Black Bart (outlaw)
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|Born||Charles Earl Bolles
|Died||after February 28, 1888|
|Alias(es)||Charles Bolton, C.E. Bolton, Black Bart the Poet|
|Conviction status||Time served|
Charles Earl Bowles (b.1829; d.after 1888), better known as Black Bart, was an English-born American Old West outlaw noted for his poetic messages left after two of his robberies. Also known as Charles Bolton, C.E. Bolton and Black Bart the Poet, he was a gentleman bandit, and one of the most notorious stagecoach robbers to operate in and around Northern California and southern Oregon during the 1870s and 1880s.
Black Bart had a reputation for style and sophistication.
Early life 
Charles Bowles was born in Norfolk, England, to John and Maria Bowles. He was one of 10 siblings, seven boys and three girls. 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.
Adult life prior to criminal career 
California Gold Rush 
In late 1849, 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.
Bowles mined for only a year before returning home in 1852. Soon he made the trip again to the California gold fields, with his brother David and with another brother, Robert. Both David and Robert were taken ill and died in California soon after their arrival. Bowles continued mining for two more years before leaving.
In 1854, in Illinois, Bowles (who, for some reason, had changed the spelling of his last name from "Bolles" to "Bowles") married Mary Elizabeth Johnson. They had four children. By 1860, the couple had made their home in Decatur, Illinois.
Civil War 
The Civil War began in April, 1861. Bowles enlisted in 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 in Washington, D.C., and returned home to Illinois. He had received brevet commissions as both second lieutenant and first lieutenant.
After the long years of war, a quiet life of farming held little appeal to Bowles, 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 he sent a 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.
Criminal career 
Bowles, as Black Bart, committed 28 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.
Bowles was always courteous and used no foul language (except for in poems). 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. These distinguishing features became his trademarks.
First robbery 
On 26 July 1875, Bowles robbed his first stagecoach in Calaveras County, on the road between Copperopolis and Milton. What made the crime unusual was the politeness and good manners of the outlaw. He spoke with a deep and resonant tone and told John Shine, the stagecoach driver, "Please throw down the box." As Shine handed the strongbox, Bowles shouted, "If he dares 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 Bowles vanished and 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 first robbery netted Bowles just $160.
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, Bowles had stepped out from behind a rock with his shotgun. Bowles made McConnell unhitch the team and return with them over the crest again to the west side of the hill, where Rolleri encountered him. Bowles 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 Bowles 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 Bowles backing out of the stage with the box. McConnell took Rolleri's rifle and fired at Bowles twice as he started to run away. He missed. Jimmy took the rifle and fired just as Bowles 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. Bowles had been shot in the hand. After running about a quarter of a mile Bowles stopped, too tired to run any farther. He wrapped a handkerchief around the wound to help stop the bleeding. Bowles found a rotten log and stuffed the sack with the gold amalgam into it. He kept the $500 in gold coins. Bowles 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 Bowles. The first was a misfire, he thought the second or third shot hit Bowles, and he knew that the fourth one hit him. Bowles only had the wound to his hand, and if the other shots hit his clothing, Bart was unaware of it.
Investigation and arrest 
During his last robbery in 1883, when Bowles was wounded 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 F.X.O.7. Wells Fargo Detective James B. Hume (who allegedly looked enough like Bowles to be a twin brother, moustache included) found these several personal items at the scene. 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 Bowles, who lived in a modest boarding house.
Bowles 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, Bowles eventually admitted that he had robbed several Wells Fargo stages but confessed only to the crimes committed before 1879. It is widely believed that Bowles 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 Bowles was "a person of great endurance. Exhibited genuine wit under most trying circumstances, and was extremely proper and polite in behavior. Eschews profanity."
Conviction and imprisonment 
Wells Fargo pressed charges only on the final robbery. Bowles 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 replied, smiling, "I'm through with crime." Another reporter asked if he would write more poetry. Bowles laughed and said, "Now, didn't you hear me say that I am through with crime?"
Final days 
Black Bart's end is in keeping with the way the romantics of his day would have had it. Bowles 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 Bowles 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.
Copycat robber 
On November 14, 1888, another Wells Fargo stage was robbed by a masked highwayman. The lone bandit left a verse that read:
So here I've stood while wind and rain
Have set the trees a-sobbin,
And risked my life for that d***ed box,
That wasn't worth the robbin.
Detective Hume was called to examine the note. After comparing it with the handwriting of genuine Black Bart poetry from the past, he declared the new holdup was the work of a copycat criminal.
Rumors and theories 
There were rumors that Wells Fargo had paid off the aging bandit and sent him away to keep him from robbing their stages. However, Wells Fargo denied this.
Some believe that Bowles moved to New York City and lived quietly for the rest of his life, dying there in 1917, though this was never confirmed. Others believe the unlikely tale that the former poet bandit with failing eyesight had gone to the wilds of Montana or perhaps Nevada for another try at making a fortune.
Bowles, 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.
Bowles may have read the Sacramento Union story. He told a Wells Fargo detective that the name popped into his head when he was writing the first poem and he used it.
Bowles left only two authenticated verses. The first was 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.—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.—Black Bart
List of crimes 
- July 26, 1875: In Calaveras County, the Sonora to Milton stage was robbed by a man wearing a flour sack over his head with two holes cut out for the eyes.
- December 28, 1875: In Yuba County, the stage from North San Juan to Marysville is robbed. A newspaper says it was held up by four men. This too has a description of the lone robber and his "trademarks". The "three other men" were in the hills around the stage. The driver saw their "rifles". When the investigators arrive at the scene they find the "rifles" used in the heist were nothing more than sticks wedged in the brush.
- August 3, 1877: In Sonoma County, the stage from Point Arena to Duncan's Mills.
- October 2, 1878: In Mendocino County, near Ukiah. Bart is seen picnicking along the roadside before the robbery.
- October 3, 1878: In Mendocino County, the stage from Covelo to Ukiah. Bart walks to the McCreary farm and pays for dinner. Fourteen-year-old Donna McCreary provides first detailed description of Bart: Graying brown hair, missing two of his front teeth, deep-set piercing blue eyes under heavy eyebrows. Slender hands and intellectual in conversation, well-flavored with polite jokes.
- June 21, 1879: In Butte County, the stage from La Porte to Oroville. Bart says to driver, "Sure hope you have a lot of gold in that strongbox, I'm nearly out of money."
- October 25, 1879: In Shasta County, the stage from Roseburg, Oregon to Redding. Robs U.S. mail pouches on this Saturday night.
- October 27, 1879: In Shasta County, the stage from Alturas to Redding. Jim Hume is sure that Bart is the one-eyed ex-Ohioan Frank Fox.
- July 22, 1880: In Sonoma County, the stage from Point Arena to Duncan's Mills. (Same location as on August 3, 1877. Wells Fargo adds it to the list when he is captured.)
- September 1, 1880: In Shasta County, the stage from Weaverville to Redding. Near French Gulch, Bart says, "Hurry up the hounds; it gets lonesome in the mountains."
- September 16, 1880: In Jackson County, Oregon, the stage from Roseburg to Yreka, California. Farthest north Bart is known to have robbed.
- September 23, 1880: In Jackson County, Oregon, the stage from Yreka to Roseburg,. (Three days later President Rutherford B. Hayes & Gen. William T. Sherman are on this stage.) On October 1 a person (Frank Fox?) who closely matches the description of Bart is arrested at Elk Creek Station and later released.
- November 20, 1880: In Siskiyou County, the stage from Redding to Roseburg. This robbery fails because of the noise of an approaching stage or because of a hatchet in driver's hand.
- August 31, 1881: In Siskiyou County, the stage from Roseburg to Yreka. Mail sacks are cut like a "T" shape, another Bart trademark.
- October 8, 1881: In Shasta County, the stage from Yreka to Redding. Stage driver Horace Williams asked Bart, "How much did you make?" Bart answers, "Not very much for the chances I take."
- October 11, 1881: In Shasta County, the stage from Lakeview to Redding. Hume keeps losing Bart's trail.
- December 15, 1881: In Yuba County, near Marysville. Takes mail bags and evades capture due to his swiftness afoot.
- December 27, 1881: In Nevada County, the stage from North San Juan to Smartsville. Nothing much taken, but Bart is wrongly blamed for another stage robbery in Smartsville.
- January 26, 1882: In Mendocino County, the stage from Ukiah to Cloverdale. Again the posse is on his tracks within the hour and again they lose him after Kelseyville.
- June 14, 1882: In Mendocino County, the stage from Little Lake to Ukiah. Hiram Willits, Postmaster of Willitsville (Willits today) is on the stage.
- July 13, 1882: In Plumas County, the stage from La Porte to Oroville. This stage is loaded with gold and George Hackett is armed. Bart loses his derby as he flees the scene. The same stage is again held-up in Forbestown and Hackett blasts the would-be robber into the bushes. This is mistakenly blamed on Bart.
- September 17, 1882: In Shasta County, the stage from Yreka to Redding. A repeat of October 8, 1881 (same stage, place and driver), but Bart gets only a few dollars.
- November 24, 1882: In Sonoma County, the stage from Lakeport to Cloverdale. "The longest 30 miles in the World."
- April 12, 1883: In Sonoma County, the stage from Lakeport to Cloverdale. Another repeat of the last robbery.
- June 23, 1883: In Amador County, the stage from Jackson to Ione.
- November 3, 1883 In Calaveras County, the stage from Sonora to Milton.
In popular culture 
- In A Christmas Story (1983) there is a dream scene where Ralphie shoots Black Bart and his marauders with his air rifle.
- In the late 1980s, a satirical portrait of Black Bart was performed in a commercial for Honey Nut Cheerios.
- Black Bart is a villain in The Stagecoach, an album in the famous Lucky Luke Belgian comic book series by René Goscinny and Morris. While the hero manages to shoot and disable Bart's shotgun, he is not able to catch him. The depiction of the outlaw is extremely accurate, and includes a transcription of his poems. It is also mentioned that Black Bart was identified and caught on the basis of a laundry mark.
- The designers of the video game Fallout 3 originally intended to have a unique BB-gun called the Black Bart's Bane (it can be acquired by using console commands).
- In some areas where Black Bart operated, notably Redwood Valley, California, there is a traditional annual Black Bart Parade featuring a man dressed as Black Bart playing him as a stereotypical Old West villain. There is a large rock at the side of Highway 101 on the Ridgewood Summit between Redwood Valley and Willits known by locals as "Black Bart Rock", though it is not the actual rock behind which Black Bart was reputed to have hidden while robbing stagecoaches (that rock having been lost in a series of highway improvements over the years).
- In San Andreas, CA (Calaveras County), the Black Bart Inn has information about the outlaw and rumors about how he may have stayed there located within the inn office.
- Black Bart is one of the many outlaws mentioned in Michael Martin Murphey's song "Rhymes of the Renegades."
- Danish Metal band Volbeat wrote a song called "Black Bart", on their Album Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies.
- Hoeper, George (1995-06-01). Black Bart: Boulevardier Bandit: The Saga of California's Most Mysterious Stagecoach Robber and the Men Who Sought to Capture Him. Quill Driver Books. ISBN 978-1-884995-05-7. Retrieved 25 July 2011.
- Frederick Nolan, The Wild West: History, Myth & the Making of America (London: Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2003), p. 133.
- Frederick Nolan, The Wild West: History, Myth & the Making of America (London: Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2003), p. 130.
- Frederick Nolan, The Wild West: History, Myth & the Making of America (London: Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2003), p. 131.
- "Black Bart in Mendocino County"
- Media related to Black Bart at Wikimedia Commons
- From Full Books "The Case of Summerfield" by William Henry Rhodes
- From Project Gutenberg "The Case of Summerfield" by William Henry Rhodes
- Black Bart: California's Infamous Stage Robber
- OdieWare Homepage: Black Bart