The Woman Behind One Of America's Last Stagecoach Robberies

Decades before Bonnie and Clyde became America's favorite outlaw lovers, another pair of public enemies made headlines for a stagecoach robbery that broke the norms of how women could misbehave in the Wild West. The female of that pair was Pearl Hart, a 28-year-old that Time magazine called "one of history's most infamous stagecoach robbers." On May 30, 1899, she cut her hair short, strapped on a pair of suspenders, stepped into some leather boots, and topped the costume off with a cowboy hat. In the cowpoke getup, the 100-pound Pearl looked like more like a young boy playing sheriff than a menacing highway robber, but the clothes — and the .38 revolver she took with her — were enough to scare the daylights out of the passengers on the stagecoach bound for Florence, Arizona.

Born to a well-to-do Canadian family from the town of Lyndsay, Ontario, sometime around 1871, Pearl eloped when she was just 16 years old. But her husband soon turned into her abuser and she was in no mood to hang around. They had moved to Chicago, where Pearl attended the World's Fair and was captivated by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. So she boarded a westbound train with a piano player she'd met and went on to find trouble, fortune (briefly), and fame. The details of Pearl's life after she moved out west vary greatly, depending on who you ask.

Pearl planned one of America's most infamous stagecoach robberies, but not the getaway

According to The Courier of Prescott, Arizona, Pearl told a reporter later in life that while in Chicago, she was "good-looking, discouraged, and ready for anything that might come along." And chroniclers have truly taken advantage of the possibilities of the word "anything." As Pearl herself wrote it, she had a rough on-again, off-again relationship with her husband, with whom she tried to live a normal life of domesticity, but his violent behavior continued and they finally split.

Others say that the life Pearl claimed to have lived wasn't as wholesome as she presented it once people were slathering for details about this brazen lady robber. Some say she worked in brothels until she found herself destitute in 1899, in desperate need of a quick financial solution. That's when she met Joe Boot, and the two hatched their half-baked scheme to pull off one of the last stagecoach robberies in American history

They pulled off the theft part well enough. They even returned $1 to each of their victims to get something to eat once they reached their destination. But the two didn't seem to have a good idea about that other integral part of any heist: the getaway. They figured they could just run off into the rugged terrain, sleeping in wild boars' dens until the heat on them simmered down. They were caught while sleeping a couple days later.

Pearl's failed stagecoach robbery made her an instant media sensation

Although people had seen sharpshooter Annie Oakley push the boundaries of what women were capable of in the Wild West, the idea of a female stagecoach robber sent the public reeling. Members of the national press flocked to Florence, where Hart was jailed, and while she was a poor thief, Pearl turned out to be an expert publicist. She was interviewed by Cosmopolitan magazine and posed for pictures like the one above. The public loved her. Her adoring fans sent her gifts and dubbed her "the Bandit Queen."

She busted out of her jail cell and was quickly apprehended again, but the stunt only endeared her more to her loving fan base. At her trial, she played the victim, claiming that she'd needed the money to go see her mother one last time before Mom died. She also decried her lack of suffrage as a woman: "I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making." The tactic worked, and she and Boot got off.

But prosecutors arrested them again for tampering with the U.S. mail, and this time it stuck. Pearl only served 18 months of her five-year sentence after she claimed to be pregnant. No records of a child exist. Afterwards, she briefly appeared in the traveling show that inspired her to mosey out west in the first place, then quietly vanished from the history books.