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Wild Women of the West: Pearl Hart

May 24, 2017

Pearl Hart

Armed with a .44 Colt pistol and dressed in a man’s gray flannel shirt, jeans and boots, Pearl Hart rode off into the hills around Globe, Arizona to rob an unsuspecting stagecoach.  The petite 28 year-old woman had a cherub-like face, short dark hair, and hard, penetrating little eyes.  The white sombrero perched on her head was cocked to one said and cast a shadow over her small nose and plump cheeks.

While her accomplice seized the weapon the stage driver was carrying, Pearl lined the passengers alongside the road and relieved them of the more than $450 dollars they possessed.  Before the lady bandit sent the shaken travelers on their way she provided them with one dollar.  “That’s for grub and lodging,” she told them.  Once the stage was off again, Pearl and her partner in crime rode out in the opposite direction.

The brazen daylight robbery that occurred on May 30, 1899 had historic significance.  It was the last stage ever held up and Pearl Hart was the last stage bandit, female or otherwise to perpetrate such a crime.  When news of the theft reached the public at large, Pearl became an overnight celebrity.

Born in Ontario, Canada in 1871, Pearl was raised in a respectable middle class family and attended the finest boarding schools in the town of Lindsay.  Toward the end of her scholastic endeavors she met the gambler Fredrick Hart and began a romantic relationship.  Pearl was 16 years-old and the affair scandalized the school.  The pair eloped in the spring of 1889.

The marriage was a volatile one from the start.  Hart had a bad temper and drank a lot.  He frequently took the losses he experienced at the poker table out on Pearl.  The two argues constantly.  During a trip to Chicago in 1893, the young bride managed to escape her abusive husband.  She found work at the Wild West exhibition at the World’s Columbian Exposition.  She fell in love with her job and the history of the American West and its legends.  Pearl was particularly enamored by the tales of highwaymen and road agents.  She studied their tactics and dreamed of following in the footsteps of the James Gang.

In 1895, Hart caught up with his wife and begged her to forgive him.  Pearl did and the couple briefly reunited.  Frederick worked as a bartender and hotel manager and Pearl settled down to a life of domesticity.  After the birth of their second child, Hart returned to his old habits.  He started carousing, drinking too much and abusing his wife.  Pearl left him with her children in tow.

Now in her mid-20s, Pearl traveled back to Canada where she took on a series of odd jobs to support her family.  Fascinated with the American West, she occasionally drifted to mining camps in Idaho, Montana, Colorado and Arizona.  In Benson, Arizona she began seeing a miner, Joe Boot.  Boot had a devil-may-care attitude and criminal tendencies Pearl found appealing.  The discussed famous robberies and wondered aloud if they had the talent to do pull off such crimes.

A letter from Pearl’s mother explaining that she was desperately ill and needed money to help purchase medicine, reached her daughter in early 1899.  Pearl tearfully shared her mother’s dire situation with Boot and he suggested they get the funds needed to assist her by robbing a stage.

There weren’t many stages running in Arizona in the late 1890s.  Transportation was now done primarily by train.  Boot informed Pearl that a stage hadn’t been robbed in some time and that no one would be expecting it to happen.  She agreed and the pair decided to take over the coach that ran from Florence to Globe.  Joe had learned that the passengers were primarily businessmen who always traveled with large sums of money.

The holdup went smoothly, but their escape plan was fraught with complications.  They got lost in the woods surrounding the crime scene and were eventually apprehended by a posse sent to arrest them.

Pearl Hart and her cohort were charged with highway robbery and their trial took place in Florence.  News of Pearl’s crime and the hearing were reported in newspapers throughout the country.  For a while she was arguably the most famous woman in the world.  The first jury found that the daring Mrs. Hart was a victim of circumstance and granted her an acquittal.  The judge was furious with the verdict and ordered a second jury be appointed.  After warning them not to be swayed by the fact that she was a woman, the jury found her guilty.  Pearl was then sentenced to 5 years in jail.

The bandit Pearl Hart served 18 months of her sentence and was released on December 19, 1902.  She left Arizona for Missouri and settled in Kansas City with her younger sister.  The two wrote a play about Pearl’s criminal exploits entitled The Arizona Bandit.  The play closed after a handful of performances by the author herself.

There is some dispute over the date the famous lady thief died.  Some historians believe she passed away in 1925 in Kansas City.  Others suggest she died in Arizona in 1955 and that her body lies in an unmarked grave in a small cemetery at the base of the Dripping Springs Mountains near Globe.

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