Pearl Hart: Old West Girl Seeks Wealth, Gets Jail

Last week’s blog was a story from the twentieth-century American West. This week, we set the dial back a bit further and meet Pearl Hart, one of the Old West’s last stagecoach robbers.

Pearl Hart — Her Early Years

Pearl Hart’s early life was ordinary enough. She was born as Pearl Taylor in 1871 in Ontario, Canada. Her religious parents did their best to raise her properly. They saw to it that she had the best possible education, a rarity for girls at the time. Yet it was that education that led to her subsequent troubles. For when she was 16 and in boarding school, she met Frank Hart.

Pearl Hart
Pearl Hart

Frank Hart was a poor choice for the young girl to set her sights on. His reputation among his contemporaries was not a good one. He was a gambler and reportedly drank heavily. Regardless the two eloped. But Paarl soon discovered that whatever his other faults, her new husband was abusive as well. She soon packed up and returned to her mother.

Between about 1887 and 1893, Pearl and Frank reconciled and split several times. They managed to have a son and a daughter, who Pearl sent to live with her mother in Ohio. In 1893, the couple attended the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Frank took a job as a barker on the midway. Pearl became fascinated with the cowboy life after seeing Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. When the fair ended, Pearl boarded a train for Trinidad, Colorado—without Frank. A piano player named Dan Boardman may have accompanied Pearl to Colorado, but this is just a rumor.

Pearl Turns to Crime

In early 1898, Pearl found herself in the mining town of Monmouth, Arizona Territory. It isn’t clear what she did for a living. Some reports have her working as a cook in a boardinghouse. Others have her operating a brothel out of a tent. Whatever her occupation, she did well enough until the mine closed.

Increasingly desperate for money, Pearl and an acquaintance known to history only as “Joe Boot” worked a mining claim he owned. They found nothing of value.

"Joe Boot" was probably an alias. Nobody knows his real name.
“Joe Boot” was probably an alias. Nobody knows his real name.

For their next moneymaking venture, Boot and Pearl decided to hold up the stagecoach that operated between Globe and Florence. Pearl cut her hair short, donned men’s clothing, and packed a .38 revolver for the occasion. Boot carried a Colt .45. The pair picked May 30, 1899 as the date for the holdup. They chose a watering stop about 30 miles southeast of Globe as the location for their heist.

Pearl Hart dressed as a man. During the robbery, she used a revolver, not the rifle pictured here.
Pearl Hart dressed as a man. During the robbery, she used a revolver, not the rifle pictured here.

By 1899, the stage run between Globe and Florence was one of the last operating in the territory. It had been years since the last robbery on the line. Consequently, there was no shotgun messenger aboard when Boot and Hart stopped the coach. Boot held a gun on the victims while Pearl relieved them of $431.20 (over $13,000 today) and two guns. She then returned a single dollar to each passenger so they could buy something to eat when they reached Florence. The pair of unlikely desperados then galloped away.

This run of the Overland/Silver dollar city stagecoach is a modern run for tourists in Springfield, Missouri. A real-life stagecoach robbery was something entirely different. (417 Magazine)
This run of the Overland/Silver dollar city stagecoach is a modern run for tourists in Springfield, Missouri. A real-life stagecoach robbery was something entirely different. (417 Magazine)

Pearl Hart Captured and On Trial

Pinal County Sheriff William Truman caught up with the pair on June 6, finding them asleep. Boot surrendered quietly while Pearl, according to reports fought to avoid capture. It was in vain. Sheriff Truman lodged Boot in the Pinal County Jail in Florence. He had to take Pearl to Tucson because the Florence jail had no facilities for women.

A female stagecoach robber caused a media sensation, even more so since stagecoach robberies were rare by 1899. Local and national reporters descended on Tucson to interview and photograph Pearl. Cosmopolitan ran a prominent article describing her as “the opposite of what would be expected of a woman stage robber.”

Pearl Hart's photo appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine
Pearl Hart’s photo appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine

Pearl’s “cell” in Tucson was not a regular jail cell. She took advantage of this when, on October 12, she cut a hole in the wall and escaped. Her freedom was short-lived, however, because authorities soon recaptured her near Deming, New Mexico Territory.

Hart and Boot went on trial for robbery in October 1899. Pearl made an impassioned argument that she needed the money to visit her seriously ill mother. The jury bought it and found her not guilt, which angered Judge Fletcher Doan. This wasn’t the end, though. The pair next faced charges of tampering with the U.S. mail. This time, the jury convicted them. Boot drew 30 years while Hart got a 5-year sentence.

Epilogue

Both Hart and Boot ended up at the Yuma Territorial Prison. Boot’s good behavior earned him a position as a trusty. One day he walked away and disappeared, never to be seen again. He had served less than two years of his sentence.

Pearl Hart left Yuma Territorial Prison in December 1902 after Territorial Governor Alexander Brodie pardoned her. His reasons for issuing the pardon are not entirely clear. A rumor surfaced in 1964 that Hart had become pregnant, possibly by prison Superintendent Herbert Brown. A female prisoner becoming pregnant while in custody would surely have been an embarrassment for the superintendent and the territorial governor. However, this rumor didn’t surface until everyone who could have been involved was dead. Furthermore, there is no historical evidence that Hart ever had a third child.

Pearl Hart in the Yuma Territorial Prison
Pearl Hart in the Yuma Territorial Prison

After prison, Pearl Hart left Arizona Territory and largely disappeared from public view. She reportedly returned to Arizona and married rancher George Calvin “Cal” Bywater, although definite evidence is lacking. If she was, indeed, the woman who married Cal Bywater, the couple stayed together for 50 years until Cal’s death. Pearl died on December 30, 1955, aged 84. She is Arizona’s only known female stagecoach robber.

The Old West’s last stagecoach robbery didn’t occur until December 5, 1916 in Nevada.

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