Gold Rush woman lived her life disguised as a man

March 19, 2014 

I read a fast-paced and intriguing book called “The Whip” by Karen Kondazian. It’s a story about a woman who disguised herself as a man and successfully drove stagecoaches for Wells Fargo during the Gold Rush.

It’s a great story, and what really makes it good is the fact that it’s based on the life of a real person, Charley (Mary) Parkhurst, whose secret was only discovered after she died in 1879.

Newspaper articles published at the time suggested her life story would make an interesting novel. I agree.

The book begins with a scene in which Charley is driving a stagecoach and the passenger sitting next to her is a reporter who marvels at Charley’s skill and learns a few months later the truth of her identity as a woman. Indeed: A child’s dress and tiny shoes were found in her belongings.

The beginning chapter made me sad but eager to learn more about her and why she chose the life she did.

Charley was born in Vermont in 1812 and was raised in an orphanage. She learned to tend horses, a skill that served her well.

Although historical data doesn’t tell us why she took on a male identity, Kondazian makes an assumption that Charley didn’t make her decision lightly. The author believes her choice came after she experienced a great loss and figures she decided that living as a man would give her protection from future harm, afford her a kind of freedom and possibly give her a chance to seek revenge.

I could see the emotional logic in those possible motivations.

When I was a young girl, I was a tomboy who loved to climb trees and play sports with the neighborhood boys. We fashioned skateboards by putting wood planks on roller skates and racing down the steep sidewalk. My knees were always scraped up.

In grade school, I bemoaned the fact that girls were not allowed to play soccer, the excuse being that the playfield was cement and we might get hurt.

In junior high school, I found it humiliating that girls basketball rules only allowed us to dribble the ball three times.

Once, as a 20-something, I went to a Halloween party dressed as a man. I wore a masculine jacket with my hair tucked under a hat. It was fun to pretend — not that I fooled anyone.

So there’s a part of me that can relate to the desire to take on a male identity.

In Parkhurst’s day, women’s roles were even more circumscribed, so those strictures were bound to have figured into her decision.

Charley made her way from the East Coast to Santa Cruz, Calif., where she worked on Wells Fargo routes. Throughout the years, she became known as one of the most talented stagecoach drivers of her day. She dressed like a man, chewed tobacco, cursed with the best of them and drank in saloons. She shot and killed a stagecoach robber named Sugarfoot.

Much to my surprise, I learned there were other women who lived disguised as men in those days.

If you’d like to get a bit of history about the era of stagecoaches and see an interview with Karen Kondazian, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlMr48tm0dU. She originally wrote the story as a screenplay in the 1990s, but, as yet, it hasn’t been produced as a film.

Perhaps it was ahead of its time, but maybe the public would be ready for it today. It would promise to be an action-packed and compelling movie.

A Time to Talk columnist Mary Magee can be reached by email at marymagee@harbornet.com.

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