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Wild Women Of The West: Pearl Hart

The famous lady bandit of the Old West.

December 03, 2019

The stage driver slammed his foot against the brake lever and hauled back on the reins, yanking the team to a jerking, but quick halt.  He stared, jaw agape, into the steady barrels of a Navy .36 and a Colt .45.

Behind the guns stood a hefty man twirling a black handlebar mustache and another figure partially hidden under a large white sombrero.  A figure who the driver thought was pretty small built for a man.

“Raise ‘em,” barked the mustached man.

“Higher up,” echoed the strange figure under the sombrero.  It was the voice that did it. The driver instantly recognized Pearl Hart, who had become widely known for her carryings on in those parts around Florence, Arizona in 1899.

Before the day was out, she would be known throughout Arizona and much of the country as “the daring lady bandit,” object of a great posse chase in a West that had almost forgotten how.

Unfortunately for young but hardened Pearl, then about twenty-seven-years-old, she and her sidekick, a hardly successful miner named Joe Boot, never knew how to make it as outlaws.

The holdup itself was a vast success, mainly because stages had long before decided shotgun guards were unnecessary.

Three passengers untangled themselves from the heap in which the lurching stop had thrown them and climbed fearfully from the stage.  A short fat man who surrendered $390 into a sack held by the lady road agent, a “dude with his hair parted in the middle (worth $36) and a pigtailed Chinese man,” who had just $5 to contribute when Pearl demanded, “Shell out!”

Then Pearl put on the first of her “road agent” performances that in subsequent months were to make her name famous across the land:  She swaggered back and forth in front of the trembling passengers, glaring and sneering at them.

In a grandiose gesture, she peeled off three $1 bills from the fat man’s roll and gave one to each passenger “for grub and lodging.”

“Now climb aboard and don’t look back for ten minutes,” she ordered, causing the fat man to scramble for the coach, slip on the step and fall flat on his face, with the dude and the Chinese man scrambling in on top of him.  She slammed the stage door, let out an exultant “Yeeeee-Haw” and fired her gun into the air.

The terrified driver exploded his whip over the frightened horses, and the stage raced off over the uneven road to Florence, where the driver and his battered passengers would relate the unbelievable news:  A stage holdup in 1899, in broad daylight in 1899!

Then began the great chase.  Pearl and Joe, instead of hightailing it toward the New Mexico state border as respectable outlaws would, trotted leisurely down the road, guffawing at the spectacle of the quivering fat man.

Sheriff Bill Truman meanwhile, recruited a posse in the town that had turned respectable and whose folks never thought to see such a thing again.  The folks turned out to see the riders thunder down the main street, while the telegraph wires spread the news that the old west still lived. A local newspaper quickly printed up several dozen “wanted – Dead or Alive” posters and soon everyone knew.

Pearl and Joe by this time had decided to cover their trail.  They headed for remote Cane Springs Canyon, a rugged area populated by mountain lions and some old trappers.

To confuse the posse, they doubled back and forth in the wilderness – Joe’s idea, likely from a penny outlaw novel he read.

But the idea confused them more, and they became totally lost, spending the rest of the day meandering about until they hit a trail which led back to the main road – less than a mile from the site of the holdup!

Dismayed and leery of the wilderness behind them, they now turned and spurred their horses down the road about six miles, past Riverside and across a creek, where they rolled up in blankets in a thicket for the night.

The next day they headed for the railroad, but took to the woods just in time to be missed by the passing posse.  They laid low that day, but Joe that night hiked to his cabin some miles away and returned with his pipe and tobacco.

The next day they holed up in some caves on a nearby mountain, after Joe dispatched a wild hog with six shots, which also filled the caves with acrid gunpower fumes.

Two more days they eluded the persistent posse, running their horses nearly to death over ten mils of rugged country and often just being missed by the sheriff’s men after them.

Their last night as free people almost ended in death for Joe, who nearly drowned when his horse gave out while attempting to jump a deep ditch filled with water.  They camped, built a fire and Pearl started to cook dinner, when a torrential rain fell, dousing the flames and making them eat a cold, watered down dinner of beans and bacon.

As they slept, a passing farmer thought he saw something red glistening in a nearby clump of brush.  He stopped to investigate and there was Pearl’s red petticoat, strung out over a branch to dry. The farmer knew that the whole countryside was searching for the two outlaws, so he hightailed it for the sheriff.

Like a red flag waved at a bull, the red petticoat drew sheriff Truman and two men toward Pearl and Joe.  But not before the noise they made sloshing through the water-soaked ground woke Pearl. Just as the sheriff got to her she reached for her gun and fired one shot.  Then Truman had her gun and she was sputtering, “You’d never have caught me alive, if you hadn’t grabbed my gun!” The one shot caught deputy John Woles through the left lung.

Joe had been subdued without a fight.  Truman and the other deputy then led the two outlaws back to town.  They carried Woles draped over his horse. He died two nights later.

During the lengthy period before the trial, Pearl granted interviews and became a national celebrity, even one taking a women’s liberation stance that she would not be tried under a law made by men “which my sex had no voice in making.” She also feigned a suicide attempt by choking down some talcum powder in sight of the jailer.

She said she staged the holdup to get money for her ailing mother in her native town of Lindsay, Ontario, from which she had eloped years earlier with a dashing young gambler and loser named Hart to start a life in mining camp out West.

And she played her current romance with Joe to the hilt, giving him a lingering kiss as she was leaving for prison in Tucson to await trial.  There she teamed up with a prisoner a trusty name Ed Hogan, who brought her meals and engineered an escape for both of them after promising her to form an outlaw band with her as its queen.

But they were shortly recaptured in an outlaw hangout in New Mexico.  She was reunited with Joe Boot for the trial in Tucson. The first jury, apparently enamored of the romantic image of Pearl, voted for acquittal, which the angry judge blasted.  He directed a second charge to be placed against her: of stealing the stage driver’s gun. A new jury, mindful of the glare of the judge, took 30 seconds to find her guilty. She was sentenced to five years.

Joe, in a separate trial, was speedily found guilty and sentenced to 30 years.  “It always pays to be the star actor, Joe,” the judge told him as he was being led from the courtroom.  “The dupe does the hard work and is seldom mentioned in the magazines.”

Pearl was released in 1902 and tired an acting career, to mixed reviews.

In 1904, Pearl surfaced again on police records on a matter involving stolen good in Kansas City.  She was under an assumed name, but broke down and admitted she was the “famous lady bandit.”

She presented a poem she had written about the great, last stage robbery.  Twenty years later, a grey-haired woman appeared in the Arizona courthouse and asked to look around, nodding and smiling at the cells, the stairway and the old tower.  Pearl later operated a cigar store in Kansas City for many years, then is believed to have moved further west into total obscurity, about 1942.

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