If you think the Women’s Liberation Movement didn’t begin until the 1960s, you need to think again. The women of the Old West proved time and again that they could do anything that the menfolk could do, well before the movement had a name. Women could ride and rope with the best of them, and they could shoot a gun, rustle cattle and rob a stagecoach too. Yup, women could become outlaws too, and case in point is a lady named Pearl Hart. Oh, sure, Pearl Hart may not be the poster child for the equal rights movement, but she did make an argument for the fact that women can do anything that men can do.
When telling a story, I try to piece together the most accurate historical facts available. But, it should come as no surprise that in Wild West history, sometimes the facts contradict! I often see storytellers spinning their yarns with the same certainty they would use to tell you that water is wet. But, I just can’t do that, in good conscience. However, this is my attempt to provide you with some of the most likely “pearls” of wisdom about the Lady Outlaw, Pearl Hart.
Hart of the Matter
Pearl Hart was born as Pearl Taylor in Ontario, Canada. I’m not sure what the typical outlaw upbringing was like, but I’m pretty sure Pearl’s home life isn’t what made her turn to a life of crime. Her parents were relatively wealthy, religious and seemingly devoted to their daughter. She had advantages that were not common to women born in 1871. When she was sixteen, Pearl went off to boarding school, where she fell for a scoundrel of a young man. His first name is uncertain (It was probably either Brett, Frank, or William) but his last name was Hart. You can see where this is heading, can’t you?
Pearl and Whatshisname eloped, probably breaking her wealthy, religious and devoted parents’ hearts. And, no surprise, it wasn’t long before Pearl left Whatshisname and returned home to her mama. If only she had stayed there. But Pearl kept casting herself before her swine of an abusive husband, whose name has been long since forgotten. The two separated and reconciled multiple times. The Harts’ on again/off again relationship produced two children, a boy and a girl.
In 1893, the Harts went to Chicago, where Whatshisname worked as a sideshow barker and Pearl did odd jobs. Pearl became enamored with stories about the Old West.
Eventually, the little Harts ended up with Pearl’s mama, who was, by that time, living in Ohio. Pearl went gallivanting around the Western U.S., either with Whatshisname, or in the company of a piano player by the name of Dan Bandman. (Side note: I just found another possible name for Whatshisname. Frederick.) At any rate, the Harts finally broke for good and Pearl spent time drifting around Western mining camps.
Hart and Soul
It is said that Pearl was fond of smoke, drink and morphine, but I just can’t say for sure. It is also said that she was thwarted in multiple suicide attempts. Then Pearl met up with a miner, who went by the name of Joe Boot and her life got really interesting. The two headed to Globe, Arizona and worked a mining claim.
They didn’t strike it rich and things were looking pretty glum when Pearl received a letter from her brother. The letter stated that Pearl’s mama was dying and that Pearl should head back to see her. Unfortunately, Pearl was flat broke. So, Pearl and Joe Boot hatched a plan.
Pearl and Boot decided to rob the Globe to Florence stagecoach. It was May 29, 1899 when Pearl dressed as a man and became the only known woman to ever rob a stagecoach. It turned out to be the next to last stagecoach robbery in Old West history. Boy, she got in just under the wire!
There were only three passengers on the stagecoach, but Pearl and Boot collected $421 and a watch. One thing is for sure. . .Pearl Hart did have a heart, because she then returned $1 to each victim, so they would have some money for food.
Pearl and Boot were soon caught and were put on trial separately. Pearl quickly gained notoriety and a whole lot of public sympathy. After all, she was just trying to see her dying mama. And, yes, Pearl did become a sort of figure for women’s rights! She was quite convincing in her argument that 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.” Pearl could not have used her situation more to her advantage if she had employed a publicity agent!
The Pearly Gates
Pearl’s arguments weren’t convincing enough, however. She was found guilty and sentenced to five years in the Territorial Prison at Yuma. Joe Boot received a thirty-year sentence. The warden prepared a special cell for Pearl, which had a private garden and a mountain view.
In the end, Pearl served 18 months before being released. There are some stories that she was released because of a pregnancy that could not be explained, but I haven’t found any proof to back those claims.
When Pearl left prison, she joined her sister in Kansas City and starred in a play her sister had written, entitled “The Arizona Bandit”. When the play closed, Pearl disappeared from public life. She is believed to have died in Arizona sometime between 1950 and 1960.
Pearl Jam (Well, Sort Of)
Sometimes when I am researching a topic, I find something that is so unexpected that I just sit at my computer shaking my head. This time, I found something so unexpected that I found myself shaking with laughter. It seems that there is a song about Pearl Hart. Noooooo, it’s not an old folksong. It’s a modern song, written and performed by (Get this!) Volbeat, a Danish, metal band! In 2013, they released an album entitled, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies. Oh, my stars! One of the songs from that album is “Lady Pearl.” It would be enough to make me rethink my stance on Danish metal bands, if I had ever had an official stance to begin with. Do yourself a favor and take a listen. It just goes to show that you never know when a genuine Old West outlaw/shady lady/women’s lib activist is going to make a mark on the world!
Happy Trails, y’all!