Unraveling the mystery of the 'Outlaw Groupie'
October 31, 2019
Halloween always has associated with it an air of mystery and of spirits roaming the earth, at least for a night. There's no denying the West has its fair share of ghost town, and perhaps a ghost or two still walking among them.
It's no secret that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid have history in Thermopolis. The Hole in the Wall Bar at the Hot Springs County Museum has plenty of items and pictures for anybody who cares to view them. But now a new picture is on display, and museum staff is looking to find information to help uncover the mystery of a woman who had ties to The Wild Bunch - Minnie Brown, also known as the 'Outlaw Groupie.'
If you haven't been to the museum lately, you might notice the new case just north of the animals and pelts on display. Take a closer look inside the glass and you'll get your first look at Minnie, staring at you from the past. Museum Director Racine Morgan noted the picture used to be in the museum's lower level but they chose to bring it up and tell the story of the photo and reveal some of the old history of Thermopolis.
But though a picture is worth a thousand words, that's certainly just a drop in the bucket of this woman's story.
Minnie was buried in a pauper's grave on Monument Hill in 1940, Morgan noted, because she didn't have any money. This means there's no headstone or other marker for her grave. After her passing, the county took what was left of her estate and sold off what they could.
"Of course," Morgan said, "nobody's interested in photos or letters, so that's how we ended up with them. We have about five or six albums." Among those pages was the picture now on display. The back reads, "This gentleman is one of our real gentlemen who knew how to get the money and not cripple or kill . . . Taken in New York just before he sailed to never return." It's still unsure if the picture was mailed or if Minnie picked it up on a trip to New Orleans.
When Doris Ann Ready looked at the picture, which features Etta Place and the Sundance Kid, Harry Longabaugh, she figured it was a tell that Minnie was fairly close friends with Sundance. It had always been assumed she and Etta Place - a companion of Butch and Sundance - had spent time at the Hole in the Wall with the guys, but museum staff are finding out more all the time.
Mark Mszanski, a journalist from New York who writes for True West magazine, pointed out the museum is in possession of one of perhaps three known copies of the original photo. Another is in the Library of Congress, and a family in Colorado owns a third. The actual photo in Thermopolis is in a secure location, with a copy of it is in the display case.
Mike Cavin has joined the journey to uncover more about Minnie. "If I just came in here and kept hearing about Minnie Brown, I'd think 'What made her so special?' There's a lot of outlaws who married a lot of women. What separates her from different pioneer women in this area? I think one thing that fascinates us is the missing blanks, the possible ties to some of the outlaws." He noted there are pictures of the Sundance Kid and other outlaws in albums on her estate. She was married to Mike Brown, Cavin noted, who was said by some to be involved with The Wild Bunch.
"That could've been Mike's," Cavin said of the photos, "or it could've been Minnie's and she just inherited it after his death. We don't know. I see her as having a foot on both sides of the line, where she was attracted to outlaws but still a lady." Ready was the first to describe her as an "outlaw groupie" and the name stuck.
The earliest date of Minnie's appearance in Wyoming is in 1890, in Buffalo. Prior to that, Cavin said, she was a native of South Bend, Indiana. There is evidence, he noted, that she and her siblings were adopted out. Among the blanks in the history is what she was doing prior to her arrival by stagecoach in Buffalo.
Morgan said the museum staffs want to get the information out about Minnie, and in the letters she had it's fairly evident she loved to flirt with the men.
Minnie also had contact with Jim Bridger's daughter, Virginia, by telegram and the two lived together for a time. Morgan noted Jim was the main person who came through Thermopolis in 1864, found the trails and loved the area. Virginia took care of her father in his dying years, in Missouri, and it's likely he told her about the Thermopolis area, Morgan said. "We don't think she knew Minnie personally, but she knew of Minnie's name." Following her father's death in 1881, Virginia came out to Wyoming to live with Minnie. After Virginia's passing in 1933, Minnie took her body to Fort Bridger - named after Jim - and buried her there.
Cavin noted other mysteries surrounding Minnie include a trip to Cuba - evidenced by her boarding a steamer coming from the foreign country to the U.S. - why she had a photo of Sundance, and her life in Montana with another outlaw.
"The main thing we always knew about Minnie, which has always been the start of the mystery of her, is the killing of her husband, Mike Brown," Morgan said. "In 1907, she married Mike Brown. In 1908, in December, she shot and killed him." This account was given by Minnie, and she said it was because Mike was being abusive and choking her.
Ready added Minnie was let go on a charge of self-defense, but there was always a question of whether or not she actually pulled the trigger. One of the neighbors who was still around after others had passed wrote an article about who really killed Mike.
"His life and his family's had been threatened from the day of the shooting, so that he could never tell," Morgan said. According to the article, the shooter was described as a prominent man in Thermopolis who had a disabled wife, and that's all that was said.
Ready noted Minnie was in possession of some items she referred to as "loot" from a 1901 robbery The Wild Bunch had done. In 1930, she wrote a letter to the Union Pacific president to tell him of the loot, which included various pocket watches. Because Jim Bridger had done so much for Union Pacific, when Virginia died there were several articles she wanted Minnie to send to the UP president.
Minnie also asked if there were any possible way the watches could be returned to their proper owners. The UP president wrote back asking how she came by the watches, though there is so far no found reply by Minnie.
Other spots where Minnie's popped up have included Arizona and San Francisco. After Wyoming was finally settled, Morgan believes Minnie spent much of her money travelling before returning to Thermopolis and passing away a pauper.
Though there is documentation of her burial, they do not include specifics such as the plot number. Cavin has been working on arrangements to take a metal detector to the pauper's area of Monument Hill, in the hope of finding some marker that will show the end of Minnie's journey.
Doris Ann noted the staff have several suppositions about Minnie's life based on the information they have. Cavin said there are several other researchers looking into the life of Minnie Brown, and when they can get to the point where the majority of the information is facts, they could possibly publish them, even if it's only in-house.
Those who might have information about Minnie are encouraged to contact the Hot Springs County Museum at 864-5183