Somedays, Shirley Pinkerton is Larcena Pennington, the wife of a wealthy farmer in 1881. On other days she is Annie Neil, an Afro-Native American woman who fought her way up to becoming a business owner. Or somedays she dresses like as a miner as Pearl Hart, a stagecoach bandit in 1899.
For 12 years Pinkerton has reenacted women who have made an impact in Arizona’s history.
Pinkerton joined The Arizona Historical Society, an organization that keeps Arizona’s history alive through museums, reenactments and other educational performances.
She got involved in “walking tours,” which allow people to tour historic Tucson while being guided by someone dressed as a character. People are able to ask the actors questions about ‘their’ lives. Pinkerton was drawn to these walking tours, because she loves history and theatre.
“I was really nervous the first time,” said Pinkerton. She led tours while dressed as several historic women in Arizona and spoke in first person, as if she was that character. She believes it is important to maintain these women’s reputation throughout history.
Pinkerton learned about these women at The Arizona Historical Society and through hundreds of hours of research. “I wanted to become these women,” she said.
Some of the women who Pinkerton impersonates are Larcena Pennington, Annie Neil, and Pearl Hart, “I pick characters I really connect with” she said.
“The person who I connect most with is Larcena Pennington,” said Pinkerton.
Larcena Pennington (Jan. 10, 1837 – March 31, 1913):
After contracting malaria or “mountain fever” in 1860, Pennington and her husband rode up into the Santa Rita Mountains so that she could get better air, which was said to help the illness.
Once her husband left her alone, and she was captured by Apache in Globe. A search party found her crawling unclothed and wounded. The story made headlines and people became more cautious while traveling through the mountains.
Pennington had malaria for the majority of life and lived to be 76 years old.
“I can relate mostly to Larcena” she said, “I think that she did not get enough credit for being such a survivor.”
Pennington made it her mission to allow women to enter the Arizona Historic Society and eventually became its president. The society was originally exclusive to men.
“Women were only allowed to serve men cookies and tea,” said Pinkerton. “They then slowly allowed the women to actually participate in the organization.”
There are two cross streets named after Pennington, Pennington Street and Scott Street, which intersect in downtown Tucson. Pennington is Larcena’s maiden name and Scott is her second husband’s last name.
Annie Neil (1870 – 1950):
The second woman Pinkerton reenacts is Annie Neil. Neil was the head of a well-known hotel called the Mountain View Hotel.
“It was very luxurious hotel and she hosted famous people like the Japanese Ambassador and Buffalo Bill,” said Pinkerton. “She even had to set up tents in the bank because it was so popular.”
It was very rare for women to run their own business, and it was rarer for women of a minority to do so. As the daughter of a black and Native American mother who worked as a slave and a white father, Neil was able to communicate with two communities.
At times, people were discriminatory, but she found a good education at an all girls Catholic School in Tucson. She became an extremely popular socialite around town.
Pinkerton carry on her story today in hope that women like Neil are not forgotten.
“Many of these women carved pathways for other women,” she said.
Pearl Hart (1871 – Dec 30, 1955):
As the first woman-bandit in the Southwest, Hart became the first woman to put into Yuma prison. However, during her trial she argued with the judge saying that it was unfair to be tried by an all-male jury.
“She told the jury that she would not be tried by these people, because they were not her peers,” said Pinkerton. “They were all men!”
The judge let her walk. The next time she was caught, she was put in Tucson Jail, making her the only woman in the prison. She told the warden that she was pregnant. She was pardoned by the governor under the condition that she not return to Arizona ever again.
She used to dress in men’s close in order to disguise herself when stealing from stagecoaches. So, when Pinkerton reenacts Hart, she dresses in men’s clothes and puts on an act of a tough woman.
She says she loves reenacting Hart, because she is so ruthless and allows Pinkerton to actually feel as though she is Hart. “She was very bold for her time,” said Pinkerton.
Hart had a long record of stealing from stagecoaches, being an extremely good shooter and escaping from jail. And then robbing another stagecoach.
According to Pinkerton, being a criminal is not something to strive for, but Hart is the first recorded woman-bandit, making her extremely unique.
“I absolutely love reenacting, because I start to feel as though I become these women,” said Pinkerton.
Emily Zinn is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org