“I’ve labored long and hard for bread
for honor and for riches
But on my corns too long youve tred
You fine haired sons of Bitches”
– Charles E. “Black Bart” Bowles, August 3, 1877
This was one of two verses left at the scene of stage coach robberies by the notorious outlaw known as “Black Bart”, a.k.a. the “Gentleman Bandit” or the “Poet-Bandit”, who pulled his last heist on this date, November 3, in 1883. Bart may be more accurately called a gentleman than a poet or even a bandit, because he only wrote two poems, and in his long career, he always was very polite, and never robbed a stage coach passenger. Never once did he fire at anyone, although he was fired upon, and he was wounded several times.
Charles Turns Prospector, & Soldier…
There is a great deal about this man which remains shadowy, but it is known that our man, Charles Earl Bowles (or Bolles) was born in Norfolk, England in 1829, though on what date isn’t clear. His parents John and Maria Bowles, immigrated to the United States and lived in Jefferson County, New York. Charles evidently had an adventurous nature because in 1849, he left with two of his
brothers in the great Gold Rush of 1849. He made a couple of such trips to California over the next several years during which two of his brothers died. But during this time he grew accustomed to the hard scrabble life of the miners; (above) sleeping on the ground with an ever-present uncertainty of reward. In 1854, Bowles married Mary Elizabeth Johnson of Illinois. They had four children together and by 1860 were living on a farm in Decatur, Illinois. This was Civil War time in America, and Charles, with his love of adventure and hard living enlisted in the Union Army – the 116th Illinois Regiment. He was a good soldier, being wounded several times and taking part in the siege of Vicksburg, and Sherman’s March to the Sea. By the time he left the army in 1865, he had risen to the rank of Sergeant.
And Then Turns Bandit…
But after the war, a return to the rooted life of farming was impossible to a man like Charles Bowles with his love of adventure. So he returned to prospecting in Idaho and Montana, abandoning his wife and four children. Mary got letters from him for a time, but after they stopped coming she assumed he had died. But in one letter in August of 1871, he mentioned having trouble with the authorities of Wells Fargo Bank, and vowed to get back what was his: “I am going to take steps.” On July 26, 1875 the Wells Fargo stage coach from Sonora to Milton in Calveras County, California was robbed by a man in a long duster-style coat, and wearing a potato sack over his head with two holes cut in it for his eyes. Atop his head he wore a Bowler hat. His voice was said to have been
strong and sonorous, saying only “Please throw down the box.” to the driver, one John Shine. This of course referred to the Wells Fargo Strong Box (above) which made the stage coaches such an inviting target. As he took the strong box, he yelled “If he dares to shoot give him a solid volley, boys!” Shine looked around himself and saw several rifles barrels aiming at him from the surrounding bushes. The bandit then plundered the box of it’s contents: $160.00 in cash, and walked away. Upon examination, Shine found that the rifle barrels surrounding him were in fact painted and carefully rigged… sticks!! This robbery featured several points which became trademarks of this bandit: he always wore the same garb, was always very polite, eschewing any profanity, he always worked alone, and always made his way on foot, never on horseback.
And Then Turns Poet….
Over the next nine years, the same assailant would commit nearly 30 such robberies in and near the San Francisco Bay area of California. Sometimes he would make off with a lot, and sometimes almost nothing. But it was the note with which this posting began found following a robbery on August 3, 1877, that he acquired his nickname and the label of the “Poet Bandit”, as he signed the verse “Black Bart, the PO 8”. The Old West produced a
good deal of cheap pulp fiction about gunfighters and bandits, and our culprit appeared to be a reader of it. A serialized version of a story about a robber of stages was published in the Sacramento Union in the early 1870’s. The main character in this series was a bandit who was called “Black Bart”, so it is assumed that this bandit got the name from that series, after his crimes began making headlines, with the Wells Fargo company leading the charge. Following a robbery on July 25, 1878, he left behind the following cheeky little verse:
“here I lay me down to sleep
to wait 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 theres money in that box
Tis munny in my purse
the PO 8″
And Finally Captive.
It was on today’s date in 1883 when Bart was stopped, but not until some modern-style detective work by Wells Fargo Detective James B. Hume. Bart tried to hold up the stage coach on the same road as his first holdup. Reason McConnell was the stage driver who picked up Jimmy Roleri for a ride on the stage. Roleri then left the stage to do some hunting. Roleri returned to the stage just as Bart was attempting to hold it up. Bart fled as soon as he saw Roleri with his rifle, with McConnell and Roleri getting off shots at him, and one of them hitting him in the hand. When Detective Hume examined the scene of the crime later, he found Bart’s hat, a lunch he had prepared and a bloody handkerchief which had the marking “F.X.O.7”. At a time when justice was largely a matter of posses and lynching, Hume decided to attempt tracking down the
owner of the handkerchief by using this odd marking. So he visited every laundry in San Francisco, and after he get through 90 such, he found the one that recognized the marking and was able to ID the customer who was behind it. It was a very dapper man according to the laundry employees, a “Mr. Charles E. Bolton” who was a respectable gentleman in the mining business. Hume was able to track “Bolton” to his address and after questioning, “Bolton” then admitted to being behind at least some of the robberies. And among his possessions was a Bible from his wife inscribed with his real name: Charles E. Bowles (above, circa 1888). Still even upon being caught he kept up his gentlemanly demeanor. Hume wrote in his notes: “A person of great endurance. Exhibited genuine wit under most trying circumstances. Extremely proper and polite in behaviour, eschews profanity.”
Bowles was sentenced to six years in prison, but got out after serving only four, for good behavior. Upon his release reporters asked him if he would continue robbing and he said no, he was through with crime. Asked if he would write anymore poetry, he smiled and said, “Now didn’t you hear me say that I am through with crime?” He never did return to his wife. He wrote to her though, saying that he was weary of being shadowed by Wells Fargo agents. He left his hotel on February 28, 1888 and was never seen again. At least not until he appeared in the fantasy in 1983’s “A Christmas Story” when he was successfully brought in by Ralphie and his trusty “Red Ryder BB Gun”.