PEARL HART: THE BANDIT QUEEN OF YUMA TERRITORIAL PRISON

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PEARL HART: THE BANDIT QUEEN OF YUMA TERRITORIAL PRISON
A ‘Love Your Parks Tour’ Law & Order Story by Lisa D. Smith and Nancy J. Reid, assigned by San Diego employment attorney Ward Heinrichs.

Famed in movies, television, and literature, the Yuma Territorial Prison housed many of Arizona’s most dangerous and notorious criminals. Convicted of crimes ranging from polygamy to murder, 3,069 desperados, including 29 women, were imprisoned in its rock and adobe cells from 1876 to 1909.

Pearl Hart, one of the penitentiary’s prominent inhabitants, has always fascinated us. Not only was she the only genuine female pistol-wielding stagecoach robber in the wild west, but she was also known for her manipulative tactics – especially with men.   

After her marriage to Bret Hart failed in 1893, Pearl headed west, supporting herself as a cook and maid at various mining camps. She met Joe Boot after a brief reunion with her husband turned violent. According to Pearl, she began receiving requests for money from her ill mother, who was raising her son at the time. Pearl and Joe sent all the money they had, and when the final request came for more, they decided to rob a stagecoach.

On May 29, 1899, armed to the teeth and looking desperate, Pearl and Joe stepped into the road and stopped the Globe to Florence coach. They made just under $500 and started making their way to the train depot in Benson. Within two days they were captured. Pearl managed to escape from jail but was recaptured. In November the two defendants appeared in court where Boot pled guilty and received thirty years, but managed to escape on February 6, 1901. Pearl was acquitted, which outraged the judge, so she was arrested and charged with stealing the driver’s pistol.

Pearl was convicted and sentenced to serve five years but she was pardoned in December 1902, with the stipulation she leaves the Territory until her sentence expired. After a failed stint of trying to be an actress, she later returned to Arizona, married Calvin Bywater, settling near Globe. Pearl died in Arizona on December 30, 1955, at the age of eighty-four.

Today you can take a self-guided tour of the Yuma Territorial Prison where Pearl Hart was a prisoner. They have a display on her that includes photographs, some of her writings and her six-shot revolver.

Although its first seven inmates built their own cells, the prison was actually pretty advanced for its time, and the prisoners had good care. Still, with the heat, insects, and reptiles of the desert – and ‘The Dark Cell’ – one can only imagine how difficult life was for the inmates. The views from the prison look out over the beautiful Colorado River and the Yuma East Wetlands, where you can see the granite outcroppings that form the historic Yuma Crossing, the St. Thomas Mission, and the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Bridge. Along with the cell block, other highlights include the Prison Timeline, iconic Guard Tower, adobe Sally Port, and Museum. You can also follow the walking trail to the Prison Cemetery and down to the East Wetlands.

Some of the movies filmed at the prison include ‘To Kill a Memory’ (2012), ‘3:10 to Yuma’ (2007), ‘Riot’ (1969), ‘The Badlanders’ (1958), ‘Red River Valley’ (1936), and ‘The Three Musketeers’ (1933).

Located in Yuma, Arizona, the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park is part of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. For more information, visit www.YumaPrison.org

Note: R. Michael Wilson, an old west crime history expert and author, has discussed Pearl Hart on past Big Blend Radio history shows and written about her in his books. Some of his past Big Blend writings on her are featured in this story.

 

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