Under the Sun

The New Book Wildcat Tells How Outlaw Pearl Hart Roughed Up the Old West

The New Book Wildcat Tells How Outlaw Pearl Hart Roughed Up the Old West
Sarah Boessenecker/Hanover Square Press
When it comes to the Old West, writer and Wild West expert John Boessenecker thinks most published accounts are at least misleading. He blames it on the lazy research practices of the 21st century.

“I kind of cringe when someone tells me they’re writing a book about the Old West,” he said last week during a phone call from his home near San Francisco. “Because a lot of time their research involves googling Wikipedia entries. In the old days, you went to state library archives and sat at a microfilm machine until you were nauseous. Your eyes got blurry and the librarians kicked you out at five. The way I see it, if you haven’t had a run-in with a rat in the basement of a courtroom records archive in west Texas, you aren’t doing research.”

Boessenecker spent two full years researching his latest, Wildcat, big hunks of which are set in Arizona. The just-published biography retells the life of infamous Wild West outlaw Pearl Hart, unraveling the mythology of this gun-toting, pants-wearing, slutty, and foul-mouthed woman who worked as a prostitute and held up a stagecoach in the late 19th century.

“So much of what we thought we knew about her came from oral histories and from made-up stories about Pearl’s life in the wilderness,” said Boessenecker, who first read about Hart in high school in the late 1960s. “Then in 2012, I wrote a biography of Bob Paul, one of the great lawmen of the Old West and the sheriff of Pima County. In researching that book, I discovered that Pearl Hart had been locked up in the Pima County jail and that Bob Paul was trying to get her off morphine. I was as hornswoggled as anyone by Pearl’s story and by the ones made up by 1890s yellow journalists. Which was pretty much all journalists back then.”

Intrigued, Boessenecker dug deeper into Hart’s life before and after her infamous stagecoach stick-up. He discovered a 19th-century feminist who didn’t care much for “a woman’s place” in proper society.

“She rejected all expectations of women, at a time when there was no context for doing so. Women were expected to marry and have babies and do chores — not run a brothel or rob a stagecoach. But if you’d called her a feminist to her face, Pearl would have had no idea what you were talking about.”

Boessenecker isn’t certain where Pearl got her gumption.

“Clearly she was desperate to escape an abusive father and a life of poverty,” he said. “She was bright and attractive but there was a lack of opportunities. When you combine that with her incredible courage, where she runs away from home and dresses like a boy, escapes from the institution in Chicago, you have to think there’s something in her character that’s more than just an abused, defenseless young woman. She stood up for herself and engaged in misadventures that would have done in a lesser woman. Or a lesser man.”

Boessenecker estimates he’s been collecting information on famous and obscure lawmen since he was 13 or 14.

“You acquire a lot of useless information about gunfights and lynchings,” he said, “but you also get a broad view of what lawlessness looked like back then. Arizona was wild and untamed, but so were a lot of other places, as it turns out.”

He doesn't think people are intrigued by the Wild West because of Hollywood movie westerns.

“People were obsessed with the Old West in the 1860s. Americans like a story about bettering themselves, and that’s what the Settlement Period was about. It held out promise for the future, that any working man could succeed, have a new life, get 180 acres and a mule. The story of that pioneering spirit is still imbued in the American character.

There are all kinds of misconceptions about the old days, Boessenecker says. “There’s this kooky idea that the Old West wasn’t violent. I and others have debunked that with research that shows how the homicide rates were astronomical. In the 1860s in Arizona, your odds of getting killed were greater than those of infantrymen in Vietnam.”

Boessenecker has a theory about why, in the bigger history picture, Pearl Hart is largely forgotten.

“She started out loving the spotlight that came with being a lady outlaw. But after she got out of Yuma prison, she became more reclusive and began to hide herself and her story. She got her family to help her with that.”

It didn’t help that when he wrote Duel in the Sun, author Niven Busch changed Pearl’s last name to Chavez, the same name used in the popular movie based on Pearl’s lawless life.

“If they’d used her real name and been more true to Pearl’s story,” Boessenecker said, “she’d be better known today.”

Instead, when it came to women of the Old West, one heard stories about Annie Oakley and Belle Starr.

“And neither of those women ever robbed anyone in their lives,” Boessenecker sighed.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela