Rediscover a Classic American Genre
The Pleasure in the Mystery
Very little is known about Etta Place, the wife of Harry “The Sundance Kid” Longbaugh. There are as many theories as there are people interested in telling her story.
In 1976, Robert Redford published a book about his journey along the Outlaw Trail, and on that journey, he met a man who claimed to have researched Etta and discovered she was the granddaughter of the sixth Earl of Essex. Nowhere else have I encountered that theory. It seems likely she was born in 1878. Where she was born, well, at one point she indicated she was born on the East Coast, although the agents at the Pinkerton detective agency had information on her parents that led them to believe she was from Texas. But the Pinkertons also listed her name as Eva, Rita or Ethel, while ultimately deciding on Etta for the wanted posters. The only detail we know for certain is that “Place” was the maiden name of Harry Longbaugh’s mother, Annie. Sundance, who used many different aliases, at times traveled as Harry A. Place. As to Etta’s maiden name, there are dozens of different theories on that.
Some believe she had been a prostitute when she met Harry. But as the novelist and screenwriter William Goldman suggested, she was too pretty for too long, as that profession tended to age and harden women prematurely. Others suggest she was a teacher for at least a short period of time. And some believe she had been both prostitute and teacher.
What perhaps makes her the subject of so much speculation is the one decent photograph of her which was taken at the DeYoung Photography Studio in New York. She stands with Harry and appears to be wearing a wedding ring. She is quite beautiful. At certain moments her expression appears melancholy, while other times she looks as if she’s about to break into a smile. In reality, it’s probably no more complicated than the photographer saying, “Hold still and don’t move a muscle or you’ll ruin the exposure, ma’am.”
But all these projections of Etta Place are more likely to reflect our own feelings and personalities than hers. In the end, all we can really do is take pleasure in the mystery.