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
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
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