Black Bart: Daring Bandit Exposed by a Handkerchief

Last week’s blog featured Pearl Hart, the only woman known to have robbed a stagecoach in Arizona. This week, we look at another stagecoach robber, Charles E. Boles, better known to history as Black Bart.

Charles E. Boles

The man who the world would come to know as Black Bart entered the world in Norfolk, England in 1829. He was the third of ten children, eventually having six brothers and three sisters. His parents, John and Maria spelled their last name Bowles (and perhaps also Bolles). Charley, as everyone called him was only two years old when his parents immigrated to upstate New York. There they bought a farm and Charley enjoyed a normal upbringing for the time.

Charles E. Boles, a.k.a. Black Bart
Charles E. Boles, a.k.a. Black Bart

In 1849, word of the gold discovery in California spread east. Charley and a cousin named David decided to go “see the elephant,” as the saying at the time went. They arrived in California in 1850 and set up along the American River near Sacramento. Finding no riches, Charley and David returned home in 1852 but were soon back in California.

Back east again, Charley married Mary Elizabeth Johnson in 1854 and settled on a farm in Illinois. A few years later, though, the Civil War broke out. Charley, now spelling his name “Boles,” joined the 116th Illinois Volunteers. He made sergeant within a year and suffered serious wounds at Vicksburg. He also participated in Gen. William T. Sherman’s infamous march to the sea in Georgia. The army mustered him out as a First Sergeant on June 5, 1865, and he returned home to his family.

Black Bart Emerges

In 1867, with his wife’s agreement, Charley went prospecting again, this time in Idaho and Montana. He and a man named Henry Roberts established a claim in Montana. Two men offered to buy out the claim. When Charley refused to sell, the men cut of his water supply, crucial to the “long toms” he and Roberts used to sift gold from sand and mud. Without water, Charley and his partner had to abandon the mine. The men had some connection with Wells Fargo, which apparently stirred a long-lasting enmity against that company.

A Wells Fargo stagecoach
A Wells Fargo stagecoach

At first, Charley wrote to his wife, Mary, frequently, sometimes as often as four times a week. But the letters dwindled over time. The last known letter was from Silver Bow, Montana Territory dated August 25, 1875. When no more letters came, Mary assumed that Charley had died.

Charley was not dead, however. He had morphed into Charles E. Bolton, a dapper middle-aged gentleman who liked the fine things life could offer. Bolton dressed nattily, stayed in classy hotels, and dined at the finest restaurants. People who knew the courtly Charles Bolton had no idea that his alter ego was Black Bart, a notorious highwayman.

Black Bart, Stagecoach Robber

Charley robbed his first stagecoach on July 26, 1875, in Calaveras County, California. Holding a 12-gauge shotgun on the driver, John Shine, he politely but firmly ordered Shine to “throw down the box.” Shine did. Charley a.k.a. Black Bart netted $160, worth almost $3,900 in 2021 dollars.

Black Bart, P o 8
Black Bart, P o 8

Over the next eight years, Black Bart held up at least 28 Wells Fargo stagecoaches in various northern California locations. Robbery victims invariably described him as polite. He didn’t use bad language and he never robbed passengers, only taking the strongbox. Although he always wielded a shotgun, he never fired it. After his capture, he claimed he never even loaded it.

One reason for Black Bart’s enduring appeal is his reputation for leaving poems behind at the scene of his robberies. In fact, he only did so twice. After his fourth robbery on August 3, 1877, he left the following doggerel:

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, the P o 8

After his fifth robbery on July 25, 1878, he left this:

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 once,
My conditions can’t be worse,
But if there’s money in that box,
It’s munny in my purse.
Black Bart, the P o 8

The End of “Black Bart”

Black Bart pulled his last stagecoach heist on November 3, 1883. When ordered to “throw down the box,” driver Reason McConnell was unable to do so because the strongbox was bolted to the floor. Bart broke open the box with an axe, retrieving a sack of gold and some mail. Unknown to Bart, the lone passenger, Jimmy Rolleri, had hopped out of the coach to do some hunting. When Rolleri suddenly appeared out of the bushes, Bart beat a hasty retreat. McConnell fired two shots, which missed. Rolleri also fired, and that one hit Bart in the hand, forcing him to drop the mail. But he made good his escape.

A wanted poster for Black Bart
A wanted poster for Black Bart

Bart may have escaped with the gold, but he dropped something besides the mail: his eyeglasses and a handkerchief. Unfortunately for the gentleman bandit, the hankie had a laundry mark: F.X.O.7. Wells Fargo detective James Hume wore out a lot of shoe leather visiting almost 90 laundries in San Francisco. But he eventually found the establishment that had issued the mark, Ferguson & Bigg’s California Laundry on Bush Street. The laundry mark belonged to a man who lived in a modest boardinghouse.

The owner of the handkerchief gave his name as T.Z. Spalding. But police soon found a bible with his true name, Charles Boles, in it. Even so, Charley insisted his name was Charles Bolton.

Epilogue

Wells Fargo only pressed charges for the last robbery. The trial resulted in a conviction and a six-year sentence to San Quentin. He was released early in January 1888 for good behavior. Charley’s health had suffered from four years in prison. He had visibly aged, his eyesight was failing, and he was deaf in one ear. When reporters asked if he was going to rob any more stages, he replied, “No, gentlemen. I’m through with crime.”

A studio portrait of Charles E. Bolton in his later years
A studio portrait of Charles E. Bolton in his later years

Charley never went home to his wife, although he did write her. His last letter complained about Wells Fargo agents shadowing him. The last time anyone saw him was February 28, 1888.

A persistent legend says that Charley returned to his career as a stagecoach robber, and that Wells Fargo offered to pay him $200 a month to leave their coaches alone. There is no historical evidence to support this, and Wells Fargo vehemently denies it. But it’s still a good story.

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