What Happened to Pearl Hart?

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Inmate #1559 at Yuma Territorial Prison

A notorious woman stagecoach robber, Pearl Hart was caught and served two years in prison. Then she vanished into the murkiness of historic rumor.

Pearl Hart, at the time a nondescript character struggling to survive on Arizona’s mining frontier, made headlines in 1899. With a male companion, she carried out one of the last stagecoach robberies in history. During her trial and imprisonment, journalists made her into the stuff of Old West legend.

Pearl Taylor Hart’s Elopement

Pearl Taylor’s origins are sketchy. Lindsay, Ontario, usually is stated as her hometown. Most chroniclers say she was born during the 1870s, but the year is questionable.

She is believed to have been about 16, lodged at a boarding school, when she eloped with a young man named William Hart. Hart proved to be generally drunk, unemployed and abusive. After enduring the volatile marriage several years, Pearl is said to have left their two small children in the care of her mother and fled to the American Southwest.

Her husband, by one account, followed her and attempted to reconcile. They reportedly continued their turbulent coexistence in Phoenix, Arizona, until the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in Spring 1898, when William enlisted in the Army.

Pearl Becomes an Outlaw

Pearl Hart was working in an Arizona hash house when she partnered with a miner known as Joe Boot. When she received word her mother was dying back East, she allegedly was tormented by having no money for a trip home. Boot, it is believed, conceived the plot of holding up a stagecoach to solve that problem (and, no doubt, for less righteous motives).

Together, they stopped a stagecoach between Globe and Benson, Arizona, on 29 May 1899. Hart had cut off her hair and dressed like a man. They stole more than $400 from the passengers and fled on foot.

The pair were at large less than a week. Arrested and convicted, Boot was sentenced to 35 years, Hart to five, at the territorial prison in Yuma.

The Release of Prisoner Hart

The sensational woman robber frequently was visited in prison by reporters and photographers seeking to profit by her infamy. She also was visited often, it was said, by prison staff.

Hart was pardoned in December 1902 after serving only two years of her sentence. Some historians suspect the warden arranged for her release because of her scandalous behavior.

Hart’s Post-Criminal Life of Mystery

After her release, Hart briefly earned a living as “The Arizona Bandit,” a traveling lecturer warning against the pitfalls of crime and lamenting the dreadful condition of the Arizona prison. She then basically vanished from history.

One later report implicated her as a train robbery suspect (never convicted) in New Mexico. Another held that during the 1920s, a woman identifying herself as Pearl Hart appeared at the jail in Pima County, Arizona, asking to tour the premises. Wildly differing snippets of the legend held that she remarried in Mexico, that she scrounged a living as a pickpocket in Kansas City and that she became a cigar-smoking (but otherwise respectable) rancher.

Pearl Hart was glamorized during the early 1900s in books, plays and an early silent movie. Most later records of her, however, depict a tragic life. Her vices included liquor, tobacco and possibly morphine, besides promiscuity. She more than once attempted suicide.

Hart’s date and place of death are unknown. Some historians suspect she lived to the Depression era.

References:

  1. “Pearl Hart: First Known Female Stage Robber in Arizona Territory.” Wind Spirit Community.org.
  2. McLoughlin, Denis. Wild & Woolly: An Encyclopedia of the Old West. Doubleday & Company, Inc. (1975).