Born Charles Boles, Black Bart was known for being a skinny, short and bald, man. To enhance his qualities he took on a supernatural look. He wore a long white linen duster over his clothes, and a flour sack with cutout eye holes over his derby-topped head. Never owning a horse, he walked to his crimes, carrying a shotgun so old and rusty that it wouldn’t shoot. In fact, the weapon was never loaded. Black Bart always worked alone, although he would frequently create decoy gunmen for back-up, placing wooden sticks on boulders to stimulate their rifles. Bart’s strategy was deceptively simple psychology. He would wait at a dangerous bend in the road where the stage was forced to creep along slowly. At just the right moment, he emerged as an apparition in the deepening twilight. As a gentleman bandit he plagued the stage lines of Wells Fargo and Company for over eight years during the 1870s and 80s. He relied on his quick feet for getaways, melting ghost-like into the brush. His deep, and hollow voice and polite confident manner added to this ghostly effect. Demonstrating a squeamish sense of humor, he frequently left a poem handwritten on foolscap paper in the emptied strongbox, which infuriated Wells Fargo officials. The two most often quoted of these Poems were;
First at the scene of the August 3, 1877, holdup on a stage traveling from Point Arena to Duncan’s Mills it Read:
I’ve labored long and heard 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 P O 8
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 await 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 money in my purse.
—Black Bart The P O 8
The Legend begins in late 1849, when Boles 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. Boles mined for only a year before returning home in 1852. He soon made a second trip to the California goldfields, accompanied by his brother David and another brother, Robert. Soon after their arrival tragedy struck and both David and Robert became ill and died in California. After mining for two more years Boles then moved to Illinois, changing the spelling of his surname to Bowles and marrying Mary Elizabeth Johnson. They had four children. By 1860, the couple had made their home in Decatur, Illinois.
The American 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 the Battle of 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 a letter to his wife in August 1871 he mentioned an unpleasant incident involving some Wells, Fargo & Company employees and vowed to extract revenge. He then stopped writing, and after a time his wife assumed he was dead, which is thought to have been the beginning of his criminal career. Over the next eight years Bowles was known for nearly 30 robberies in Oregon and Northern California, taking the names Black Bart, Charles Bolton, C.E. Bolton and Charley to his friends.
Bart was a Gentleman robber, on his first robbery in Calaveras County one of the passengers was so frightened she tossed out her purse. Bart returned the purse to the Woman and saying “Madam, I do not wish your money, in respect I honor only the good office of Wells Fargo.”
Bart’s list of crimes date from 1875 to 1883 to his capture:
2. Dec. 28, 1875, Yuba County: North San Juan to Marysville stage. Taken: Unknown.
3. June 2, 1876, Siskiyou County: Nighttime robbery on the Roseburg, Oregon, to Yreka, California, route. Taken: $80 plus mail sack contents.
4. Aug. 3, 1877, Sonoma County: Between Fort Ross and Duncan Mills, on Russian River. Taken: $300 in gold coins and a $305 check. Poem: First poem.
5. July 25, 1878, Butte County: Quincy to Oroville stage. Taken: $379 in coins, $200 diamond ring, $25 watch and mail sack cash. Poem: Second poem.
6. July 30, 1878, Plumas County: LaPorte to Oroville stage. Taken: $50 in gold, a silver watch and mail sack cash.
7. Oct. 2, 1878, Mendocino County: Cahto to Ukiah stage. Taken: $40, a watch and money from mail sacks.
8. Oct. 3, 1878, Mendocino County: Covelo to Ukiah stage. Taken: Unknown.
9. June 21, 1879, Butte County: Stage from Forbestown to Oroville. Taken: Unknown.
10. Oct. 25, 1879, Shasta County: Nighttime robbery on the Roseburg, Oregon, to Yreka-Redding, California, stage. Taken: Undisclosed sum from Wells Fargo and $1,400 from mail pouches.
11. Oct. 27, 1879, Shasta County: Alturas to Redding stage. Taken: Unknown.
12. July 22, 1880, Sonoma County: Point Arena to Duncan Mills stage. Taken: Undisclosed sum. Whether robber was Black Bart remains a point of contention.
13. Sept. 1, 1880, Shasta County: Weaverville to Redding stage. Taken: A little more than $100.
14. Sept. 16, 1880, Jackson Cty. OR: Second nighttime robbery of Roseburg, Oregon, to Yreka, California, stage, occurring one mile north of state line. Taken: Approximately $1,000.
15. Sept. 23, 1880, Jackson Cty. OR: Roseburg, Oregon, to Yreka, California, stage, robbed three miles north of border. Taken: Nearly $1,000 and mail sack.
16. Nov. 20, 1880, Siskiyou County: Roseburg, Oregon, to Redding, California, stage, south of state line. Taken: Unknown.
17. Aug. 31, 1881, Siskiyou County: Final robbery of Roseburg, Oregon, to Yreka, California, stage. Taken: Unknown.
18. Oct. 8, 1881, Shasta County: Midnight robbery of Yreka to Redding stage, near Bass Hill. Taken: $60.
19. Oct. 11, 1881, Shasta County: Alturas to Redding stage stops at Montgomery Creek for harness repair and is robbed again. Taken: Unknown.
20. Dec. 15, 1881, Yuba Count: Downieville to Marysville stage. Taken: Wells Fargo reports “small loss.”
21. Dec. 27, 1881, Nevada County: North San Juan to Smartsville stage. Taken: Wells Fargo reports “small loss.”
22. Jan. 26, 1882, Mendocino Cty.: Ukiah to Cloverdale stage. Taken: Unknown.
23. June 14, 1882, Mendocino Cty: Willits to Ukiah stage. Taken: Estimated $300 and mail sack contents.
24. July 13, 1882, Plumas County: Shotgun blasts foil Black Bart at LaPorte to Oroville stage. (A buckshot pellet creases the robber’s forehead, leaving a deep scar.)
25. Sept. 17, 1882, Shasta County: Second robbery of Yreka to Redding stage at Bass Hill. Taken: Thirty-five cents.
26. Nov. 23, 1882, Sonoma County: Lakeport to Cloverdale stage. Taken: $475 and several mail sacks.
27. April 12, 1883, Sonoma County: Lakeport to Cloverdale stage robbed again. Taken: $32.50 and mail sack contents.
28. June 23, 1883, Amador County: Stage from Jackson to Ione. Taken: $750 and mail sack contents.
29. Nov. 3, 1883, Calaveras County: Sonora to Milton stage is stopped at site of first Black Bart holdup in 1875. Taken: Possibly $4,764.
The last holdup took place on November 3rd, 1883, at the site, fittingly enough, of his first holdup, on Funk Hill, just southeast of the present town of Copperopolis. Black Bart, who had only a few run-ins with armed messengers, was ill prepared for his chance encounter with a hunter, 19-year-old Jimmy Rolleri. Armed with a Henry rifle for his deer hunt, Rolleri had been dropped off on the way up Funk Hill by Sonora-Milton stage driver Reason McConnell, who continued up the incline. Near the top, Black Bart, lying in wait, made his move. At gunpoint, he ordered McConnell to unhitch the horses and continue up the hill while Black Bart went to work on the Wells Fargo box bolted to the floor of the coach. While proceeding with the horses, McConnell spotted Rolleri and signaled to him. Once McConnell informed Rolleri of the situation, the hunter handed over his rifle. McConnell fired twice at Black Bart, missing him both times. Rolleri took the rifle and fired, winging Black Bart in the hand. The gentleman bandit fled, 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 trailed Black Bart since his stage coach robberies began (who allegedly looked enough like Bart to be a twin brother, mustache included) found these several personal items at the scene. Using all the evidence, statements, and eyewitness accounts on Black Bart 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 none other than Black Bart, who lived in a modest boarding house.
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.
Bart 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 Black Bart was “a person of great endurance. Exhibited genuine wit under most trying circumstances, and was extremely proper and polite in behavior. Eschews profanity.”
Wells Fargo pressed charges only on the final robbery. Under the name T.Z. Spalding, Black Bart 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?”
Black Bart’s end is in keeping with the way the romantics of his day would have wanted it. Charles 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 Black Bart 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.
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. 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.
Nevertheless, the vanishing of Black Bart is a mystery, a legend that looms over the west, like a gentle mist across the sky. Undoubtedly the way Black Bart would have wanted it.