Pearl Hart: Lady Bandit of the Old West

by Jay Robert Nash

Pearl Hart was the last Western bandit to rob a stagecoach and the only woman ever recorded as having committed that crime. Unlike Belle Starr or Cattle Kate Watson, Hart was not bred into Wild West crime. She nevertheless naively believed that the exciting myths of the Old West were true and still thriving on the frontier by the mid-1890s. She stepped into that colorful past but once, only to find herself languishing in a prison cell.

Born in 1871 and raised in Lindsay, Ontario, Canada, to a middle-class and respectable family, Pearl Taylor was one of several children. She was sent to a finishing school at an early age and, in 1888, at age seventeen, was seduced by a gambler, Frederick Hart.

Pearl Hart, the lady bandit and the last person to rob a stagecoach
Pearl Hart, the lady bandit and the last person to rob a stagecoach in the Old West. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

Pearl eloped with him but marriage to Hart proved to be one hardship after another. Hart was a small-time gambler and occasional bartender. Somehow he managed to scrape enough money together to take Pearl to Chicago to see the Columbian Exposition of 1893. There Hart became a barker for sideshows and Pearl worked odd jobs. She was thrilled at the Wild West shows and became enamored of the Old West.

Pearl left her ne'er-do-well husband abruptly and moved to Colorado where she gave birth to a son. She returned to her home in Lindsay briefly to leave the child in the care of her mother. She then went to Phoenix, Arizona, where she quickly discovered that the Old West was no more.

To survive, Pearl cooked in a lunch room and took in laundry. Her husband suddenly showed up in late 1895 and begged Pearl to return to him, promising that he would get a job. The couple was reunited, and Hart went to work as a bartender and hotel manager. For three years there was domestic peace and a second child, a girl, was born.

In 1898, Hart told Pearl that he was tired of supporting her and the child. During a fight, he knocked her unconscious and left, joining the army and going off to fight the Spanish in Cuba with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. Pearl took her second child to her home in Canada and then drifted back to the western mining camps. She worked in these hellholes as a cook until taking up with a carefree miner, Joe Boot.

In 1899, Pearl received a letter from her brother telling her that her mother was ill and needed money for medical attention. Desperate, she talked to Boot about her dilemma. Boot suddenly had an idea on how to get those funds—they would rob the stagecoach running from Globe to Florence, Arizona.

Boot said he knew all about the stagecoach, that it always carried salesmen who had hundreds of dollars. Since no one had robbed a stagecoach in years, it carried no shotgun rider, only an unarmed driver. This stage run was one of the last in the Arizona Territory, an antiquated form of transportation in 1899. By then the railroad reached into almost every town of the West.

Pearl agreed to rob the stage with Boot, and, on May 30, 1899, the two rode to a watering hole where they knew the stagecoach would stop to rest the horses. Pearl was armed with an old .44 Colt. Boot carried a .45-caliber six-gun.

When the Globe stagecoach appeared, Pearl and Boot jumped in front of it, holding their guns on the driver. They ordered him to halt. Pearl was dressed as a man, wearing a man's gray flannel shirt, jeans, and boots. She had cut her hair short and had tucked the longer strands beneath a wide white sombrero. At first the driver thought she was a boy.

Boot trained his weapon on the driver while Pearl robbed the passengers. After she took the driver's six-gun, Pearl held her gun on the passengers while collecting their money, about $450. Boot then ordered the driver to whip the horses onward, and the stagecoach resumed its journey while Pearl and Boot mounted their horses and rode into the hills.

The daring bandits had given little thought to their escape. They promptly got lost and, after wandering about in the wilds for several days, fell asleep next to a large campfire. Possemen roused them from their slumbers and put them under arrest.

Pearl Hart played her part as lady bandit to the hilt, telling the smiling lawmen that they would never have taken her alive if she had gotten to her gun. They agreed and then took her and Boot to jail. Pearl became an overnight celebrity as the last bandit to rob a stage.

The fact that Pearl was a woman made her even more of a curiosity, drawing crowds of admirers to the Globe jail to collect her autograph. She strutted behind the bars of her cell, playing the part of a desperado.

Tried twice in Florence, Pearl was convicted and given five years at the Territorial Prison at Yuma. Joe Boot, in a separate trial, was convicted of highway robbery and sent to the same prison for thirty years. The warden at Yuma Prison had to prepare a special cell for Pearl, separating her from the all-male population.

Pearl then began to spread the gospel, giving fellow prisoners long lectures on their sinful ways and how crime does not pay. "She drove us nuts," complained one inmate. "We begged the warden to get rid of this woman." Eighteen months later, on December 19, 1902, Pearl was released. Governor A.W. Brodie released her on the grounds that the state prison had no accommodations for women.

Pearl left for Kansas City where she joined her sister, who had written a play about her and Pearl starred in this dime novel production which was titled The Arizona Bandit. The play closed after a short run and Pearl disappeared. She returned to Globe, the scene of her crime, and reportedly died there on December 30, 1955.