originally published May 31, 2013
I love a good story from the Old West, I did even before last fall when I was required to love good stories from the Old West in order to pass a film class on the westerns genre. More than anything, I love finding quirky stories that have slipped through the cultural cracks.
One aspect of the frontier that received almost no attention in the myriad of films we screened is the presence of women on the shady side of the law. Sure, women in those movies were frequently prostitutes, but from what I can gather that hardly counted as criminal activity in those days. No, I’m talking about the women who stuck to the shadows and said hello with a smoking rod. The dames and skirts who weren’t gonna be the fall guy (or fall gal) for some lunk-headed goon looking to get out of a trip to Sing-Sing.
Sorry, I may have mixed up my westerns class with the film noir class I took last year. But my point remains valid – there were some bad-ass broads ripping up the old west. Women like Pearl Hart.
Born somewhere around 1871 in the town of Lindsay, Ontario, Pearl Taylor had every reason to stay legit. Her parents were rich, she had access to the finest schools, and she was Canadian. I’d like to say this means she was predisposed to being polite, but I know better – I drive the same streets as Canadian motorists every day, and believe me, that stereotype is crap when there’s traffic..
Pearl fell for a guy named Hart. His first name is lost to history, though sources say it may have been Brett, Frank or William. What is known about him is that he was a gambler, a drinker, and an all-around asshole. At 16, Pearl ran away to live with him, and she soon found herself back at home, disgusted by the fact that Whashisname Hart was also an abusive husband. Oh yes, they eloped.
Pearl had two children with Hart, both of whom were sent off to Ohio, where Pearl’s mother had moved. Pearl was purging herself of her youth at 22, sending away her spawn and hopping a train out west, looking for adventure.
To keep food in her stomach, Pearl worked as a cook, a singer, and apparently as a demimondaine, which from what I can tell is a cross between a socialite and a high-class prostitute. Once she arrived in Mammoth, Arizona, Pearl was working as a cook and/or madam, earning a modest living that became a whole lot more modest when the local mine shut down. Teaming up with her friend Joe Boot, they robbed the stagecoach that ran between Globe and Florence. This was 1899 – only two stagecoach robberies would ever occur after this one.
Pearl and Joe Boot got away with $431.20, after having returned $1 to each of the passengers as an act of… I don’t know, kindness? Anyhow, Pearl and Joe were caught and brought to trial. Pearl’s desperate plea that she was only trying to get enough money to go see her sickly mother in Ohio actually worked on the jury. She was acquitted, and the jury was subjected to a lengthy lecture by the judge about how they truly blew their assignment. Pearl and Joe were free.
Their freedom lasted long enough for a triumphant high-five (though I don’t think people did that back then) before they were re-arrested on charges of tampering with the US Mail. This seems like an odd second charge, given that they’d just been acquitted of actually robbing the stagecoach. But this one stuck – Joe Boot got thirty years and Pearl got five.
When Pearl had been first locked up, prior to the initial trial, they had stuck her in a room lined with plaster and lath. It was weak enough to break out of, which Pearl did, buying herself two weeks of freedom before she got caught again. This time she was off to Yuma Territorial Prison, where Pearl’s cell was an oversize, cushy, mountain-side affair with its own yard. She was entertaining a lot of reporters and admirers at the time, and she was savvy enough to use her charms on the warden and all-male prison staff.
In fact, she was pardoned in 1902, quite possibly because she was pregnant and nobody wanted the embarrassment that would bring on the prison. She never had another child though, so it could be she faked it. Pearl Hart was damn crafty. She also lived long enough to die of old age.
Belle Starr, whose time in the old west had expired back when Pearl Hart was still swooning over her drunken husband, grew up around outlaws near Carthage Missouri. She’d known Jesse James and his gang since she was a kid. Belle married Jim Reed in 1866, following him from Missouri to California then back to Texas as they fled from the arrest warrants that were hanging scythe-like over his head. Eventually it was a bullet, not the law, that caught up with Jim Reed.
Belle hitched herself to a Cherokee named Sam Starr. It was then that she became wise in the ways of cattle rustlin’, theivin’, fencin’, and hidin’ fellow outlaws when the folks with badges would come poking around. In 1883 Belle and Sam were charged with horse theft, a crime that could – if The Virginian starring Gary Cooper was at all accurate – lead to the death penalty. Belle only got nine months.
Three years later, Sam got into a gunfight with Officer Frank West. Both men were shot dead, and Belle’s heart was shattered.
In order to continue to live on Cherokee land, Belle was forced to marry Sam’s much younger relative Jim Starr. That relationship lasted until February 3, 1889, when Belle was murdered. She was riding home from a neighbor’s place when someone jumped out and ambushed her. After she fell off her horse, her assailant shot her once more, to make sure she was dead. Who could have done such a horrible thing? No one knows.
It might have been her son, whom Belle had beaten for not taking proper care of her horse. Her new husband – who may have been urged into a somewhat loveless marriage – was also a suspect. As was one of their sharecroppers, a guy named Edgar J. Watson. Watson was an escaped murderer from Florida, and he may have been worried that Belle was going to turn him in. He was tried for the crime, but he wasn’t found guilty.
So next time you flip past Turner Classic Movies and see John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart getting holstered up, teeth gleaming like shiny bullets, remember that there were actual women who lived the myth of the old west. Women who knew how to shoot, knew how to ride, and knew how to manipulate men whenever necessary. Women who had the privilege – as Belle Starr did – of being played by both Gene Tierney and Jane Russell in bio-pics.