Pearl Hart – ‘Bandit Queen’ of the Old West

Pearl Hart, Arizona stage robber
Inspired by both Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West shows and Susan B. Anthony’s rallying call for women to control their own destiny, Pearl Hart headed west in the 1890s, became a failed stagecoach robber and turned a prison sentence into its own kind of wild west entertainment.

Pair the feminist ideals of Susan B. Anthony with a half-baked scheme hatched by a failed Arizona gold miner with the implausible name Joe Boot, and you have the story of this Wednesday’s Woman. She is Pearl Hart, 28-year-old “Bandit Queen” of the Old West.

The daughter of an affluent Canadian family, Pearl was a sheltered boarding school girl swept off her feet by a silver-tongued gambling man named Hart. Against her family’s wishes, they eloped when she was 17. She soon learned Hart was an alcoholic with a nasty temper. The marriage was stormy, its pattern familiar. Unable to hold a job, Hart would drink and take his frustrations out on his wife. She would leave him and run back to her family. He would follow, promising to change, and she would go back. The reconciliations resulted in two children. But with Pearl barely able to keep herself afloat, she sent both children to Canada to be raised by her family.

Chicago Columbian Exposition World's Fair
Hart spent an extended period at the Columbian Exposition and became enamored with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show that was staged nearby but outside of the World’s Fair grounds.

Pearl Hart’s life changed in 1893 when her husband took her to Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, where he found work as a carnival barker and Pearl is said to have worked odd jobs. In between, she soaked up the sights, sounds and entertainments of the World’s Fair.

Annie Oakley
She quickly became captivated by the glamour and adventure of Buffalo Bill’s staged Wild West Shows and the theatrical flair of Annie Oakley’s daring feats. And she was among the thousands who packed the halls to hear Susan B. Anthony speak about the power of the emerging women’s suffrage movement.

Perhaps drawing courage and inspiration from so many strong women, when the Exposition closed, Hart left her husband (again) and headed West — first to Colorado then to Arizona, where she found neither glamour nor adventure. Varied reports of this time in her life have her working as a saloon singer, the cook at a boarding house, a laundress and/or the owner of a tent brothel on the fringes of a gritty Arizona mining town.

Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show poster
Ironically, by 1893 the rapidly fading “wild” west was more of a nostalgic entertainment than the romantic reality Hart hoped to find.

Eventually, the mines began to close down and Hart found herself a woman on her own, with little savings and fewer opportunities, casting about for other means of employment.

Joe Boot
At the same time, a letter arrived from her sister with news that their mother, Pearl’s “dearest, truest friend,” was ill and she needed to come home. Desperate to see her mother one last time, Hart turned for advice to friend and down-on-his-luck miner Joe Boot.

Nobody really knows who came up with the idea to rob an Arizona stage, but on the afternoon of May 30, 1899, Hart and Boot lay in wait along the stage’s 60-mile route. Hart, with her hair cut short, wore men’s clothing; she pulled a hat low to hide her face and tucked a .38 into her waistband. With Boot holding his Colt .45 on the driver, Hart ordered the passengers out at gunpoint and searched them.

Female stagecoach robber
The pair netted just shy of $400 and a gold watch. Before riding off, Hart took the driver’s gun and returned $1 to each of the passengers — enough to buy them a nice meal at the end of their journey. If reports of the robbery are accurate, the passengers offered little resistance. One version describes them trembling in fear, while another suggests they were simply stunned into silence by the sight of a female stagecoach robber. The next day’s headline in the Arizona Daily Star trumpeted: “WE HAVE A WOMAN BANDIT.”

1899 mugshots of Joe Boot and Pearl Hart
Stagecoach robbers Joe Boot and Pearl Hart’s mug shots.

The robbery went off without a hitch. The escape? Not so much. Determined to throw off pursuers, Hart and Boot rode and doubled back through thick brush, riding in circles and eventually getting lost. They awoke one morning to find themselves surrounded by the sheriff and his posse.

Hart’s first trial in November of 1899 was a media sensation. Freely admitting her guilt, she went from playing the victim one minute, tearfully telling the all-male jury she was desperate for money to go see her sick mother, to channeling her inner Susan B. Anthony the next, declaring, “I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making.”

Outraged judge
She was acquitted, much to the outrage of the judge, who claimed she had “flirted with the jury, bending them to her will.” He promptly re-arrested Hart on charges of stealing a gun and tampering with the U.S. Mail. This time she was convicted and sentenced to five years in Yuma Territorial Prison along the Mexican border.

Pearl Hart, now prisoner #1559, became the first female inmate at Yuma, where she was housed in a large cell with its own exercise yard. The lure of a female bandit was like catnip for the nation’s press. Perhaps recalling the theatrical flair of Annie Oakley six years earlier, she worked her new-found celebrity for all it was worth, granting interviews, signing autographs, posing for photographers and entertaining visitors.

Pearl Hart in the Yuma, Arizona, prison
(Background, right) Pearl Hart in the Yuma Territorial Prison with two other female inmates.

Just 18 months into her five-year sentence, Hart informed the warden she was pregnant. Perhaps to avoid a scandal surrounding its most famous inmate, Hart was paroled and pardoned by the governor in 1902 on condition she leave the Arizona Territory. There are no records of a third child being born to Pearl Hart.

Nobody knows for sure what happened to Hart following her release. Some say she sought out and joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to live out her dream. Others claim she owned a cigar store that fronted for a gang of notorious pickpockets in Kansas City.

But there’s a legend in Globe, Arizona, that Pearl Hart eventually returned to marry cowboy-turned-rancher Calvin Bywater and live out her years in the community of Dripping Springs — a story that seems to be supported by the 1940 census and a gravestone bearing the names Calvin and Pearl Bywater.

Though she died in 1955, her legend as the infamous “Bandit Queen” lives on in books, television westerns, a film titled Yuma City … and even a song by a Danish metal band on their Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies album.

Pearl Hart's grave stone.
Believed to be the grave stone of Pearl Hart Bywater.