I firmly believe that anyone’s life story is worth telling if it’s told correctly. The trick is in telling it correctly. But, folks, the subject of this post is so riveting that this story could be told without words—through interpretive dance and shadow puppets even—and still be the best story you’ve heard all week. I’ve decided to go the more traditional route and use words because all of my shadow puppets are pretty well limited to bunnies and this blog post doesn’t contain any rabbits. What it does contain is plenty of intrigue and a woman of the Old West named Charley Parkhurst, who lived her life as a man.
Charlotte’s Web of Lies
Charlotte Parkhurst was born in 1812, the same year her mother died. Little Charlotte’s father died while she was still young and Charlotte and her sister were taken to an orphanage in Lebanon, New Hampshire. I’ve read enough Charles Dickens’ novels to know that orphan asylums of the 1800s weren’t known for being nurturing environments, in which children blossom into young adults. At the age of 12, Charlotte determined that she had no intention of blooming where she had been planted, so, she hightailed it out of the orphanage.
A little girl on the run would have been a curiosity in the 1800’s, so Charlotte decided that it was safer to dress as a boy. That was good thinking because a little boy on the run scarcely raised an eyebrow. Even a twelve-year-old, cross-dressing, orphaned run-away knew that a boy wouldn’t be named Charlotte, so she began going by Charley. And that is how Charlotte’s web of lies began.
Charley ran all the way to Worcester, Massachusetts. Legend has it that Charley made the acquaintance of a man named Ebenezer Balch. (This really is sounding more and more like a Dickens novel.) This Ebenezer, however, wasn’t a scrooge. He hired the orphaned “boy” to work as a hand at his livery stable. Balch treated Charley like the son he never had. Oh, the irony that he never had the son he never had! He taught the youngster how to drive a coach, and Charley was a natural at it. Soon he was driving teams of six horses.
Put Her Pants on One Leg at a Time
In the 1850s, Charley headed west to see what California held for a man with a secret. (Note: I will begin using masculine pronouns when referring to Charley Parkhurst because I’m confusing myself.) He went to work as a driver for a drayage business. Every good Old West driver needed a nickname, and Charley had a couple of good ones. He was dubbed One Eyed Charley when a horse kicked him in the eye. The second nickname wasn’t quite as painful. One Eyed Charley went to work as a whip, or stagecoach driver. Driving the six horse teams earned him the moniker of Six-Horse Charley.
Whatever he was called, he was never called a sissy. At an estimated 5’6”, Charley Parkhurst may not have been a hulking man, but it seems that he never drew any suspicion either. It is said that he was a tobacco-chewing, hard-drinking, card-playing fellow, who wore leather gloves and oversized shirts. Plus, an eye patch that really helped to complete the persona.
As a whip, Charley had routes in various parts of Northern California. Of course, when the Wells Fargo wagon was a-comin’ down the street, it wasn’t just carrying passengers. They also carried mail and transported valuables. This made stagecoaches prime targets for people with subprime motives.
Legends abound concerning Charley Parkhurst’s time as a whip. While I can’t substantiate any of those stories, he is credited with shooting the notorious stagecoach robber, Black Bart, in his posterior region. Is it true? Eh, probably not. But that’s the fun of legends.
Keep Under Wraps
Charley Parkhurst was registered to vote in the 1868 Presidential elections. That is noteworthy because, no matter how rugged Charley Parkhurst appeared, he was still a she, whose name was actually Charlotte. This was fifty-two years before the 19th Amendment passed, giving U.S. women the right to vote.
The Soquel, California fire station, and a monument at her grave, each have a plaque honoring Charlotte Parkhurst’s place in U.S. voting history. It should be noted that the first woman to vote on American soil was actually Lydia Chapin Taft, in 1756. But hey, it wasn’t the U.S. back then. At least it can be said that Charlotte Parkhurst was quite likely the first woman to vote in California.
Almost Took It to the Grave
Charley retired from working as a driver and settled down in Watsonville, California. For about fifteen years, One Eyed Charley worked as a farmer, before retiring from that, too. Charley Parkhurst died in 1878. It was then that neighbors discovered Charley’s secret.
Neighbors came to prepare Charley for burial and discovered that, man, he felt like a woman! And he looked like a woman. He was a she! A doctor examined Charley’s body and determined that, at some time in the past, she had given birth. Talk about mum being the word! A baby girl’s dress was found in a trunk in Charley’s cabin.
Can’t you just imagine that scene? I mean, you think you know someone, and then…poof! Those poor neighbors must have received the shock of their lives! You just know that the story was told and retold to anyone who would listen. And who isnhis right mind wouldn’t have wanted to listen?
Since there are major gaps in the story of Charley/Charlotte Parkhurst, writers have spent years weaving fact and fiction. Yes, anyone’s life story is worth telling, but Charley Parkhurst’s life story is worth speculating about, as well. If you’re interested is seeing how one author filled in the chinks in the story of Charley Parkhurst, you might want to check out Charley’s Choice: The Life and Times of Charley Parkhurst, by Fern J. Hill. Don’t worry. She tells the story through words rather than interpretive dance and shadow puppets.