You would think that news of an Arizona stage coach robbery in the waning months of the 19th century would quickly fall out of the frontier news cycle. Yet this particular heist propelled the story of a young woman in her twenties onto the pages of newspapers and magazines across the country. Late 1890s paparazzi followed her as closely as the Pinal County Sheriff who brought her to justice.
It was a feeding frenzy for journalists who couldn’t get enough of the story of this petite, attractive woman—barely five feet, four inches tall—brandishing her favored .38 Colt Lightning revolver to empty the pockets of passengers on one of the last stage routes still running in the Arizona Territory.
Her name was Pearl Hart, and with her accomplice, Joe Boot, she held up a stage traveling on the road from Globe to Florence in May of 1899.
No one was riding shotgun on this run because it had been years since a stage in Arizona had been robbed. Except for the driver’s Colt .45 revolver, the stage was essentially unguarded.
When the driver braked to make a turn in a narrow canyon southwest of Globe, the two bandits jumped in front of it with pistols drawn. Pearl was dressed as a man, the way she often did, and she and Joe ordered the three passengers to stand and deliver.
The passengers were left poorer for the experience, but not penniless. After cleaning them out of over $400 cash, along with the driver’s Colt .45 revolver, Pearl refunded $1 back to each of them to buy something to eat when they reached their destination in Florence. Not a shot was fired.
This robbery was a “one-off,” as one might say in today’s parlance, driven by the need to get some quick cash to send back to Ohio to help Pearl’s sick mother. But Pearl and Joe weren’t seasoned highwaymen (or highway women) with polished technique and elaborate getaway plans. Sheriff W.E. Truman and his posse were able to quickly track and arrest them near Benson, Arizona several days later.
The two perpetrators were brought to the jail at Florence to be arraigned, where Pearl found she had become on overnight celebrity. Word had spread about “The Bandit Queen,” and reporters were beginning to visit, anxious to interview Pearl about her exploits.
Sheriff Truman even allowed her to be interviewed and photographed in full desperado mode by Cosmopolitan, a national magazine in New York. She wore her familiar men’s attire for one of the photographs, with one revolver in a cross draw holster, another tucked in her belt, and a Winchester 76 rifle across her knee. All weapons unloaded, most definitely.
Tiring of all of the hoopla associated with Pearl’s increasing fame, the sheriff soon had her transferred to the Pima County jail in Tucson where they had better facilities for a woman. But she promptly escaped and made it to Deming, New Mexico, only to be recognized and arrested by a lawman who had seen the Cosmo photographs.
Back in Florence, Pearl Hart was sentenced to five years, and Joe Boot to thirty, both to be served in the Yuma Territorial Prison. Pearl was a celebrity in Yuma, as well, and being the only female prisoner (and perhaps because of her almost heroic notoriety), she had a relatively spacious cell and a private outside yard “to take her daily constitutional.”
Within two years, Joe Boot escaped from the Yuma Prison and was never found. After serving just three years of her term, Pearl Hart was pardoned by Arizona Territorial Governor Brodie under the condition that she never again steps foot in Arizona.
Officially, she was pardoned because the prison lacked proper facilities for women. But some say the real reason is she became pregnant in the prison (or she convinced the warden that she was), and this potential embarrassment was why she was released.
Where Pearl Hart went from Yuma is as muddy as a wet wagon rut. Some think she rode the train to Kansas City and either ran a cigar store (she loved to smoke cigars), or was arrested for receiving stolen goods. But the most persistent story—and one that has some tacit confirmation by several old timers—is that she married a rancher in Dripping Springs, Arizona named Calvin Bywater, and lived a quiet life until her death in 1955.
A gravestone with the names of George Calvin Bywater and Pearl Bywater is located in the Pinal Cemetery in Globe, Arizona. Could it be?
Kim Stone was a horticulturist, writer, and editor of several publications for the University of Arizona at Boyce Thompson Arboretum over the better part of three decades. He is now happily self-absorbed in freelance writing, travel, and content marketing.