One of the legendary figures of the Old West is the female outlaw Pearl Hart. Her fame was due to her gender: a notorious woman bandit during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she committed the only female stagecoach robbery in the United States.
Hart was born Pearl Taylor circa 1871, in Lindsay, Ontario, to a respectable family that provided her with a good education. The turning point for the then-17-year-old girl was her seduction by a charming gambler named Frederick Hart.
Pearl soon eloped with Hart, who worked various jobs to support them both but was constantly drawn back into gambling. While the two lived in the impoverished conditions brought on by gambling and alcohol, Hart became abusive to Pearl. During this time, they also had two children, but Pearl had to send them to her mother because she couldn’t afford to support them.
Pearl and her husband separated and reconciled several times. In 1893, they traveled and worked at the Chicago’s World Fair, trying to earn by taking any job offered.
During the fair, Pearl became infatuated by the cowboy lifestyle while watching Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Hart decided to follow her impulse and quit her job at the world fair, along with her husband, accompanied by a piano player named Dan Bandman.
Reportedly, Hart described this period of her life thus, “I was only twenty-two years old. I was good-looking, desperate, discouraged, and ready for anything that might come. I do not care to dwell on this period of my life. It is sufficient to say that I went from one city to another until some time later I arrived in Phoenix, Arizona.” According to some reports, during this period she became quite fond of several vices, including morphine. The Spanish-American War broke out and Bandman volunteered in the military service. Pearl moved to the mining town of Globe, Arizona, where she found another romantic comrade, the German drifter Joe Boot.
Being almost completely out of money, Hart and Boot decided to hold up a stagecoach, robbing it on its way from Globe to Florence, Arizona on May, 30, 1899. Hart cut her hair short and dressed in men’s clothes. She was armed with a .38 revolver while Boot had a Colt .45. The partners in crime halted the coach and took around $431 and two firearms from the passengers. Hart took pity on them and had handed back $1 to each before she and Boot galloped away on their horses.
On June 5, 1899, the pair was caught due to a posse led by Sheriff Truman of Pinal County. Boot immediately surrendered while Hart fought to escape capture. When she was later taken to Globe jail, she entertained everyone who wanted to see the “Bandit Queen,” giving autographs while sugarcoating her notorious crime in interviews. A few weeks after her capture, she succeeded in escaping from the jail but was pursued and caught. Meanwhile, the legend about this fierce female criminal began to grow throughout the West.
Hart was tried in Florence in 1899, declaring her strong feminist attitude, saying, “I shall not be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making.” The jury acquitted her, swallowing her story of robbing the stage to send money to her old and ill mother. The judge was furious at the verdict, so he quickly replaced the jury and re-tried Hart for unlawful possession of a revolver. The new verdict in Pearl’s case was a conviction and she was sentenced to five years in prison. Joe Boot, who was less lucky in the verdict, received 30 years for participating in the stage robbery, however, he managed to escape in 1901 and was never seen again.
In the meantime, Pearl got on the good side of the warden in the prison, and they accommodated her with a more-comfortable-than-usual cell where she entertained reporters and visitors.
She was paroled one year later in 1902 and moved to Kansas City, where she attempted to profit from her “Lady Bandit” status, performing in a production written by her sister. She was later arrested in Kansas City for buying stolen goods, after which she disappeared.
The story of Pearl Hart has a mysterious ending. According to some reports, she died in Kansas City in the 1960s, while others claim that settled in San Francisco, California, where she died in 1952.