On Pearl Hart's Ear Part 2

Or The Battle of the Historical Societies

· Historical Societies,History Can be Odd,Wild-Willed Women,Writing the West,Pearl Hart

Continued from Part 1...

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Pearl Hart, like many figures in the western past, was more lore than reality. The only reality we have are a few staged pictures taken at Yuma Territorial Prison when Cosmopolitan magazine did a huge spread and gave her space to tell her own legend, which was a mix of tall tale and quite a bit of flimflam.

I needed more of the truth. Off I went to Arizona to visit the two places that laid claim to the stage robber's legacy: The Pinal County Historical Society and Museum in Florence and the Gila Historical Museum in Globe.

I began my quest in Florence, a dusty town in the flats of the desert, an hour and change southeast of Phoenix. It has a few noted features: the Arizona State Prison complex which looms over damn well everything; a memorial along a dry wash to silent film cowboy star Tom Mix commemorating his final car crash; a strange pillar of rock sticking straight out of the flat, flat earth that no one could explain to me; and the Florence courthouse where Pearl Hart's trial took place.

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Just down the street from that courthouse sits the Pinal County Historical Society and Museum and I had an appointment to meet one of the be-alls and end-alls of Pearl Hart hagiography, Chris Reid.

It was difficult at first to concentrate on my questions, as the museum is a remarkable building of very strange objects (next week I will expand on this) and I am not good a multi-tasking. But after a walk of the exhibits, Chris took me to the Pearl Hart Wall. The shrine, so to speak, with a series of informational plaques and photos, boasting that HERE lies the legend of Pearl Hart.

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It's exciting to see real honest-to-God, in-real-life photographs. Even though most can be found online, there's still a frisson of excitement, that the thing itself exists somewhere. And there was a photograph of the actual gun she (or Joe Boot) stole that was used to convict her. I was by now curious to see what other treasures and ephemera stashed away in this museum. Chris had me sit at a heavy wooden table that faced the front counter. She gave me one rule: "No photos."

I had been taking them all through my museum adventure, so this new rule meant one thing: Excellent, secret, never before seen items were in the Pearl Hart archives. I pulled out my notebook and held my pencil a-ready.

Maybe there was a diary. Those are the the Holy Grail of research, at least for historical fiction authors. Maybe a twist in the story, the full transcript of her trial, a photograph of her time in Globe that nailed down precisely what the hell she was doing there. Maybe there was a ring or the lint from her pocket or a receipt to the laundry. The options were limitless.

Chris returned from the file cabinets. She set a thin stack of manila folders in front of me.

“There’s other papers in the Arizona State Archives." She pressed her finger to the top of the folders, as if loathe to let them go.

More gold! “I’ll call over,” I said.

“They aren’t public.” She narrowed her eyes and looked at me as if I’d just failed “Intrepid Research 101” by not knowing this fact. Her finger remained on the stack a moment more. Then the folders were freed and Chris moved away.

Not far, though. She didn’t trust me after my faux pas, so planted herself behind the counter and directly across so she could keep a good eye on me.

I could tell she thought me a miscreant – and her gaze flicked from the papers to my notebook to my bag on the floor, assessing my threat of thievery or usage of a spy camera.

In order to ease her unease, I put on my serious scholarly look and began to read.

Now, historical society archives can produce both treasures and disappointments, and this set of materials provided both. Mostly it consisted of cut-out and yellowed news articles from the 1970s, when Pearl had an apparent renaissance that might have been in conjunction with the rise of the feminist movement. "I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making," she'd called out bravely in court.

Her words worked for the suffragists, so I suppose they may have been an inspiration to more modern women. Or it was just one of those things when one newspaper publishes something and others pick it up, and this creates a funny bubble of energy, which pushes someone into five more minutes of fame. Then it all dies down, much as the hoorah about the Bay City Rollers did after their feature in Teen Beat.

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What caught my attention about the various articles were the completely different versions of the truth. Perhaps truth is too strong a word. Lore would be more appropriate. No one agreed on the name of her husband, if she was originally from Kansas or Canada, if she had siblings or even a mother and no one agreed one when she died. (Note: Everyone agreed on the sequence of events in the stage robbery itself. Though most, as far as I can tell, came from her boasting to Cosmopolitan and not the court records.)

Which had to be in this batch of papers. Court records are golden. It’s here we find the closet simulacrum of truth. But there were only a few bits and bobs from her time at Yuma Territorial Prison. A letter to her sister, Mrs. C.J. Frizell, basically telling her to come get this harridan and never let her come back. A few others on the same tack, and then…nothing else.

I set down my pencil. Stared hard across the table at Chris who had not left her post nor stopped staring with the same hardness back at me.

“There’s more in the state archives,” she said.

“Which can’t be accessed.” I picked at the corner of my notebook. I wanted more. I wanted her to spill it all. I searched around for something to ask, something that might make her see I had done previous reseach, that I wasn’t a rube. “So what happened to her? There’s at least six versions of when she died and how and where.”

“Not in Globe.” Her mouth worked itself around. "She did not die in Globe."

“But there’s that one story. She snuck back into the territory and married—”

She chucked up her chin. Cut me off at the pass. “Have you talked to Vernon?”

“Vernon.” I sat back. Peered around the museum, at the suitcase that once carried a dead woman all the way to California, at the saddles and historical barbed wire and mug shots from the penitentiary. I was buying time. Vernon Perry ran the Gila County Historical Society and I had an appointment with him the next morning at 9 a.m.

But telling her this felt…like a betrayal. To her, to him – who knows. She frankly scared me.

I slipped my notebook into my bag and slid from the chair. “That was very interesting information. Thank you” I paused, still holding out hope she’d say more, mention a secret or two of Pearl, like the woman had two husbands or ended up a spy in the Spanish-American war or recued Huskies and disappeared in the Yukon.


She turned her attention to a few visitors who, no doubt, would refrain from giving her grief about the thinness of historical records or bring up the name of her most obvious nemesis.

I gave my thanks and headed for the exit.

Just as I pushed open the door, she said, “He’s going to ask you about the ear.”

NEXT POST: The infamous Vernon Perry and the study of ears.

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.

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