Canadian-born outlaw Pearl Hart (c. 1871–c. 1955) became Arizona's most famous jailhouse inmate in 1899, following her arrest as one of the last stagecoach robbers in the Old West. Working with a male accomplice, she intercepted a group of travelers near what is now Tonto National Forest and absconded with a little over $400 and some valuables, successfully eluding capture for three days.
When successful outlaw Pearl Hart was finally arrested in June of 1899, she was wearing men's clothing, and American newspapers from coast to coast excitedly trumpeted the curious case of the “lady bandit.” Hart's notorious exploits were not over, however; she escaped from a Tucson jail months later, while awaiting trial. Hart was ultimately recaptured, convicted, and spent three years as the sole female prisoner at Yuma Territorial Prison. She vanished following a governor's pardon in late 1902 and lived the remainder of her life not far from the scene of her crime.
Sources place Hart's birth date as 1871 and the place as Lindsay, Ontario, in the Kawartha Lakes region of Canada. Her family name was Taylor, and she was raised in modest affluence in a household that insured a proper religious upbringing and a solid education. At age 16, she claimed to have been sent away to a boarding school—possibly the Loretto Academy, which later became the Catholic High School of Niagara Falls. While there, she wryly explained in an October 1899 interview for Cosmopolitan magazine, “I fell in love with a man I met in the town in which the school was situated. I was easily impressed.”
In accounts of Hart's life, her husband's name is given variously as Fred or as Frederick Hart. He was abusive and she left him several times, at one point returning to Canada to stay with her parents. During one heartfelt attempt at reconciliation, the couple moved to Chicago, Illinois, where they hoped to find work at the 1893 World's Fair. Fred Hart may have worked as a midway barker at the record-setting exposition; meanwhile, Pearl became entranced by Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, which had a long and popular run near the fairgrounds. She was particularly fascinated by sharpshooter Annie Oakley, a talented markswoman who traveled with Cody's show and urged women to become comfortable with handling firearms.
In her Cosmopolitan interview, Hart claimed that in late 1893, then age 22, she boarded a train in Chicago and traveled to Trinidad, Colorado, after another violent row with the man. “I do not care to dwell on this period of my life,” she stated in reference to her brief venture into the American Southwest, adding that within months she was “inured to the hardships of the world and knew much of its wickedness.” Her husband managed to locate her in Phoenix, Arizona, and the volatile couple agreed to reconcile. In the space of three years, Hart gave birth to a son and a daughter, but her husband's temper was easily reignited and she left him once again. As she explained to the interviewer, she left her children in the care of her mother and moved to the East Coast, finding work as a domestic. Once again, Fred Hart found her and convinced her to join him, this time in Tucson, Arizona. Once again, she agreed, but after frittering away the funds she had saved by working as a housemaid, he again became abusive.
While Hart was likely relieved when her husband enlisted with an Arizona infantry unit to fight in the Spanish-American War of 1898, she was also desperate for income and took a job as a cook at a mining camp near Mammoth, Arizona. While her firsthand account is tame, other sources speculate that her life in Arizona was likely far more intriguing. She may have been a madam, not a cook, and while running her brothel, she likely lived in a polygamous household. After meeting a man who introduced himself as Joe Boot, she joined him on a trip to Globe, Arizona, where they likely attempted but failed at a swindle involving a mining claim.
During the late 19th century, stagecoaches carried passengers and cargo on routes that pre-dated or were underserved by the railroad lines. In the most lawless period of the Old West, stagecoaches were regular targets of highway bandits, but the growing popularity of train travel was creating a corresponding decline in such robberies. On May 30, 1899, Hart and Boot planned to waylay the Globe-to-Florence stagecoach near a stop at Cane Springs Canyon. Barely over five feet in height and weighing around 100 pounds, Hart easily passed for a teenage male when she dressed in men's clothing. As she described the incident in her self-serving interview for Cosmopolitan, Boot assured her that such crimes were practically victimless. “‘Joe,’ I said, ‘if you will promise me that no one will be hurt, I will go with you.’” “‘A bold front,’ he said, ‘is all that is necessary to rob any [stagecoach].’”
To present this “bold front,” both Hart and Boot were armed, and by the time the Globe-Florence coach neared a bend in the road, they had dismounted from their horses and were able to stop the slowing vehicle. Following Boot's instructions, she searched the disembarked passengers for weapons and discovered that two of the passengers had left pistols inside the carriage. “Joe told me to search the passengers for money,” she recalled in her interview. “I did so, and found on the fellow who was shaking the worst three hundred and ninety dollars.” She took another $41 off two other passengers, and she and Boot also took the pistols. Adjusted for inflation, Hart's $431 haul was worth roughly $12,500 in 2017. This windfall may have prompted the couple to refrain from robbing the driver, a man named Henry Bacon, although they did steal his pistol.
Following the robbery, Hart and Boot traveled north on horseback, taking a circuitous route through dangerous territory. Nearing the town of Mammoth, north of Tucson, where they had once lived and were known, they camped out for the night. The following day, they avoided rattlesnakes and hid out in a deep trench, which they quickly realized was the favorite hiding place for several vicious wild hogs. Boot shot one hog that threatened them and later snuck into Mammoth to steal provisions.
After a second night camping near Mammoth, the outlaws pushed northward, but by now their horses were suffering from a lack of food and water. Hart pleaded with Boot to leave the animals and travel to the nearest train junction on foot, but he refused. Rainfall slowed their progress on day three and forced them to ride through much of the night. They bedded down at daybreak, “but were destined not to sleep long,” as Hart recalled to the Cosmopolitan journalist. “We were awakened by yelling and shooting [and] found we were looking straight into the mouths of two gaping Winchesters in the hands of the sheriff's posse.”
Hart and Boot were taken into custody on June 5, 1899, by Pinal County deputies. Because the county lock-up did not have a separate holding facility for women, she was transported to a Tucson jail. Within a matter of days, headline reports of the “Lady Bandit” who had committed one of the last stagecoach robberies of the Old West turned up in newspapers as far away as Philadelphia and New York City.
When the Cosmopolitan story hit the newsstands in the fall, Hart was awaiting trial, and the pictures accompanying her magazine interview ultimately prevented what would otherwise have been a more daring claim to fame. On October 12, 1899, she managed to escape from the Tucson jail, probably with the help of an inside accomplice, and made her way south to New Mexico. A few days later she was spotted near the town of Deming, where the New Mexico law-enforcement official recognized her from the pages of Cosmopolitan.
Hart and Boot were tried together in Arizona courts, and Hart begged the jury for mercy, claiming that all she had wanted was to see her ailing mother. On November 16, 1899, the jury voted and convicted Boot, who managed to escape and vanished forever. When they voted to acquit Hart, it so outraged presiding Judge Fletcher M. Doan that he ordered her immediate re-arrest on a mailtampering charge because the coach carried letters and parcels. A new jury was summoned and convicted her on that count as well as another, involving the theft of the stagecoach driver's pistol. She was sentenced to five years and spent three of them as the sole female inmate at Yuma Territorial Prison, where she occupied a special cell. Hart passed her time in prison writing poetry and engaging in tatting, a form of lacemaking. She also enjoyed greeting visitors who came to see the infamous lady bandit.
On December 13, 1902, Hart was granted a surprise pardon by Arizona Territorial Governor Alexander Brodie. Reports circulated that she either was or had claimed to be pregnant, and Arizona officials were aghast at the possibility that their penal system might become the subject of scandal-mongering newspaper articles. In her final interview with prison officials, she claimed that she would leave immediately for Kansas City, Missouri, to appear in a vaudeville morality play based on her life that had been written by her sister Catherine. They reportedly bought her a first-class train ticket.
After leaving prison, Hart's life story begins to merge with legend. She—or someone claiming to be her—soon appeared with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show in New York City. According to another report, she worked in a lowly hash-house job in Los Angeles; another report noted her death in San Francisco in 1925. Another rumor maintained that Hart and her errant husband had reunited and were living in Ohio near her mother, and that Hart died there in 1937. A cigar-store proprietor in Kansas City using the alias “Mrs. L.P. Keele” was arrested on a charge of receiving stolen property in 1904 and was said to have been Hart.
Brown, Wynne, More than Petticoats: Remarkable Arizona Women, Morris Book Publishing, 2012.
Cosmopolitan, October 1899, “An Arizona Episode,” pp. 673–677.
Denver Evening Post, October 15, 1899, “Girl Hold-Up Escapes,” p. 3.
Legends of America, https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-pearlhart/ (September 2017), Kathy Weiser, “Pearl Hart.”□