Charles Boles (Black Bart)
Charles Boles was born in 1829 in New York state. When gold was discovered in California he was living in Missouri. In 1850 he and his brother, David, moved to the gold fields. They tried their hand at mining in several areas from Tuolumne to Shasta Counties. David Boles died of an illness in San Francisco in 1852. In 1854 Charles moved to Decatur, Illinois where he married. He and his wife, Mary, had two daughters.
In 1862, during the Civil War, Charles enlisted in the 116th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He saw action at Chickasaw Basin, Yazoo River, Arkansas Post, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Kenesaw Mountain and Atlanta. He achieved the rank of sergeant and was to be promoted to second lieutenant but the war ended before he received his commission. He was mustered out near Washington D.C, at the end of the war and he and his family moved to New Oregon, Iowa where they operated a small farm.
In 1867 Charles left his family and drifted through a number of jobs and locations in Montana, Idaho, and Utah before returning to California in the early 1870s. On July 26, 1875 the first stage coach robbery attributed to Black Bart took place on the Funk Hill Grade four miles from Copperopolis in Calaveras County. Eight years later, on November 3, 1883, at exactly the same spot, the twenty-eighth stage coach robbery attributed to Black Bart took place.
On November 12, 1883, Harry Morse (a Wells Fargo detective), following a lead developed from the laundry mark on a handkerchief found at the scene of the earlier robbery, caught up with a man who claimed to be Charles E. Bolton. After extensive questioning, Boles (AKA Charles Bolton) confessed that he was Black Bart and that he had committed the twenty-eight robberies attributed to him by Wells Fargo. As a result of a plea bargain he was expeditiously convicted of just one of the robberies and sentenced to an eight year term in San Quentin Prison. He began serving his sentence on November 21, 1883, just eighteen days after the robbery.
At about this time the California Legislature passed the Goodwin Act which provided for time off for good behavior. Charles was a model prisoner and was released on January 21, 1888, having served just over four years of his sentence. The San Francisco press criticized Wells Fargo and the authorities for what they regarded as a very light sentence. Rumor had it that Wells Fargo had interceded with the court on Black Bart's behalf. Wells Fargo adamantly denied the allegations. On his release from San Quentin Charles announced that he was through with crime and briefly took up residence in San Francisco. At some point in February 1888 he disappeared from public view.
Fact and legend have intertwined to make Black Bart one of the more colorful characters in the history of California. He was a polite robber who told stage coach drivers to "Please throw down the box." He never robbed any of the passengers on any of the stages that he stopped, but he did take the mail bags in addition to the Wells Fargo express boxes. In one robbery he returned the purse of a lady who had thrown it out the window to him. Although he usually used a shotgun to reinforce his demands he later boasted that it was never loaded. Whether that was true or not no one was ever injured in any of his robberies, except in the last robbery when he was wounded slightly in the hand.
On two occasions Black Bart left poems at the scene of the robbery. They were both signed "Black Bart, the P o 8."
On August 4, 1877 after the fourth stage coach robbery in Sonoma County between Fort Ross and Duncans Mills he left the following note:
"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"
On July 25, 1878, after the fifth robbery in Butte County between Quincy and Oroville he left the following note:
"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
But if there's money in the box
It's money in my purse
Black Bart, the P o 8"
Wells Fargo's chief detective at the time, James Hume, estimated that during his eight year career, Black Bart stole something less than twelve thousand dollars from the company. He also said that Charles had told him that the mail bags usually contained a bit more than the Wells Fargo box. If true, that would make Black Bart's eight year proceeds amount to about twenty five thousand dollars. Between robberies Black Bart turned into Charles Bolton, an alleged mine owner living the good life in San Francisco. When on the road practicing his trade as a highwayman he never used a horse and was a skilled woodsman capable of moving very rapidly from one place to another on foot. In fact he moved so quickly through the forest that on several occasions his trackers abandoned pursuit thinking that it would be impossible for a man on foot to cover that much ground. While assuming the mine owner persona he was considered to be a modest, polite, good humored member of society with a wide circle of contacts (including a number of fairly senior police officials).
Following his disappearance from San Francisco in February 1888, a plethora of rumors circulated as to his whereabouts and activities. Some said that he had fled to the Orient, some that he had returned to stagecoach robbery, many reports circulated that he had been seen here and there throughout California, and one story had him killed in a stagecoach robbery in Nevada. The only thing that is certain is that no one knows for sure what happened to him. (Always a useful element in a legend.)