THIRTY YEARS IN DISGUISE: A NOTED CALIFORNIAN STAGE- DRIVER DISCOVERED, AFTER DEATH, TO BE A WOMAN by Karen Kondazian
After what seemed like the 87th draft of my book, I discovered in an archival copy of The New York Times, an obituary dated January 9, 1880, of the main character in my novel. The Times stated that the deceased had led such a mysterious and inconceivable life, that to a novelist, her life would be a great source of inspiration. The beautiful irony is that I had done just that… 132 years after the obituary was published, I had written my novel, The Whip, a book inspired by the true story of the enigmatic Charlotte ‘Charley’ Parkhurst, (1812-1879) who lived 30 years of her life disguised as a man. She 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. As she was being prepared for her burial, her true gender was discovered, along with the fact that she had borne a child.
When I first came across Charley’s story twenty years ago, my interest turned from curiosity into an obsession. I kept asking myself questions such as: how the hell did she relieve herself alongside all those men she worked with… how did she deal with her monthly period. How did she get away with her secret for so long; how did she live 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. So, many of the free spirited ones put on men’s britches instead of living the life of a wife or whore.
In my research, I found many women who lived their lives in male guise. Women like Loreta Velazquez, who served as Confederate Lieutenant Harry Buford and fought in the Civil War. And many more women that we will never know of because they lived and died and were not famous… thus their names are lost.
So, to appease my curiosity, and possibly my sanity, I took pen to yellow legal pad and started to write. Sticking to the facts that I knew about Charley, I created a life for her. Part of her life that I chose was having a family. Eventually that family is destroyed. So, like the lost ones of 9/11 and the innocent souls destroyed in the Armenian, Jewish, and modern day genocides, I think often of how hard forgiveness is. That is the theme, the underground stream that runs through The Whip. If someone destroyed everything and everyone you love in this world and swallowed you whole, could you forgive them? And if forgiving were impossible, to what lengths might you go?
The Whip is Karen Kondazian’s debut novel. It was released November 1, 2011. (www.thewhipnovel.com)
She is an award winning theatre actress and has starred in over fifty television shows and films, including the role of Kate Holliday in the TV movie, The Shootout at the OK Corral. She is a journalist and wrote a long running column, Sculpting Your Career in Backstage.