The Story Of Pearl Hart, The Gunslinging Bandit Queen Of The Old West

Published May 1, 2024

A cross-dressing, cigar-smoking outlaw, Pearl Hart became a media sensation after she robbed a stagecoach, cementing her place as one of Arizona’s most notorious bandits.

Pearl Hart

Public domainPearl Hart happily posed for photographs while in prison, donning men’s clothes and brandishing guns.

On May 30, 1899, two armed men flagged down a stagecoach that ran through Kane Spring Canyon in the Arizona desert. As one of the men held the passengers at gunpoint, the other ordered them out of the car. The robbers then rifled through their pockets, claiming a gold watch, a couple of firearms, and hundreds of dollars in cash.

But one of the victims noticed something strange about the slight man pointing a shotgun during the heist. “The fingers on the barrel and trigger were long and white and slender and not in harmony with the rough attire,” reported the San Francisco Call at the time.

In fact, the robber was a woman dressed as a man: Pearl Hart. And within a few weeks, this “Lady Bandit” would become something of a Wild West sensation.

The Wild Life Of Pearl Hart

According to most accounts, Pearl Hart’s descent into a life of crime came slowly. She was reportedly born in 1871 to a respectable family in Ontario, Canada. Shipped off to boarding school at a young age, she seemed destined for a normal middle-class life. Then, she fell for a bartender at the age of 16 or 17 and eloped.

A gambler and a heavy drinker, Hart’s husband reportedly squandered much of the couple’s money and often abused his young wife. Then, the couple moved to Chicago, where Pearl Hart’s life would change forever.

In 1893, Pearl visited the Chicago World’s Fair. According to legend, she saw sharpshooter Annie Oakley performing as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and fell in love with the West. She hopped a train to Colorado on a whim, leaving her abusive husband behind.

Lady Bandit

Public domainPearl Hart became one of the most legendary outlaws in the Wild West practically overnight.

Out west, Hart worked odd jobs as a cook, a saloon singer, and a laundry worker to make ends meet. As she moved from town to town, she also picked up some new habits, taking up cigar smoking and allegedly indulging in morphine and marijuana. At a few points during this rambling period, her husband tracked her down and attempted to repair their relationship, only for it to implode when he once again became abusive.

Restless and depressed, Hart told Cosmopolitan in an 1899 interview, “I was tired of life. I wanted to die, and tried to kill myself three or four times.”

Hart eventually found herself at a mining camp in Arizona, where she worked as a cook and, allegedly, a sex worker. And it was there that she struck up a fateful acquaintance with a miner named Joe Boot.

Pearl Hart’s Life Of Crime Begins

By the spring of 1899, Pearl Hart later claimed, one of the major mines shut down, leaving her with little work. Funds were already low when a letter arrived from home telling Hart that her mother was gravely ill. Distraught that she had no money to send back home, let alone to make the journey to see her mother one last time, Hart became desperate.

“That letter drove me crazy,” Hart said. “No matter what I had been, my mother had been my dearest truest friend, and I longed to see her again before she died. I had no money. I could get no money. From what I know now, I believe I became temporarily insane.”

But Joe Boot, who had become Hart’s lover, came up with a plan: The pair would scam men out of their money.

According to legend, Hart used her looks to lure men back to her room. There, Joe Boot would knock them out and steal their cash.

Pearl Hart In A Dress

Public domainPearl Hart’s harmless appearance, juxtaposed with her criminal history, fascinated the public.

When this scheme didn’t turn up enough money, Boot devised a better plan. He wanted to rob the stagecoach that ran between Florence and Globe, Arizona.

Hart initially resisted. She was petite, around 100 pounds. How could she rob a stagecoach?

“A bold front is all that is necessary to rob any stage,” Boot promised.

“If you will promise me that no one will be hurt, I will go with you,” Hart agreed.

Pulling Off A Robbery

On May 30, 1899, Pearl Hart dressed herself in men’s clothing and rode out into the Arizona desert with Joe Boot, arriving at Globe road.

According to Hart’s account, when the stagecoach pulled around a bend, Joe Boot hollered, “Throw up your hands.” Hart held her shotgun on the passengers as Boot forced them out of the coach.

“I learned how easily a job of this kind can be done,” Hart later said.

Hart rifled through the passengers’ pockets and pulled out around $450. She and Boot agreed not to rob the driver, however. “We gave each of the others a charitable contribution of a dollar apiece and ordered them to move on,” Hart said.

Then, Hart and Boot fled into the desert. But the sheriff and his bandit hunters were hot on their tail.

Stagecoach Robbery

Public domainDuring the robbery, Pearl Hart held a weapon on the passengers while Joe Boot ordered them out of the stagecoach.

When the posse surrounded the duo just a couple of days later, Boot came quietly. But Pearl Hart reportedly fought back.

“She would likely have done some shooting if she had warning and chance, but she couldn’t,” reported the San Francisco Call, “and they just overpowered her while she fought like a tigress as an up-to-date woman bandit might be expected to do.”

The Lady Bandit On Trial

The “Bandit Queen” became America’s most infamous stagecoach robber practically overnight.

Soon after her arrest, Pearl Hart allegedly used her feminine wiles to charm several men into helping her break out of jail. When she was recaptured, she swiftly became a media sensation because of her gender, good looks, and petite frame.

“The woman is receiving much attention, an afternoon rarely going by without her having lots of callers and herself being photographed,” reported the Silver Belt at the time, according to Legends of America. “The camera fiends have taken shots of her with all sorts of firearms and looking as much the desperado as they can make her.”

Hart appeared not to mind the attention, and even played into the public’s fascination with her. She kept a pet wildcat in her courthouse cell and posed for photographs dressed in men’s clothing and brandishing guns.

The intrigue surrounding her case only escalated when she stepped into a Florence courtroom in November 1899. On the first day of her trial, TIME reports, Hart declared, “I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making.”

Pearl Hart In Prison

Wikimedia CommonsPhotographs of Pearl Hart as a prisoner circulated in newspapers across the country.

Hart admitted to being guilty of the robbery, but won over the jury by explaining that she needed money to help her ailing mother and had only held up the stagecoach in an act of desperation. In the end, the all-male jury acquitted Hart.

This decision enraged Judge Fletcher Doan, who, according to the Toronto Star, declared that Hart had “flirted with the jury, bending them to her will.”

Hart was called back to court, this time for tampering with U.S. mail and carrying an illegal firearm. A second jury found her guilty, sending her to Yuma Territorial Prison for five years. Joe Boot, meanwhile, received 30 years.

Pearl Hart’s Complicated Legacy

During her time at Yuma Territorial Prison, Pearl Hart met with reporters and planned for life after prison. Hart’s sister had written about the outlaw’s adventures in a play called The Arizona Female Bandit, and Hart was allegedly booked to play herself in the starring role.

After 18 months in prison, Hart was granted an early parole. But outside of a jail cell, the Bandit Queen’s fame quickly faded, and she disappeared from the public eye.

In 1904, the Inter Ocean reported that she was running a cigar store in Kansas City. Other reports claimed she traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, but these claims have never been substantiated. Others alleged she returned to Arizona and married a rancher.

Girl Bandit

Public domainNewspapers dubbed Pearl Hart the “Girl Bandit.”

However, one report suggests that the story historians have been telling about Pearl Hart for years may not be entirely accurate.

According to John Boessenecker’s Wildcat: The Untold Story of Pearl Hart, The Wild West’s Most Notorious Woman Bandit, the real “Pearl” was not born to an affluent family after all. Rather, she was born Lillie Naomi Davy to a poor family in Ontario. As reported in the New York Post, Boessenecker claimed Lillie turned to sex work at a young age to make ends meet, and that as a young woman, she began committing crimes while dressed in men’s clothes, both to disguise herself and to avoid attention from men.

While Hart likely embellished her story when giving interviews, Boessenecker reported that the media at the time likely tweaked the narrative further, painting over some of the grittier details to present her in a more romantic light.

But whatever the truth behind Pearl Hart’s origins and her life after prison, she certainly made her mark on history as one of its most legendary Wild West outlaws.

Pearl Hart wasn’t the only “lady bandit” in the Wild West. Next, learn about Belle Starr, the other Bandit Queen. Then, meet Laura Bullion, the “Thorny Rose” who joined Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch.

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Genevieve Carlton
Genevieve Carlton earned a Ph.D in history from Northwestern University with a focus on early modern Europe and the history of science and medicine before becoming a history professor at the University of Louisville. In addition to scholarly publications with top presses, she has written for Atlas Obscura and Ranker.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Carlton, Genevieve. "The Story Of Pearl Hart, The Gunslinging Bandit Queen Of The Old West.", May 1, 2024, Accessed May 23, 2024.