Black Bart (outlaw)

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This article is about the American Old West outlaw. For the pirate, see Bartholomew Roberts. For other uses, see Black Bart (disambiguation).
Black Bart
Charles Bowles aka Black Bart.jpg
Born Charles Earl Bolles
1829
Norfolk, England
Died after February 28, 1888
Other names Charles Bolton, C.E. Bolton, Black Bart the Poet, Black Bart the PO8
Occupation Miner, soldier
Criminal penalty 6 years
Criminal status Time served
Conviction(s) Robbery

Charles Earl Bowles (b. 1829; d.after 1888), also known as Black Bart, was an English-born outlaw noted for the poetic messages he left behind after two of his robberies. Often called Charley by his friends, he was also known as Charles Bolton, C.E. Bolton and Black Bart the Poet.[1] Considered a gentleman bandit with a reputation for style and sophistication,[1] he was one of the most notorious stagecoach robbers to operate in and around Northern California and southern Oregon during the 1870s and 1880s.

Early life[edit]

Charles Bolles was born in Norfolk, England to John and Maria Bowles (sometimes spelled Bolles). He was the third of ten children, having six brothers and three sisters. [2] When he was two years old, his parents emigrated to Jefferson County, New York, where his father purchased a farm four miles north of Plessis Village in the direction of Alexandria Bay.

Early life[edit]

California Gold Rush[edit]

In late 1849, Bowles and his brothers David and James joined in the California Gold Rush, mining in the North Fork of the American River in California. They returned home in 1852, but Bowles later returned with his brothers David and Robert. However, both brother fell ill shortly after their arrival and died. Charles Bowles remained in California for another two more years before giving up again.

Marriage[edit]

In 1854, Bowles (who now used this spelling) married Mary Elizabeth Johnson. By 1860, they were living with their four children in Decatur, Illinois.

Civil War[edit]

In April 1861, the American Civil War began. On August 13, 1862, Bowles enlisted as a private in Company B, 116th Illinois Regiment. (His name is spelled "Boles" in the company records). He was a good soldier and became the first sergeant within a year. He was seriously wounded the Battle of Vicksburg, and took part in Sherman's March to the Sea. He received brevet commissions as both second lieutenant and first lieutenant, and on June 7, 1865, was discharged with his regiment in Washington, D.C.. He returned home at last to his family Illinois.

Prospecting again[edit]

In 1867, Bowles went prospecting for gold in Idaho and Montana. In a surviving letter to his wife in August 1871, he told her of an unpleasant encounter with some Wells, Fargo & Company agents and vowed to exact revenge. His wife never heard from him again, and in time she presumed he had died.

Criminal career[edit]

Bowles, as Black Bart, robbed Wells Fargo stagecoaches at least 28 times across northern California between 1875 and 1883,[3] including a number along the historic Siskiyou Trail between California and Oregon. He only left two poems - at the fourth and fifth robbery sites - but this came to be considered his signature and ensured his fame. Black Bart was quite successful, often taking in thousands of dollars a year.

Ironically, Bowles was afraid of horses and made all of his robberies on foot. Together with his poems, this earned him notoriety. Also, throughout his years as an outlaw, he never once fired a weapon.[4]

Bowles was invariably polite and used no foul language, despite its appearance in his poems. He dressed in a long linen duster coat and a bowler hat, using a flour sack with holes cut for his eyes as a mask. He brandished a shotgun, but never used it. These features became his trademarks.

First robbery[edit]

On July 26, 1875, Bowles robbed his first stagecoach in Calaveras County, on the road between Copperopolis and Milton. What was unusual were the outlaw's politeness and good manners. He spoke with a deep and resonant tone as he ordered stage driver John Shine, "Please throw down the box." As Shine handed over the strongbox, Bowles shouted, "If he dares to shoot, give him a solid volley, boys". Seeing rifle barrels pointed at him from the nearby bushes, Shine quickly handed over the strongbox. Shine waited until Bowles vanished and then went to recover the empty strongbox. When he examined the area, he discovered that the "men with rifles" were actually carefully rigged sticks.

Bowles first robbery netted him $160.[3]

Last stagecoach robbery[edit]

His last holdup took place on November 3, 1883 at the site as his first robbery on Funk Hill, southeast of the present town of Copperopolis. Driven by Reason McConnell, the stage had crossed the Reynolds Ferry on the old road from Sonora to Milton. The driver stopped at the ferry to pick up Jimmy Rolleri, the 19-year-old son of the ferry owner. Rolleri had his rifle with him and got off at the bottom of the hill to hunt along the creek and meet the stage on the other side. When he arrived at the western end, he found that the stage was not there and began walking up the stage road. Near the summit, he saw the stage driver and his team of horses.

McConnell told him that as the stage had approached the summit, Bowles had stepped out from behind a rock with a shotgun in his hands. He forced McConnell to unhitch the team and take them over the crest of the hill. Bowles then tried to remove the strongbox from the stage, but it had been bolted to the floor and took Bowles some time to remove.

Rolleri and McConnell went over the crest and saw Bowles backing out of the stage with the strong box. McConnell grabbed Rolleri's rifle and fired at twice Bowles twice but missed. Rolleri took the rifle and fired as Bowles entered a thicket. He stumbled as if he had been hit. Running to the thicket, they found a small bundle of mail he dropped. There were drops of blood on it.

Bowles had been wounded in the hand. After running a quarter of a mile, he stopped and he wrapped a handkerchief around his hand to stop the bleeding. He found a rotten log and stuffed the sack with the gold amalgam into it, keeping $500 in gold coins. He hid the shotgun in a hollow tree, threw everything else away, and fled.

In a manuscript written by stage driver McConnell about 20 years after the robbery, he claimed he fired all four shots at Bowles. The first missed, but he thought the second or third shot hit Bowles, and was sure the fourth did. Bowles only had the one wound to his hand.

Investigation and arrest[edit]

When Bowles was wounded and forced to flee, he left behind several personal items. These included his eyeglasses, some food, and a handkerchief with a laundry mark F.X.O.7. Wells Fargo Detective James B. Hume found these at the scene. Hume and detective Harry N. Morse contacted every laundry in San Francisco about th elaundry mark. After visiting nearly 90 laundries, they finally traced it to Ferguson & Bigg's California Laundry on Bush Street and were able to learn the handkerchief as belonging to a man who lived in a modest boarding house.

Bowles called himself as a mining engineer and made frequent "business trips" that coincided with the Wells Fargo robberies. After initially denying he was Black Bart, Bowles eventually admitted he had robbed several Wells Fargo stages, though he confessed only to crimes committed before 1879. Bowles apparently believed the statute of limitations had expired on those robberies. When booked, he gave his name as T.Z. Spalding, but police found a Bible, a gift from his wife, inscribed with his real name.

The police report said 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[edit]

Wells Fargo only pressed charges on the final robbery. Bowles was convicted and sentenced to six years in San Quentin Prison, but he was released after four years for good behavior. When he was released in January 1888, his health had clearly deteriorated due 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?"[citation needed]

Final days[edit]

Bowles never returned to his wife after his release from prison, though he did write to her. 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 Bowles had checked in and then disappeared. The last time the outlaw was seen was February 28, 1888.

Copycat robber[edit]

On November 14, 1888, another Wells Fargo stage was robbed by a masked highwayman. The lone bandit left a verse that read:[citation needed]

So here I've stood while wind and rain
Have set the trees a-sobbin,
And risked my life for that 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, he declared the new holdup was the work of a copycat criminal.

Rumors and theories[edit]

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.

Verses[edit]

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, named Black Bart, robbed Wells Fargo stagecoaches and brought great fear to those who were unlucky enough to cross him.

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 of 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[3]

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[4]

List of crimes[edit]

1870s[edit]

  • July 26, 1875: The Sonora, Tuolumne County, to Milton, Calaveras County, stage was robbed by a man wearing a flour sack over his head with two holes cut out for the eyes.
  • December 28, 1875: The California stage from North San Juan, Nevada County, to Marysville, Yuba County, was robbed. A newspaper related that it was held up by four men. This too had 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 arrived at the scene they found the "rifles" used in the heist were nothing more than sticks wedged in the brush.
  • August 3, 1877: In California, the stage from Point Arena, Mendocino County to Duncan's Mills, Sonoma County, was plundered.
  • October 2, 1878: In Mendocino County, near Ukiah, Bart was seen picnicking along the roadside before the robbery.
  • October 3, 1878: In Mendocino County, the stage from Covelo to Ukiah was robbed. Bart walked to the McCreary farm and paid for dinner. Fourteen-year-old Donna McCreary provided the 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 California, the stage from La Porte, Plumas County to Oroville, Butte County, was robbed. Bart said to driver, "Sure hope you have a lot of gold in that strongbox, I'm nearly out of money."
  • October 25, 1879: An interstate route was robbed when Bart held up the stage from Roseburg, Douglas County, Oregon, to Redding, Shasta County, stealing U.S. mail pouches on a Saturday night.
  • October 27, 1879: In another California robbery, on the stage from Alturas, Modoc County, to Redding, Shasta County, Jim Hume was sure that Bart was the one-eyed ex-Ohioan, Frank Fox.

1880s[edit]

  • July 22, 1880: In Sonoma County, the stage from Point Arena to Duncan's Mills. (Same location as on August 3, 1877. Wells Fargo added it to the list when he was captured.)
  • September 1, 1880: In Shasta County, the stage from Weaverville to Redding. Near French Gulch, Bart said, "Hurry up the hounds; it gets lonesome in the mountains."
  • September 16, 1880: In Jackson County, Oregon, the stage from Roseburg to Yreka, California. This was the 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 were on this stage.) On October 1, a person (Frank Fox?) who closely matched the description of Bart was arrested at Elk Creek Station and later released.
  • November 20, 1880: In Siskiyou County, the stage from Redding to Roseburg. This robbery failed because of the noise of an approaching stage or because of a hatchet in the driver's hand.
  • August 31, 1881: In Siskiyou County, the stage from Roseburg to Yreka. Mail sacks were cut in 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 answered, "Not very much for the chances I take."
  • October 11, 1881: In Shasta County, the stage from Lakeview to Redding. Hume kept losing Bart's trail.
  • December 15, 1881: In Yuba County, near Marysville. Took mail bags and evaded 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 was wrongly blamed for another stage robbery in Smartsville.
  • January 26, 1882: In Mendocino County, the stage from Ukiah to Cloverdale. Again the posse was on his tracks within the hour and again they lost him after Kelseyville.
  • June 14, 1882: In Mendocino County, the stage from Little Lake to Ukiah. Hiram Willits, Postmaster of Willitsville (Willits today), was on the stage.
  • July 13, 1882: In Plumas County, the stage from La Porte to Oroville. This stage was loaded with gold and George Hackett was armed. Bart lost his derby as he fled the scene. The same stage was again held-up in Forbestown and Hackett blasted the would-be robber into the bushes. This was 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 got 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[edit]

  • In 1979, Lee & Ora Pedrick opened Black Bart's Steakhouse in Flagstaff, Arizona. This steakhouse is an ode to the memory of Black Bart. The entire waiting staff (Northern Arizona University students) takes the stage and sings musicals for the entertainment of their dining guests.
  • 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 Lucky Luke Belgian comic book series by René Goscinny and Morris. While the hero manages to shoot and disable Bart's shotgun, he is unable to catch him. The depiction of the outlaw is extremely accurate and includes a transcription of his poems. It is also mentions 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 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).[5]
  • In Oroville, CA (Butte County) there is a road named Black Bart Road named after Black Bart. There is also a stone mortar monument with a description of a robbery that took place at the scene
  • In San Andreas, CA (Calaveras County), the Black Bart Inn has information about the outlaw and rumors about how he may have stayed there.
  • 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.
  • The Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles features a black man named Bart, who is appointed sheriff of a western town. The full name "Black Bart" is not mentioned, but the reference is intentional.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Hoeper, George (June 1, 1995). 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 July 25, 2011. 
  2. ^ Frederick Nolan, The Wild West: History, Myth & the Making of America (London: Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2003), p. 133.
  3. ^ a b c Frederick Nolan, The Wild West: History, Myth & the Making of America (London: Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2003), p. 130.
  4. ^ a b Frederick Nolan, The Wild West: History, Myth & the Making of America (London: Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2003), p. 131.
  5. ^ "Black Bart in Mendocino County"

External links[edit]