When I first came across Charley's story 20 years ago, my interest turned from curiosity into an obsession. I kept asking myself questions about how she got away with her secret for so long; how she lived so many years alone and without human intimacy. But most of all, why did she choose to live her life as a man? Of course, if you were a woman in those times you had few options, and only men could try to live their dreams.
The enigmatic Charlotte 'Charley' Parkhurst, (1812-1879), lived 30 years of her life disguised as a man and became one of the great California stagecoach drivers or whips, as they were called. She killed a famous outlaw who robbed her stagecoach one too many times; and was the first woman to vote in the U.S. (1868 for General Grant), of course as a man. She died of cancer of the tongue from too many cigars and too much chewing tobacco, and not until she was being prepared for her burial, was her true gender was discovered, along with the fact that she had borne a child.
EXCERPT FROM The Whip
A stagecoach, heading from Santa Cruz to Sacramento, made its way along a rutted road, the horses kicking up clouds of brume-like dust. Uninhabited terrain stretched as far as the eye could see. Perched on the box next to the driver, her face, hat, and clothes covered by a layer of dirt and grit, sat Charley Parkhurst... four months and a few weeks later already a pretty damn good man.
She was surprised at how easy her physical transformation had been. As a man, she now spoke, whereas as a woman, she would have been silent; as a man, she would take what she desired, whereas as a woman, she would have acquiesced. She must now push forward into this new world she was discovering and this new person she was becoming... a world of freedom and reprisal -- an eye for an eye.
Charley pulled a can of snuff from her vest pocket and offered it to the driver.
"Thankee kindly," he said, plucking some from the can with his thumb and forefinger. He stuffed it under his lip. She made a mental note: thankee kindly.
The driver leaned over his side of the coach, hawked up liquid, pursed -- in an almost delicate way -- his lips, and then in a moment of fierce concentrated precision aimed at a branch on a passing bush and spat. That he missed that branch and hit another mattered to him not a whit. He settled back, a bemused smile dancing across his lips.
A moment later, Charley sloshed the tobacco around her mouth and spat out the brown juice, after which she, too, sat back. She did the smile as well, looking around in that same god-like benevolent way. She could get used to this: sitting up high, controlling the horses, spitting, man-smiling, everything.
As they neared their destination, she could see a scattering of cloud-like canvas and frame dwellings spreading out from the greenbelt that marked the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers. "That's it?" she said.
"Yep. That's Sacramento. Beating heart of the Mother lode."
"Don't look like much."
"Well," said the stagecoach driver, glancing over at Charley with a smile, "it ain't in some ways. In other ways you might say it is. Depends what you want it to be."
The coach and six-team trotted alongside the riverbank. In a short time the reaching arms of Sacramento surrounded them, and then, with an escalation of sights and sounds and voices, Sacramento itself--the clamoring, kaleidoscopic scene that had now become part of the fantasy of every man and boy in America. Charley leaned over the side of the coach, enthralled.
The stagecoach driver saw the direction of her gaze. "That's the Embarcadero," he said. "And that's the San Francisco steamer over there, carrying all the golwd hungry men bound for Sutter's Mill."
She was taken aback by the dozens of barks, brigs, and schooners moored along the docks. They created a forest of masts... their cables looped around tree trunks and roots. The street was choked with stagecoaches and wagons, disgorging passengers, the passengers running for the boats. Men of every shape, color, and constitution -- swearing, spitting, sweating, shoving.
Later, Charley would learn their names: Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, Australians, Basques, Croats. She noticed that there were no women of any shape or color.
The stagecoach driver was thinking the same thing. "Not a woman in sight," he said, sighing.
Charley forced a sigh, following suit.
The driver looked over at her. "Oh hell, don't worry. You can find tarts pretty easy though. If you got the cash."
"Thanks for the tip," she said.
Excerpted from The Whip by Karen Kondazian. Copyright © 2012 Karen Kondazian. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Hansen Publishing Group, LLC.