Olive Oatman, the Pioneer Girl Abducted by Native Americans Who Returned a Marked Woman

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library via Wikimedia // Public Domain

About a century and a half ago, some Native American tribes of the Southwest used facial tattoos as spiritual rites of passage. Through a series of strange tragedies (and some possible triumphs), a white Mormon teenager who was traveling with her family through the area in the mid-19th century ended up sporting one too, a symbol of a complicated dual life she could never quite shake.

In 1851, the Oatman family, having broken from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was traveling through southeastern California and western Arizona, looking for a place to settle. As newly inducted Brewsterites—followers of Mormon rebel James C. Brewster—they’d been advised that California was, in fact, the true “intended gathering place” for Mormons, rather than Utah.

The group of approximately 90 followers had left Independence, Missouri, in the summer of 1850, but when they arrived in the New Mexico Territory, the party split, with Brewster’s faction taking the route to Santa Fe and then south to Socorro, and Royce (sometimes spelled Roys) Oatman leading a group to Socorro and then over to Tucson. 

When the remaining dregs of the Oatman-led party approached Maricopa Wells, in modern-day Maricopa County, Arizona, they were warned not only that the southwestern trail ahead was barren and dangerous, but that the native tribes in the region were famously violent toward whites. To continue, it was made clear, was to risk one’s life.

The other families elected to stay in Maricopa Wells until they had recuperated enough to make the journey, but Royce Oatman chose to press on. And that’s how Royce, his wife Mary, and their seven children, aged 1 to 17, found themselves trekking through the most arid part of the Sonoran Desert on their own.

Sure enough, about 90 miles east of Yuma, on the banks of the Gila River, the family was waylaid by a group of Native Americans, likely Yavapais, who asked them for food and tobacco. The details of what happened next aren’t known, but the encounter somehow turned into an attack. Apparently, all of the Oatmans were murdered—all except Lorenzo, age 15, who was beaten unconscious and left for dead.

Or so it seemed. When Lorenzo came to, he found six bodies, not eight: Two of his sisters, 14-year-old Olive and 7-year-old Mary Ann, were nowhere to be seen. Badly injured, Lorenzo walked to a settlement and had his wounds treated, then rejoined the group of other Mormon emigrants, who returned with the teenager to the scene of the crime. Because the volcanic soil was rocky and difficult to dig, it was not possible to bury the Oatmans, so cairns were built around their bodies instead.

But where were Olive and Mary Ann?

The Yavapais had taken the sisters, very much alive, to their village about 60 miles away, along with selected prizes from the Oatmans’ wagon. Tied with ropes, the girls had been made to walk for several days through the desert, which triggered serious dehydration and weakened them in general. When they asked for water or rest, they were poked with lances and forced to keep walking. Once they reached the Yavapai village, the girls were treated as slaves, made to forage for food and firewood. The tribe’s children would burn them with smoldering sticks while they worked, and they were beaten often. The girls, Olive later said, were sure they’d be killed.

The girls lived as the Yavapais’ servants for approximately a year, until some members of the Mohave tribe, with whom the group traded, stopped by one day and expressed interest in the Oatmans. The Yavapais ended up swapping them for some horses, blankets, vegetables, and an assortment of trinkets. Once the deal was done, the sisters were again made to walk for several days through the desert, this time north to the Mohave village, near the not-yet-founded city of Needles, California, and unsure of their fates all the while.

Things improved significantly once the girls were on Mohave land: Mary Ann and Olive were taken in straight away by the family of a tribal leader, Espanesay, and adopted as members of the community. To prove it, both children had their chins and upper arms tattooed with blue cactus ink in thick lines, like everybody else in the tribe, to ensure that they’d be recognized as tribal members in the afterlife and—interestingly, in this case—reunited with their ancestors.

The scenery was upgraded, too; the Mohave village was located in an idyllic valley lined with cottonwoods and willows, set along the Colorado River. No longer slaves, they were not forced to work, and “did pretty much as they pleased,” according to an 1856 newspaper account. They were also given land and seeds to raise their own crops. The two sisters were also given their clan’s name, Oach, and they formed strong bonds with the wife and daughter of their adopted family, Aespaneo and Topeka, respectively. For the rest of her life, Olive spoke of the two women with great affection, saying that she and Mary Ann were raised by Espanesay and Aespaneo as their own daughters.

The girls seemingly considered themselves assimilated Mohaves, so much so that, in February of 1854, approximately 200 white railroad surveyors spent a week with the Mohaves as part of the Whipple Expedition, trading and socializing, and neither Olive nor Mary Ann revealed herself as an abductee or asked the men for help. (The girls, unaware that their brother Lorenzo survived the attack in 1851, may have believed they had no living relatives, which could have added another incentive for them to stick with the tribe.)

A few years after their initial capture, a drought in the Southwest caused a major crop shortage and Mary Ann subsequently starved to death, along with many others in the Mohave tribe. She was approximately 10 years old. Olive later said she only made it through the famine herself because she was specifically cared for by Aespaneo, her foster mother, who fed her in secret while the rest of the village went hungry.

In 1855, a member of the nearby Quechan tribe named Francisco showed up at the Mohave village with a message from the federal government of the United States. Authorities at Fort Yuma had heard rumors about a young white woman living with the Mohaves, and the post commander was asking them to either return her or explain why she would choose not to return. The Mohaves first responded by refusing to respond, then sequestering Olive for safekeeping. Next, they tried denying that she was even white. When this didn’t work, they began to weigh their affection for Olive against their fear of reprisal by the U.S. government, which had threatened (via Francisco) to destroy the tribe if Olive was not handed over.

Francisco, as the middleman, was concerned for his neighboring tribe’s safety—and possibly his own—and persisted in his attempts. The negotiations were lengthy and included Olive herself at some points. As she was quoted in one later account of her ordeal:

“I found that they had told Francisco that I was not an American, that I was from a race of people much like the Indians, living away from the setting sun. They had painted my face, and feet, and hands of a dun, dingy color, unlike that of any race I ever saw. This they told me they did to deceive Francisco; and that I must not talk to him in American [sic]. They told me to talk to him in another language, and to tell him that I was not an American. They then waited to hear the result, expecting to hear my gibberish nonsense, and to witness the convincing effect upon Francisco. But I spoke to him in broken English, and told him the truth, and also what they had enjoined me to do. He started from his seat in a perfect rage, vowing that he would be imposed upon no longer.” 

The jig was up. Some of the Mohaves were furious with Olive for disobeying orders and went as far as to suggest that she should be killed as punishment. But her foster family opposed the idea, and Francisco and the Mohaves eventually hammered out an offer: Olive would be ransomed back to the U.S. government in exchange for a horse and some blankets and beads. Olive’s adoptive sister, 17-year-old Topeka, would join her on the trek to ensure the goods were handed over.

When Olive left, Aespaneo wept as if she were losing her own child. The journey to Fort Yuma took 20 days, and the party arrived there on February 22, 1856. When she was approached by the fort’s commander, Olive cried into her hands. Before she was permitted to enter the fort, she was loaned a Western-style dress by an officer’s wife, as she and Topeka arrived wearing only traditional Mohave skirts, with their chests bare. She was also made to wash her painted face as well as her hair, which was dyed with the black sap of a mesquite tree. When asked her given name, she said it was “Olivino,” and told the commander that she was 11 when abducted by the Yavapai, not 14, among other incorrect details. Once she was cleaned up, Olive was received by a cheering crowd.

By the time Olive was sent to Fort Yuma, five years had passed since the murder of most of the Oatman family and the girls’ initial capture. She was soon informed that her brother, Lorenzo, had also survived the massacre; they met soon after, with newspapers across the western U.S. reporting the event as headline news.

Carte de Visite of Olive Oatman via Wikimedia // Public Domain

However, accounts of Olive’s time among the Native American tribes are problematic for several reasons. In 1857, a year after Olive’s return, a Methodist minister named Royal Stratton interviewed Olive at length and wrote a bestselling book, first titled Life Among the Indians and later rechristened Captivity of the Oatman Girls, chronicling the Oatman sisters’ half-decade with the natives. Olive later lectured widely about her experiences in support of the book, but not all of her details added up. In Stratton’s book, Olive stated that neither the Yavapais nor the Mojaves ever “offered the least unchaste abuse to me,” and she denied all allegations of rape or even sexual activity with any members of the tribe. However, her best childhood friend, Susan Thompson—whom Olive later befriended again—believed that Olive had married a Mohave man and given birth to two boys, and that her depression upon returning to non-tribal society was actually grief. Olive denied this.

Olive also displayed some duplicity in her lectures: She repeatedly told audiences that she was tattooed in order to identify her if she escaped from the tribe, neglecting to mention that most Mohave women had facial tattoos, some in the exact same design as Olive’s. She also identified her captors as Apaches, not Yavapai, which most modern historians believe to be untrue. (However, Apache was a common term to describe several Southwestern tribes, so she may have been using the word in a general sense.)

Stratton’s book also includes long stretches of fervid anti-native rhetoric, and she signed off on this portrayal of them via her lectures, frequently calling them savages herself. But this view wasn’t really corroborated by her private actions. After she moved to southern Oregon with her brother, she is said to have wept and paced the floor at night, and friends described her as deeply unhappy in her new life, and longing to return to the Mohaves. She even went to New York when she heard that Irataba, a Mohave tribal dignitary, would be traveling there in 1864. Evidently, he wasn’t too savage to prevent her from reminiscing about tribal life with him, a conversation carried on in the Mohave language. (Irataba told Olive that Topeka still missed her and hoped for her return.) She later said "we met as friends."

Her time spent with the native tribes marred the rest of Olive Oatman’s life, since she lived—literally—as a marked woman. If she had, in fact, been married to a native man—or even if she’d frolicked with any of them—the pressure to hide it would be serious, now that she was away from the so-called savages and back in conservative Western society, where a woman’s virginity was sacrosanct and even friendships between white and Native American people were frowned upon, to say nothing of sexual relationships. She already had the social fallout from the face tattoo to deal with, and the pressure of instant celebrity didn’t help.

Olive, who barely even remembered how to speak English at first, became a household name within a month, with the news of the rescue of the “young and beautiful American girl” appearing in newspapers across the nation. After the success of Stratton’s biography, she was a famous person, living under the celebrity microscope. Journalists seemed to especially focus on Olive’s appearance, pointing out her beauty as often as her tattoo. But despite her devout denial of having had any native husbands or lovers, the rumor stuck, thanks partially to a front-page story in the Los Angeles Star—which reported in 1856, a month before Olive’s return, that both Oatman girls were discovered alive and married to Mohave chiefs.

Wikimedia // Public Domain

In November of 1865, Olive married John B. Fairchild, a wealthy rancher-turned-banker, in Rochester, New York, subsequently abandoning the lecture circuit, which is how she’d met him. A few years later, the couple settled in Sherman, Texas, and adopted a baby girl named Mamie. Olive never seemed to have found happiness, though, battling depression and chronic headaches for decades to come. On the rare occasion she left her home, she’d attempt to cover her blue tattoo with makeup or veils.

Olive died of a heart attack in 1903, aged 65, and is buried in Sherman with her husband. Letters found after she died told of the psychological damage she suffered, which was often ascribed to the murder of her family, but could just as fairly be attributed to having her second family, the one she built among the Mohaves, wrenched away from her.

Although not mentioned too often these days, Olive Oatman is still occasionally paid homage, particularly via the character of Eva Toole on the AMC show Hell on Wheels, who sports a very similar backstory (and chin tattoo). Olive’s story was also loosely told in a 1965 episode of the television show Death Valley Days, starring Shary Marshall as Olive—and featuring Ronald Reagan as an Army colonel who helps her brother locate her. A 2009 biography of Oatman, The Blue Tattoo, tells her story much more faithfully. She’s also the namesake of the city of Oatman, Arizona, located on Route 66, near the Colorado River—and near the site where Oatman was released after spending her adolescence with the Mohaves.  

The Story of Kate Warne, America's First Female Private Detective

The young woman smiled as she met her brother at a train station in Philadelphia on the evening of February 22, 1861. Her sibling was tall but stooped over and covered in a shawl, rendering his facial features difficult for passerby to discern. To anyone who asked, she explained that her brother had taken ill and needed some breathing room.

On the sleeper car of the passenger train, the woman slipped cash to the conductor, urging him to avoid placing anyone else at the rear of the car. Accompanied by three other men in addition to her sibling, she settled in for a long night’s train ride.

It was no ordinary trip, however. The woman had lied when she said the man was her brother. In fact, he was president-elect Abraham Lincoln, traveling through a hotbed of secessionist activity on his way to his inauguration in Washington, D.C. Her name was Kate Warne—and she was the first female private detective in America.

 

Given her status as a pioneer in law enforcement, surprisingly little is known about Warne’s past. No verified photos of her are known to exist, and she left behind no comprehensive chronicle of her landmark work. Then again, adopting various guises in the pursuit of intelligence meant that obscuring her true history was often a matter of professional obligation.

Warne was born in Erin, New York, in 1830 or 1833. Coming from a family of modest means, she had only a limited education. She was interested in becoming an actress, but her family opposed the idea and she soon abandoned that ambition. While she later described herself as a widow, there are no details about her marriage or the fate of a husband, who reportedly died in an accident. Warne’s life seemed to begin in 1856, when the 23-year-old walked into the Pinkerton National Detective Agency offices in Chicago and declared that she would like to become a detective.

Pinkerton was named for and run by Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish immigrant who worked as a deputy sheriff and for the Chicago police department. In the 1850s, he opened a private agency that soon had offices in several major cities. The Pinkerton name became renowned for its diligent approach to complicated matters that perplexed local law enforcement.

Pinkerton had high standards, but he was also prey to the gender biases of the era. Female police officers or detectives were virtually unheard of at the time, and Pinkerton assumed the young woman in front of him—whom he later described as “slender, graceful in her movements, and perfectly self-possessed in her manner” with “eyes filled with fire”—was looking for secretarial work.

A magnifying glass and papers are pictured

Warne corrected him. She pointed out that he had placed an ad looking for new hires and that she had come to Pinkerton for the express purpose of becoming a private detective. She explained that his force lacked a key component when it came to gathering intelligence—being able to assume the role of a woman’s confidante. By ingratiating herself, she said, she would be likely to discover information about crimes plotted by husbands, who tended to make their wives privy to schemes that involved enriching the family’s coffers. And she would also be able to take advantage of the fact that men tended to brag when women were around.

Pinkerton was not wholly convinced. It took several meetings with Warne before he decided to ignore convention and hire her. Later, Pinkerton would describe her as one of the five best agents he had ever employed.

A compelling dossier of cases followed. In 1858, Warne was tasked with obtaining a lead on a case involving the theft of $10,000 from the Adams Express Company railroad. The agency suspected a man named Nathan Maroney, the manager of the company’s Montgomery, Alabama, offices, since he was believed to be the last employee to see the money before it disappeared. Warne was dispatched to Montgomery, and when she arrived, she quickly charmed Mrs. Maroney. She soon divulged that her husband had not only taken the cash, but that she knew where to find it—hidden in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. Nathan Maroney was convicted, and all but a few hundred dollars recovered.

On another occasion, Warne thwarted a plot to poison a wealthy Captain Sumner by posing as a fortune teller. Pinkerton rented out a space for her to ply her trade—which she quickly learned from books on the subject—and hosted Sumner's sister, Annie Thayer. Thayer was impressed by Warne's knowledge of her life, which had been prepared by the Pinkterton agents. Trusting that Warne had a real gift for divination, she eventually disclosed that she was under the direction of a lover named Mr. Pattmore to assist in the murder of Pattmore's wife and her own brother, Captain Sumner, so they could enjoy his fortune. (Pattmore was convicted of his wife's murder and spent 10 years in prison; the pair were caught before they could murder Sumner.)

Warne’s success in these efforts was due in large part to her demeanor, which Pinkerton would later describe as being warm and affable. People seemed eager to share secrets with her, even if those secrets were incriminating. But part of it was also Warne’s unique place among law enforcement officials. Early on, no one could suspect her of being a detective because it was considered impossible that a woman would be occupying that role.

 

As successful as Warne was, it was her efforts on behalf of Abraham Lincoln that became the highlight of her career.

Shortly before Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, railroad magnate and Lincoln ally Samuel Morse Felton realized that the secessionists stirring against the new president were growing more dangerous by the minute. There were even rumors they might interfere with railroads to and from Washington to disrupt Lincoln's entry into office. In the absence of a Secret Service, which had yet to be conceived, Felton wrote to Pinkerton for assistance.

Though Felton didn’t yet know it, the secessionists planned on more than just blocking Lincoln’s travels from Springfield, Illinois: Lincoln was also receiving death threats involving everything from a knife to a spider-filled dumpling.

 A photo of Allan Pinkerton circa 1861
Allan Pinkerton
Brady's National Photographic Galleries, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Felton and Pinkerton met in Philadelphia. Pinkerton advised that any true threat against the president was likely to materialize in Baltimore, the only major slaveholding city on Lincoln's itinerary aside from Washington, as well as an inevitable stop—all potential routes to the inauguration involved a stop there. Worse, Lincoln planned to arrive at one train station and then depart from another one mile away. There would be ample opportunity for a person or persons to commit an assault.

Pinkerton dispatched several agents to investigate, including Warne, who posed as a southern ally complete with an accent and a cockade, or a knot of ribbons that signaled Southern sympathies. It was a routine she had already practiced during the train robbery investigation. Pinkerton himself also went to Baltimore to investigate, posing as a stockbroker.

Collectively, the Pinkerton agents assembled a portrait of conspirators who were planning to intercept Lincoln as he changed trains in the city. The plan had been concocted by one Cypriano Ferrandini, who transferred his love of Italian revolution to the Southern cause. The idea was that a mob would surround Lincoln while others created a distraction to draw police away from the scene. Beforehand, the secessionists would draw ballots to determine who would shoot Lincoln dead. (In fact, several men drew the fatal red ballot in a dark room, fulfilling Ferrandini’s desire to have several would-be assassins hunting for Lincoln during the stopover.)

Lincoln, when he was debriefed on the plot, was reticent to change his touring plans. Eventually, though, he relented. Pinkerton formulated a scheme, one that involved bringing Lincoln to Baltimore in advance of his expected arrival and cutting off telegram lines so his would-be assassins couldn’t be easily tipped off. Covering Lincoln in a shawl and declaring him frail, Warne, Pinkerton, and two others—Pinkerton lieutenant George Bangs and Lincoln's friend Ward Lamon—got him on board the train in Philadelphia without incident.

As they traveled through the night, Warne gripped a pistol she carried, wondering if Lincoln’s rivals would force her to use it.

When they got to Baltimore, Warne, no longer needed to pose as a sibling, departed. Thanks to a noise ordinance, the sleeper car had to be unhitched from the train and carried by horse through the city until it reached the station with the Washington-bound train. Once there, the men spent a few nervous hours inside their sleeper car waiting for the connecting train. But Lincoln stayed unnoticed. The president-elect went on to his eventual destination of Washington, safe for the moment.

The next day, Lincoln asked the agents to visit him so he could thank them, including Warne, for protecting him. “I am sensible, ma’am, of having put you in some inconvenience—not to speak of placing you in danger,” he told her.

Warne continued to work for Pinkerton through the Civil War, sometimes posing with Allan Pinkerton as a couple. Pinkerton himself was appointed head of the Union Intelligence Service, the forerunner of the Secret Service, and gathered information during the Civil War. Warne eventually became superintendent of the agency’s bureau for women, training a growing number of female detectives.

Unfortunately, she wouldn’t live to see the ranks continue to expand. Warne died in 1868 at the age of 35 (or perhaps 38) of pneumonia. It’s a testament to her mysterious background that she wasn't delivered back to family, if indeed Pinkerton knew of any. Instead, she was buried in Pinkerton’s family plot in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Today, her headstone is worn to the point that it reads “Kate Warn.” If time winds up taking more of her name from her final resting place, there’s little doubt that history will remember it in full.

Additional Sources: The Spy of the Rebellion.

Kitty O'Neil, Trailblazing Speed Racer and Wonder Woman's Stunt Double

PHOTO COLLAGE BY DAMON AMATO, MINUTE MEDIA. MOTORCYCLE/CAR/DIVINGBOARD, ISTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES. PORTRAIT, MIDCO SPORTS MAGAZINE // YOUTUBE
PHOTO COLLAGE BY DAMON AMATO, MINUTE MEDIA. MOTORCYCLE/CAR/DIVINGBOARD, ISTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES. PORTRAIT, MIDCO SPORTS MAGAZINE // YOUTUBE

Kitty O’Neil could do it all. A stuntwoman, drag racer, and diver, the legendary daredevil's skills were once described by the Chicago Tribune as “full and partial engulfment in fire; swimming; diving; water skiing; scuba diving; horse falls, jumps, drags, and transfers; high falls into an air bag or water; car rolls; cannon-fired car driving; motorcycle racing; speed, drag, sail, and power boat handling; fight routines; gymnastics; snow skiing; jet skiing; sky diving; ice skating; golf; tennis; track and field; 10-speed bike racing; and hang gliding.”

During her lifetime, O’Neil set 22 speed records on both the land and sea—including the women’s land speed record of 512 mph, which remains unmatched to this day. Through it all, she battled casual sexism and ableism, as she was often not only the lone woman in the room, but the lone deaf person on the drag strip or movie set.

"It Wasn't Scary Enough for Me"

O’Neil was born on March 24, 1946, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Her father, John, was an Air Force pilot and oil driller, while her mother, Patsy, was a homemaker. When she was just a few months old, O’Neil contracted mumps, measles, and smallpox, an onslaught of illness that damaged her nerves and caused her to lose her hearing. Patsy, who had packed her in ice during the worst of the fever, went back to school for speech pathology so she could teach her daughter how to read lips and form words. She placed the young girl’s hand on her throat as she spoke, allowing her to feel the vibrations of her vocal cords.

Feeling those sensations helped Kitty learn to talk, while the sensations associated with engines would teach her something else. At the age of 4, O’Neil convinced her father to let her ride atop the lawn mower in what would be a transformative experience. “I could feel the vibrations,” she told the Associated Press. “That’s what got me into racing. When I race, I feel the vibrations.”

But racing wasn’t her first thrill ride. As a teenager, O’Neil showed such an aptitude for diving that Patsy decided to move the family to Anaheim, California, where O’Neil could train with the two-time Olympic gold medalist Sammy Lee. She was on her way to the qualifying rounds for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when she broke her wrist, eliminating her from consideration. Soon after, she contracted spinal meningitis. Her doctors worried she wouldn’t walk again.

She recovered, but found she was no longer interested in diving. “I gave it up because it wasn’t scary enough for me,” she told the Chicago Tribune.

Motorcycle racing proved to be a better adrenaline rush, so she began entering competitions along the West Coast. It was at one of those races that she met another speedster named Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton, who offered his assistance after O’Neil crashed her bike, severing two fingers. Once she had gotten stitched up, the pair began a professional and romantic relationship. O’Neil moved onto a 40-acre ranch in Fillmore, California, with Hambleton and his two children from a previous relationship.

Hambleton would act as O’Neil’s manager, often speaking to the press for her after stunts or record attempts. However, O’Neil later alleged that he stole money from her and physically abused her during their partnership. In 1988, a Star Tribune reporter would describe O’Neil’s scrapbooks as containing a photo of Hambleton with his face scratched out; she had also written “not true” in the margins of newspaper clippings touting his profound impact on her success.

The Need for Speed

O’Neil wanted to go fast and she didn’t care how. So she expanded her scope beyond motorcycles, setting a new women’s water skiing record in 1970 with a speed of 104.85 mph. Her national breakout arrived six years later, when she drove a skinny three-wheel rocket car into the Alvord Desert. The hydrogen peroxide-powered vehicle was dubbed “The Motivator,” and it was the work of William Fredrick, a designer who normally created cars for movie and TV stunts. When O’Neil got behind the wheel of The Motivator, she quickly smashed the women’s land speed record. Her average speed was 512 mph, over 1.5 times faster than the previous 321 mph record held by Lee Breedlove since 1965.

She believed she could beat the men’s record of 631.4 mph, too, which should’ve been great news for her entire team. Fredrick and his corporate sponsors were gunning for a new record, and O'Neil had already reportedly hit a maximum speed of 618 mph in her initial run. But before she could take The Motivator for a second spin, she was ordered out of the car.

As O’Neil would discover, she had only been contracted to beat the women’s record. Marvin Glass & Associates, the toy company that owned the rights to the vehicle, wanted Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham to break the men’s record. The company claimed it was purely a business decision, as they had a Needham action figure in the works. But according to Hambleton, the company reps had said it would be “unbecoming and degrading for a woman to set a land speed record.”

“It really hurts,” O’Neil told UPI reporters as she choked back tears. “I wanted to do it again. I had a good feeling.” She earned the immediate support of the men’s record holder, Gary Gabelich, who called the whole incident “ridiculous” and “kind of silly.” She and Hambleton tried to sue for her right to another attempt, but she wouldn’t get a second ride in The Motivator. Needham wouldn’t break the record, either, as a storm dampened his chances. Not that he was especially polite about it.

“Hell, you’re not talking about sports when you’re talking about land speed records,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “It doesn’t take any God-given talent … even a good, smart chimpanzee could probably do it. Probably better—because he wouldn’t be worried about dying.”

As the messy legal battle dragged on, O’Neil focused on her budding career in stunt work. According to The New York Times, she completed her first stunt in March of 1976, when she zipped up a flame-resistant Nomex suit and let someone set her on fire. For her second job, she rolled a car, which was practically a personal hobby. (She liked to tell people she rolled her mother’s car when she was 16, the day she got her driver’s license.) O’Neil eventually became Lynda Carter’s stunt double on Wonder Woman, where she famously leapt 127 feet off a hotel roof onto an air bag below. “If I hadn’t hit the center of the bag, I probably would have been killed,” she told The Washington Post in 1979.

Her work earned her a place in Stunts Unlimited, the selective trade group that had, until that point, only admitted men. O’Neil continued racking up credits with gigs on The Bionic Woman, Smokey and the Bandit II, and The Blues Brothers. Although few stunt doubles achieve name recognition, O’Neil was a media darling who inspired her own 1979 TV movie starring Stockard Channing and a Barbie in her trademark yellow jumpsuit.

A Pioneer's Legacy

But by 1982, feeling burned out after watching the toll the work had taken on colleagues, O'Neil decided she was finished. She retired from the business at the age of 36, packing up and leaving Los Angeles entirely. She wound up in Minneapolis and then in Eureka, South Dakota, a town with a population of fewer than 1000 people. She would live out the rest of her days there, eventually dying of pneumonia in 2018 at the age of 72.

O’Neil lived her life as a never-ending challenge—to go faster, jump higher, do better. She always said that her lack of hearing helped her concentrate, eliminating any fear she might’ve felt over the prospect of breaking the sound barrier, let alone self-immolation.

“When I was 18, I was told I couldn’t get a job because I was deaf,” she told a group of deaf students at the Holy Trinity School in Chicago. “But I said someday I’m going to be famous in sports, to show them I can do anything.”

O’Neil did exactly that. Over her the course of perilous career, she carved out a name for herself in a space that was often openly hostile towards her, setting records and making it impossible for anyone who doubted her to catch up.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER