Mail thieves didn’t stand a chance against “Stagecoach Mary,” who sported men’s clothing along with an attitude and two guns. Mary Fields was the first Black woman star-route mail carrier and the second woman to carry mail in U.S. history.
Born into slavery in Tennessee and freed after the Civil War, Mary Fields worked as a chambermaid on a Mississippi River steamboat and then in Judge Edmund Dunne’s household. After Dunne’s wife died, he sent Fields and his five children to live with his sister, Mother Mary Amadeus, who was Mother Superior of an Ursuline convent in Ohio. In 1884, Mother Amadeus was transferred to St. Peter’s Mission, near Stevensville, Montana Territory, to establish a school for Native American girls. There, she contracted pneumonia. Mary Fields nursed the nun back to health.
Mary Fields stayed at St. Peter’s doing “man’s work,” eventually becoming forewoman of the mission. However, her hearty temperament, drinking, and habitual profanity didn’t sit well with the nuns. In 1894, following complaints and a gunplay incident, the bishop barred Mary Fields from the convent.
She moved to Cascade, Montana, where she opened a short-lived tavern. Then, in 1895, Mary Fields won the bid on a U.S. Post Office Star Route Carrier contract to deliver mail along a 200-mile route. From 1895 to 1903, Mary Fields thwarted bandits and delivered mail along her route, toting several firearms, including a .38 Smith & Wesson, under her apron. Her stagecoach was pulled by horses and a mule named Moses. She never missed a day. If the snow was too deep for her horses, Fields delivered mail on snowshoes.
For more about Mary Fields, visit: https://www.nps.gov/people/mary-fields.htm
One especially badassed female gunslinger was Pearl Hart. Born Pearl Taylor in 1871 into an affluent, religious Canadian family, Pearl was enrolled in boarding school at 16 where she fell for a young man named Hart, described as a “rake, drunkard, and gambler.” The lovebirds eloped, but Pearl Hart soon discovered her new husband was abusive and returned to her mother. Although the couple reconciled several times and had two children—who Pearl Hart sent to her mother in Ohio—the marriage didn’t last.
However, while attending the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 with her husband, Pearl Hart developed a fascination with cowboys and Annie Oakley in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. She again left her husband and ended up in Arizona, where she worked as a boardinghouse cook and singer, possibly supplementing her income with a tent brothel near a mine. She also supposedly developed a fondness for cigars, liquor, and morphine. When the mine petered out, her income dropped.
To raise money, in May 1899 Pearl Hart and Joe Boot decided to rob the Globe-to-Florence stagecoach, one of the last stages operating in Arizona. Pearl Hart cut her hair, donned men’s clothing, and, armed with a .38 revolver (Boot had a Colt .45), stopped the stage at Cane Springs Canyon. Joe Boot and Pearl Hart collected $431 and several guns. (Pearl Hart returned $1 to each passenger.) While the bandits galloped off, a stage driver unhitched a horse and rode back to town to get Pinal County Sheriff Truman.
A posse caught the bandits, both asleep, on June 5. Joe Boot surrendered quietly, but Pearl Hart struggled. Following their arrest, Joe Boot was held in Florence while Pearl Hart was moved to Tucson. A female robber sparked a media frenzy, and reporters clamored for Pearl Hart’s story. Locals also became fascinated, one man giving her a bobcat cub for a pet.
At their October robbery trial, Pearl Hart claimed she needed money to go to her ailing mother. A jury found the pair not guilty. However, Joe Boot and Pearl Hart were immediately re-arrested on mail tampering charges and convicted in a second trial. Joe Boot got 30 years and Pearl Hart five, both in Yuma Territorial Prison. Two years into his sentence, Joe Boot escaped, never to be captured. The attention Pearl Hart had received in Tucson continued in prison at Yuma. The warden provided her with an oversized cell with a small yard so she could entertain reporters and pose for photos. In 1902, Pearl received a pardon from Arizona territory Governor Alexander Brodie on the condition she leave Arizona.
For more information about Pearl Hart, visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pearl_Hart
Another of the famous female outlaws was Belle Starr, “a most desperate woman” according to an 1889 newspaper. This crack shot rode her horse sidesaddle while dressed in a black velvet riding habit and a plumed hat. She carried two Colt .45 pistols, one she called “my baby,” with cartridge belts across her hips.
Born Myra Maybelle Shirley in 1848 to the “black sheep” of a well-to-do Virginia family and kin to the Hatfields of feuding fame, Belle Starr received a classical education and graduated from Missouri’s Carthage Female Academy, a private school her father helped found. Her brother “Bud” Shirley, six years older, was active with the Missouri guerillas who fought Yankee troops that had been sent to compel Missouri to join the Civil War against the Confederacy. Belle Starr is rumored to have been a Rebel spy. Bud was killed by federal troops in 1864.
At age 16, with the family business ruined by war, the Shirleys set out for Scyene, Texas, a small town southeast of Dallas. There, Belle Starr married James Reed. Reed farmed, but soon turned to crime. He was wanted in Arkansas for a murder and got involved with several criminal gangs, including the Starr clan, a Cherokee family notorious for whiskey, cattle, and horse thievery, as well as his wife’s friends Jesse James and the Youngers.
In April 1874, despite a lack of evidence, a warrant was issued for Belle Starr for a stagecoach robbery committed by her husband. Reed was killed in August in Paris, Texas, where he had settled the family.
In 1880, Belle Starr married Sam Starr, a Cherokee, and settled with the Starr family in what is now Oklahoma. There she learned to organize, plan, and fence stolen livestock for the horse thieves and bootleggers associated with the family. Her ill-gotten gains led her to bribe lawmen to free her accomplices when arrested. Yet in 1883, the famous Black sheriff Bass Reeves arrested Sam and Belle Starr for horse stealing and tried them before “The Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Belle Starr served nine months in jail in Detroit, Michigan.
In 1886, Belle Starr eluded another theft charge, but Sam Starr fell in a gunfight with the law. After his death, Belle Starr was linked to Jack Spaniard, Jim French, and Blue Duck. To keep her home on Native American land, she married Jim July Starr, 15 years her junior.
Ruthless to her enemies, Belle Starr had a great capacity to make friends, even mingling with Dallas’s elite during her brief periods of respectable living.
Belle Starr was shot and killed by an unknown assailant two days before her 41st birthday while riding home from a neighbor’s house. She lived on when her story, considerably embellished, was published in the National Police Gazette. Later, she became a popular character in television and films.
For more information on Belle Starr, visit https://www.humanitiestexas.org/programs/tx-originals/list/belle-starr.