Pearl Hart: The Amazing Life of The Bandit Queen
She was a wealthy debutante. She was a stagecoach bandit. A saloon singer. She was a prostitute. She was a poet. She was in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. She was a feminist. A renegade. A national celebrity. A cigar store owner. Then, finally, she disappeared into obscurity. She lived ten lives and beat the odds to become one of the West’s most notorious and celebrated women.
Like Belle Starr, Pearl Hart came from wealth and privilege. Born in 1871 to a wealthy and very religious upper-class Canadian family, Pearl lived a pampered and sheltered life and attended the finest boarding schools. But she had a hankering for adventure that strict Victorian mores and the confining rules of womanhood could not contain. While at boarding school, she was swept off her feet by a dashing, silver-tongued gambler and rogue named Hart. When her family tried to stop the relationship, Pearl ran off with the gambler and eloped.
But Pearl soon discovered that the gambler she had hitched her star to was a violent drunk and an unreliable breadwinner. But she was not one to take abuse and left him, returning to her family. But he begged her to come back, promising reform. They had two children, but the relationship was so stormy and their finances so meager, she sent her children to live with her parents in Canada.
In 1893, Pearl’s life changed when her husband landed a job as a carnival barker at the Chicago’s World Fair, The Columbia Exposition. Two events there changed the course of her life: she saw Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, fell in love with the cowboy culture, and was mesmerized by Annie Oakley; and she heard speeches by the fiery feminist and suffragette, Susan B. Anthony. It was at the World’s Fair that Pearl decided she had to take her fate in her own hands and left her husband, heading West to Colorado. She’d find her cowboy and freedom in the West!
She struggled to support herself and lived a vagabond life first in Colorado, then in Arizona, as a saloon singer, a cook at a boarding house, a laundress, and then the owner of a tent brothel on the outskirts of a gritty Arizona mining camp. She actually did quite well until the mine closed down. During her western adventures, she began wearing pants, she learned to handle a gun and drink whiskey and had become fond of cigars.
During this time she met a handsome miner with a claim named Joe Boot. When the mine closed, they both found themselves scratching to survive. Shortly after, in 1899, Pearl received a telegram from her sister that her dear mother was dying. She couldn’t afford the train ticket to Canada so, together, Joe and Pearl hatched a plan to rob an Arizona stage.
Pearl cut off her hair, donned men’s dungarees and a hat. She tucked a .38 into her waistband. Joe had a Colt .45. They lay in wait for the stage, then blocked its passage. While Joe held his gun on the driver, Pearl ordered all the passengers out of the stage at gunpoint. But she was very polite and well-spoken. They collected $400 and a nice gold watch. Then Pearl handed out $1 to each passenger, thanked them, and told them to enjoy a nice meal at the end of their journey. Despite Pearl’s male clothing, all the passengers were stunned to be held up by a woman. The next day, the Arizona Daily Star blared in big black headlines: “WE HAVE A WOMAN BANDIT!”
The robbery went seamlessly. But the escape plan, less so. They were too clever by half; to throw off their pursuers, they doubled back through thick bush and timber and lost their way. When they woke up the next morning, their bedrolls on the ground, they were surrounded by a sheriff and his posse.
Boot was taken to Florence while Pearl was moved to Tucson “to provide facilities for a lady.” The public and media went wild over the novelty of a woman stage robber. The press dubbed her “The Lady Bandit” and “The Bandit Queen.” The public brought her gifts and food. One admirer brought her a baby cougar!
Pearl’s prison cell was made of only lathe and plaster and she quickly devised a plan to escape, leaving a gaping 18-inch hole in the wall of her empty cell. Her escape caused an even greater sensation. She was caught two weeks later in Deming, New Mexico.
Pearl’s trial was a media circus. By now the entire country had caught wind of the beautiful and notorious female stage bandit, who had even broken out of jail. Reporters flocked to the courthouse to capture the excitement. In the courtroom, she was petite and beautiful and well-spoken and nicely dressed. She defied all the notions about what a female stage robber should look and act like. She freely admitted her guilt, but then tearfully (wink-wink) told the all-male jury that she was desperate to see her sick mother and what could she do? Then, at the same time, taking inspiration from the feminist speeches she had heard from Susan B. Anthony, declared defiantly that “I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making!”
The public–and the jury—were utterly taken by the audacious and eloquent firebrand. She was acquitted, to the sputtering outrage of the judge, who claimed she had “flirted with the jury, bending them to her will.” The judge promptly had Pearl re-arrested on charges of stealing a gun and tampering with the U.S. Mail. The second time around she was convicted and sentenced to five years in Yuma Territorial Prison along the Mexican border.
Joe Boot was sentenced as well. He was prisoner #1558. Pearl was prisoner #1559. She would become the first female inmate at Yuma. But she had become a celebrity and was given a very large cell with its own exercise yard and unlimited access to visitors from the public and press.
This time, channeling her inner Annie Oakley, she used her theatrical flair to further build her notoriety, granting numerous interviews to reporters, posing for photographers, schmoozing prison officials, and writing poems for publications. During this time, she even wrote an in-depth article for an 1899 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine about her life. And a photographer was sent to capture her sitting in the jail yard in a wicker chair, very prim and proper, nicely dressed in feminine flounces and a broad, fancy hat. She had become even a bigger sensation inside prison than out!
But Pearl had more tricks up her sleeve. Eighteen months into her five-year prison term, she claimed to be pregnant. In 1902, the Arizona governor pardoned her, probably to avoid a scandal. But she was ordered to leave Arizona territory.
After prison, she first had a short-lived show in which she re-enacted her stage-robbing crime. Then she finally achieved her long ambition to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, inspired by Annie Oakley years before. Then in 1904, inexplicably, she ended up in Kansas City running a cigar store (remember she had taken to smoking cigars when she had first gone West). There she was arrested for receiving stolen property but was then acquitted.
There were some reports that some years later, Pearl returned to the Yuma Prison to visit the jail where she had been imprisoned. But, then, she suddenly disappeared from the public limelight. Years later, in a 1940 census, her name showed up as being married to cowboy-turned-rancher George Calvin Bywater. She lived a private, quiet married life with George for 50 years. They both lived until 1955, George dying in August, Pearl dying just four months later. They are buried together under the same stone in Central Heights, Gila County, Arizona. One the stone is a cowboy with a horse and the sun shining down, with the words below, “Just Restin’ ”
Pearl got her cowboy and her cowboy life after all.
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"Pearl Hart: The Amazing Life of the Bandit Queen" was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on May 21, 2020.
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