I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Black Bart may or may not have emerged from his mother’s womb in New York. The year was 1829 and another story is the birth occurred in Norfolk in the east of England. The latter narrative has his family moving to the United States when he was about two.
In 1849, he and a couple of brothers headed west to make their fortunes in the California Gold Rush. Alas, others found the nuggets and gold dust and the Boles boys came away empty handed.
Charles did a stint in the Union Army during the Civil War, got wounded, and then went looking for gold again.
Black Bart's Change of Career
Boles had married Mary Johnson in 1854 and sired four children (some sources say two). He was away on a gold-hunting foray in 1871 when he wrote to his wife saying he had been badly treated by some Wells Fargo men. They had, he wrote, tried to elbow their way into a mine he was working and when he refused to cut them in they sabotaged his operation.
In the letter to his wife, he swore revenge against the company and Mary Boles never heard directly from him again.
On July 26, 1875, stagecoach driver John Shine was urging his plodding horses through a mountain pass called Funk Hill outside of Copperopolis in Northern California. A man waving a 12-gauge shotgun stepped out in front of the coach. He had a flour sack over his head with holes cut out for his eyes and a stylish derby hat on top of the ensemble.
He ordered Shine to throw down the strongbox that was under his seat. The robber said loudly “If he dares shoot give him a solid volley, boys.” Shine looked around and saw what appeared to be rifles sticking out from behind boulders.
The driver tossed down the strongbox and the mail sacks. The story goes that a female passenger also threw out her purse. The robber gave it back to the lady and said “Madam, I do not wish your money. In that respect I honor only the good office of Wells Fargo.”
We have to allow that the tale and dialogue has been liberally embroidered over the years, but it dovetails with Black Bart’s modus operandi. For, of course, the Funk Hill villain was indeed Black Bart.
According to Wells Fargo, he scored $348 that day, or about $7,000 in today’s money.
Driver Shine returned to the scene of the crime to retrieve the strongbox after Black Bart had escaped with the money. He was somewhat shaken to see those rifles still pointed at him but, on closer inspection, they turned out to be cleverly positioned sticks.
The Legend Builds
The Funk Hill robbery was the first of at least 27 others, all targeted at Wells Fargo, until his run ended in 1883.
He gave himself his nickname by leaving a couple of poems behind after his robberies that were signed “Black Bart the Po-8.”
Here’s an example of the criminal’s verse:
I’ve labored long and hard for bread
For honor and for riches
But on my corns too long you’ve tred
You fine haired Sons of Bitches.
Despite that, it was not Black Bart’s habit to use profanity during his many hold-ups. He treated the stagecoach passengers with courtesy and never stole a cent from any of them.
It was also not his habit to use violence; he never fired his shotgun, its presence was sufficient to encourage drivers to hand over the valuables. It turns out the shotgun was never actually loaded.
He always stopped the stagecoaches on foot because, it’s said, he was frightened of horses. He walked to the hold-up locations, sometimes covering 40 to 50 miles a day.
The Private Life of Black Bart
When not out on the trails of Northern California, Black Bart lived as a gentleman of leisure in San Francisco. He had a suite of rooms in a hotel, ate in the best restaurants, and informed anyone who inquired that he was “in mining.”
Gary Kamiya (SF Gate) writes that Charles Boles, as he was known around town, sported a luxuriant white moustache, gold watch chain, diamond stick pin, and wore high quality clothes; “he looked every inch the successful San Francisco businessman.”
He mixed with politicians, senior police officials, and the social elites of San Francisco. Of course, none of them had a clue about the nature of his day job.
Black Bart Slips Up
In November 1883, the robber returned to the scene of his first hold up. Having stopped the stagecoach and wrestled the strongbox to the ground he had the misfortune to encounter a young man who was hitching a ride and was armed with a rifle.
Shots were fired and Black Bart was wounded in the hand. The robber fled into a thicket but dropped a handkerchief with a laundry mark on it. Detectives working the case pounced on this and tracked it down to a San Francisco laundry. There, they were able to learn the identity of the handkerchief’s owner.
They tracked Black Bart’s movements and discovered that his “business trips” coincided with Wells Fargo robberies. In questioning, the dapper Mr. Boles denied any knowledge of nefarious activities such as stagecoach robberies.
However, his cover story soon fell apart and he confessed to one hold up. He drew a six-year sentence in San Quentin, got out early for good behaviour, and vanished, never to be heard from again.
Although, maybe not. According to the 2015 book, Black Bart, the Search is Over, the robber left prison and settled in Marysville, California. The authors say he lived into his 80s under the alias Charles Wells. No doubt picking a name that was a metaphorical finger to the company he hated.
- Henry N. Morse was the detective who finally brought an end to Black Bart’s escapades. In the tradition of colourful names Morse was known as “The bloodhound of the far West.”
- It seems Black Bart chose his nom de plume after reading the book The Case of Summerfield. The novel is about a villainous stagecoach robber called, you guessed it, Black Bart.
- It’s estimated that Black Bart removed $18,000 from Wells Fargo stages over the course of his career. Other bandits robbed the company stagecoaches of $400,000.
- In 1948, George Sherman directed a movie called Black Bart, loosely―very loosely―based on the exploits of Charles Boles (played by Dan Duryea). In the course of one hold-up Black Bart meets passenger, and beautiful dancer, Lola Montez (Yvonne De Carlo). He falls in love with the winsome Lola who begs him to give up his evil ways. He agrees, but first there’s got to be one more robbery …
- “Black Bart: American Robber.” Encyclopedia Britannica, July 20, 1998.
- “Black Bart: Man of Culture Led Secret Life of Crime.” Gary Kamiya, SF Gate, March 28, 2014.
- “The Poetic Tale of Literary Outlaw Black Bart.” Kat Eschner, Smithsonian.com, November 3, 2017.
- “Black Bart: California’s Infamous Stage Robber.” Blackbart.com, undated.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor