Lindsay native turned stagecoach robber, Pearl Hart (1871-1935), was also a poet.
On April 19, 1871, Lillie Naomi Davey was born in Lindsay, Ontario to parents, Albert Davey and Anna Duval. (Anna was also born in Lindsay in 1846.) She had eight siblings. Her father was a drunken lout who sexually assaulted a young girl. He was many times sentenced to jail in Lindsay for drunk and disorderly conduct, but after attempting to rape the young girl at knife point and being sentenced to a year in prison along with twelve strokes of the cat-o-nine-tails, he moved the family to Belleville, then to Orillia. It’s speculated that he sexually abused his eldest daughters, including Lillie and her sister Katy.
In her teen years, she called herself Lillie de la Valle, meaning Lillie of the Valley, and would eventually become Pearl Hart. Her upbringing was traumatic and violent. The family lived in poverty and frequently moved.
When she was 13, she and her younger sister, Katy, 11, cut their hair, dressed in their brother’s clothes, and stowed away aboard a lake steamer. They ended up in Buffalo, New York, where they found jobs in a local factory. It was two months before their mother found them.
After the family moved to Rochester, the Notorious Davey girls, Lillie and Katy, continued their charade as boys and thieved their way across the American mid-west, making headlines and telling their stories to reporters. They were arrested many times, and eventually Lillie was placed at Mercer Reformatory in Toronto.
After completing her term at Mercer, she rejoined Katy in Buffalo. By this time Katy had been working for a brothel and adopted the name, Minnie Hart. The brothel’s owner was named Pearl Hart, her common-law husband was Joe Hart. After she’d earned enough for Joe to open a saloon, Pearl closed her brothel. And Katy, as Minnie Hart, opened one of her own. She was only sixteen. Her sister joined her and they both worked as prostitutes.
Lillie hooked up with a young man and went west; the relationship didn’t last. While in Phoenix, Arizona, she worked as a prostitute using the name Pearl Hart. She scandalously wore men’s clothing, chain-smoked cigarettes, which she laced with opium, and became addicted to morphine. Her addicted, abusive husband found her Phoenix, she took him back, and through their tumultuous relationship, they conceived two children, a boy and a girl, which she sent to be raised by her family. When he resumed his abusive ways, she left him again. In 1898, opium use was legal, but prostitution was not, and Arizona began to crack down on its brothels, prompting Pearl to look for new work.
In 1899, she headed for a small mining settlement, set up her own tents for prostitution and learned how to shoot guns, but felt she could make more money in a larger town, so she relocated to Globe. Her abusive husband found her again, and took all her money before she kicked him out. Then Pearl received word that her mother was sick and wanted to see her before she died. Pearl said the news made her temporarily insane. She had no money to make the trip.
At that time, stagecoach robbery was becoming fashionable for criminals near Globe. So, to get enough money for a trip home, Pearl and her companion, Joe Boot, conceived the idea to rob a stagecoach.
On May 2, 1899, Pearl, dressed in a man’s clothing, and Joe robbed their first stagecoach. They made out with more than $300 and a pair of pistols, but gave back a silver dollar to each of the passengers. No one was hurt, but as soon as the coach arrived in Globe, the manhunt began.
They were captured on June 2. The woman stagecoach robber made national headlines. Reporters came from all over, and Pearl happily told her story to all of them, and even posed for photos. The sheriff let her wear men’s clothing and pose with unloaded guns.
Pearl was locked up in Tucson, where she struggled with her morphine addiction and was allowed visitors, which were frequent and included the pair of journalists who interviewed her for Cosmopolitan.
On October 11 and with the help of another prisoner, Pearl escaped, making headlines again, and this time her recently adopted feminist views were included in the stories; feminism was fast becoming fashionable at the time. Pearl’s significance as an icon was debated in the papers across the nation.
Nine days later, the pair were captured in New Mexico. Pearl and Joe faced trial in November, and were found guilty. He was sentenced to thirty years, while she was sentenced to five at Yuma prison.
While at Yuma, Pearl fought off her morphine addiction. She discovered she wouldn’t be able to escape this prison, but found a well-stocked library, and took up both reading and sewing.
This was also where she wrote poetry.
On June 2, 1900, the Arizona Star printed a news brief about Pearl kicking the morphine habit and taking up poetry writing, “unwinding it by the yard.” The brief said she wrote about being a girl bandit and her childhood. Two of her poems were mentioned: “The Girl Bandit” and “When She Was Young and Knew No Sin Before the Tempter Entered In.” The brief said that after the title, what followed was “a lot of doggerel of the rapid decent.”
Sounds like they weren’t fans of her poetry.
The following poem was the only one that survived. It was printed in the 31 July 1903 edition of Yuma’s Sun.
(to the tune of "The Fatal Wedding," a popular song at that time) The sun was shining brightly on a pleasant afternoon. My partner speaking lightly, said, "The stage will be here soon." We saw it coming round the bend and called to them to halt. Then to their pockets we did attend, if they got hurt, 'twas their own fault. While the birds were sweetly singing, while the men stood up in line, And the silver softly ringing as it touched this palm of mine. There we took away their money, but left them enough to eat. And the men they looked so funny as they vaulted in their seat. Then up the road we galloped quickly, then through the canyon we did pass. Over the mountains we went swiftly, trying tin find our horses grass. Past the station we boldly went, then along the river side. And our horses now being spent, of course we had to hide. Now for five long nights we travel, in the day time we would rest. Now we would throw ourselves on the gravel, and to sleep we try our best. Around us now our horses stamping, looking for some hay or grain. On the road the posse tramping, looking for us all in vain. One more day they would not get us, but my horse got sour and thin, And my partner was a mean cuss, so Bill Truman roped us in. Thirty years my partner got, and I was given five. He seems contented with his lot, and I am still alive.
The last line is a reference to Pearl’s decision to kill herself before going to jail, something she vowed at the times of her two captures.
Joe Boot managed to escape the Yuma prison in 1901, and when Pearl was interviewed, she told reporters that she planned to write “a poem extolling the virtues of Boot and his gallant escape.”
Due to a smallpox outbreak, Pearl was granted early parole and released from the prison in December 1902. She headed straight to Kansas City to live with her mother and sister Katy, and where she opened a cigar shop.
John Boessenecker’s book, Wildcat, is the most truthful and comprehensive account of Pearl Hart’s life. The level of research is remarkable. He has fact-checked Pearl’s outlandish tales told to reporters, and still presents Pearl honestly, as both victim and criminal. Over 300 pages long, the book leaves nothing out. Boessenecker also includes the fascinating stories and fates of Pearl’s family members and the lawmen that captured her, and of course, the story of her wild and traumatic childhood in Ontario and here, in Kawartha Lakes.
Boessenecker, John. Wildcat: the untold story of the Canadian woman who became the West’s most notorious bandit. Hanover Square Press. 2021.
post updated: April 25, 2023.