Hi! Winnie Griggs here. (pssst – look for giveaway info at the bottom of this post)
I was thumbing through one of those ‘infamous women of the old west’ type books the other day and came across a listing for a woman named Pearl Hart. The heading of First Female Captured Stagecoach Robber caught my eye. And the more I read about this woman, the more fascinated I became with her story. I did some additional research and found a number of different, sometimes contradictory, accounts of her life. I’ll stitch together my favorites here.
While there is very little know about her early life, we do know that she was born Pearl Taylor in 1871 and lived the early part of her life in Ontario, Canada. She was one of several children born into an upper middle-class, church going family. At age sixteen she was sent to a boarding school, but she had an adventurous spirit that couldn’t be contained. That, combined with her attractiveness and wit made her quite popular with the men of her acquaintance.
While at school Pearl became infatuated with a young man named Hart and eloped at about age 17. Hart has variously been described as a rake, a drunk and a gambler. Far from this being the romantic adventure Pearl had hoped for, it turned out Hart was also abusive. She left him and then returned to him several times and it is reported they had two children together. During their last reconciliation, the couple worked odd jobs the Chicago World’s Fair. There Pearl saw Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and developed a fascination for the cowboy life that would stay with her her entire life. She also visited the Women’s Pavilion where she heard speeches by prominent women’s activists such as Julia Ward Howe.
Finally leaving Hart for good, Pearl placed the children in the care of her mother and took up with a man named Dan Bandman, a gambler and dance-hall musician. The two eventually moved to Colorado.
Later, when Dan left to fight in the Spanish-American War, Pearl moved to Globe Arizona, a mining town. There are various reports that she may have worked as a cook, a singer, a laundress and/or opened a tent brothel. It is also said that she developed a fondness for cigar and liquor at this time. Pearl described her life at this time in these words: “I was only twenty-two years old. I was good-looking, desperate, discouraged, and ready for anything that might come. I do not care to dwell on this period of my life. It is sufficient to say that I went from one city to another…”
Whatever her employment, Pearl’s finances hit bottom when the mine closed. Trying to find a way to earn money, she took up with a man named Joe Boot and together they tried to work an old mine claim he owned. But by 1899 the pair found themselves short on cash and decided to rob a stage, though it appears neither had done anything like this before. One account claims they took this desperate measure because Pearl had gotten word that her mother was ill and needed money, though there is little to substantiate this claim.
Pearl cut her hair and dressed up like a man. Both armed with revolvers, they stopped a stage running between Florence and Globe at the Cane Springs Canyon watering point. They collected $421 from the three passengers on board. Pearl then reportedly took pity on them and gave them back each $1.00 so they could buy a meal at the next stop.
But their lack of experience did them in. They did a poor job of covering their tracks and within six days the law had caught up with them. One account states that they were sleeping when the posses caught up with them and that while Joe surrendered quickly but Pearl tried, unsuccessfully, to fight her way out.
Joe and Pearl were locked in the local jail. But the notoriety and attention Pearl received as a female bandit, coupled with the lack of proper facilities, caused the sheriff to throw up his hands and send her to the jail in Tucson. Pearl’s notoriety grew, and she did all she could to fuel it. Her story about her reason for the robbery (her ailing mother) gained her sympathy, and her avowal 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” gained her a whole new level of attention.
Never one to give up on her options, within a matter of days Pearl had charmed some of the men at the Tucson prison and managed to escape. Unfortunately for her, a New Mexico lawman recognized her and sent her back to the Tucson prison.
Joe Boot was eventually sentenced to 30 years in jail and Pearl to five. Pearl was given the dubious honor of being the first woman incarcerated into the Yuma Territorial Prison. But neither Pearl nor Joe served their full terms. Joe, apparently due to a show of good behavior, was given trustee status. He walked off while working outside the gates less than two years into his term and was never heard from again.
Pearl, on the other hand, gained her freedom legitimately, well, sort of. The warden of the jail where Pearl was imprisoned like all the attention she was attracting from the public and the media. He provided her with a roomy 8 x10 cell as well as a small yard which gave her a space to entertain reporters, photographers and other guests. Pearl, who was the only female incarcerated in the facility, was not above using her wiles to play guards and trustees off of each other to improve her situation.
In December of 1902, Pearl received a pardon from the governor and was released free and clear. The official reason for the pardon remains unclear, but it was given on condition that she leave the Arizona territory. Pearl herself claimed that she had been invited to play the lead in a play her sister had penned based on her life and this had played into her release. However, a later rumor emerged that she had became pregnant. The governor, wanting to spare the Arizona Territory the embarrassment of explaining how this could possibly have happened while she was imprisoned, pardoned her and set her free. While there is no proof that Pearl ever bore a third child, this doesn’t mean the wily woman didn’t use this as a ploy to secure her freedom.
There are varying accounts of what happened to Pearl after she was released. Some say she parlayed her notoriety into a show business career, billing herself as “The Arizona Bandit.” One account says she traveled for a while with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. A less colorful theory is that she married a rancher named Calvin Bywater and settled down into a quite but happier life. If that last is true, then perhaps Pearl got her “happily ever after” after all. Folks who knew Mrs. Bywater described her as “soft spoken, kind, and a good citizen in all respects.” Mrs. Calvin Bywater lived well into her 80s.
As I said earlier, there are a number of different accounts of Pearl’s life and this is only one of them. Her exploits have been featured in theater, film and pulp fiction. There was even a musical called The Legend Of Pearl Hart. And while we may never know the full true story of her life, there is no doubt that she lived it on her own terms.
And, as promised I’m doing a giveaway today. In honor of my upcoming June release, A Baby Between Them, I’m giving away an advanced copy to one person who leaves a comment today. Here’s a little about this book:
For two months, Nora Murphy has cared for the abandoned infant she found on their Boston-bound ship. Settled now in Faith Glen, Nora tells herself she’s happy. She has little Grace, and a good job as housekeeper to Sheriff Cameron Long. She doesn’t need anything more – not the big family she always wanted, or Cam’s love…
A traumatic childhood closed Cam off to any dreams of family life. Yet somehow his lovely housekeeper and her child have opened his heart again. When the unthinkable occurs, it will take all their faith to reach a new future together.
Now avaiable for pre-order HERE