|Yuma Territorial Prison operated between 1875 and 1909, holding over 3000 men and 29 women behind bars. One of the most notorious women prisoners was Pearl Hart, who served time for committing a stage coach robbery. Although she was called the Lady Bandit, Hart's various occupations prior to her imprisonment were not so ladylike, including mining and prostitution. In 1899, when she and her boyfriend, Joe Boots, robbed a stage near Florence, she was reportedly trying to get money to send to her sick mother. Following the robbery, Pearl and Joe hid in the desert until they were apprehended by the Pinal County Sheriff. Authorities held Pearl in Tucson because there were no facilities for female prisoners in Florence. Pearl escaped from the Tucson jail but was caught again in Deming, New Mexico. She was later tried and sent to the Yuma Territorial Prison for five years. Pearl Hart's sentence began in 1899, but she was paroled for good behavior in 1902. Following her release, there are many tales about her later life, but none have been authenticated.
Yuma Territorial Prison, where Pearl and other female prisoners served time, is located in one of the hottest towns of Arizona where summer heat can climb to 120 degrees. Prisoners endured the heat and built the structure's adobe and stone walls themselves. Although the physical surroundings were rough, prisoners enjoyed a library, workshop, school and hospital.
The prison closed in 1909 to be replaced by a new facility in Florence. Later, Clarissa Winsor worked to preserve the Territorial Prison and became the first curator of the Yuma Territorial Prison Museum. Winsor had moved to Yuma in 1903 and had been active in women's clubs, including the Yuma Business and Professional Women's Club and Yuma Woman's Club. Greatly interested in history, she collected thousands of artifacts relating to Yuma's and Arizona's past and displayed them in the old prison. She also donated her personal collection of American Indian baskets and pottery to help create the museum's exhibits. Eventually the museum held over 10,000 items in its collections. In 1961, Clarissa Winsor was selected as Yuma County's "Man of the Year" by popular vote. That same year, the museum became part of the Arizona State Parks system and eventually became one of the state's top attractions.
Visit the Yuma Territorial Museum at 1 Prison Hill Road in Yuma.
Pearl Hart, standing behind seated woman - Courtesy of Arizona Historical Society, Tucson
Yuma Territorial Prison - Courtesy of Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, Archives Division