The Final Robbery Of 'Black Bart'
November the 3rd 1883, authorities almost catch the California bandit and infamous stagecoach robber called Black Bart; he manages to make a quick getaway, but drops an incriminating clue that eventually sends him to prison—a handkerchief with a laundry mark.
Who was Black Bart?
That was the question haunting Wells Fargo agents and law men in Northern California. Known as the gentleman bandit, or the Poet of the Sierra, Charles “Black Bart” Boles was a wanted man. Hiding behind boulders on dusty stagecoach routes, Boles would step out while brandishing a gun. His favourite targets were the Wells Fargo stages. He was polite, never fired a shot and usually left behind poems for the investigators.
According to many accounts, he was a veteran of the Civil War, fighting with the 116th Illinois Infantry Volunteers. In the military he reportedly earned the rank of sergeant. After the war, he returned to the family farm with his wife and three young daughters. According to all accounts, he didn’t swear, drink alcohol or use tobacco.
Years later, after his arrest in San Francisco, he admitted his guns were never loaded because he didn’t want to hurt anyone. He said he’d seen enough bloodshed during the war.
Black Bart’s first appearance as a bandit in California was Aug. 3, 1877, when he robbed a stagecoach making its way from Fort Ross to the Russian River. Using a double-barrel shotgun, he politely demanded the treasure box and mail bags be thrown to him.
After robbing a Quincy-to-Oroville stagecoach on July 25, 1879, he left behind a poem:
“Here I lay me down to sleep To wait the coming morrow, Perhaps success, perhaps defeat, And everlasting sorrow. Yet come what will, I’ll try it on, My condition can’t be worse. And if there’s money in that box, ‘Tis money in my purse.”
It was signed, Black Bart, the P o 8.
By the mid-1850s, stagecoaches and Wells Fargo wagons transported much of the huge output of gold from California. Often traveling in isolated areas, the Wells Fargo wagons and stagecoaches quickly became favorite targets for bandits; over the course of about 15 years, the company lost more than $415,000 in gold to outlaw robbers.
It is believed that Boles committed his first stagecoach robbery in July 1875. Wearing a flour sack over his head with holes cut for his eyes and a fancy gentleman’s black derby, he intercepted a stage near the California mining city of Copperopolis. When guards spotted gun barrels sticking out of nearby bushes, they handed over their strong box to Boles. He cracked open the box with an axe and escaped on foot with the gold, though his “gang” of camouflaged gunmen stayed behind. When the guards returned to pick up the box, they discovered that the “rifle barrels” were just sticks tied to branches.
He hit stagecoaches running from Jackson to Ione, Lakeport to Cloverdale, Laporte to Oroville, Ukiah to Cloverdale, Yreka to Redding and many others.
One stagecoach driver had the notion to catch Bart and claim the reward but he was outfoxed.
“Dan Shealy, a driver of a stage running out of Copperopolis, … told detectives, ‘I’d gotten about five miles out of old Cop when somebody sung out ‘halt,’ and I heard two sharp clicks. Seems as if the (horses) knew what’s the proper thing for they stopped as quick as if they’d struck a stable. Then somebody in the bushes asked me pleasant-like to hold my hat on with both hands for some buckshot might blow it off. … I dropped the express chest with $1,100 of Wells Fargo’s coin and drove off just like it was the regular thing. When the posse got back there they found an old ax that he’d used to bust the box, and on the cover he’d stuck this:
‘Once I toiled for gold in ditches, Now with ease I amass riches, Daniel; now I’m on this lay, I’ll come against another day.'”
The bandit hit Shealy’s stagecoach again.
“(Bart) was dressed in a long linen duster and had a flour bag over his head. Said he’d taken a fancy to my gun (last) trip, and I let him have it. But darned if he didn’t shove a $50 (bill) onto the box to pay me when he’d gotten through. … I remember the poetry he left that time. It was:
‘Daniel, it grieves me to say it, Next time you attempt to play it, Buy an overcoat of pine, And I’ll send the corpse in time.’”
Bandit was polite to women, but ‘merciless’ to men
“Black Bart, Shasta County’s notorious highwayman, asks all the people he stops to contribute to an orphan asylum. And, there is something so forbidding in his appearance that all the travellers shell out without asking where the asylum is, or how much it needs,” reported the Daily Alta California, September 23, 1882. “The rascal is described as being very ‘gentlemanly,’ never forgetting to raise his hat to the ladies, and seldom asking them for donations.
“But he is unmerciful to men, and they are never out of range of his deadly gun. Some day though, ‘Black Bart, the PO8 (‘poet’) of the Sierras,’ (will be captured). J.B. Hume, the express company’s detective, has gone to Redding to give chase to the highwayman.
“Black Bart despises Hume, but never fails to send that gentleman his regards after committing a robbery. He is a smart fellow, and has written some clever verses, forwarding them through the mails to different papers up north. After committing a highwayman’s act, he never leaves any traces whereby he can be identified. He very politely asks that the treasure box be thrown from the stage. Then he urges the necessity, at the muzzle of his gun, of the stage driver’s moving on, ‘Very quietly, sir, if you please.’”
Coach-robbing career comes to end
In 1883, he held up his last stagecoach. Thanks to a feisty stagecoach driver, the happenstance of a young man wandering nearby and the carelessness of Black Bart, his stagecoach-robbing days were over.
“Last Monday evening, the detectives of Wells Fargo & Co., of whom J.B. Hume is chief, succeeded in running down and capturing, after a long chase of about six years, one of the most noted and daring stage robbers of the country, ‘Black Bart,’ as he is generally known,” reported the San Francisco Bulletin, Nov. 14, 1883.
While attempting to hold up a stagecoach on Nov. 3, he finally left behind a clue.
“As the Sonora and Milton stage was running over the mountain road, a man, whose face was concealed by a flour sack that had been ripped open and cleansed, jumped from behind the thicket skirting the roadway and commanded a halt. The driver, McConnell, was compelled to get down from his seat, unharness the horses and drive them behind the conveyance. The robber then broke open the treasure box of Wells Fargo & Co. and took amalgam, valued at $4,100, gold and $550 in gold and silver coin.
“As McConnell drove the animals to the rear of the stage, he noticed a boy (nearby), carrying a Henry rifle (for hunting). He beckoned to him, and the lad came. The robber had secured his booty and was making off with it, when McConnell seized the rifle from the boy’s hands and fired at the despoiler. Black Bart ran.
“McConnell pursued and discharged three more shots at him. In running, Black Bart lost his hat, a little round Derby, and his handkerchief fell out of his pocket. (Later,) a further clue, another piece of property, which is presumed to belong to Black Bart, was found behind some rocks near the spot where the stage was stopped. This was the case of a pair of spyglasses, which it is thought he used to (spot) the stage from afar and to note how many were about it. On the handkerchief was a laundry mark, which was the means of securing his arrest.”
Dirty laundry leads to arrest
The investigators found a launderer with that mark in San Francisco on Bush Street. From there, they discovered the owner of the handkerchief was “C.E. Bolton,” who was staying at a nearby hotel.
Bolton, who also went by Boles, was put under surveillance and Sheriff Thorn got a warrant for his arrest.
“It was found that (Bolton) was a well-known man about town. He was thought to be a mining man, having conveyed that impression in the society of others by his conversation,” reported the newspaper. “His departures from the city at various intervals were accounted for on this supposition.”
They arrested him. On Nov. 16, 1883, he pleaded guilty and was sent to San Quentin.
A new life for Black Bart
When he was released from San Quentin on New Year’s Day, 1888, he vowed to give up his life of crime.
“He declared that he had robbed his last stage, and that when he got out he would lead an honest life. A model prisoner, giving no trouble to the officers, he has worked during the greater part of his imprisonment in the drug department of the prison, becoming an expert chemist,” reported newspapers at the time.
According to the Calaveras Heritage Council, when he stepped out of the gates of San Quentin, he was swarmed by reporters.
“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?'”
Boles said he hoped to use his newfound chemist skills to work for a druggist.
What happened to Boles after his release remains a mystery but one thing is certain – he never returned to San Quentin State Prison.
Despite some rumors that he returned to his life of crime, they were often proven to be copycat bandits. There were also rumors that Boles was hired by Wells Fargo as a consultant to dissuade him from robbing future stagecoaches. According to many reports, this was also a rumor that found print decades later in an east coast magazine.
An obituary notice for a Charles Boles was reportedly published in 1917, which would have put him at 88 years old, although his death was never confirmed.