Outlaw Women of the Wild West By: Kat Ainsworth

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We’ve all heard of Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, and Billy the Kid, but there’s more to the Old West than the better-known outlaw men. And on the women’s side, there’s more to female gunslingers and shooters than Annie Oakley, fantastic as she was. In fact, there are a lot of outlaw women who more than did their part in making the Wild West, well—wilder.

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In a time when it was every woman for herself and the law was rather fluid, it comes as no surprise that a number of women chose to make their own way in the world. Check out the outlaw women of the Wild West that you should definitely learn more about.

Belle Starr, The Bandit Queen

Bella Starr, outlaw women
Bella Starr was a somewhat more traditional gunslinging outlaw. (Photo credit: Southwestern Times Record)

Belle Starr was born as Myra Maybelle Shirley and spent her life hanging around other outlaws, such as Jesse James. The early years of her life were somewhat tumultuous, but it was after she married Sam Starr that her criminal career really got going. She and her husband made a habit of hosting/harboring known outlaws in their home in Oklahoma. It wasn’t long before she got picked up as a horse thief. (An interesting side note here is that her arrest involved the famous U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, although he isn’t the one who arrested her.) It’s worth mentioning Belle didn’t marry Sam Starr until 1880, making her outlaw life a rather short one since she died in 1889.

Some historical accounts say Belle carried a pair of revolvers and regularly wore a man’s feathered hat, but there are some conflicting details. What is known is that after she served nine months for the aforementioned horse theft, she was never convicted again (but she was arrested a few times). Theories abound regarding whether Belle was a true outlaw herself or simply someone who hung out with and married a lot of outlaws. According to Beth Templeton, who owns a business called Belle Starr Antiques, Belle “definitely has the reputation of being the bandit queen-slash-pants-wearing-woman.”

Belle Starr was murdered in 1889 by an unknown person who shot her in the back while she was riding her horse. When that shot failed to end her life, the person walked up and shot her again. Her murder remains unsolved to this day.

Belle Siddons, Confederate Spy

Belle Siddons, outlaw women
Belle Siddons was a rather infamous spy. (Photo credit: Find a Grave)

Another Belle, but one with far different activities in her life, was Belle Siddons. She’s often noted by historians as a Southern beauty and debutante who learned to use her looks to gain important information. Yes, she was a spy during the Civil War era. Belle Siddons was also known as Lurline Monteverde, Montel Holman, and Madame Vestal. She was raised in Missouri in a family of Southern sympathizers, so when she went to work as a spy, it was for the Confederacy.

Belle Siddons spent time with Union soldiers for the purpose of getting whatever information possible out of them. She was arrested for this in 1862 when she was found with Union Army transport stops and travel information, and she didn’t bother denying it. In the end, she spent only four months in jail before being released on the condition that she’d work as a nurse for the rest of the Civil War.

After the war, Belle became a lobbyist in Capital City. It was then that she met a surgeon by the name of Newt Hallet. Unfortunately, Hallet ended up dying of a serious illness two years after they got married, but before his death, Belle worked as his nurse helping him with patients. During her marriage, Belle lived in Texas, but after Hallet died she moved to South Dakota. She took jobs in gambling halls as she traveled and apparently had quite the reputation for never losing. Belle eventually ended up in Deadwood where she met Archie Cummings. To help Cummings and his gang rob stagecoaches, Belle would get travel information out of the stagecoach drivers. Eventually, bounty hunters located and killed Cummings along with members of his gang.

With Archie’s death came heavy opium and alcohol use by Belle. She did end up getting married one more time, but the marriage fell apart due to her drug use. Belle Siddons died of unverified causes, most likely a drug overdose. Her story is a lot more colorful than we can fit here.

Pearl Hart, The Feminist Bandit

Pearl Hart, outlaw women
Many historians describe Pearl Hart as a feminist bandit. (Photo credit: The Cocktail Calendar)

Pearl Hart was an outlaw known as one of the rare female stagecoach robbers of the Wild West. In fact, she was involved in one of the last reported stagecoach robberies on record. Although her earlier years of life did involve some brushes with the law, her biggest challenge seems to have been a marriage to an abusive man. After numerous ups and downs, her husband eventually decided to try to join Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Apparently, he thought the way to do it was to knock Pearl unconscious and leave her. That was in 1898. Though Pearl returned home to her mother briefly, by 1899 she was once again out on her own in the Wild West.

It was when Pearl got a letter from her brother saying their mother needed money for medical problems that she decided to get heavily involved in a life of crime. With the assistance of Joe Boot, a man she was involved with, Pearl set about getting money the criminal way. First, Boot suggested she sweet-talk men into going to her room, where they’d be robbed. Of course, that wasn’t really enough money, so the couple shifted their attention to robbing stagecoaches. After robbing a stagecoach in Arizona, Pearl and Boot got lost in the desert, which lead to their capture. That’s when Pearl gained notoriety as the Lady Bandit. She even managed to escape from jail once, although she was quickly caught and returned.

Why was she sometimes called the Feminist Bandit? For many reasons, including the fact that the day of her trial for the aforementioned stagecoach robbery, she told the court “I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making.” At the end of that trial, Pearl was acquitted, but the judge was so outraged he got a new jury and had her tried for unlawful possession of a firearm. That worked, and she spent 18 months of a five-year sentence in jail before being paroled.

As with many infamous outlaws, what really happened to Pearl, in the long run, isn’t known. There’s about a 25-year gap in reports of her death, not to mention the variations in how she died. We’ll probably never know.

Sarah Jane Newman, aka Sally Scull

Sally Scull
Sarah Jane Newman, aka Sally Scull, was an outlaw known for a very specific reason. (Photo credit: Legends of America)

Sally Scull, who started life as Sarah Jane Newman, is known for a lot of things including having five husbands, some of whom died rather unexpectedly. Yes, the deaths were suspicious, and rumors were that Sally herself had a hand in doing away with the men. Of course, that was before the days of forensics, so nothing was ever proved.

According to historians, Sally had an extremely strong, dominant personality. Accounts in Texas were that she could ride, rope, and shoot better than most men. In Texas Ranger Colonel John S. “Rip” Ford’s memoirs, Sally is mentioned:

The last incident attracting the writer’s attention occurred while he was at Kinney’s Tank, wending his way homewards from Corpus Christi Fair, 1852. He heard the report of a pistol, raised his eyes, saw a man falling to the ground and a woman not far from him in the act of lowering a six-shooter. She was a noted character named Sally Scull. She was famed as a rough fighter, and prudent men did not willingly provoke her into a row. It was understood that she was justifiable in what she did on this occasion, having acted in self defense.

Sure enough, Sally had a reputation as a merciless killer. By all accounts, she was an accurate shot right- or left-handed and was rather easily riled into action. During the Civil War, Sally built an even bigger reputation by dressing as a man and commanding teamsters to move cotton for understandable profit. Those wagon trains of cotton she lead were used to get guns, ammo, coffee, and other items for the Confederacy. Sally played an integral role in helping the Confederacy and there are endless stories of her tough demeanor and stubborn nature.

Outside Refugio, Texas, a marker placed in Sally’s honor reads:

Woman rancher, horse trader, champion “Cusser.” Ranched NW of here. In Civil War Texas, Sally Scull (or Skull) freight wagons took cotton to Mexico to swap for guns, ammunition, medicines, coffee, shoes, clothing and other goods vital to the Confederacy. Dressed in trousers, Mrs. Scull bossed armed employees. Was sure shot with the rifle, carried on her saddle or the two pistols strapped to her waist. Of good family, she had children cared for in New Orleans school. Often visited them. Loved dancing. Yet during the war, did extremely hazardous “man’s work.”

Sally Scull is yet another outlaw whose demise is unverified. Some accounts say she was murdered by a younger man who went by the moniker Horse Trough. Others say she disappeared purposefully to avoid prosecution.

Mary Katherine Haroney, aka Big Nose Kate

Big Nose Kate
Mary Katherine Haroney, aka Big Nose Kate, is perhaps best known for her relationship with Doc Holliday. (Photo credit: All That’s Interesting)

Odds are good you’ve heard of Big Nose Kate, who was known for her long-term relationship with none other than Doc Holliday. Although she was born Mary Katherine Haroney, Big Nose Kate was known by many other names including Kate Fisher, Nosey Kate, Mrs. John H. “Doc” Holliday, Kate Melvin, and Kate Cummings. She was born in 1850 and died in 1940, making her one of the longest-living women outlaws. Granted, she wasn’t exactly an outlaw like some, but she was known for being rough and tumble and being involved in fights and hijinks with Doc Holliday.

In addition, Kate was a prostitute, and history shows she ran a successful bordello in Tombstone. She also saved Holliday from a mob on at least one occasion and is said to have helped support him in the final months of his life. Kate was a witness to the gunfight “Tombstone” is famous for. Before she passed, Kate was quoted as saying about life, “Part is funny and part is sad, but such is life any way you take it.”

Who are your favorite Wild West outlaw women? Tell us in the comments section.

Pearl Hart
It wasn’t only men who were outlaws in the Wild West, there were women, too. Pictured here: Pearl Hart. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)