Bandit Queen bragged about stagecoach plan

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In the mid-19th century, the Taylor family lived a comfortable, respectable middle-class life in southeastern Ontario. A good education was afforded to their children, and religious faith played an important role. So, what is a happy, sassy, teenage girl who is loved and wants for nothing going to do? Become an inglorious bandit, that’s what.

Sending their boisterous 16-year-old daughter Pearl off to a Toronto boarding school for young women was no doubt a difficult choice for her parents.

Pearl Hart, posing for photographs in men’s clothing, ca. 1899 Arizona. (Supplied Photo)

“Her mother hoped she would obtain a degree of self-control and learn the proper deportment of a British colonial schoolgirl,” Ronald W. Lackmann said in “Women of the Western Frontier in Fact, Fiction, and Film” (McFarland & Company Inc., North Carolina 1997). “Unfortunately, the strong-willed Pearl spent more time running away from school than she did in classrooms.”

On her escapes from school, Taylor joined up with a group of louts. She was attracted to Frederick Hart, a handsome but troubled young fellow. The next year, she eloped with the rowdy drinker and gambler. It was not a blissful marriage. The bride suffered regular beatings and she often fled home to her parents for brief stints. A baby boy arrived in the first year of marriage and was left in the care of his grandmother. But time and again, the new mother returned to the dangerous but exciting life with her husband.

The World Columbian Exhibition in 1893 (also called the Chicago World’s Fair) drew the Harts to Illinois to participate in the 400th anniversary celebrations of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America. Delighting in the Wild West shows and women’s activist talks, Hart was spellbound by the free-spirited legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley.

Gambling at the fair left the visitors without money, and Pearl Hart travelled to Canada alone. Once again, she joined her husband, this time to try their luck at professional gambling in a Colorado mining town. The cards would not be in their favour.

As a career step, gambling was, well, a gamble. Hart’s husband “soon had Pearl selling herself to those same men in order to pay the rent,” Lackmann stated. The work was not an affront to adventurous woman, who later mentioned that she “enjoyed ‘the sociability, conversation and good times’ she had in the brothels of Colorado.”

Now less reliant on her husband, Hart left to drift from town to town. In 1895, her husband convinced her that he had changed; they reunited and settled into peaceful home life in Phoenix, Ariz., where he proved he had indeed reformed. Then came the next child.

Giving birth to a daughter, Hart and her child were soon abandoned. Child-rearing was too much for the father. Without home and income, the mother again gave the baby to the grandmother, now living in Ohio. Hart set out again, craving a life of daring and thrills.

Arriving in Arizona in 1898, Hart hired a worker and set up a brothel in a tent near the Mammoth Mine, northeast of Tucson. Low on integrity, Hart had little fear of her clients, “luring men into her room, after which they’d be knocked out and robbed,” according to “Women of the Old West” of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

As the mine slowed, so did Hart’s business. Receiving a message that her mother was ailing, Hart was desperate to find money to travel to Ohio. With her friend, Joe Boot, Hart came up with an idea: hold up the stagecoach running from Globe to Florence.

On the afternoon of June 5, 1899, the conspirators climbed on horseback and prepared to meet the stagecoach. “We rode along slowly until we came to a bend in the road, which was a most favorable spot for our undertaking,” Hart said, according to “Scarborough’s Good Work” in the El Paso Herald, Oct. 21, 1899. As the stage approached and heaved to a stop, Boot instructed, “Throw up your hands!” He kept his “45” gun trained on the group as they cautiously stepped out.

The passengers were terrified, and Hart later said, “I learned how easily a job of this kind could be done.” The bandit rummaged through pockets and bags of passengers. With bandana covering part of her face and dressed in men’s clothes, some passengers didn’t realize the robber was a woman. Sympathetically, they thought she was a boy being led down a path to a criminal life.

Seizing three revolvers, the thieves also took about $350 in cash and jewelry from the coach riders. “Pearl, who felt sorry for her victims, even returned one dollar to each of the passengers ‘to take care of (their) food and lodgings for the night when (they) reached Globe,” according to Lackmann The pair of bandits mounted their horses and made for the New Mexico border. Being inexperienced at robbery, they decided to stay for a couple of days in the Cane Spring Canyon.

On receiving the report, a posse struck out with haste to find the criminals. Although some thought the search was for a man and boy, the sheriff was already on the look-out for Hart. She had bragged about planning the stagecoach hold-up.

Within a day, the posse located their quarry, asleep in the canyon, with guns at their sides. “When they were awakened,” a New York Times news report from June 6, 1899, said, “the man seemed paralyzed with fright, but the woman, reaching for the guns, which had been removed, sprang to her feet and fought vigorously.”

The public was yearning for a good story, and irrepressible Hart gave it to them. A tale of the woman outlaw set imaginations on fire, and the Canadian’s celebrity exploded. “Delighted by the attention, Pearl posed for photographs dressed in male attire, holding a rifle, looking as hard-boiled and as menacing as she could and generally enjoying her newfound fame.” She added a southwestern drawl to her speech and embellished her story with each retelling. Locals, newspapers and tourists alike were enchanted with Hart, giving her the title of Bandit Queen. The jury also fell for Hart’s charm.

“During the trial in October, Judge Doan was astonished and enraged when the jury brought in a verdict of not guilty,” John Schwartz noted in “Pearl Hart left mark on our outlaw history,” The Daily Courier (Prescott, Ariz., Nov. 2, 2000). The judge chastised the jury and had Boot and Hart rearrested, this time on the more serious charge of tampering with U.S. mail.

The flimsy cell walls that held women prisoners were no match for the bandit. Helped by several enchanted men, Hart escaped. Recognized in Deming, N.M., two weeks later, the brazen fugitive was delivered back to jail.

At the second trial, the verdict for Joe Boot was harsh — he received 30 years imprisonment for his crimes. (Boot escaped after about two years and was not recaptured.) Pearl Hart was given a five-year term at Yuma Territorial Prison. Serving 18 months, she was pardoned in 1902.

Hart’s outlaw fame gradually fizzled out. “After a failed stint of trying to be an actress, (Hart) later returned to Arizona, married Calvin Bywater, settling near Globe. Pearl died in Arizona on Dec. 30, 1955, at the age of eighty-four,” Lisa D. Smith and Nancy J. Reid said in “Pearl Hart: The Bandit Queen of Yuma Territorial Prison” (Parks and Travel Magazine, National Parks Travelling).

Pearl Hart’s childhood home is now part of downtown Lindsay’s Legends and Lore Audio Walking Tour in Lindsay.

Susanna McLeod is a writer living in Kingston.