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
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 Charles was two years old, his parents imigrated to Jefferson County, New York, where his father purchased a farm, four miles north of Plessis Village in the direction of Alexandria Bay.

Early career[edit]

California Gold Rush[edit]

In late 1849, Bowles and two of his brothers, David and James, took part in the California Gold Rush and began mining in the North Fork of the American River in California. Bowles mined for only a year before returning home in 1852, but soon returned to California, accompanied once again by his brother David and joined by another brother, Robert. Both brothers became ill and died in California soon after their arrival. Bowles continued mining for two more years before leaving.


In 1854, Bowles (who had by now adopted this spelling of his surname) married Mary Elizabeth Johnson, with whom he had four children. By 1860, the couple had made their home in Decatur, Illinois.

Civil War[edit]

The American Civil War began in April 1861, and on August 13, 1862, Bowles enlisted in Decatur, Illinois, as a private in Company B, 116th Illinois Regiment, (his last name is spelled as "Boles" in his service records). He proved to be a good soldier, rising to the rank of first sergeant within a year and took part in numerous battles, including the Battle of Vicksburg, where he was seriously wounded, and Sherman's March to the Sea. He received brevet commissions as both second lieutenant and first lieutenant, and on June 7, 1865, was discharged in Washington, D.C. and returned home to Illinois.


In 1867, he began prospecting again, this time in Idaho and Montana. Little is known of his life during this time, but in a letter to his wife in August 1871, he mentioned an unpleasant incident involving some Wells, Fargo & Company employees and vowed to exact revenge. He then stopped writing, and after a while his wife assumed he was dead.

Criminal career[edit]

Bowles, as Black Bart, perpetrated 28 robberies of Wells Fargo stagecoaches across northern California between 1875 and 1883,[3] 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 - this came to be considered his signature and ensured his fame. Black Bart was very successful, absconding with thousands of dollars a year.

Bowles was terrified of horses and committed all of his robberies on foot. This, together with his poems, earned him notoriety. Additionally, throughout his years as a highwayman, he never fired a gun.[4]

Bowles was always courteous and used no foul language in speech, although this aversion to profanity is not evident in his poems. He wore a long linen duster coat and a bowler hat, covered his head using a flour sack with holes cut for the eyes, and brandished a shotgun. These distinguishing 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 made the crime unusual were 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 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 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 $160.[3]

Last stagecoach robbery[edit]

The last holdup took place on November 3, 1883 at the same site as his first holdup, on Funk Hill just southeast of the present town of Copperopolis. The stage, driven by Reason McConnell, had crossed the Reynolds Ferry on the old stage road from Sonora to Milton. At the ferry crossing, the driver picked up Jimmy Rolleri, the 19-year-old son of the ferry owner. Jimmy Rolleri had brought his rifle and got off at the bottom of Funk Hill, intending to hunt along the creek at the southern base of the hill and then meet the stage on the other side as it came down 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. He made McConnell unhitch the team and take them over the crest to the west side of the hill, where he met Rolleri coming up. Bowles then tried to remove the strongbox from the stage, but the strongbox had been bolted to the floor inside the stage (which had no passengers that day), and it took Bowles some time to remove it.

McConnell informed Rolleri that a holdup was in progress, and Rolleri approached McConnell and the horses to see 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; both shots missed. Rolleri then took the rifle and fired just as Bowles was entering a thicket. They saw him stumble as he had been hit. Running to where they had last seen the robber, they found a bundle of mail he had dropped, some of which had blood on it.

Bowles had been hit in the hand. After running about a quarter of a mile he stopped, too tired to run any farther, and he wrapped a handkerchief around the wound to help stop the bleeding. He found a rotten log and stuffed the sack with the gold amalgam into it, keeping $500 in gold coins. Bowles buried the shotgun in a hollow tree, threw everything else away, and escaped.

It should be noted that there is a manuscript written by stage driver Reason McConnell some 20 years after the robbery, in which McConnell says that he fired all four shots at Bowles. The first was a misfire, but 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, Bowles was unaware of it.

Investigation and arrest[edit]

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, mustache included) found these personal items at the scene. He and detective Harry N. Morse contacted every laundry in San Francisco seeking the one that used the mark on the handkerchief. After visiting nearly 90 laundry operators, they finally traced the mark to Ferguson & Bigg's California Laundry on Bush Street and 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 thought that Bowles mistakenly believed that the statute of limitations had expired on those robberies.[citation needed] 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[edit]

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 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.


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]


  • 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.


  • 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]


  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]