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Super Secret Powers
Sometimes our secrets reveal more about the people around us
“The best augury of a man’s success in his profession is that he thinks it the finest in the world.” — George Eliot, 1876
Charley Parkhurst died on December 18, 1879 in California at the age of 67 after a lifetime of being a farmer, a lumber worker, and a stagecoach driver.
A challenging and hardscrabble life, for sure — but not uncommon in the days when the western frontier of America was expanding.
But with Charley’s death came a surprise that made that lifestyle seem all the more remarkable, given the realities of the day.
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Born in Vermont in 1812, Charley was orphaned at a very young age and raised in an orphanage. As with any establishment of the time, it was a depressing scene, with the children doing chores from dawn until dusk, overseen by stern and unfeeling adults, and nourished by grim gray food.
By the age of 12, Charley had had enough and ran away, ending up in Rhode Island and meeting Ebenezer Balch, who owned a livery stable. Balch took a liking to the youth, giving Charley an education in livery life and teaching Charley to handle four and then six horses at a time.
With this kind of apprenticeship, Charley became a stagecoach driver. And a well-regarded one too.
Go West, Young Man
Since the Gold Rush was big news in 1849, Charley decided to head to California, where stagecoach drivers were badly needed. This was before the Transcontinental Railway was completed, so stagecoaches were the sole form of transportation of people, packages, and mail.
On the way from Boston to San Francisco, the boat Charley was traveling on made a stop in Panama, leading to an incident that would leave a scar for life. This was in the days before the Panama Canal; passengers had to cross the 50-mile-wide isthmus by land.
During that crossing, Charley received a kick to the head from a horse, losing the use of one eye and leading to the lifelong nickname “One-Eyed Charley.”
Even with the use of only one eye, Charley was a formidable driver. The New York Times said Charley was “the most dexterous and celebrated of the famous California drivers, ranking with Foss, Hank Monk, and George Gordon,”driving routes included Stockton to Mariposa, San Jose to Oakland, and San Juan to Santa Cruz, where the terrain was rough and the danger of holdups by bandits was real.
“It was a dangerous era in a dangerous country, where dangerous conditions were the norm.” — Charles Outland, 1974
After about 15 years of this grueling work, Charley had enough and decided to settle down to a life of farming in the summer and lumber work in the winter in Watsonville, California.
The Secret of Charley’s Success
But a lifetime of chewing tobacco and smoking cigars took a toll: Charley developed cancer of the tongue, and on the verge of death, beckoned a friend to the side of the bed, seeming to want to tell him something urgently.
But whatever that urgent secret was, Charley’ words were either unintelligible or unspeakable. It would go to the grave with Charley in that small cabin six miles from Watsonville on that cold December night.
It was only shortly thereafter that Charley’s secret was revealed.
When neighbors came to prepare the body for burial, they discovered what Charley had spent a lifetime running from and covering up.
Charley was a woman.
The body was undeniably female in presentation; the examining doctor confirmed it, noting that at some point in life, Charley had given birth.
Charley Parkhurst was born Charlotte Parkhurst, but after fleeing from the orphanage at 12, decided to present as a man. And at some point — there’s no indication as to when — became pregnant and gave birth.
It’s never been an easy road for women, and Charley’s time was no different. They’ve had fewer choices and fewer opportunities than men, and have had to work harder for their achievements.
Women in Charley’s time were considered property rather than individuals with their own rights. They didn’t yet have the right to vote, but Charley is recorded as having voted on November 3, 1868 in Santa Cruz.
In fact, Charley wasn’t alone in her extreme efforts: because women couldn’t hold jobs, they regularly presented as men in the wild west.
We don’t know the details of Charley’s deeply human story — it could be one of abuse, of sexual identity, or simply of yearning for equality — but we can see echoes of it in any number of struggles that people endure today.
The takeaway is this: everyone you meet has a backstory and may be struggling with something. You don’t know what it is and you may never know, even after a lifetime of being around them.
Be patient and kind. Be compassionate. Don’t judge. Offer to help. Extend a hand in friendship.
You never know what a Charley or a Charlotte is going through.
Or what they might be capable of, if just given a chance.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
P.S. Today is International Women’s Day (didn’t want to announce that up top, as it would have been a spoiler). If you’re a member of our Ampersand Guild (paid subscribers), you will get an additional post later this week with resources, links, and stories about women and their important role in our world, both past and present.
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“Overlooked No More: Charley Parkhurst, Gold Rush Legend With a Hidden Identity,” The New York Times