The growl came from beneath your ribs.
The pantry’s empty and so’s your belly, now what do you do? In the absence of family, welfare, and church, how do you plan to stay alive? In the Old West, and in “Wildcat” by John Boessenecker, the answer wasn’t a happy one.
By all accounts, Albert Davy was “a monster.” A rather violent man, he never met a bottle or a brawl he didn’t like and so it’s somewhat surprising that he married a respectable young French-Canadian woman who lived nearby. He and Anna Duval started a family almost immediately, as folks did in the latter 1800s. Their third child was a girl born in April 1871, and they named her Lillie Naomi.
Growing up, Lillie and her siblings were close because they had to be: there was never any food in the house and the Davy children took to thieving to survive. It didn’t help that Albert moved his family constantly from shack to shanty; eventually, some of the Davys had made their way across the border to New York.
By that time, Lillie and her sisters were sleeping with men in exchange for sustenance, wearing boys’ clothing so they weren’t harassed, lying about their ages, and repeatedly running away from home to escape their violent father. As young teens, Lillie and the younger Katy rode the rails to Ohio to Chicago to Minnesota; Lillie also served a stint at a reform institution.
Once released, she moved to Buffalo, New York where, calling herself Pearl Hart, she operated her own brothel for a time, and hooked up with petty criminals and outlaws one after the next. In 1893, at the age of twenty-two years, Pearl went to Colorado and Arizona, the latter in which she eventually birthed two children that she probably sent to her sister to raise.
No doubt, that was hard but Pearl had done some hard things before and had committed many wrongs. And on May 30, 1899, this alcoholic, addicted, thieving prostitute and gunslinger made true-crime history with yet another very bad decision...
When it comes to westerns, “Wildcat” is extremely good, but it’s also not what you might think.
Rather than some ordinary gun-slingin’, rootin’-tooter, this story of Pearl Hart is much wider: author John Boessenecker likewise includes lengthy passages about Pearl’s sister, Katy, and her escapades, as well as tales of the mostly-lawless Davy siblings and others. These yarns are interesting, though they often supersede Pearl’s story.
More than anything, however, readers will notice tale after tale about what it was like for desperate young ladies without familial support, at a time when women were basically second-class citizens. Inside those eye-opening parts, there’s heroism and feminism, and though Boessenecker avoids any whiff of sentimentalism in his storytelling, those hard-luck tales still suck every shred of romance out of any Old West works.
“Wildcat” is a true story, recommended for western fans and for anyone who reads women’s history. It’s a yeee-haw with a sad streak, and missing it’ll make you growl.