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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Charley's Secret

So many legends surround the nineteenth century stage driver Charley Parkhurst that it’s difficult now to separate fact from fiction. In that era stagecoach drivers—called “whips” after the long-lashed tools of their profession—were the kings of the road, glamorous figures revered for their exceptional skills and their nerves of steel. Many of them, now forgotten, became legends in their own lifetimes. Charley’s legend still endures because Charley lived a secret life.

Some say that during the California Gold Rush Parkhurst came west from Rhode Island, where he was already known as an extraordinary driver, at the behest of California staging mogul James Birch, himself a former stage driver in Rhode Island. Whatever the case, Charles D. Parkhurst was about forty when he arrived in California in the early 1850s. His skin was sunbaked and weather-beaten from many years of driving stage, but otherwise his looks were at odds with the image of a dazzling Knight of the Road. Stout and compact of body, Charley was about five-foot-seven-inches tall, with wide hips, small hands, and a face some described as inherently ugly.

Over the next twenty-something years Parkhurst drove many stage routes, including Sacramento to Placerville, Stockton to Mariposa, Oakland to San Jose, and San Juan Bautista to Santa Cruz. He experienced a number of near-death incidents, always saving his coach and passengers by communicating—through the reins—with each individual horse, enabling him to extract maximum performance from a six-horse team when disaster threatened. When arthritis of the hands and spine forced him to retire, Charley settled down on a ranch property near Watsonville, where he died in late December 1879.

A furor erupted when Charley’s friends, preparing his body for burial, discovered that he was a biological woman.

Newspapers across the nation picked up the sensational story. How could this be? After all: everyone knew that women lacked the skill, the strength, the stamina, and the courage to command a stagecoach—yet for decades, Parkhurst’s consummate skill at doing so had never been in question. The inescapable fact was . . . Charley Parkhurst had perpetuated a marvelous masquerade by looking and acting the part while concealing her breasts with box-pleated, blousy shirts, and covering her small hands with fancy embroidered gloves. Though always cordial and helpful to passengers, Charley gambled, swilled whiskey, and smoked cigars like many other men, and her homely, unfeminine face was a disguising plus-factor. If anyone harbored doubts about her gender, they weren’t voiced during her lifetime.

Upon her death, though, rumors immediately began circulating, over time developing and enlarging into sometimes bizarre accounts purported to be “the truth” about a socially reticent individual who nevertheless was a courageous, esteemed reinsman for forty or more years. For obvious reasons, in life Charley Parkhurst had never divulged much about herself or her past.

One indisputable fact stands out: this woman had not only taken a man’s name, but had lived her adult life as a man so that she could do what she loved, which was to drive a stagecoach—one of the most dangerous, physically punishing occupations of her time.

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