— ONE-EYED, PISTOL PACKIN’ STAGECOACH WHIP —
The lone masked gunman emerged from hiding, fired into the air, and forced the stagecoach to a stop. He leveled his six-gun at the driver. “Throw down the strongbox,” he ordered.
Caught off-guard by the assault, the driver hesitated for a few seconds before lifting the heavy treasure box out of the front boot and letting it fall to the ground.
The driver, who wore a patch over one eye and clenched a half-smoked cigar between thin lips, made a silent vow that something like this would never happen again.
It did happen again.
But, this time, stagecoach whip Charley Parkhurst reached for a .44 caliber pistol and shot the outlaw dead.
Parkhurst forged a reputation as one of the best stagecoach whips of the Old West but carried one big secret, revealed only at death. He was a she.
Born in 1812, Parkhurst—also known as One-Eye Charley, Six-Horse Charley, and Mountain Charley—grew up in Lebanon, New Jersey, as Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst.
Her parents placed her in an orphanage and then abandoned her. Charlotte didn’t wait around feeling sorry for herself. She dressed up as a boy and ran away.
Charlotte didn’t wait around feeling sorry for herself. She dressed up as a boy and ran away.
Parkhurst discovered it was easier to find work as a young man, so she decided to continue wearing the disguise.
In Worcester, Massachusetts, Charley went to work as a livery stablehand devoting as much time as possible in learning about horses.
She also studied the mannerisms and techniques of stagecoach drivers—they were called whips—so she could figure out how best to maneuver the big coaches and teams of four- to six horses.
Parkhurst learned well and eventually developed a reputation as one of the most accomplished drivers on the Eastern seaboard.
All the while, though, she remained fearful that her disguise would someday fail her.
At age 40, she decided to move West, arrived in San Francisco in 1851, and landed a job with Wells Fargo.
Company records described Parkhurst as about five-feet, six, “slim and wiry with alert gray eyes… (and) an oddly sharp, high-pitched voice.”
The patch on her eye apparently came about because of an encounter with a horse. It’s also believed she wore buckskin gloves to hide her small hands.
Maneuvering the coach along rugged and unpredictable terrain proved a significant challenge for both horse and driver and, at times, a dangerous one. According to one story, Charley and her team veered off the road so suddenly, she was thrown from the coach but managed to hang on to the reins.
She was dragged along the road and brush until she was able to turn the runaway horses into a stand of bushes so she could gain better control.
The passengers, still aboard but shaken, took up a collection and handed her twenty dollars.
In addition to dealing with runaway teams, bandits, storms, and rickety bridges, Charley found herself contending with flirtatious women who assumed she was a man.
According to one account, Charley Parkhurst may have been the first women to vote in California. A document is said to be on file in Soquel, California, shows Parkhurst registered to vote but doesn’t indicate whether she did or not.
If she had voted, Charley Parkhurst would have made even more history because women would not win suffrage in the U.S. until 1920—with the exception Wyoming who granted women the right to vote in 1869.
In 1870, she retired but apparently died nine years later from cancer.
The secret of Charley Parkhurst’s gender came to light only after her body underwent an examination.