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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

Poet Robber in Old West Was Feared by All

By Paul Niemann

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[January 10, 2008]  In San Francisco during the 1870s, there was a well-respected little gentleman in his 50s named Charles Boles. He was a spiffy dresser who wore diamonds and had gray hair and walked with a cane. Not many people have heard of Charles Boles, but you've heard of his nickname.

Born in 1829 in England, Charles was the seventh of nine children of John and Maria Bowles; he would drop the "w" in his name before he got married, and became Charles Boles. He and his wife Mary had four children of their own.

Charles was a Civil War veteran on the Union side. After the war he moved out West to become a gold miner, first in Montana and then on to California. No one would have ever suspected that Charles Boles would live a life of crime.

Charles stayed at the finest hotels and ate at the best restaurants. He wore expensive jewelry and lived well. That's where his problems began, as he was unable to keep up his expensive lifestyle on his meager earnings.

He needed another source of income, and he wasn't afraid to break the law to get it. Back in 1871, when he was running a mine in Montana, he was approached by several men connected with Wells Fargo who offered to buy him out. When he refused, the men had his water supply cut off, effectively ending his mining operation. Charles Boles vowed to get even with Wells Fargo.

He got even with them in a big way by robbing their stagecoaches. Imagine a little old man in his 50s who walked with a cane becoming a robber! He would leave San Francisco for weeks, sometimes even months, at a time.

Every one of his, uh, "customers" would throw down the money when Charles came a-calling, because Charles took his nickname from a book's fictional character named Bartholomew Graham. The character's reputation struck fear in the minds of readers, and Charles Boles was able to tap into that fear.

He would wear a mask and a hat, and a couple of his victims received a poem that Charles had written about his robberies. He signed the notes as "P o 8" (pronounced as "poet").

So who was this masked man -- the well-respected, gray-haired gentlemanly poet who dressed so well and walked with a cane?

None other than Black Bart!

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During an eight-year span from 1875 to 1883, he committed 28 robberies. Black Bart's days as a robber came to an end at a mountain pass near Copperolis, Calif., when he approached a stagecoach driver who had allowed a friend to ride along. The friend came along because he thought it would be a good day to do some hunting along the route.

It was this final robbery that provided the evidence leading to his arrest. While you would think that a robber would meet his end by getting shot, it was instead a piece of laundry that did him in. The stagecoach driver's friend did shoot at Black Bart, but he missed him.

Black Bart spent at least a half-hour opening the Wells Fargo strongbox with an ax. When his hand started bleeding, he wrapped it in a handkerchief. It was this handkerchief -- with a laundry mark that read "F.X.O.7" -- that turned out to be the piece of evidence that ended his career. He ended up walking and running more than 100 miles through the mountains to get to Sacramento. He arrived in San Francisco soon after that.

Investigator Harry Morse, who was hired by Wells Fargo for the sole purpose of catching Black Bart, began calling on San Francisco's 91 laundries, showing the F.X.O.7 handkerchief to each one. About a week later, they had their man.

In the end, Charles Boles, aka Black Bart, served 4 1/2 years of a six-year sentence in San Quentin prison.

There's one other thing that you might not have known about Black Bart, the robber poet who became a notorious outlaw in the Old West. He never once fired a shot at any of his victims. It would have been impossible for him to do so, because he never loaded his gun!


Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2008

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