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What Black Bart lacked as a rhymer, he more than made up for as a robber.

By J. Kingston Pierce


This legend begins at a desolate spot between Point Arenas and Duncan's Mills on the Russian River, just north of San Francisco. It was there, on August 3, 1877, that a lone highwayman wearing a long white linen duster and a flour sack over his head stepped out in front of a stagecoach, pointed a double-barreled shotgun at the driver, and forced him to halt. With the horses still sweating and the stage's dust settling in whorls about them, the bandit gave the four-word instruction that would become famous in Northern California over the next six years of his criminal career: "Throw down the box."

It was a "deep and hollow" voice, as the coach driver later explained, the sort of voice that brooks no disobedience. But the shotgun was even more commanding. Unhesitantly, the driver tossed over the wooden strongbox he was carrying for Wells Fargo & Company, and he was relieved when the bandit, with peculiar politeness, told him to ride on.

The box was later found -- empty. The mysterious brigand had escaped with $300 in coins and a check for $305.52, drawn on the Granger's Bank of San Francisco. But he'd left something behind -- a splenetic rhyme, penned on the back of a waybill, each sentence scribed meticulously in a slightly different manner, as if to confound handwriting analysis:

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.

The quatrain was signed "Black Bart, the Po8."

Most people who heard about this crime must have gotten a hoot out of Bart's clean getaway and his pretensions toward "Po8try." Wells Fargo, however, was anything but amused. Company managers put their offices up and down California on the lookout for this robber-poet, but their description of him could have fit thousands of men. The Granger's Bank check was never cashed. And Bart let his trail cool for almost a year before he reappeared.

* * *

His second strike was high in the Sierras, where he leveled his shotgun at the driver of a stage headed through the Feather River Valley, from Quincy to Oroville. Again, he told the driver to surrender his strongbox, only this time Bart's take was better -- $379 in currency, a diamond ring allegedly worth another $200, and a $25 silver watch. He also absconded with a US Mail bag, but the contents of that have never been delineated.

Bart's doggerel on this occasion seemed more confident than confrontational:

Here I lay me down to sleep

To wait the comming 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!

California Governor William Irwin posted a $300 reward for Bart's "capture and conviction." Wells Fargo added $300, and postal authorities threw in another $200. The price on his head only led Bart to take more chances, not fewer. He held up three more stages over the next week, all of them northwest of San Francisco. But contrary to legend, never again did he leave a calling card of verse, as if he was either suffering writer's block or worried that his literary calisthenics might somehow provide a clue to his identity.

Bart's modus operandi rarely changed. He made his stagecoach assaults in wide-open territory, near the crest of steep grades, where horses would be winded and slower than normal. He always had his loose coat and his flour sack with the eyeholes cut out, but there's some dispute as to whether he wore a derby on top of the sack in scarecrow fashion or underneath it to make him appear taller. His rifle was in evidence but never fired. He always cut the mail sacks with a "T," and he used an old ax to open the strongboxes, then left the ax behind.

Many of his victims described him as a gentleman. As the story goes, a frightened woman once tossed Bart her purse after he had ordered her stage driver to "Throw down the box!" He kindly returned it to her, insisting that all he wanted was the Wells Fargo strongbox and the US Mail bag. Such yarns made Black Bart a darling of the San Francisco press and, later, fine grist for dime-novel writers.

Although his crimes were committed far away from civilization, Bart never rode a horse, but instead walked with a blanket roll and camped out when necessary. Yet he covered a lot of ground, in three separate districts of Northern California: north of San Francisco, in Shasta County, and to the north of Sacramento. Even Wells Fargo was impressed by his stamina, describing their masked adversary as a "thorough mountaineer."

* * *

Ending the highwayman's career would be difficult, but James B. Hume, chief investigator for Wells Fargo, was determined to carry out the task. His first big break came in finding some people who thought they'd seen or even dined with a man who might be Black Bart. They'd encountered him walking cross-country in the general vicinity of Bart's crimes. One said the stranger had graying brown hair, with patches of baldness at the temples, two missing front teeth, a mustache, and slender hands that showed no evidence of hard work. They all remarked upon his gentility and added that, surely, such a well-mannered soul could not be a bandit. Could he?

Hume's second break came after what would prove to be Black Bart's last holdup, on November 3, 1883.

In the predawn of that fateful morning, Reason E. McConnell, a driver for the Nevada Stage Company, left the town on Sonora, en route west to Milton. Along the way, he stopped first at Tuttletown, where he picked up 228 ounces of gold amalgam from the Patterson Mine and locked them into his strongbox, which already contained $550 in gold coin and about 3.25 ounces of gold dust. Then McConnell made a second stop, for breakfast, at Reynolds Ferry, where he took on a passenger -- a 19-year-old named Jimmy Rolleri, who wanted to do a little small-game hunting down the stagecoach road.

McConnell was happy to have the company. But Jimmy wasn't seeing any animals, so when the stage had to go up one particularly steep hill, the teenager grabbed his repeating rifle and said he'd rather walk around it, maybe flush some dinner out of the brush.

The driver, then, was alone at the top of the hill when Black Bart confronted him from behind a shotgun's double barrels.

Bart, hidden beneath his flour sack, sensed immediately that things were wrong. First, he'd watched the stage coming and knew there had been two men, not one on board. Second, there was no strongbox to be seen.

McConnell lied about Jimmy. He said the boy had gone off in search of stray cattle. Bart wasn't satisfied with the answer, but had no time to ponder its implications. He had made friends with men at the Patterson Mine, knew there was gold on board this stage, and if it wasn't on top, it must be secreted inside. So he ordered McConnell down from his perch and told him to unhitch the horses and lead them over the hill.

While McConnell was doing this, listening all the while to the sounds of Bart ransacking the stage for gold, he spotted Jimmy Rolleri coming around the hill with his rifle. McConnell couldn't believe his luck! He immediately signaled Jimmy over, and together they crept back up the knoll.

Bart was just backing out of the stagecoach with the hidden booty when the sound of three shots exploded over the countryside. Bart rabbitted for the brush, clutching his loot but dropping a bundle of papers. By the time the driver and his sidekick could hustle down the hill, the robber-poet had skeedaddled. But there was fresh blood on the papers. Black Bart's blood.

And there was more. Bart had dropped his derby and failed to pick up some belongings that he'd sequestered behind a nearby rock -- bags of crackers and sugar, a pair of field glasses, a couple of flour sacks, three dirty linen cuffs, a razor, and a handkerchief full of buckshot. Without too much trouble, the Calaveras County sheriff located the woman who had sold Bart his provisions, along with two other men who'd seen a stranger matching the highwayman's physical description. But the clue that broke the Black Bart case was a laundry mark on that abandoned handkerchief: F.X.O.7.

* * *

It took a week of searching through San Francisco's 91 laundries before detective Hume's special agent on the Black Bart robberies, Harry N. Morse, found an owner to correspond with that mark: C.E. Bolton, a 50-year-old resident of the Webb House, at 37 Second Street, Room 40. And that wasn't all the luck Morse could claim. As he was talking with the owner of the laundry where Bart had taken his linens, who should walk by but the man himself.

He was five feet eight inches tall, bore his 160 pounds of weight in an arrow-straight posture, and had a light complexion. His deep-sunk eyes were bright blue. He sported a broad white mustache and an "imperial" (a pointed beard growing beneath his lower lip). He had small feet -- size 6. Photographs show him looking very much like his pursuer, the dogged James B. Hume.

Morse told reporters later that his first impressions of the unmasked Bart were of a man "elegantly dressed, carrying a little cane. He wore a natty little derby hat, a diamond pin, a large diamond ring on his little finger, and a heavy gold watch and chain.... One would have taken him for a gentleman who had made a fortune and was enjoying it...."

That was exactly the case, of course, although Bolton -- or "Charles E. Boles," as his name was given in a Bible left in his room -- denied initially that his gains had been ill-gotten. He claimed to be the proud owner of a mine on the California-Nevada border. Not until he was identified by people he'd encountered during the planning of his final crime did the bandit admit that he'd robbed the Sonora-Milton stage. And even then, it was only because he surmised that with one confession he might escape sentencing for many other transgressions. The judge proved him right on that account: Bolton-Boles got six years for a crime spree that should've kept him imprisoned until his death.

* * *

Reporters slowly filled in the details of Black Bart's life. He'd been born in Jefferson County, New York, and he had served with the Illinois Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, either as a captain or a sergeant -- the facts got fuzzier each time they were given. When asked what sort of education he'd had, he dismissed thoughts of schools or grades and answered "Liberal!," in a proud manner that was characteristic of him. Coming to California, he had evidently left his family behind in the Midwest, including a wife, Mary, who wrote to him in prison from her home at Hannibal, Missouri.

But there were still many questions remaining by the time Bart-Bolton-Boles was released, after serving only four years and two months behind bars. So it was no great surprise that he was mobbed by newsies on January 21, 1888, as a prison boat brought him ashore at San Francisco. Had prison life hurt him?, they wanted to know. No, Bart said, he felt very well. Did he intend to rob stages again? Bart shook his head almost violently and turned to go. One final question, said a reporter: Had he any more verses up his sleeve? At this, Bart seemed to perk up, to regain a bit of the self-confidence that prison had tried to sap from him. "Young man," the old highwayman replied archly, "didn't you hear me say I would commit no more crimes?"

At last report, Black Bart was heading south from the Bay Area. He got as far as Visalia...and then disappeared forever.

(Excerpted from San Francisco, You’re History!, copyright 1995 by J. Kingston Pierce. Reprinted with permission from the author.)

See also: William Ralston, Bret Harte and Lotta Crabtree by J. Kingston Pierce.


J. Kingston Pierce, a Seattle writer specializing in history, travel, and politics, is the author of San Francisco, You're History! (Sasquatch Books, 1995) and America’s Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997). He is currently at work on a collection of stories about significant events and eccentrics from Seattle’s past.

Index - San Francisco History : Black Bart