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Stagecoach Bandit Pearl Hart

Updated on July 11, 2011

In the old West it was said “Men were men and women were women.” But sometimes it was difficult to tell the difference. History is replete with women who masqueraded as men for one purpose or another. There were women who dressed up as men and joined the military to fight for their country.

Some found it easier to survive on the frontier if everyone thought they were a man. Take the case of Charley Parkhurst. Charley was a female tobacco chewing, cussing California stagecoach driver who had disguised herself as a male from a young age. When Charley died in bed on December 18, 1879, friends found out Charley was a woman!

Others didn’t try to change the appearance of their gender but from a distance they might be mistaken for a man. One such lady was Pearl Hart born about 1870 near Toronto, Canada. She was known as an attractive woman and was of French descent. Hart would grow up to become one of the only female stagecoach robbers in the American West. In fact, she was the first known female stage robber in Arizona territory.

Pearl was brought up in a respectable middle-class family and received a good education. At the age of seventeen, she fell in love and married a charming gambler named Frederick Hart. Fred sometimes worked as a bartender, but he had a penchant for the gambling tables and frequently lost whatever he earned. In addition to being a poor provider, he was a heavy drinker and her life with him proved to be one hardship after another.

In 1893, the couple traveled to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago where Fred worked as a sideshow barker and Pearl found a number of odd jobs. While there, she became attracted to the Wild West shows. She was especially enamored by Annie Oakley who was performing there. She also attended the World’s Fair Women’s Pavilion where she listened to a number of women’s speeches, by prominent women’s activists.

Inspired by strong women and enamored by the heroes of the Wild West, she left her husband and boarded a train to Trinidad, Colorado. There, she gained a measure of popularity as a saloon singer. However, she shortly became pregnant with Fred’s child and returned to her family in Canada. After giving birth to a son, she left him with her mother and traveled west again to Phoenix, Arizona.

There she ran into her husband again. He had followed her there hoping to win her back. Things went alright for a few years living on the edge of decent society. Fred got a job working as a manager and bartender at a local hotel and for a time their life seemed to be a little happier.

However, the pair also began frequenting the saloons and gambling parlors on Washington Street, where Pearl learned to smoke and drink, and reportedly began using other harsher drugs, including marijuana and morphine. By this time Pearl had become pregnant with Fred’s second child.

Finally, Fred now bored with domestic life and supporting a family, left to ride off with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba. Pearl once again returned to her parents, but didn’t stay long, leaving her second child there as well. After being abandoned by her husband, Pearl found it very difficult to survive. She "got along as best she could."

Pearl was disappointed in the "West” not finding it anywhere near as glamorous as she had expected. Instead, her life had now become regulated to working as a cook in a café and taking in laundry. Eventually, she grew depressed and tried to commit suicide three or four times. Fortunately, each time someone intervened.

In the Pokey

Sometime later, Pearl secured employment working for miners in Mammoth. While there, she met a man who was to influence the rest of her life. He called himself "Joe Boot," which was probably not his real name. Joe convinced Pearl life would be better in Globe. There, Pearl and Joe tried their hand at mining a claim for awhile but it didn’t pan out.

Then, Pearl got word her mother was dying and should immediately return home. Pearl later wrote, "That letter drove me crazy. . . . I had no money. I could get no money. From what I know now, I believe I became temporarily insane."

Desperate for cash the pair devised a scam. Pearl was to lure men into a room, letting them think a little hanky panky was in the works. Instead, Joe knocked them out and they took their money. However, they needed a way to make cash quicker. So, they decided to rob a stagecoach.

On May 29, 1899, in the Dripping Springs Mountains, Pearl and Joe robbed a stage having only three passengers: a salesman with $380, a "tenderfoot" with $36, and a Chinaman with $5. Pearl and Joe took everything they had, even the salesman's watch. However, Pearl had a good heart and Feeling sorry about leaving them penniless, returned a dollar back to each of them…"enough to eat on."

Shortly thereafter Pearl and Joe were caught by Pinal County Sheriff W. E. Truman. They were placed in the Florence Jail on June 4. However, the sheriff soon found out he had a major problem. As soon as the public discovered he had a woman bandit under lock and key, reporters and the public at large promptly descended upon his jail. The sheriff found the publicity intolerable and therefore sent Pearl to the Pima County Jail in Tucson. But, he kept Joe.

Pearl’s notoriety became even greater in Tucson. She was soon playing the sympathy card with the local media. The reasons for her robbery, trying to get home to see her dying mother was a real tug on the old heartstrings. She was also quoted as saying she "would never consent to be tried under a law she or her sex had no voice in making, or to which a woman had no power under the law to give her consent." which immediately made her the perfect voice for "women's emancipation."

While in Tucson she met an inmate trustee called "Ed Hogan. His real name was Sherwood. As a trustee Hogan was allowed free access to most of the jail. Hogan soon fell under Pearl’s charms and on the night of October 12 he cut a hole through the wall of Pearl's cell allowing her to escape. They pair fled to Deming, New Mexico, but their freedom was short lived.

They were apprehended  by United States Marshal George Scarborough and Pearl was returned to the Florence jail. Both Pearl and Joe Boot were then placed on trial in Florence. Pearl was sentenced to five years, while Boot got thirty. They were both sent to the Territorial Prison in Yuma. Boot managed to escape in 1901 and was never heard of again. He was thought to have fled to Mexico.

While in Yuma, Pearl became even more famous. Guards managed to find reasons to be in the vicinity of her cell disrupting any semblance of discipline. There was a seemingly endless line of reporters interviewing her and photographers asking her to pose with a pistol or rifle.

Pearl was pardoned eighteen months early on December 19, 1902. Governor Alexander Brodie explained his actions with the excuse the prison "lacked accommodations for women prisoners." The truth, however, was Pearl was pregnant. It was obvious the father had to be someone who worked in the prison. To avoid an embarrassing scandal the warden convinced the governor she should be released.

After her release, she moved to Kansas City. There, she planned to profit from her status as the "Lady Bandit.” However, her fame faded quickly and she disappeared from public view for a couple of years until she was arrested in Kansas City for buying stolen canned goods. However, she had changed her name to Mrs. L.P. Keele.

Afterwards she disappeared again until 1924 when she returned to visit the old courthouse in Florence where she had been tried. An attendant on duty heard her remark "nothing has changed.” When the attendant asked who she was, she replied "Pearl Hart, the lady bandit.”

As to what happened to Pearl Hart after that, remains uncertain. Some say she died in Kansas City where she operated a cigar store in 1925. Others say she was living in San Francisco, California and died in 1952. But the most accepted consensus is she married a rancher in Dripping Springs, Arizona. Supposedly, she went by the name of Pearl Bywater and died in 1956.

Hart is often thought as being the last person to ever rob a stagecoach, but the last actual stage holdup took place on December 5, 1916 near Jarbridge, Nevada by Ben Kuhl.

She is also frequently reported as being the only woman to ever hold up a stagecoach. This is also not factual. Jane Kirkham was killed when robbing a stagecoach between Leadville and Buena Vista, Colorado on March 7, 1879.


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      thank you for leting us see it

    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Lindian and Pam, There are many women in history such as her. I have written on a few, and plan to write more on outstanding women. She was definitely a cow pasture.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      7 years ago from Sunny Florida

      JY, I've never heard of her either but it was a very interesting story. Rated up.

    • Lidian profile image


      7 years ago

      Fascinating! I'd never heard of her, even though I love women's history and Victorian stuff. Am definitely going to read more of your Hubs!


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