How could a woman live life to the fullest in the late 19th century? Was the Stagecoach Robbery Really Necessary?
Those questions are raised by the life story of Pearl (Taylor) Hart, a soft-spoken, cigar-smoking, poetry-writing, opium-addicted, real-life Wild West adventurer who was brought up in a solid, middle-class family. In Lindsay, Ont.
She became a legend of sorts in the Old West – although she never fired a shot. She was reportedly the second female stagecoach robber in the Wild West. (The first was Jane Kirkham of Colorado, who tried to stand on a stage in 1879 but was shot and killed by the sheriff, who was also her husband.)
Pearl became a celebrity of sorts. She made the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, sharing space with Mark Twain. An article on it began: “There are many strange stages in the development of the new woman.”
She was born as Pearl Emma Taylor on November 13, 1871, in Lindsay to James Taylor, a civil engineer, and Mary Polly Bullett Taylor, a housewife in a middle-class, Methodist family.
Pearl was sent to boarding school at the age of 16 after a boisterous childhood that included running away from home to Buffalo and Chicago. She later told a reporter that she had been sent to a Chicago boy’s detention school before authorities realized she was actually a girl.
Instead he was deported back to Canada. A former classmate recalled: “She was a very beautiful girl and had an amazing figure and voice. She could imitate a husky frog, an owl, an eagle and could sing like a mockingbird. She was soft spoken, hilarious and witty, full of fun and frolic. She was also a great dancer.”
“He had a damn flaw,” the classmate continued. “She was too sexist, she accepted too many dates with handsome young men, which eventually undone her.”
One of those handsome young men was Fred Hart, a 32-year-old gambler.
Pearl later told Cosmopolitan magazine: “When I was sixteen years old, and while in boarding school, I fell in love with a man I met in the town in which the school was located. I was easily influenced. didn’t know anything about him. The marriage was for me but one name. It didn’t take long to get my consent to evict him. We ran away one night and got married.
“I was happy for a time but not for long. My husband started abusing me, and currently he kicks me out. Then I returned to my mother in the village of Lindsay, Ontario, where I was born.”
“Long ago, my husband called me, and I returned to him. I loved him, and he promised to do better. I was not with him for two weeks before he started abusing me again, and after tolerating his blows for as long as I could, I left him again. “
The couple patched things up in 1893 and went to the World’s Colombian Exhibition together, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, where nothing less than the future was on display.
The Ferris wheel, first used by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, was the first commercial movie theater and lighting system. Other firsts included Juicy Fruit Gum, Cream of Wheat, Quaker Oats, Shredded Wheat and Crackerjack.
For Pearl, nothing was over the top of a sharpshooting exhibition put on by Annie Oakley, star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
The cowboy lifestyle represented freedom and power, and Oakley showed that this is possible for a woman as well.
The World’s Fair also included a speech by Julia Ward Howe, a formidable feminist author and poet who spoke on “moral equality between the sexes”.
“In my view, the spirit of equality is the most important condition in marriage and the surest guarantee of its sanctity,” Howe said.
Then the fair ended and Pearl slipped away from Fred and headed west to Colorado.
“I was only twenty-two. I was good-looking, desperate, hopeless, and ready for anything that might come along.”
She landed in Trinidad, Colo. By frontier standards, Trinidad was a center of some importance, nicknamed “the stronghold of sports men” and “turbulent Trinidad”.
Soon Pearl is gone again, this time to Phoenix. She still expected glamor and heroes and larger-than-life events. The best he found was cooking and laundry in a cafe.
Her old husband Fred tracked her down. While in Phoenix, she gave birth to two children: “Little Joe,” and then a daughter, Emma, who drained her physically and even more financially.
It was then that she could be called a nervous breakdown in modern terms: “I was tired of life. I wanted to die, and tried to kill myself three or four times,” Pearl later recalled. “Every time I was stopped…”
The children are sent to the East to care for her mother, until Pearl can sort things out.
She was left alone to work cooking at a miners’ boarding house in the Globe. “Then a big mine closed and I had nothing left to do.”
Things soon got worse. “Apart from all my other troubles, I received a letter at the moment saying that my mother was dying and asking me to come home if I wanted to see her alive again. That letter drove me crazy. No matter what I was, my mother was my dearest, truest friend, and I wanted to see her again before I died. I had no money. From what I know, I believe that I was temporarily insane.”
At the same time, in 1897, he found a friend who called himself “Joseph W. Boot”.
Soon, Pearl and Boots start talking about the stagecoach heist.
“A bold front is all that is needed to rob any platform,” Boot said, as he later recalled.
The day of the stage robbery was set for May 30, 1899, and the location was about 30 miles south of the globe in Cane Springs Canyon.
Pearl struggled to look like a man so he could be taken seriously. He cut his hair short and wore Joe’s gray flannel shirt, a pair of Levi’s and oversized shoes.
They put the bag on their head to thwart the identity even further.
“Wait and pick up!” When the stage finally showed up, the boot was called.
“pick up the!” Pearl chimes.
There were four men inside the coach, but they left their guns behind when ordered to step outside.
Pearl later said, “Actually, I can’t see why men carry revolvers, as they almost always leave them at the same time they were used.”
There was no gold on the stage, but he did manage to scrape $431.20 from travelers from the 1896 presidential election, as well as a watch, a pistol and a tin button, with the slogan “Vote for McKinley.”
Then there was guilt. “(We) made charitable contributions of a dollar each to each other and ordered them to move on, which warned them all not to look back.”
Pearl later tried to capture that moment in a poem.
“While the birds were singing sweet songs, and they stood in line,
And when silver touches this palm of mine, it rings softly;
There we took their money, but left enough for them to eat,
And the men looked so funny as they climbed into their seats”
Pearl and Joe were nearby and were asleep when the poses were shown three days after the robbery. A New York Times report from June 6, 1899 stated: “When they awoke, the man seemed paralyzed with fear, but the woman, reaching for the guns, which were removed, was at her feet. Got up and fought vigorously.”
Later, Sheriff William Truman bragged to the press about his catch: “‘No one would think she was a tiger cat for the nerve and endurance. She now looks quite feminine in feminine clothes, and by the way She has illuminated her cell, the touch of a woman’s hand can be seen in it. Yet only a few days ago I had a struggle with her for the rest of my life. She would beat me in my tracks, she would have found her pistol. Sure. Women are curious creatures.
Pearl’s story resonated with female readers.
A writer for Cosmopolitan magazine first glanced at Pearl after she was imprisoned and explained that she was “the exact opposite of what is expected of a female stage robber”, however, “when angry or determined, she Hard lines appear about the eyes and mouth.”
Pearl was wearing a frock when she appeared before Judge Fletcher M. Doan at the Pinal County Courthouse. She opened with a solemn announcement.
“I would not consent to be prosecuted under a law in which my sex had no voice,” she said.
Anyway, the trial went on.
Pearl is transferred to a temporary insanity rescue, telling the court that she was frantic to see her “sweet old gray-haired mother” and the children for the last time.
Judge Fletcher M. Donne was furious when an all-male jury acquitted Pearl, accusing her of “… to seduce the jury, bow down to their will.”
The judge called for Pearl to stand trial on new charges of tampering with US mail and illegally carrying a gun.
Pearl was convicted in her second trial and sentenced to five years in prison. Boot was sentenced to thirty years in a separate trial.
With the second verdict, Pearl became Arizona prisoner number 1559 at Yuma Territorial Prison, which was carved into the side of a mountain.
Another 28 female prisoners were convicted of crimes including murder, robbery, arson, adultery and selling alcohol to indigenous people.
Pearl spent only 18 months in prison before going on parole on December 19, 1902, when the prison doctor quietly told the warden that she was pregnant.
The reason for the apology read: “For good behavior.” She was 31 years old.
There was no record of the birth of any child.
Instead, headlines soon emerged about how she was taking the stage in Kansas City, Kansas, to re-enforce her crime of paying customers. The drama quickly came to a halt.
She reappeared in the press in 1904 when she was arrested in Kansas City for allegedly running a gang of pickpockets. She was acquitted in court.
There were unfounded reports that she appeared on the Buffalo Bill Wild West show when she stayed in Yuma and started a brothel in Mexico.
Her last decades as a married woman were spent quietly on a small farm…