Old West Female Outlaws – Stage Coach Robbers and Cattle Rustlers

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Pearl Hart and Cattle Kate were two women who broke new ground. But neither feat is anything to boast about. Pearl Hart is the only known female to hold up a stagecoach. And Cattle Kate, suspected of cattle rustling, was the only woman ever hanged in Wyoming. In this lesson, we will learn more about Pearl Hart and Cattle Kate, as well as Cattle Annie and Little Britches, two young women accused of cattle rustling.

Female Stage Coach Robbers and Cattle Rustlers

In this article we will learn the story of Pearl Hart, the only known woman stagecoach robber. We will also take an in-depth look at the legend of Cattle Kate, a woman hanged for cattle rustling. The lives of two teenage cattle rustlers, Cattle Annie and Little Britches, will also be explored. This lesson will be devoted to the study of these outlaw women and what motivated them to turn to crime.

Stagecoach robbery was usually a male endeavor. Pearl Hart has the dubious honor of being the only known female to rob a stage. While there is no doubt that she committed the crime in question, one might make the argument that poverty and desperation led her to this drastic measure. Getting rich the quick and easy way did not seem to be her motivation in the robbery, but simply survival. While reading her story, it is interesting to bear in mind her desperate situation–that of trying to make a living in the male-dominated world of the gold fields. Hart, abandoned by her husband, did try to eke out a living. Desperation turned her to crime when she was unable to support herself.

Much controversy still surrounds the story of Ella Watson, better known as Cattle Kate, the only woman ever hanged in Wyoming. There is some question as to whether she committed any crime at all besides settling on land that her neighbors wanted for their own. In the case of Ella Watson, the fact that she was a divorced woman who refused to back down and who was bold enough to claim land and try to keep it may have contributed to her hasty demise at the hands of a lynch mob. If she was a cattle thief who traded cattle for sexual favors, she paid full price for her crimes.

Cattle Annie and Little Britches were two poor, uneducated teenagers who fell under the influence of dashing outlaw Bill Doolin and were happy to do his bidding and act as lookouts for the gang, as well as rustling a few cattle.

In this lesson, we will address the social issues that came to play in the very different crimes committed by each of these women. In the case of Pearl Hart, her youth and notoriety led to a reduced sentence. Not so with Cattle Kate, who paid the maximum penalty at the hands of a vigilante lynch mob. Cattle Annie and Little Britches, also cattle rustlers, enjoyed reduced sentences and a certain amount of fame for their participation in crime. Society’s reaction to female criminals was much different than it was for their male counterparts, and included a tendency toward sympathy for the “weaker sex.” Many women outlaws were also given reduced sentences because it was more difficult to house them in prisons made primarily for male inmates.

Pearl Hart – Stagecoach Robber

Pearl Hart was an attractive, petite woman who stood only five foot one. Pearl was born around 1870 in Ontario, Canada, where she lived until the age of 17 when she eloped with her young sweetheart, Sam Hart. The marriage was rocky from the very beginning. Sam Hart had a weakness for gambling and was unable to support them. The two sometimes acted as petty thieves. Pearl would pose as a prostitute, lure a man into a room, where her husband would rob them of their cash. Pearl had two children by Hart, a boy and a girl, which she sent back to her mother because she was unable to take care of them.

Pearl eventually left Hart because he could not support her, and got work on a mining claim. There, in 1889, she picked up with Joe Boot. When the claim closed the two of them were left destitute and jobless. In addition to this bad stroke of luck, Pearl had also received word her mother was dying and Pearl was anxious to get home.

Along with Boot, Pearl planned to rob a stage leaving from Globe, Arizona. The two inept bandits took in around $400 dollars in cash from the robbery. Pearl, in an act of charity, returned a dollar to each passenger they robbed so they could pay for a night’s food and board. After the hold-up, the two bandits headed south and got lost. The Pinal County Sheriff found them fast asleep beneath a tree and arrested them.

Pearl Hart was actually a ground-breaker on many counts. She was not only the first female to rob a coach, but the first female prisoner in Yuma Prison. Her boyfriend got a stiffer sentence, and Pearl did not serve all of hers. Boot was sentenced to thirty years and Pearl got only five. She gained sympathy from the jury because of her mother’s illness and her need for money to get home.

The newsworthy story of a woman stagecoach robber caused reporters to hang about her cell, anxious for an interview. Taking advantage of her notoriety, Pearl managed to get pregnant. Since the governor of Arizona and a minister were just about her only visitors, fear of a scandal led to an early release. The governor pardoned her on the grounds that the prison “lacked accommodations for women prisoners.”

There is some question as to whether or not Pearl ever was pregnant, or if she faked this condition to avoid serving prison time. Pearl was a manipulator, but did not appear to be too hard-boiled of an outlaw. With the exception of petty theft, holding up the stage was virtually her only criminal act. After leaving prison, for a time she enjoyed her notoriety by reenacting her adventure as a stage robber in a wild west show.

She gradually drifted out of history and by some accounts after she left prison she continued to wander the streets as a vagrant and commit a string of petty crimes. By other accounts she settled down and became a respectable member of society. In any case, after that one big event, she appeared to have retired from hard crime and the robbing of stages.

The Saga of Cattle Kate

Ella Watson, better known as Cattle Kate, did not fit the idea of feminine Victorian grace. She was an attractive woman, but stout. She weighed over 160 pounds and stood over six foot in height. A picture of Cattle Kate is shown both here and in the course introduction.

Ella Watson was the only woman ever hanged in Wyoming. In the summer of 1889, she was lynched along with husband Jim Averill by a group of six cattlemen who took justice in their own hands. The entire incident that led up to her death, including her name, is still a matter of controversy.

Ella was born in Canada around 1861. Her full name was Ellen Liddy Watson, but she was known to friends and family as Ella. Her parents emigrated to Kansas and, at 18, she married a Kansas farmer, William A. Pickell. Her husband drank and was abusive. In 1883 she ran away from him after he beat her with a horse whip. After she left Pickell, Ella worked for a time as a cook in a hotel in Red Cloud, Nebraska. A year later she filed for divorce. After the divorce was final, she wandered to Denver, then Cheyenne, and ended up in Rawlins, Wyoming.

Ella met Jim Averill, a widower, while working as a cook and domestic in Rawlins, though some accounts have her working as a saloon girl and prostitute. Averill was described as intelligent, well-dressed, and a gentleman. Averill was homesteading near the Sweetwater river, about sixty miles north of Rawlins. His first wife had died in childbirth. He had started a roadhouse and general store, and he offered Ella a job cooking and running the store at his roadhouse, though by other accounts he invited her to work as a prostitute.

The two were married, but Ella married under a different name, so that she could homestead land near Jim’s. The trouble began when wealthy stock grower Albert Bothwell wanted to buy the land Jim and Ella had homesteaded. He was accustomed to grazing his cattle on the land, which included access to a creek from which he irrigated his meadow. He became enraged when the two refused to sell out. An ongoing battle ensued which was part of the larger conflict between big stockgrowers who were at war with homesteaders who they felt interfered with the open range. Hard feelings were worsened when Jim wrote articles in the Casper paper criticizing the wealthy landowners.

Ella,as well as Jim, had a strong will and wasn’t afraid to flaunt it. A divorcee, Ella claimed land and refused to sell out and had her own cattle brand. These traits, uncommon in a time when women ordinarily did not own cattle and property, gained her the animosity of her neighbors. Her defiant attitude and Jim’s editorials kindled the wrath of the stock growers.

In 1888 Ella started her own herd of cattle, which further annoyed her neighbor, Bothwell. She got her start by purchasing several head of near-starving cattle from a passing wagon train at a dollar a head. The herd mysteriously grew. Either by rustling or honest mix-ups, a suspicious number of mavericks were found in with her cattle. At that time, the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association began cracking down on rustlers.

Rumors started that Ella was a prostitute who traded calves for sexual favors at the roadhouse. Escalating tension broke out. Threats and warnings were pinned to the door, but the two did not take heed, as they did not believe anyone would harm a woman. A stock detective investigated and gave the opinion that some of Ella’s cattle had been stolen and rebranded. This led up to the vigilante action of the lynching of Ella and Jim Averill.

The Lynching of Cattle Kate

On the fateful day of the lynching, July 20, 1889, six men appeared at Ella Watson’s homestead. Fourteen year old John DeCorey saw Albert Bothwell and the other men force her into a buggy. The six men were John Durbin, Ernest McLean, Robert M. Galbraith, Robert Conner, Tom Sun and Bothwell.

The angry group first picked up Ella, leaving her employee John DeCorey and unofficial adopted son Gene Crowder at the ranch, then got Jim Averill and forced them both to the execution site. When Averill asked to see a warrant he was told that the men’s pulled rifles were “warrant enough.” The two of them were strung up and pushed from a boulder near Sweetwater River.

Averill’s friend Frank Buchanan rode to Casper to get the sheriff. The law went to the lynching site, and held an inquest at the roadhouse. The bodies were cut down and buried.

The stockmen were interrogated and the conclusion was reached that Watson and Averill were lynched by the six cattlemen. They did not deny this, and 5,000 dollar bond set.

A newspaper article misidentified Ella Watson as prostitute Kate Maxwell, another woman from the area, and dubbed her Cattle Kate. That may be where the rumor got started that Ella Watson traded cattle for sexual favors. There may also be truth to the gossip that Ella Watson also engaged in prostitution. Because the reporters couldn’t even get her name right, one might give her benefit of the doubt on that score.

However, it is also unlikely that she and Averill were beyond suspicion, for six well respected ranchers would not be likely to risk their reputations to hang two innocent people. The hanging of a woman, especially, was totally unheard of. At the time, courts were letting rustlers off with few convictions even with strong evidence and the stock growers may have felt vigilante action was necessary to send a message.

Nevertheless, many suspicious happenings surrounded the aftermath of the hanging. A Grand Jury was called to see if the cattlemen involved would be charged. Witnesses mysteriously vanished. Gene Crowder disappeared and Ella’s nephew Ralph Cole died shortly after the incident at the age of 21. It was suspected that he was poisoned. John DeCory moved, then was never heard from again. Frank Buchanan, key witness to the lynching, was jailed for his own protection. After his release he moved away and also vanished. No one was indicted for lack of witnesses. Ella’s cattle were sold , and ironically, Bothwell ended up with the property. Ella’s father destroyed letters that could have helped solve the mystery. The incident still provokes intense argument, with some believing Kate was murdered because she dared homestead in the middle of pasture land coveted by the wealthy surrounding neighbors. Others believe that she and Jim Averill were common rustlers and that their killers saw no alternative than to take matters into their own hands.

Since I live in Wyoming, I recently found myself near the Sweetwater River. Looking out over that dry and isolated land, I got my first full understanding of how important a spring might be in the raising of cattle. I found myself wondering whether Ella really had been a cattle rustler, or if she had been killed for the spring and her land. It is unlikely the truth will never be known.

Cattle Annie and Little Britches

Annie McDougal and Jennie Metcalf were just teenagers, only sixteen and seventeen in 1874, when they met members of the Doolin gang. The Doolin Gang, often associated with the Daltons, robbed banks, stages, and trains. They were a bloodthirsty gang who often murdered innocent bystanders.

The two teenage girls appeared to have been charmed by the outlaws and the lives they led. While the gang had a hideout in Indian territory in Oklahoma, the girls began to serve as message carriers and lookouts for the gang. They would warn Doolin and the gang if anyone was approaching their hideout by firing a rifle shot into the air. The girls went by the nicknames of Cattle Annie and Little Britches.

Jennie was called Little Britches because of her habit of wearing pants far too big for her slender frame. She was born Jennie Stevens in Missouri in 1879. She had a sister and possibly more siblings. Her family was poor, but honest. In around 1887 the family moved to Seneca on the outer edges of Indian Territory, where Jennie’s outlaw activities began.

When she was barely fifteen, Jennie donned men’s clothes and went out to seek adventure. She got lost and when she returned home received a thrashing from her father. By the time she was sixteen, she had two failed marriages behind her. She met Annie at a dance, and the two girls formed a close friendship. They later met up with members of the Doolin gang and started working for them.

Annie was born in Kansas and had several siblings. By differing accounts, her father was either a lawyer turned preacher or poor and uneducated. Whatever he was, he was not an outlaw. Annie did domestic work to help out. The family moved to the Cherokee Nation, which is where she began her venture into crime.

Annie attended the dance where she met Jennie with a boyfriend and there she became introduced to and fell madly in love with George “Red Buck” Waightman, a member of the Doolin gang. Cattle Annie got her name when she became suspected of rustling the neighbor’s cattle.

Both girls were poor, uneducated, and no doubt felt flattered by the attention of the outlaws and gladly served as lookouts for them. The two girl bandits were crack shots and managed to evade the law at every turn. Eventually, though, their misdeeds caught up with them and the girls were arrested for rustling cattle and bootlegging whiskey to the Indians.

The two young girl bandits were caught in Pawnee, Oklahoma. Cattle Annie was caught right away, but Little Britches gave them a run for their money. The girls, convicted and sentenced to five yers, were sent to prison in Boston. The girls, who had never been out of Oklahoma, found the trip East exciting. Once there, they became celebrities, known as the Oklahoma Girl Bandits. Both were released from prison several years early for good behavior, and retired from their lives of crime. Annie settled down and married. Jennie moved to New York and died of tuberculosis shortly after.

Because of the brief duration of their crimes and because they reformed shortly after, their exploits have often been passed over in favor of more colorful outlaws. But for the two short years this pair of tough girls rode the outlaw trail, they gave lawmen a world of trouble.

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