The other day I was doing some heads-down research for my current work in progress. The subject of my quest was stagecoach accommodations but, as often happens when I do research, I got sidetracked by a tidbit I stumbled upon. What caught my eye was an intriguing reference to a stage-driver by the name of Charley Parkhurst. “One-eyed Charley”, as the popular driver was called, led a very colorful and singular life.
Charley was born in New Hampshire around 1812. Orphaned while very young, Charley was sent to an orphanage, escaped from the orphanage at around age 12 and found a job as a stable boy. There it was discovered Charley had a way with the horses and was promoted from stable boy to handling teams and eventually progressed to driving coaches. Charley’s skill was such that patrons were known to specifically request the young driver by name.
In 1851 Charley moved to California following the opportunities that opened up with the gold rush and soon earned a reputation as being one of the safest and fastest drivers around, easily handling the ribbons for a team of six. According to one source looking back over Charley’s career, “. . . in more than twenty years no highwayman had dared to hold up a stagecoach with Charley Parkhurst on the box, for the first two who tried it had been shot dead in their tracks.”
At some point, Charley lost an eye as a result of being kicked by a horse. Not deterred by the mishap, Charley wore a black eye black patch from then on, and thus obtained the nickname “One-eyed Charley.” From all accounts, though a fair and honest person, Charley was no saint. The colorful driver’s habits included, smoking cigars, chewing tobacco, indulging in moderate drinking, card playing and other forms of gambling, and swearing volubly when the occasion called for it.
Eventually, when rheumatism (a common condition among long-time drivers) began taking a physical toll and the railroad expansion took more and more of the overland business, Charley retired. Never one to remain idle, the former stage-driver, now past sixty, turned to raising cattle and occasionally hauling freight for neighbors.
All of the above points to a vivid life lived fully and with gusto. But the most astounding thing about Charley wasn’t revealed until it came time to lay the body out for burial. It turns out Charley was a woman! Her real name was Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst. For the most part, co-workers, business partners, neighbors and even close friends were absolutely flummoxed by the news. In fact, Charley had fooled everyone to the extent that she was allowed to register to vote in the presidential election of 1868, long before women were awarded that privilege.
Reading this remarkable story had the writer in me imagining story after story to account for what had led Charley to lead such a curious life.
Had she taken the disguise as a child in order to land the stable boy job and found herself trapped for a lifetime by her own deception?
Had she become so enamored of the freedom afforded her as a man that she was unwilling to give it up?
Was she running from something in her past and was afraid to resume her true identity?
Did she ever long to throw off her disguise?
Another piece of this intriguing puzzle that spurs the imagination – it was said that those who went through Charley’s possessions after her death found baby clothes. Wow, if true, does this ever raise additional questions.
Did she in fact have a baby? If so, when – after she reached California or was it actually part of the reason she headed west? What happened to the child – did the baby die or did she find a home for him/her? Who was the father and under what circumstances was the child conceived?
Anyway, this little side trip through my research cost me several hours since I couldn’t resist digging deeper into her story even though it’s not something that will be useful to my work in progress. Then again, who knows? Pieces of this tale, or variations thereof, may someday find their way into a future book.
So what about you? Did this snippet of Charley’s history cause you to start spinning tales in your head about what her life might have been like? What aspect most intrigued you, what piece did you immediately hone in on?