Monday, October 14, 2013

Pearl Hart – American Desperado

By Anna Kathryn Lanier

What should have been a life of modesty and respect, instead turned into a life of crime and legend.  Pearl Taylor,  the daughter of middle-class parents in Ontario, Canada, met and fell in love at the age of seventeen with a Nar ‘do well gambler and drinker, Fred Hart and eloped.

Five years later, in 1893, the couple made their way to the Colombian Exposition in Chicago where Fred found a job as a sideshow barker.  Pearl worked a number of odd jobs and escaped her dreary life by spending the afternoons watching Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and dreaming of the romantic West.

Finally tiring of her hard-drinking, abusive husband, Pearl packed up and headed West for the start of a new life. Unfortunately, it was a short-lived dream when she discovered she was pregnant. She returned to Canada and her family for the support they could give her.  After giving birth to a son, Pearl left the baby in her mother’s care and moved to Arizona.  She worked odd jobs to support herself in a less than glamorous and heroic West than she had envisioned. 

Fred followed her trail and when he caught up with her, he begged forgiveness and promised changes.  For a while, the couple lived a happier domestic life, however, after the arrival of a daughter Fred abandoned his family, allegedly to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

Pearl once again returned to her parents for support.  She didn’t stay long and soon returned to Arizona, leaving both her children behind.  Once back in the West, she worked odd jobs and as a cook in the various mining towns.  In 1899, she took up with a miner by the name of Joe Boot. After she received word that her mother was ill and needed money for medical care, she and Joe devised several schemes to raise the money.  When none of them proved lucrative enough, they decided to rob the Globe-to-Florence stagecoach.

With her hair cut and wearing Joe’s clothing, Pearl helped rob the three passengers of over $400 and a gun.  Feeling sorry for the passengers, Pearl is said to have returned a dollar to each for food.  The bandits high-tailed it into the unfamiliar desert foothills, where they promptly got lost.  After wandering around aimlessly for several days, they awoke one morning to find themselves surrounded by a sheriff and his posse.

While being held for trial, the “Queen Bandit” milked her fame for all its worth.  Allowed access to visitors and reports, she posed for pictures and signed autographs. In a surprise verdict and despite pleading guilty, the jury acquitted her, perhaps finding sympathy in her claim that she was trying to raise money for her dear, sick mother.  The judge, however, was furious.  He had Pearl tried again for “unlawfully carrying a gun,” the gun being the one stolen in the robbery.  This time, she was found guilty and sentenced to five years in the Yuma Territorial Prison.

Her fame grew as she served her time.  Reporters visited her often, posing her for pictures with unloaded guns.  By the time she was paroled 18 months into her sentence, she was a legend.  She also claimed she was pregnant and may have been paroled early to avoid a scandal, as she would have conceived while in custody.  The claim seems to have been a ruse, though. There’s no record of a third child being born.

The Two Pearl Harts:

After her release from prison, Pearl moved to Kansas City and starred in a theater production (written by her sister) of her life.  The play was short-lived though and Pearl’s fame faded.

In 1924, she’s alleged to have visited the courthouse where she was tried. Upon leaving, she told the attendant, “Nothing’s changed.” He asked who she was and, rather dramatically she replied, “Pearl Hart, the lady bandit.”

What happened to Pearl after that is unclear.  There is a claim she died in 1925 in Kansas City, another she lived in California until 1952.  The most knocked about story, however, is that she married an Arizona rancher, Calvin Bywater, and lived until the mid-1950’s as a hard-working, cigar-smoking, blue-streak-cussing law abiding citizen.  Whatever happened to Pearl in her later years, her younger ones were certainly bigger than life and she appears to be the only woman tried for robbing a stagecoach.


Ladies First: History’s greatest female trailblazers, winners and mavericks by Lynn Santa Lucia


This lecture first appeared on Faith V. Smith’s blog on May 18, 2011.
Learn more about Pioneering Women in my online workshop, November 4-29, 2013.  Learn more about it HERE.
Anna Kathryn Lanier


  1. Interesting story, Anna Kathryn. She followed the footsteps of some other females, but I cannot recall names--just vague memories of women turning notorious, and maybe died alone and unknown in the end...or a legend sprouts up whether she died young or lived long.
    Isn't it difficult to understand women who leave their babies to someone else to go on their own adventure. Pearl Hart looks like a small woman...but obviously she was fearless.
    This was very good--I enjoyed Pearl Hart's story.

  2. Hi, Celia. Thanks for stopping by. She'd make an interesting heroine, too, I think....someone who turned out okay in the end....Or maybe a secondary character who helps the heroine in some way.

    I too wonder about a woman who leaves the 'good life' for a down and out life. It's surprising to me that we don't have concrete evidence of what happened to her.

  3. Hers is a sad tale. I wonder how her children fared. She definitely was not maternal, was she?

  4. What a fabulous post! However did you find out about her? I love lady outlaw stories. Can't believe she left her kids behind, though. Not very maternal. Probably better for the kids, though. The elopement reminds me a bit of Frank James eloping with a respectable schoolmarm from a very good family. Well done, Anna Kathryn. Xo

  5. Hi. Caroline and Tanya, thanks for stopping by. No, I don't think she was very maternal, but at least she did leave her kids with her parents.

    Tanya, I found out about her in the book "Ladies First: History’s greatest female trailblazers, winners and mavericks" by Lynn Santa Lucia. It's a wonderful resource for many women throughout history. I've used it many times to get ideas for blogs.


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West!