Post

Black Bart
Charles Earl Bowles

Image of Black Bart

Charles Earl Boles, alias Black Bart, was an American Old West outlaw noted for his poetic messages left after only two of his robberies (the fourth and fifth). He was also known as Charles E. Boles, C.E. Bolton, Charles E. Bowles, and “Black Bart the Po8.” A gentleman bandit, Black Bart was one of the most notorious stagecoach robbers to operate in and around Northern California and southern Oregon during the 1870s and 1880s. The fame he received for his numerous daring thefts is rivaled only by his reputation for style and sophistication.

Early life

Participation in California Gold Rush

Black Bart was born in Norfolk, England to John and Maria Bowles. He was one of ten children, including seven sons and three daughters.[1] When he was two years old, his parents emigrated to Jefferson County, New York, where his father, John Bowles, purchased a farm four miles north of Plessis Village, toward Alexandria Bay. In late 1849 Charles Bowles (his friends called him Charley) and two of his brothers, David and James, took part in the California Gold Rush. They began mining in the North Fork of the American River in California. Charley and his cousin mined for only a year before retuning home in 1852. Charley insisted on returning to the California gold fields. This time his brother, Robert, accompanied Charley and David to California. Unfortunately, both David and Robert were taken ill and died in California soon after their arrival. Charley continued mining for two more years before returning home. Charley went to Illinois but for some unknown reason he changed his last name from Bowles to Boles before he married Mary Elizabeth Johnson in 1854. They had four children. By 1860, the couple had made their home in Decatur, Illinois.

Civil War veteran

The Civil War was then in progress, and Boles enlisted at Decatur as a private in Company B, 116th Illinois Regiment on August 13, 1862. He proved to be a good soldier, rising to the rank of first sergeant within a year. He took part in numerous battles and campaigns, including Vicksburg (where he was seriously wounded) and Sherman’s March to the Sea. On June 7, 1865, he was discharged at Washington, D.C., and returned home to Illinois. He had received brevet (honorary) commissions as both 2nd Lieutenant and 1st Lieutenant.

Criminal career

After the long years of war, a quiet life of farming held little appeal to Boles, and he yearned for adventure. By 1867, he was prospecting again in Idaho and Montana. Little is known of him during this time, but in an August 1871 letter to his wife he mentioned an unpleasant incident with some Wells, Fargo & Company employees and vowed to pay them back. He then stopped writing, and after a time his wife assumed he was dead.

Whatever it was that happened in Montana, it clearly changed Boles’s outlook on life. He reemerged in official documents in July 1875 when he robbed his first stagecoach in Calaveras County. What made the crime unusual was the politeness and good manners of the outlaw. He spoke with a deep and resonant tone and told the stage driver, “Please throw down the box.” Boles was always courteous and used no foul language. He covered his body in sacks and linen to hide his clothing and appearance. These distinguishing features became his trademarks.

The “Black Bart” fictional character

Boles, like many of his contemporaries, read “dime novel”–style serial adventure stories which appeared in local newspapers. In the early 1870s, the Sacramento Union ran a story called The Case of Summerfield by Caxton (a pseudonym of William Henry Rhodes). In the story, the villain dressed in black and had long unruly black hair, a large black beard, and wild grey eyes. The villain robbed Wells Fargo stagecoaches and brought great fear into those who were unlucky enough to cross him. The character’s name was Black Bart. Boles told Morse and Stone that the name popped into his head when he was writing the first poem and he used it.

Boles, as Black Bart, committed numerous robberies of Wells Fargo stagecoaches across northern California between 1875 and 1883, including a number of robberies along the historic Siskiyou Trail between California and Oregon. Although he only left two poems, at the fourth and fifth robbery sites, it became his signature and his biggest claim to fame. Black Bart was very successful and made off with thousands of dollars a year. During his last robbery in 1883, Black Bart was shot and forced to flee the scene. He left behind several personal items, including a pair of eyeglasses, food, and a handkerchief with a laundry mark.

Black Bart was terrified of horses and committed all of his robberies on foot. This, together with his poems, earned him notoriety. Through all his years as highwayman, he never fired a gun shot. [2]

Black Bart’s first robbery

Black Bart committed his first robbery on 26 July 1875 on the road between Copperopolis and Milton, central California. He wore a long linen duster coat and a bowler hat. His head was covered with a flour sack with eye holes, and he brandished a shotgun.

Black Bart asked the driver, John Shine, to throw down the strongbox from the stagecoach. As Shine handed the strongbox, Black Bart shouted, “If he dates to shoot, give him a solid volley boys”. Rifle barrels pointed at Shine from the nearby bushes, so he handed over the strongbox. Shine waited until Black Bart vanished, then went back to get the plundered box. Upon returning to the scene, he found that the men with rifles in the bushes were actually carefully rigged sticks.

This robbery, which netted Black Bart just $160, was the first of twenty eight hold-ups by Black Bart. [3]
 

The last stagecoach robbery

The last holdup took place at the site, fittingly enough, of his first holdup, on Funk Hill, just southeast of the present town of Copperopolis. The stage had crossed the Reynolds Ferry on the old stage road from Sonora to Milton. The stage driver was Reason McConnell. At the ferry crossing, the driver picked up Jimmy Rolleri, the 19-year-old son of the ferry owner. The stage had to travel up a steep road on the east side of Funk Hill. Jimmy Rolleri had brought his rifle and got off at the bottom of the hill, intending to hunt along the creek at the southern base of the hill and then meet the stage at the bottom of the western grade. However, on arriving at the western side of the hill, he found that the stage was not there. He began walking up the stage road and, on nearing the summit, he encountered the stage driver and his team of horses.

Rolleri learned that as the stage had approached the summit, Black Bart had stepped out from behind a rock with his shotgun. He made McConnell unhitch the team and return with them over the crest again to the west side of the hill, where Rolleri encountered him. Bart then tried to remove the strongbox from the stage. Wells Fargo had bolted the strongbox to the floor inside the stage (which had no passengers that day). It took Bart some time to remove the box.

McConnell informed Rolleri that a holdup was in progress, and Rolleri came up to where McConnell and the horses were standing. He saw Boles backing out of the stage with the box. McConnell took Rolleri’s rifle and fired at Bart twice as he started to run way. He missed. Jimmy took the rifle and fired just as Bart was entering a thicket. They saw him stumble as the bullet found its mark. Running to where they had last seen the robber, they found a bundle of mail he had dropped, and scattered further on was more mail, which had blood on it. Bart had been shot in the hand. After running about a quarter of a mile Bart stopped, too tired to run any farther. He wrapped a handkerchief around the wound to help stop the bleeding. Bart found a rotten log and stuffed the sack with the gold amalgam into it. He kept the $500 in gold coins. Bart buried the shotgun in a hollow tree but threw away everything else, except what he needed to get by, and escaped.

It should be noted that there is a manuscript written some 20 years after the robbery by stage driver Reason McConnell in which McConnell says that he fired all four shots at Bart. The first was a misfire, he thought the second or third shot hit Bart, and he knew that the fourth one hit him. Bart only had the wound to his hand, and if the other shots hit his clothing, Bart was unaware of it.

The robbery investigation

Wells Fargo Detective James B. Hume (who allegedly looked enough like Boles to be a twin brother, moustache included) found several personal items at the scene, including one of Bart’s handkerchiefs bearing the laundry mark F.X.O.7. He and Wells Fargo detective Henry Nicholson Morse contacted every laundry in San Francisco, seeking the one that used the mark. After visiting nearly 90 laundry operators, they finally traced the mark to Ferguson & Bigg’s California Laundry on Bush Street. They were able to identify the handkerchief as belonging to Boles, who lived in a modest boarding house. Boles described himself as a “mining engineer” and made frequent “business trips” that happened to coincide with the Wells Fargo robberies. After initially denying he was Black Bart, Boles eventually admitted that he had robbed several Wells Fargo stages but confessed only to the crimes committed before 1879. It is widely believed that Boles mistakenly believed that the statute of limitations had expired on these robberies. When booked, he gave his name as T.Z. Spalding. When the police examined his possessions they found a Bible, a gift from his wife, inscribed with his real name.

The police report following his arrest stated that Black Bart was “a person of great endurance. Exhibited genuine wit under most trying circumstances, and was extremely proper and polite in behavior. Eschews profanity.”

Charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced

Wells Fargo pressed charges only on the final robbery. Boles was convicted and sentenced to six years in San Quentin Prison, but his stay was shortened to four years for good behavior. When he was released in January 1888, his health had clearly deteriorated owing to his time in prison. He had visibly aged, his eyesight was failing, and he had gone deaf in one ear. Reporters swarmed around him when he was released and asked if he was going to rob any more stagecoaches. “No, gentlemen,” he smilingly replied; “I’m through with crime.” Another reporter asked if he would write more poetry. Boles laughed and said, “Now, didn’t you hear me say that I am through with crime?”

Disappearance

Black Bart’s end is in keeping with the way the romantics of his day would have had it. Bart never returned to his wife, Mary, in Hannibal, Missouri, after his release from prison. However, he did write to her after his release. In one of the letters he said he was tired of being shadowed by Wells Fargo, felt demoralized, and wanted to get away from everybody. In February 1888 Bart left the Nevada House and vanished. Hume said Wells Fargo tracked him to the Palace Hotel in Visalia. The hotel owner said a man answering the description of Bart checked in and then disappeared. The last time the outlaw was seen was February 28, 1888.

Verses

Charles Boles left only two authenticated verses. The first verse was left at the scene of the August 3, 1877, holdup on a stage traveling from Point Arena to Duncan’s Mills:

“I’ve labored long and hard for bread,
For honor, and for riches,
But on my corns too long you’ve tread,
You fine-haired sons of bitches.” [4]
- Black Bart, 1877

The second verse was left at the site of his July 25, 1878, holdup of a stage traveling from Quincy to Oroville. It read:

“Here I lay me down to sleep
To wait the coming morrow,
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat,
And everlasting sorrow.
Let come what will, I’ll try it on,
My condition can’t be worse;
And if there’s money in that box
‘Tis munny in my purse.” [5]
– Black Bart
PO8

  1. Frederick Nolan, The Wild West: History, Myth & the Making of America (London: Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2003), p. 131.
  2. Frederick Nolan, The Wild West: History, Myth & the Making of America (London: Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2003), p. 130.
  3. Frederick Nolan, The Wild West: History, Myth & the Making of America (London: Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2003), p. 130.
  4. Frederick Nolan, The Wild West: History, Myth & the Making of America (London: Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2003), p. 131.

Commands