The Last of the Lady Road Agents
The era of the old west was the most colorful period of our nation's history. It was a time when notorious outlaws and brave lawman became legendary characters whose name are more popular today than in the 1800s. By the turn of the century though, the west was becoming civilized. Trains were slowly replacing the older methods of transportation and most of the desperados were either dead or in exile. The days of the stagecoach robberies were past, at least the citizens of Arizona thought so. On May 30, 1899 when two people stepped out onto the road with guns drawn, and commanded the driver of the Benson-Globe stage to "Halt!" and, the short career of Pearl Hart, who is known as "The Last of the Lady Road Agents" began.
When the stage came to a stop, three nervous passengers disembarked and obediently raised their hands in the air. They noticed the bandits were an odd pair. One was tall, muscular and sported a fancy mustache. The other smaller one appeared to be a woman whose figure was poorly concealed. She was wearing a rough miner's shirt and blue overalls, which were tucked into course boots that were obviously too large. A few dark curls escaped from beneath the dirty cowboy hat that covered her head and the hands that ransacked the passenger's pockets were small and white.
The haul was not a poor one. A drummer had $290, a heavy set man turned over $36 and a Chinese merchant added $100. The robbers seemed content and the smaller one silently returned four dollars to each passenger for bed and food. Then they rode off into the bushes and the stage continued on its way at a fast pace. When it arrived in Globe, the driver ran in and notified the sheriff and an excited posse set out in pursuit of the dangerous renegades. The old timers, however, seemed almost happy, for to them a robbery meant the old west was still alive and kicking.
Meanwhile the road agents who were clearly novices attempted to cover their tracks. They were unfamiliar with the territory and spent three days plunging across canyons and doubling back, only to find themselves a few miles from the scene of the crime. When the posse found them they were sound asleep on the ground. Neither one even had the chance to spend a penny of their ill gotton gains.
The sheriff awakened the pair and asked the man his name. When he seemed hesitant to answer, the woman said, "Joe, its Joe Boot." No one ever knew his true identity, so that was how he was booked. Boot didn't give the lawman any trouble, he turned himself over without a word, but the woman was not anxious to go to jail, she put up quite a fight and had to be subdued. The Arizona Star reported, "She is a wild-cat of a woman and had she not been relieved of her gun a bloody foray might have resulted." When they reached the jail, Pearl was carrying all the money.
The path that led Pearl Hart to that fateful day in May was long and hard. She was born in 1872 in Ontario, Canada, and christened Pearl by her mother, no one is sure of her last name. It can be assumed Pearl had a normal childhood, very little has been written about her early years. She entered a boarding school for young ladies at the age of 16, and while there she met a personable man named Hart. He swept the girl off of her feet with his looks and promises. A year later they eloped, much to her mother's dismay.
Hart was a semi-professional gambler, sometime bartender and full-time drinker who spent more hours nursing his hangovers than working. Pearl returned to her mother several times during her marriage, but Hart always managed to convince her to give him one more chance.
In 1893 they went to Chicago in hopes of finding steady employment at the World Columbian Exposition. Hart was confident he could get a good bartending job. He ended up instead as a barker in a shabby side show. Pearl, however, discovered the glamour of the West in the form of the tall, muscular cowboys who were part of the entertainment. It wasn't long before one of the amorous cowhands convinced the pretty lady to accompany him to Colorado. He paid her way but soon left her there to fend for herself.
Pearl's admiration for cowboys ended and she began cooking in the mining camps of the west. For the first time she began to save money and was doing well. Pearl especially liked the attention she received from the male population. One day in Phoenix,Arizona , she ran into her husband. When he noticed she looked prosperous he decided to get a bit of her money. Once more Hart talked his way back into her life with the usual promises.
This time he did settle down for a few years and held a steady job. During that interlude they had two babies. Hart again showed his lack of responsibility when he began drinking and abusing his family. Pearl knew she really had enough of her husband and sent her children to her mother, who was living in Ohio.
Without the babies and her husband, Pearl returned to the mining camps disillusioned with life. She drifted from place to place and soon began drinking heavily and using drugs. There were many men in her life, but she was not a prostitute.
In 1889 Pearl met Joe Boot in a mining camp in Arizona, and they became close friends. Whether Pearl was in love with Boot or not has never been revealed, although at the time of their arrest she claimed undying affection for the man. At other times, however she expressed disgust for him and said he was weak and worthless.
Boot was with Pearl when she received a letter saying her mother who she loved very much, was ill and needed money for medical expenses. She and Boot looked at their resources and since neither one had any, devised a plan to rob the stage. At least that is the reason they gave the police. Boot said he just went along with it to help the women.
This was Pearl's first encounter wit h the law and her last, but it made headlines throughout the United States. Many newspaper reporters rushed to Arizona to write every detail of the "sordid" crime they could dig up, whether it was true or not. Pearl was portrayed as a fallen woman and described as a morphine fiend. Through the years writers have continued to tell of the notorious Pearl Hart who will forever be remembered as a stage robber.
Sheriff Bill Truman of Pima County said she was a tiger-cat for nerve and endurance and would have killed him if she could. In another report it was written, "She is a delicate, dark haired woman, with little about her that would suggest the ability to hold up a stage loaded with frontiersmen. She had refined features, a mouth of the true rosebud type, and clear blue eyes that would be confiding and baby-like were it not for the few lines that come only through the seamy side of life. In weight she is not over 100 pounds, in form slight and graceful".
Joe Boot, on the other hand was described by Sheriff Truman as, " a weak morphine-depraved specimen of mortality, without spirit and lacking intelligence and activity. It is plain the woman was the leader of the assorted partnership. She does not deny that such was the case and expresses nothing but contempt for her companion."
The prisoners were first taken to Florence for preliminary hearings and held over without bond to answer to the grand jury. Pearl was transferred to the Pima County jail at Tucson because there were no accommodations for women in the Florence jail. It was said Pearl cried when they separated her from Boot.
On October 20, 1899, The Tucson Star wrote of Pearl's escape from the Tucson jail. The officers were quite upset over it as they had taken every precaution for her safe keeping. The newspaper wrote, "It is evident that after everything was quiet someone entered the courthouse, walked up the stairway and entered the tower room. It was the work of but a few minutes to cut a hole through the wall into Pearl's room. She held a sheet to catch the plaster that fell by her side. After the hole was cut through, she put a sheet underneath, and placing her chair upon that crawled through the hole."
It was obvious she had an accomplice because she couldn't have managed it alone. The police believed it was Ed Hogan, who was serving a drunk and disorderly sentence. He was a trustee and also turned up missing the next day. Pearl was captured in New Mexico several days later and returned to Tucson.
The plight of Pearl Hart won the hearts of many, especially women. She had no prior arrest and they felt she should not be put on trial, convicted and sentenced under a law she or her sex had no part in making. She captured their sympathy and used it to help win freedom. However, no one really knows who Pearl was, her personality changed to suit her moods. In the eyes of many she was a petite woman who couldn't possibly have committed the crime. Others saw her as a depraved, fallen women. Even Pearl's vocabulary alternated between Western phrases, gutter slang and that of an educated woman. Later, during her confinement, she wrote poetry which showed an educational background.
On November 25, 1899 Pearl stood trial for her part in the robbery and was acquitted. The judge was furious and dismissed the jury. He immediately rearrested her, calling in a new jury. This time Pearl was charged with a lesser crime, stealing the revolver from the stage driver. She could not stand trial again for the robbery itself.
The Arizona Sentinel reported, "the action which will be telegraphed all over the country is, however, likely to do the reputation of Arizona a considerable amount of injury, as it will confirm many eastern people in the that the people of Arizona have a sneaking sympathy for crimes…In these days of women's rights the question of sex should not be allowed to play any greater part in crime than it is supposed to do in merit and achievement."
Pearl at the age of 28, was convicted and sentenced to serve 5 years in the territorial prison at Yuma, Arizona, her accomplice, Joe Boot, was sentenced to 30 years. Throughout the trial Boot had maintained he did it only to help a lady in distress. Although both Boot and Pearl had a "death-do-us-part" vow, he escaped a few months later and was never heard of again. Pearl entered the prison on Nov 15, 1899. She was the 13th female prisoner and became #1559.
A letter arrived at the prison from Pearl's brother in law that confirmed her first story of why she committed the robbery. It said, "To the Sheriff- I see by the papers that you have Miss Pearl Hart in custody in Arizona for some misdemeanor. Now, as I am her brother in law, I am interested in her welfare. It has been a long time since we have heard from her, and we did not know what had become of her. I assure you that her mother would be glad to have her at home. I have seen her sit and cry when we were talking about Pearl and wondering what had become of her…Now, I would beg of you to be as easy as you can, for we have not dared to let her mother know that we have heard anything of her and much less that she is a prisoner, as she is troubled with heart disease and the news might affect her seriously…James T. Taylor"
Pearl was the only female prisoner for almost nine months. By the time she was granted a pardoned she was sharing her cell with 3 other women.
Pearl's sister and her mother petitioned the governor for a parole. They said if Pearl obtained a release she would have the opportunity to play a leading role on the Orpheum circuit. Her sister had written a play which would dramatize Pearl's experience as a stage robber.
The petition was convincing and Governor Alexander O. Brodie agreed to sign it if Pearl would leave Arizona. She accepted the terms and was released a little over two years from the day she entered the prison.
It was said Pearl left the prison in good health and free from opium addiction. No one knows if Pearl's stage appearance was successful. The end of her life appears to be as confusing and as much a mystery as the lady herself.
Excerpt from the book " Daughters of the West" by Anne Seagraves
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