Women of Mystery

I love history, and I love mysteries. It seems like I’ve been writing either one or the other, or both combined, all my life. And while fictional mysteries are my forte, I can’t resist real historical mysteries. Two of those mysteries continue to nag at me: the true identity and fate of Etta Place, girlfriend of the Sundance Kid, and Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who claimed to have passed herself off as a Confederate officer and led a company into battle at Shiloh.

In the early morning hours of April 6, 1862, a young lieutenant appeared in the camp of Confederate General William J. Hardee, south of Shiloh Church. He introduced himself as Harry T. Buford, an officer without an assignment. Hardee allowed Buford to tag along that morning, when the Confederate assault drove the Union out of their camps. Hardee was pleased with the young lieutenant’s services and allowed him to join a company of Arkansas infantry which Buford had helped to recruit. It was a risk for Buford, since the commanding officer of the company was Buford’s husband. But “he” brazened his way through and led the company in combat the rest of the day. You see Harry Buford was really a young Cuban woman named Loreta Janeta Velazquez, or at least that’s her claim in A Woman in Battle, her postwar memoir.

Loreta Janeta Velazquez

Loreta Janeta Velazquez

Loreta’s story is an amazing one on many levels. She married a young lieutenant in New Orleans when she was still in her late teens. After he was mustered into the Confederate army, she concocted her Harry Buford identity and went to northern Arkansas where she recruited an infantry company, took it to Florida and presented it to her husband. Unfortunately, her husband died of the measles without ever leaving training camp. Returning to her feminine guise, she became engaged to her husband’s second-in-command Thomas Decaulp. After that she again donned her uniform and saw action at Ball’s Bluff, Ft. Donelson, and Shiloh. In melodramatic fashion, she says that Decaulp was mortally wounded, and they married as he lay on his deathbed. Later, she claimed to have served the South as a spy, even meeting President Abraham Lincoln during her espionage career.

Prominent former Confederates, including General Jubal A. Early, denounced her memoir as fiction, but in recent years, there has been a renewal of interest in Loreta. Thanks to the digitizing of millions of records, and continuing research by scholars such as C. Kay Larson and Philip Thomas Tucker, we can get a little clearer view of her story. She was a real person, and though the records are scant, enough documentation exists to essentially prove her story. Part of the problem was that she used a number of aliases. But references have now been found in any number of contemporary newspapers that support her career as a spy. And Larson has found a reference in the history of the Army of the Tennessee, by Bromfield Ridley, the aide-de-camp to General A.P. Stewart, recounting a visit by Loreta as Harry Buford to the general’s tent.

For an excellent summary of the research on Loreta Janeta Velazquez, look at Tucker’s 2002 book, Cubans in the Confederacy.

Etta Place, so memorably portrayed by Katherine Ross in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is a different story. We know virtually nothing about her before 1900 and even less after 1909. She was emblazoned on our collective consciousness because of the Redford/Newman movie, but even in the current digital age, she is as elusive as she was before.

Harry "Sundance" Longabaugh and Etta Place

Harry “Sundance” Longabaugh and Etta Place

Pinkerton Agency reports tell us little but the framework. Etta or Ethel Place was believed to be about 22 years old in 1900. She was a beautiful woman who is thought to have met Harry “Sundance” Longabaugh at Fannie Porter’s bordello in San Antonio, Texas. The Wild Bunch, as Butch and Sundance’s gang was known, used Fannie’s as a hideout. Acquaintances say she had a “refined” accent. Otherwise, it’s all just a bunch of speculation. She may have been a teacher. Or maybe it was her mother. She was killed in Bolivia with Butch and Sundance. She lived until 1966 and died in Ft. Worth, Texas. You get the picture.

What is almost certainly true is that Etta or Ethel Place was not her real name. Longabaugh’s mother was Ann Place. It has been suggested that Longabaugh and Etta were cousins, but that seems highly unlikely. Some people believe that Annie Bassett, girlfriend of another Wild Bunch gang member, was Etta. But their stories don’t match up. When Etta was known to be in South America, Annie was known to be in the United States. In other words, it’s just all one big muddle.

I have my own candidate for Etta Place. In 1900, when Sundance and Etta were said to have met at Fannie Porter’s, one of Fannie’s “boarders” was Madaline Wilson, a 22 year old woman from England. According to the census, Madaline arrived in the US in 1884 when she was six years old. A British accent, tempered by 16 years in the United States, might have been described as refined. And after 1900, Madaline disappears. Of course it’s sheer guesswork, but at least some of the markers match. She is of the right age, in the right place, at the right time. Certainly something to think about.

Loreta Velazquez is just now being accepted as the adventuress she truly was. Perhaps the day will come when Etta Place, whose antics with Butch and Sundance between 1900 and 1908 are part of American legend, will emerge from the fog of time too.


4 Responses

  1. Two very intriguing mysteries, Tony. Historical mysteries in the works?

    • You know, Janet, I’ve thought about doing a historical thriller kind of thing based on Loreta Velazquez’s story. I’d love to see a movie based on her. Etta Place? She just intrigues the daylights out of me. I can see a lot of possibilities in that.

  2. My favorite book about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is by Larry Pointer, published in the late 1970s, claimed to prove that Butch Cassidy lived a peaceful life in Spokane, Washington and died in 1937 under the name William T. Phillips. Pointer didn’t have an explanation for Etta after Bolivia. My guess is she went back to her real name, which of course no one knows.

  3. Aubrey, I’ve found the whole Bolivia thing fascinating. A few years ago a couple of researchers claimed to have found definitive proof that Butch and Sundance died in the shootout down there. In reality, it was just a bunch of documents from the police in Bolivia that never once confirmed that the two bandits killed were Butch or Sundance. And the only bodies ever exhumed down there proved not to be a DNA match to the pair. A woman did approach a Bolivian consul in 1909, attempting to get a death certificate for Sundance. Pinkerton speculated that it could have been Etta, but there’s no way to really know now,

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