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Pale Horse Revelations #47 - Black Bart

Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. where we explore significant people, places, and events in Old West history. While I make no promises, don't be surprised if some of these places, people, or events find their way into future Pale Rider adventures.

Today's foray into the past will introduce you to a notorious, if atypical, outlaw that has been largely overlooked by history. He was, perhaps, one of the most prolific stagecoach robbers of the era with a career that spanned nearly two decades. And he did it all without ever firing a shot. Get ready to meet the infamous Black Bart.

The man who would become known as Black Bart was named Charles Boles at birth. He was born in 1829 in Norfolk, England to John and Maria Boles. Charles, called Charlie by his friends, was the third of ten children, with six brothers and three sisters. When Charles was two his family immigrated to the United States, purchasing a farm in Jefferson County, New York.

At the age of twenty, along with brothers David and James, Charles joined the California Gold Rush of 1849. They spent several years prospecting in the North Fork of the American River near Sacramento before returning to New York in 1852. Charles would later return to California with brothers David and Robert. Sadly, both brothers fell ill and died shortly after their arrival. Charles carried on alone for two years, before giving up and returning back East.

In 1854 Charles married Mary Elizabeth Johnson. The outset of the civil war found Charles living in Decatur, Illinois with his wife and their four children. In 1862 Charles enlisted as a private in the 116th Illinois Regiment. A year later, he had risen to the rank of First Sergeant. By all accounts, Charles was an excellent soldier. His continued rise in the ranks, eventually making First Lieutenant, attest to this fact. Charles was wounded at the Battle of Vicksburg. Despite the serious nature of his wounds, Charles made a full recovery and participated in Sherman's March to the Sea. He was discharged on June 7, 1865, at the conclusion of the war.

In 1867 Charles returned to prospecting, this time trying his luck in Idaho and Montana. In a letter addressed to his wife and dated August 1871, Charles recorded an unpleasant experience with agents of Wells, Fargo, and Company. He concluded with a vow to exact revenge. It was the last Mary ever heard from her husband and she eventually assumed that he was dead.

But Charles was very much alive and making good on his vow. He adopted the name Black Bart and launched a criminal career that included at least twenty-eight robberies of Wells, Fargo stagecoaches. It was his approach as much as his success that set him apart from the typical outlaw of his day. His fear of horses prompted him to carry out all of his robberies on foot. He was unusually polite and sophisticated, which further set him apart. He dressed in a long linen duster and wore a bowler hat. For a mask he relied on a flour sack with two holes cut out for the eyes. And while he brandished a shotgun in the commission of his crimes, he never once fired it.

What really caught the attention of the public were the poems he left after the fourth and fifth robberies. The first poem was found at the scene of the August 3, 1877, holdup of a stage traveling from Point Arena to Duncan Mills, California. The second poem was left at the scene of his next crime, the July 25, 1878, holdup of a stage traveling from Quincy to Oroville, California. Despite the fact that these were the only two poems he left they captured the attention of the public and were considered his signature. They were a significant part of his fame.

Among Black Bart's known crimes are:

  • July 26, 1875: The stage from Sonora, Tuolumne County to Milton, Calaveras County was robbed by a man wearing a flour sack over his head with two holes cut out for the eyes.

  • December 28, 1875: The stage from North San Juan, Nevada County to Marysville, Yuba County. Initial reports indicated that a team of four men participated in this crime but provided a description of only one man. The other three were thought to be in the hills surrounding the stage. The driver swore that he had seen their rifles. However, investigators soon discovered that the "rifles" were actually just sticks wedged into the bushes. When the investigators arrived at the scene, they found the "rifles" used in the heist were nothing more than sticks wedged in the brush.

  • August 3, 1877: The stage from Point Arena, Mendocino County to Duncans Mills, Sonoma County.

  • July 25, 1878: A stage traveling from Quincy, Plumas County to Oroville, Butte County.

  • October 2, 1878: In Mendocino County, near Ukiah. Charles Boles was allegedly seen picnicking along the roadside before the robbery.

  • October 3, 1878: In Mendocino County, the stage from Covelo to Ukiah was robbed.

  • June 21, 1879: The stage from La Porte, Plumas County to Oroville, Butte County.

  • October 25, 1879: An interstate route was robbed when Bart held up the stage from Roseburg, Douglas County, Oregon, to Redding, Shasta County, California, stealing U.S. mail pouches on a Saturday night.

  • October 27, 1879: The stage from Alturas, Modoc County, to Redding, Shasta County.

  • July 22, 1880: In Sonoma County, the stage from Point Arena to Duncans Mills (same location as on August 3, 1877.

  • September 1, 1880: In Shasta County, the stage from Weaverville to Redding. Near French Gulch.

  • September 16, 1880: In Jackson County, Oregon, the stage from Roseburg, Oregon to Yreka, California. This was Bart's farthest known norther foray.

  • September 23, 1880: In Jackson County, Oregon, the stage from Yreka to Roseburg. On October 1, a person who closely matched the description of Bart was arrested at Elk Creek Station and later released.

  • November 20, 1880: In Siskiyou County, the stage from Redding to Roseburg.

  • August 31, 1881: In Siskiyou County, the stage from Roseburg to Yreka.

  • October 8, 1881: In Shasta County, the stage from Yreka to Redding.

  • October 11, 1881: In Shasta County, the stage from Lakeview to Redding.

  • December 15, 1881: In Yuba County, near Marysville.

  • December 27, 1881: In Nevada County, the stage from North San Juan to Smartsville.

  • January 26, 1882: In Mendocino County, the stage from Ukiah to Cloverdale.

  • June 14, 1882: In Mendocino County, the stage from Little Lake to Ukiah.

  • July 13, 1882: In Plumas County, the stage from La Porte to Oroville. This stage was loaded with gold and George Hackett was armed. Bart lost his derby as he fled the scene when it was determined that the Wells Fargo agent in LaPorte had supplied hardware to bolt down the strongbox. His derby was traced to him eventually through the laundry mark. The same stage was again held-up in Forbestown and Hackett blasted the would-be robber into the bushes. This was mistakenly blamed on Bart.

  • September 17, 1882: In Shasta County, the stage from Yreka to Redding; a repeat of October 8, 1881 (same stage, place and driver), but Bart got only a few dollars.

  • November 24, 1882: In Sonoma County, the stage from Lakeport to Cloverdale.

  • April 12, 1883: In Sonoma County, the stage from Lakeport to Cloverdale; another repeat of the last robbery.

  • June 23, 1883: In Amador County, the stage from Jackson to Ione.

  • November 3, 1883: In Calaveras County, the stage from Sonora to Milton.

The final robbery was thwarted by gunfire and ultimately led to Black Bart's demise. One of the two men on the stage was carrying a rifle and opened fire on Bart as he exited the stage in possession of the strong box. Bart was struck in the hand and forced to flee into the surrounding wilderness. After running a quarter of a mile, he stopped to wrap his wounded hand with a handkerchief in an attempt to stop the bleeding. Bart stuffed the bag containing the gold amalgam into a rotten log and hid the shotgun in a hollow tree. He kept $500 in gold coin and threw away everything else in his possession.

Among the discarded items were a pair of eyeglasses and a handkerchief with a laundry tag. The Wells Fargo detective investigating Bart's crimes found these items and ultimately managed to track down the San Fransisco based laundry that the tag belonged to. From the laundry the detectives were able to learn the identity of the handkerchief's owner and track him to his boarding home. There they learned that Charles Boles had claimed to be a mining engineer and his frequent "business trips" coincided with each of the Wells Fargo robberies.

Boles initially denied being Black Bart but eventually gave in and admitted to the crimes. However, he confessed only to the crimes that occurred prior to 1879, wrongly thinking that the statute of limitations for these crimes had come and gone. When booked, Boles gave his name as T. Z. Spaulding. This ruse was foiled, however, when investigators discovered a bible inscribed with his real name.

Wells Fargo decided to pursue charges for only the most recent crime. Boles was convicted in 1884 and sentenced to serve six years in San Quintin. He was released two years early for good behavior and due to his declining health. In February 1888 Black Bart simply disappeared. He was last seen on February 28, 1888. There are numerous theories and rumors as to the notorious outlaw's fate but none that can be corroborated. For all intents and purposes, the man just vanished from the face of the earth.

This brings us to the end of another edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you found it to be both interesting and entertaining. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting historical information while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own. 

As a reminder, I would love to hear your suggestions for topics to focus on in future editions of Pale Horse Revelations. If there's a particular location, person, or event that you would like to know more about, please let me know. Just fill out the Contact form found on the "Contact the Author" page of this website and indicate your desired topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.

Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.


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