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Gold Rush stagecoach driver
One-Eyed Charley had a secret

Only after the body was handed over to the undertaker did the truth come out: The roughest, toughest, most skillful “whip” on the West Coast was not what he appeared to be.

An advertising flier for the Overland Mail Company, dating from around 1870 or so. (Image: Univ. of Central Missouri)
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in November 2008, which you’ll find here.

In the frontier years before the arrival of railroads to the West Coast, the tough characters who drove the stagecoaches were among the most admired citizens.

And among those stagecoach drivers there was one whose macho exploits had already passed into legend by the time he retired from the job: “One-Eyed Charley” Parkhurst.

Parkhurst was a natural with horses, able to get them to do nearly anything. His stagecoach driving was so precise that he was able to hit a silver half-dollar placed in the street as a target with both wheels on either side of his rig. (Remember, there was no steering wheel on a stagecoach; one could only “steer” it by controlling the horses.) With a whip, he could slice open an envelope from 15 feet away, or whip a cigar out of a man’s mouth at a similar distance without touching him.

He was pretty good with a pistol, too. A good driver had to be. Robbing stagecoaches was almost an industry back then, before more secure methods were developed for hauling large sums of money around. The stage would carry an “express box,” a large locked wooden crate, into which would be loaded the gold, securities, and other valuable things. Few things were easier for an enterprising desperado than to position himself on the uphill slope of a steep hill and step out in front of the stagecoach as it came, Winchester cocked and at ready, and order the driver to “throw down the box.”

Few drivers ever objected. Perched up high on the bench, they made fabulous targets, and the robbers always had the drop on them. It’s never smart to draw on a drawn gun. And so down would go the box, and the driver would be on his way; a glance behind would usually show the bandit chopping away at the express box with an ax.

The robbers avoided One-Eyed Charley’s runs, though, because they knew he wouldn’t play along. He’d proved it one day when, in response to the familiar old “Throw down the box,” he “turned his wild mustangs and wicked revolver loose,” according to a New York Times obituary article, bringing the express box through unharmed. The bandit, a fellow known as “Sugarfoot,” staggered to a nearby cabin, where he told the whole story before dying of his wounds.

There were lots of other drivers who didn’t risk their lives by shooting back, so after the Sugarfoot incident the bandits concentrated on them and left Charley alone.

For the 15 years or so that he drove gold-country stagecoaches, Charley mostly worked California lines. But his duties frequently took him north into Oregon as well.

A cartoon in Puck Magazine uses a stagecoach robbery scenario as an analogy for private courier services’ resistance to the U.S. Post Office getting into the parcel-post business. (Image: Library of Congress)

By the late 1860s Charley, now well into his 50s, was feeling the effects of a long career of bouncing on a hard wooden bench. Arthritis had developed and was making it hard to work. In addition, with the coming of the railroads, it was clear that stagecoach driving was on its way out. So he quit, bought some land in northern California, and started farming. During the winter he augmented his income by working on lumberjack crews in the woods, where he was a tiger in spite of his age, commanding wages as high as anyone’s.

But by the late 1870s, the end was near for the aging Charley. A cancerous tumor on his tongue had developed, probably in response to a lifetime of chewing tobacco; and his arthritis, now in all his limbs, kept him in constant pain. The formerly genial and popular old “whip” grew taciturn. Finally, in 1879, he died.

And then …

“When the hands of the kind friends who had ministered to his dying wants came to lay out the dead body of the adventurous Argonaut, a discovery was made that was literally astounding,” writes the reporter for the California Call, in the obituary article about Charley. “Charley Parkhurst was a woman, a perfectly formed, fully developed woman. … The discoveries of the successful concealment for protracted periods of the female sex under the disguise of the masculine are not infrequent, but the case of Charley Parkhurst may fairly claim to rank as by all odds the most astonishing of all of them. That a young woman should assume man’s attire and, friendless and alone, defy the dangers of the voyage of 1849, to the then-almost-mythical California — dangers over which hardy pioneers still grow boastful — has in it sufficient of the wonderful. That she should achieve distinction in an occupation above all professions calling for the best physical qualities of nerve, courage, coolness, and endurance — qualities arrogantly claimed as being almost exclusively masculine — and that she should add to them the almost romantic personal bravery that enables one to fight one’s way through the ambush of an enemy, seems almost fabulous, and that for 30 years she should be in constant and intimate association with men and women, and that her true sex should never have been even suspected, and that she should finally go knowingly down to her death, without disclosing by word or deed who she was.”

“Charley,” as now was clear to everyone, was short for “Charlotte,” not “Charles.” She had, it turned out, run away from an orphanage in New Hampshire at the age of 12, dressing as a boy to avoid detection. After that, she found her way to Massachusetts, where she started working for a man named Ebenezer Balch, who took her on as an apprentice of sorts, teaching her horsemanship.

By now Charlotte knew the score. As a little orphaned girl, with no family and no dowry, she had zero prospects in early-1800s society. But as a little orphaned boy, she could travel and work and make her way in the world.

So Charley spent the next 20 years or so working with horses on the East Coast. For a few years she was in Georgia, and there’s some evidence that she tried to settle down and start a family at that time; some sources say physicians examining her after her death determined that she had given birth at some point (although frankly, given the state of the medical profession back then, there’s ample reason to be skeptical about any 1879 doctor’s claims about anything, medical or otherwise).

If she did start a family, though, it clearly ended in early tragedy, because she was back in New England in 1849 when news of the California Gold Rush broke. There, she met Jim Burch and Frank Stevens, and the three of them decided to go to California and get into the stagecoach business.

 

The admiring tone of the California Call article wasn’t universally adopted by the other newspapers covering the sudden posthumous revelation of Charley’s womanhood. Other writers were more defensive. There were rumors that Charley was a hermaphrodite — born with both male and female body parts, but really a man. Others simply refused to believe it.

This response, while somewhat ungallant, was kind of understandable. After all, what Charley had done was nothing less than to infiltrate the most macho, swaggeringly male-dominated profession of her day — and demonstrate that a woman could do it better.

(Sources: New York Times (reprint from California Call), 1-09-1880; Hill, Fern. “Charley Parkhurst Facts and Legends,” fernjhill.com; Thrapp, Dan. Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography. Lincoln, Neb.: Univ. of Neb. Press, 1991)