Sunday, July 23, 2023

Black Bart—California’s Gentleman Stagecoach Robber


                     Charles Boles a/k/a Charles Bolton, T. Z. Spaulding, and Black Bart after his arrest in San Francisco in 1883.

On July 23, 1878 the outlaw known as Black Bart robbed a Wells Fargo stagecoach.  Wells Fargo was a favorite target and he was operating in the familiar territory in and around Calaveras County, California.  When the empty strongbox was found, it contained a little poem:


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


The daring highwayman began his crime spree just shy of two years earlier on July 26, 1875.

It was the first of a string of daring hold-ups that would continue until he was finally captured following a botched robbery of the same stage in the same location in 1883.

Black Bart was one of the few Western bad men—or western lawmen for that matter—who lived up to his reputation.  Like others his adventures were exploited in dime novels and the popular press like the Police Gazette, but unlike others there was hardly any need for exaggeration.

Bart defied all of the stereotypes.   While stagecoach robberies were common across the West, most were done by mounted gangs who counted on their horses to outrun the law.   Deathly afraid of horses, Bart did all of his robberies and his successful getaways on foot taking advantage of the rugged territory of his preferred stage lines in northern California and southern Oregon.  He did not carry a pistol or a rifle.  He showed a shotgun which he never fired, and which may never even have been loaded.  He wore a raffish derby hat and long duster and disguised his face with a flour sack with holes for his eyes.  He was unfailingly polite and courteous to drivers and passengers alike and never uttered a profanity.  On at least two occasions he left behind short poems celebrating his crimes. Yet he got away with tens of thousands of dollars of Wells Fargo gold and U.S. Mail in his long career.


Wells Fargo stagecoaches like this were Black Bart's favored target, perhaps because of some grievance committed by the coma.

If Bart’s appearance and methods were unorthodox, so was his background.  Born Charles Earl Bowles in Norfolk, England in 1829, his father relocated his large family to a Jefferson County, New York farm when he was two years old.

Like many a young man, he and two of his brothers were lured to the California gold fields in 1849. They worked claims along the stream then known as the American River in the heart of Gold Rush territory. After a discouraging year, Charley, as he was known returned east.  But the lure of gold got him again and returned with brothers David and Robert, who soon died of, probably of typhoid.  Charley continued mining with limited success until abandoning the fields in 1854

The same year Charley, now spelling his last name Boles, married Mary Elizabeth Johnson and established a home near Decatur, Illinois.  The couple soon had four children.

Whatever happiness the couple may have had was interrupted by the Civil War.   Boles enlisted in Company B, 116th Illinois Regiment, on August 13, 1862.  He was evidently an excellent soldier and quickly advanced through the ranks becoming First Sergeant by the end of his first year of service.  Boles saw action in many battles, including Vicksburg where he sustained major injuries.  Later he was a part of the western army under General William Tecumseh Sherman on his March to the Sea.  Boles was discharged having been brevetted to First Lieutenant in June 1865 in Washington and returned home.

Like many veterans Boles found it difficult to adjust to the hum-drum of farming life.  In 1867 he lit out to Idaho and Montana to resume prospecting.  He remained in contact with his wife in Decatur until 1871.  A final letter in August of that year made cryptic reference to a grievance against Wells Fargo and a vow to seek vengeance.  He then stopped writing and seemed to vanish off the face of the Earth.  Eventually his wife gave him up for dead.

Nothing is known of his activities from that point on until that July day in California.  Perhaps he committed other, non-attributed robberies in Montana, honing his skills.  Perhaps he just went deep into the Northern California gold country once again prospecting and learning the lay of the land.  He evidently took his inspiration not from the dashing outlaw gangs of the plains but from the legendary solo highwaymen of his native England.


                                            A cartoon imagining of a Black Bart ambush and robbery.

He typically hid behind an outcropping of rock or just beyond a curve, usually on an upgrade where the stagecoach teams would be laboring.  He calmly stepped into the road leveling his shot gun in the direction of the driver and politely asked for the strong box and mail.  He never robbed passengers or the driver.

Bart committed 28 holdups of Wells Fargo stagecoaches in Northern California, most of them on the Siskiyou Trail to Oregon.  On his fourth and seventh stick-ups Bart left behind poems. 

The first read:


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


These ditties, along with the outlaw’s cheerful disposition sparked the interest and attention of the press and public alike.  After the second note, he was famous.  Almost any robbery on the west coast was attributed to him, some by copycats.  Most of his robberies were successful; some resulted in only a few dollars when an anticipated Wells Fargo shipment was not on board.  On one occasion he was scared off and lost his derby when a guard fired on him.  Possies chased him, but he melted into the mountains time and again.

                            Wanted posters like this made Bart feel like a marked man.              

By the 1880s the pressure to capture him was building.  And Bart felt it.  He told a driver that year, “Hurry up the hounds.  It gets lonesome in these mountains.”  In 1882 a driver asked how much he made as an outlaw.   “Not very much for the chances I take,” he said.

On November 3, 1883 Bart returned to the site of his first robbery on Funk Hill in Calaveras County.  That day a young passenger got off the coach to hunt in the brush, planning to meet back up with it on the other side of the hill.  He got to the road and waited.  When the stage failed to appear, he began to walk back.  He met the driver with the team, which Bart had ordered un-hitched from the wagon.  Armed with the boy’s rifle the two moved back to the coach, where Bart was struggling to get the strong box un-bolted from the floor—a new Wells Fargo security measure.  The driver fired at Bart with the rifle and missed.  Bart took off, grabbing some gold and a sack of mail.  The boy took the rifle and thought he shot Bart as he disappeared into the trees.  They found traces of blood and began to follow.

Bart stashed his some of his loot in a hollow log,  stuffed about $500 in gold coins into his pocket, and wrapped a bloody hand, his only wound, with a handkerchief.  He lost both the handkerchief and his glasses as he ran.  Still, he once again eluded his pursuers and seemed to make a clean get away.

Pinkerton Detectives hired by Wells Fargo recovered the items left behind.  The bloody handkerchief had a laundry mark on it.  Displaying the dogged diligence for which the Agency was famous, detectives visited more than 90 laundries before finding a matching laundry mark at Ferguson & Bigg’s California Laundry on Bush Street in San Francisco.  By co-incidence the detective, James B. Hume bore a remarkable resemblance to Bart with his massive handlebar moustache, bushy eyebrows and graying hair.  The laundry man pointed out Bart’s residence, a modest rooming house near-by.

Boles had evidently been living there for some years as T. Z. Spaulding.  He told the proprietors of the rooming house that he was a mining engineer.  His frequent business trips coincided with Bart’s robberies up north.

Boles’ true identity was only discovered when a Bible inscribed to him by his wife was found among his possessions.  Eventually, he confessed to robberies committed before 1879 in the mistaken belief that he could escape prosecution by the statute of limitations.  The police report described him as, “a person of great endurance. Exhibited genuine wit under most trying circumstances and was extremely proper and polite in behavior. Eschews profanity.”

News of Black Bart’s arrest and trial drew national attention.  Boles was photographed several times and illustrations appeared in national as well as California publications.

Wells Fargo chose only to prosecute for the first robbery, for which they had a firm confession.  Boles was sentenced to six years in San Quentin.  He served only four with time off for good behavior.  None the less, harsh prison conditions broke his health.

Upon his release, he wrote at last to his abandoned wife.  He told her he was being constantly followed by Wells Fargo agents and felt helplessly harassed.  He expressed a desire to “get away from everything.”


Bart continued to fascinate and inspired books, fictional and historic, stories, songs, a comic book and this 1948 highly fictionalized Universal B-movie starring Dan Durey, Yvone DeCarlo, and Jeffery Lynn.

In February 1888 Boles checked out of the San Francisco hotel where he was living.  Detectives traced him to the Palace Hotel in Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley far from Black Bart’s old stomping grounds.  He checked in and then just disappeared.  He was never seen or heard from again.

Later other robberies were attributed to Bart, including one in which a poem was left behind.  But Pinkertons proved that Boles was not involved.  Some stories had Boles retiring quietly to New York City under an assumed name where he may have died in 1917.  Others think he went back to prospecting in Montana or Nevada and probably died in the wilderness.

Whatever the case, the legend of Black Bart the Gentleman lived on.


No comments:

Post a Comment