I write historical fiction. Thus, I find myself in a variety of historical societies and museums across the United States. Some are grand things, in granite buildings, with an avid volunteer program. Some are a single door and a signed burnt into a slab of wood: Open Wed 3-5 or call. Some have theatres and show slick and highly produced documentaries on the subjects and stories contained in the galleries. Others sell stapled booklets of something written in 1953 by a previous volunteer.
When I research, I am a) looking for specifics and primary documents for a book I'm thinking of writing or already writing or b) wandering in on a vacation while everyone else goes shopping. The Pearl Hart research was an intentional event. I had the kernel of an idea for a story that would involve her, so traveled out to Arizona to visit the two historical societies that absolutely and categorically would know about her and possibly have some information beyond the ever morphing legend of her short-lived fame.
Let's start with Pearl herself, and what was at least agreed to about her life (since this trip, her legend has been stripped and the real truth written in John Boessenecker's Wildcat: The Untold Story of Pearl Hart, The Wild West's Most Notorious Woman Bandit). So, pre Mr. Boessenecker's exposé, her story went something like this:
Pearl Hart was a cigar-smoking, foul-mouthed firecracker who married a gambler. He beat her up and also gave her two children. Somewhere within that they'd been on riverboats, ended up in Tucson, she took to singing, or cooking, or soiled doving depending on your reference. By 1899, he left her, and she went to Globe, Arizona where she cooked or soiled doved or laid around smoking opium and complaining she needed to get home to her ailing mother. She met a fellow named Joe Boot, who was an itinerant Jack-o-Many trades, including digging at a spit of a mining claim and petty thieving. He apparently loved Pearl, but we're not clear what she felt about him.
The ailing mother situation grew dire. Pearl begged Joe to help get money for her to travel home to Missouri or Canada or somewhere not Globe. They tried digging up the claim, but this was to no avail, as it was nothing but rocks and dirt. Joe had a better idea than sweating away looking for ore. The two should rob a stage.
So they held one up. Right away, Pearl felt bad, and gave each of the passengers a dollar so they could get lunch once they'd made it to town. The two jumped back on their horses and took off into the rugged mountains. The coach driver jumped back on the stage and drove right back to Florence to pick up a posse.
Joe and Pearl got lost. Then they got caught. Here's where all the stories seem to agree: Pearl loved attention and she got it. In droves. She performed and pleaded and flirted in court. Newspapers couldn't get enough of this tiger cat. Suffragettes swooned at her statement: "I shall not be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making." The jury acquitted her, only to have the judge haul her back in the 110 degree court room and charge her with stealing the driver's gun, which was government property. She got 5 years in the Yuma Penitentiary.
Joe, who did not cry or act the ham, and who didn't have such a resounding quote, got 30 years. Which goes to show that a bit of theatrical training can take one far.
They both ended up in Yuma. Joe got a job that gave him access to wagons and horses, so he decided he'd take those right out the front gates and disappear. Pearl got more loud-mouthed and equally famous, with a cadre of fans and a multitude of visitors and even an interview with Cosmopolitan magazine from which the iconic picture of her armed to the teeth and standing with borrowed boot on an overturned bucket came. They took another of her in prissy dresses and a too small hat, which you will see below.
Eventually she ticked off enough guards and wardens they gave her a train ticket and sent her on her way, requesting that she never again enter the Arizona Territory.
Which, according to some experts, she didn't. But again, others said she did. There was talk she'd gone on tour with Bill Cody's Wild West Show, and others said she took off to California and died somewhere around Santa Cruz in 1935, though others said it was in Los Angeles. Then there is the ever popular belief she snuck right back to Globe and married a rancher named George Calvin Bywater and died fat and happy and surrounded by her kids in 1955.
This controversy as to her disappearance from the record and then her various death dates led me directly into the jaws of two warring factions: The Pinal County Historical Society and the Gila Historical Museum. These two facilities do not share a friendship. The animosity over Pearl's life after prison runs hot and sharp.
It was here, torn between the two mortal enemies, that I was asked to scrutinize Pearl Hart's ear and choose sides.
Next time: Who Owns Pearl Hart? Earlobes dissected.
K.T. Blakemore grew up in the west and never left. Her upcoming novel THE GOOD TIME GIRLS is the first in the Wild-Willed Women of the West Series, featuring women who take no prisoners and succeed through sheer grit, determination, and a parcel of luck.
She has hung her hat in California, Colorado, and currently the Pacific Northwest. The rain does not deter her research whether it be train timetables from 1905 or the best way to catch a loose horse.