

Some time ago I noticed that the Hot Springs County Museum and Cultural Center in Thermopolis, Wyo., had advertised Wild Bunch photos on its website. I phoned the museum and spoke to co-director Jeff Hurd, who confirmed the museum did own several Wild Bunch–related photos. He said the museum often receives requests for digital images of Western artifacts in their collection, and shortly after my call he sent me a high-resolution digital copy of the Sundance and Ethel portrait. Hurd explained the photo came from an album donated in 1940 by the estate of a Minnie Brown.

Minnie V. Brown (née Stephens) was the second wife of Marion F. “Mike” Brown. They were married in 1907. Mike Brown owned a ranch of about 600 cattle and a butcher shop in old Thermopolis. According to historian Mike Bell, author of Incidents at Owl Creek, Mike Brown may have met Butch Cassidy in his younger days while working on ranches in Wyoming. Brown was rumored to have harbored Butch Cassidy and his gang at his ranch on several occasions.

Mike Brown was shot dead in December 1908. According to Denver and Wyoming newspapers the shooter was Minnie, who claimed self–defense due to spousal abuse. Minnie was eventually released and never stood trial. According to Fred E. Winchester, who owned the Thermopolis town newspaper at the time, speculation swirled that Mike Brown’s killing had either been done at the behest of large ranching interests or was the deed an itinerant lover of Minnie’s. In any case, the killing has never been fully resolved.

Minnie Brown was reportedly fastidious in documenting her many photos of friends and family, often writing notes on the backs of the photos and in the margins of her albums. The album containing the portrait of Sundance and Ethel was labeled Vol. 4, for the years 1894 through 1908. Brown had scrawled a note on the back the portrait: “This gentleman is one of our real gentlemen who knew how to get the money and not cripple or kill. Add South America. Taken in New York, before he sailed to never return.”

Comparing the Card Stock
Brown had cut the cabinet card in order to fit it into her photo album. Fortunately, she left the top and sides of the card stock (frame) intact. I downloaded a high-resolution copy of the well-known 1901 DeYoung photo from the Library of Congress, which had received its De Young print in a 2000 donation by Pinkerton’s New York office.

My son, Michael, a photographic professional, magnified the Brown photo from the Hot Springs County Museum and superimposed its frame over that of the Library of Congress image. We noticed they shared the same embossed pattern.

At left is Minnie Brown’s cabinet card, now owned by the Hot Springs County Museum. At right is the copy donated by Pinkerton to the Library of Congress. Note the identical embossed pattern on the card stock of each frame. (Courtesy Hot Springs County Museum and Library of Congress)

I told museum co-director Jeff Hurd what I had found, and he shared my excitement. Based on Mike Brown’s ties to the Wild Bunch, I was confident Sundance and Ethel had sent this photo from New York City to Brown in Thermopolis in 1901. The museum staff has since moved its copy of the photo to a secure environment and will further evaluate it for authenticity.

Dennis Burchett inherited this copy of the Sundance/Ethel Place portrait. It belonged to his late aunts, whose family had reportedly befriended Sundance during his outlaw days in Wyoming. (Courtesy Dennis Burchett)

Another Photo Sent West
According to Dennis Burchett, an accomplished photographer with an interesting family history, there is yet another known print of the Sundance and Ethel portrait. In his 1998 True West article “They Called Her Jano” Burchett wrote about his aunt Jeanette “Jano” Magor, describing her travels with husband George Musgrave, a notable Western outlaw. The Magor family originally lived in Baggs, Wyo., and ran a boardinghouse near the Snake River Valley. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were rumored to have hid out at the boardinghouse on several occasions and reportedly befriended the family.

According to Burchett, Jano’s older sisters, Maude and Elizabeth, also had ties to Sundance. Maude had married outlaw Bert Charter, an associate of Sundance, and toward the end of the 19th century Elizabeth reportedly dated Sundance.

In a 2015 interview Burchett recalled that as a young man he had summered at Jano and Elizabeth’s shared home in Denver. His aunts had since moved there from Wyoming and to make ends meet had opened their home as a boardinghouse. In the early 1970s Burchett was employed only a few blocks from his aunts’ house and often visited them. He also recalled an uncle Neil Magor, who hailed from the Baggs, Wyo., area and often visited Denver. According to family lore, in the old days Uncle Neil had reportedly shot off a man’s ear in a bar he owned. Burchett remembered seeing his uncle at summer gatherings, often reading newspapers and making small talk with his aunts. According to Burchett, whenever he asked his aunts and uncle about family history, the trio would answer something like, “Now Dennis, we do not talk about those times anymore,” or, “Those were different times, and those days have long passed.” Burchett surmised his relatives had some knowledge of criminal activities, were aware Wyoming did not have statutes of limitations for certain crimes and were thus being cautious. It was clear that knowing outlaws could be as risky as actually being one back in the day.

When the Magor sisters died, relatives shipped their belongings to Elizabeth’s in-laws in California. Some time later Burchett received a call from the in-laws, who told him to watch for a box in the mail. When he opened the package, he found the portrait of Sundance and Etta and other photos enclosed with several broken pieces of china. The portrait was slightly damaged, as the sisters had stored it in a box for many years with such keepsakes as the china fragments. Burchett learned the family had discarded many of the letters and correspondence kept by the sisters, so it was fortunate the photo sent from New York by Sundance and Ethel had survived. Burchett had it authenticated and preserved, and he was kind enough to send me a digital copy of the Magor family heirloom.

A Photo to Remember
It is thought the Pinkertons actively monitored the mail of Sundance’s acquaintances. A 1905 memo from the Pinkerton office in Philadelphia indicates postal informants were reporting on Sundance’s correspondence even while he was abroad.

It seems Sundance wanted to let friends know he was moving on to a new life and had sent the photo as a farewell gesture. Evidence suggests Sundance made a few more trips back to the United States prior to his death. He returned to New York with Ethel Place in 1902 for medical treatment and likely did so again in 1904 in order to attend the World’s Fair in St. Louis. It is also suspected he escorted Place to the United States in 1906 when she sought respite from the outlaw life abroad.

Arthur Chapman reported in the April 1930 issue of Elks Magazine that the outlaw duo of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had been killed in Bolivia. Apparently, their death was the result of a botched payroll holdup in November 1908. After 1908 the Sundance Kid was “to never return,” as Minnie Brown noted on the back of her copy of the photo.

Every picture tells a story. These images tell the story of an outlaw’s final chapter and the friendships he left behind. WW

9 Responses to Sundance and Ethel: Every Picture Tells a Story

  1. Thomas F. Dixon says:

    He looks nothing like Robert Redford.

  2. Old Texan says:

    To Mark Mszanski..very interesting article. When the old outlaws disappeared from the pages of history, oftentimes families kept the stories alive by oral tradition.
    Fort Worth, Texas 1960s. When the old downtown hotels were being torn down to build the convention center, a workman discovered a hidden compartment behind loose bricks in the fireplace. I don’t recall the exact contents of the compartment, but besides a Colts pistol, it contained items that seemed to suggest a connection with Longabaugh’s wife. There was a medicine bottle that had a name on it, but I don’t recall it. Old employees were questioned and some recalled a very pretty, mysterious, stately lady who lived in that room for many years.
    I don’t remember any of the more of the details, a search of the newspapers, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram or the defunct The Fort Worth Press would turn up the article.
    There is a picture of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that was made in Fort Worth, so there is a tenuous connection there.

    • Mark Mszanski says:

      Old Texan –

      Thank you . I am aware of the Famous Fort Worth Five photo taken in November of 1900 which features Butch Cassidy ( Robert LeRoy Parker) The Sundance Kid ( Harry Longabaugh ) and as well Bill Carver, Harvey Logan and Ben Kilpatrick. Your story sounds interesting. I have only heard that a famous Madame in Fort Worth was rumoured to be the infamous Ethel PLace ( Etta) and that she perished in a fire in her hotel that she head previously used as a brothel. This could be where the story came from.

  3. bschaser says:

    This article has some very concerning errors in it. Doesn’t Wild West check facts before letting just anyone post drivel like this? Minnie Brown donated an album but not from her estate. The photos were all removed and were in private hands and some still are. No one knows what was in the album . The museum can’t verify anything . Mark never actually saw the photo in question in Thermopolis . Shoddy reporting by a dubious author. Shame on Wild West.

    • dbuck12 says:

      bschaser, it would be helpful if you elaborated on the provenance of the album, including how you know the provenance. Saying that “Minnie Brown donated an album but not from her estate,” is unclear. She donated it before she died? Or did she somehow donate it after she died, but not from her estate, Clarify if you would.

      Second, “The photos were all removed and were in private hands and some still are,” is also unclear. After she donated the album the photos were all the photos removed? By who? And then some went into private hands? Any details you could add would be helpful.

      Third, “No one knows what was in the album.” If that is the case, how can you say “The photos were all removed and were in private hands and some still are.”? Best, Dan

      • Mark Mszanski says:

        BS Chaser

        Thank you for your input. I would be curious as to what part of my article you deem to be shoddy ? This particular album was in fact together as stated by the co director at the library in charge and labeled in Minnie Brown’s handwriting of which I have photos as well and with her notes in the tabs on the pages of the album. I cannot speak to other photos or albums donated to the museum. The images ( Both the Cabinet Card and the Library of Congress image donated by the Pinkerton’s) were then transferred to 600 DPI format which is the Library Standard for High Resolution Photos in the USA. Both images were placed together purposely at that same resolution for your own comparison in order to ensure there was no compromise and that you as a viewer could see the edges of the frame rather than being simply “told” it was a match. Surely a digital comparison would be better then someone telling you they held the card and based upon that you should believe them? – As far as your claim that other loose photos exist in ” Private Hands “, I would imagine that is plausible if thief’s were to sneak photos out of the museum. How sad for us as researchers and the general public. However, I was not interested in other loose photos if they did exist as the story is about this particular photo which luckily does exist. This particular You sound as if you know where they are? My point is the Cabinet Card survived in the Album Labeled (Volume 4) and thus the the positive ID which was the crux of the first chapter of my article. In terms of the second photo by Mr. Burchett, the provenance of his family should go without saying one would hope. Further and to be clear, Dennis Burchett had as his photo examined by a professional and it was positively ID’d as being period correct. Please tell me why you believe no one knows what was in the album as it was labeled and notated. I am curious . Thanks –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

, , , , , ,

Sponsored Content: