Western Trips

Friday, May 27, 2011

Yuma Prison And The Female Stagecoach Robber / Arizona

I know that a prison may not be on the top of your list as a vacation stop, but the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historical Park is quite a unique site. First of all, the Yuma Prison was the Arizona Territory's first prison. Secondly, when it opened in 1876, its first seven inmates had the opportunity to build their own cells. I believe that may be a first.

The prison was located in what was the most remote outpost in the extreme southwestern part of the territory, along the Colorado River and right along the Mexican border.

The southwestern territory certainly had it's share of criminals and law enforcement was spotty at best due to the vastness of the region and the distance between settlements.

The Story of Pearl Hart

There is a very interesting story to tell regarding one of the prison's inmates but before that I wish to say that a stop at the prison site which is now a state historical park is an entertaining time. You'll also learn a lot about the early settlements in the old Arizona Territory. The park which also includes a museum is close to Interstate-10 in far southwest Arizona making it easy to get to.

For sure, Yuma Territorial Prison housed convicted murderers. Records indicate however the vast majority of inmates at the Yuma Prison were sent there for crimes of fraud, theft, etc. In that early era, capital punishment was administered in local towns as opposed to a territorial prison.

The picture at left was a woman by the name of Pearl Hart. Pearl was born to a middle class family in Ontario Province, Canada of French descent. She received a strong education but as fate would have it she fell in love with a man by the name of Fred Hart. Fred unfortunately was a gambler and not a good one. He held odd jobs, sometimes as a bartender, and seemed to lose to gambling what money he earned. Eventually, Pearl got tired of it and left him. In the meantime Pearl became fascinated with the west and in particular with such colorful figures as Annie Oakley.

After leaving Fred, Pearl traveled west to Colorado where she took a job as a saloon singer. While there she found out she was pregnant with Fred's child and returned to Canada. After giving birth she left the child with her mother and headed back out west this time to Arizona. The story moves fast. Fred found her in Arizona and talked her in to reunite. While with Fred a second time Pearl gave birth to a second child. Again, Fred proved to be an awful provider and decided to run off and join Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. Pearl then went back to Canada and left the second child with her mother and returned once again to Arizona.

This time, Pearl took up a variety of odd jobs, mostly in the mining camps. There she met a miner named Joe Boot who claimed to be a miner by trade. Again, Pearl's choice of men proved not to be her strong suit.

To explain a bit about Joe's personality, he had been working on plans for some time to rob a train. When Pearl received a letter from home that her mother was ill and needed money for medical care, Joe's first suggestion was that they get the money the fast way. His idea was that Pearl would lure men into their hotel room where Joe would knock them over the head and take their money. Not too creative of a plan.

When this method proved too slow, Joe decided that robbing a stagecoach was the answer. For the big heist, the lady bandit Pearl cut her hair short and dressed in Fred's clothing. On May 30, 1899, the couple jumped in front of the stage traveling between Florence and Globe, Arizona. With guns drawn they stopped the stage and robbed it's occupants of several hundred dollars. As it turned out a few days later, Pearl and Joe were surrounded by sheriff deputies and were captured at their camp. A newspaper account of the capture described Joe as being very frightened whereas Pearl went for her guns and gave the deputies a tough time.

The prisoners were taken to the Globe Arizona jail where Pearl became quite a sensation with the locals. She reportedly signed autographs for the townspeople and took on the title of the "Bandit Queen". This was also a name at one time used to describe Belle Starr. Not long after being jailed, the Bandit Queen Pearl escaped but was subsequently recaptured. After faking a suicide attempt in her jail cell, Pearl was eventually put on trial in Florence. Joe Boot was tried separately and convicted of highway robbery and sentenced to 30 years in the Yuma Prison.

The local sentiment sided with Pearl who not only claimed that she never had trouble with the law before but also made the women's right movement an issue by stating "I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making".  The jury was out for about 15 minutes and came back with an acquittal. Judge Fletcher Doan (later to become a state Supreme Court Justice) was furious at the verdict and accused Pearl of flirting with the jury. The judge quickly formed a new jury and had Pearl tried for stealing a six-gun from the stagecoach driver. This she was convicted of and given a 5 year sentence to the Yuma Prison. Pearl ended up serving only 2 years of the 5 year sentence. The picture at left is of Pearl Hart as a prisoner at the Yuma Territorial Prison.

Pearl After Prison

There are several stories of what happened to Pearl after her release from the Yuma Prison. The prevailing one is that she moved to Kansas City and operated a cigar store. There was also rumors that she ran into trouble with the law there involving theft. One version has her passing away in 1925 and another not until 1956. Another rumor was that she married a successful Arizona rancher and lived out her days there.

There were several reasons why her crime turned into a legend. One was the uniqueness of a female stagecoach robber. Another was her reported resistance while being arrested and her escape from the Globe jail. Another is the combination of the first two coupled with the fact that she was born into a respectable middle class family from Canada. Pearl's penchant for publicity by giving out autographs was probably another reason.

Visit the Historic Old Yuma Territorial Prison

The old Yuma Territorial Prison is now a state historical park. The visitor can examine what the old cells look like and can explore the museum and gift shop which displays many interesting artifacts of the period. There is also the original water tower, guard tower, entrance gate and library room among other things. It's proximity to Interstate-10 makes it an easy stop for travelers driving between California and Arizona. You'll also have a chance to take some unique pictures. Another interesting story is that of Sam Bass the Texas train and stage robber.

The sites below will give you information to plan your visit as well as additional information about it's history and the adventures of it's first female inmate Pearl Hart.