Sunday, September 13, 2009

Black Bart Rides Again


On August 3, 1877, the Wells Fargo stagecoach pulled out of Fort Ross and headed south over Seaview Ridge, down Meyer's Grade toward Guerneville. The horses were tired, the stage clattered along the dusty coastal route that linked Point Arena to the outpost of Duncan's Mills on the Russian River, without mishap. So far, so good.

But as he was nearing the end of his arduous journey down the sleepy Sonoma County coast, a strange, cloaked figure stepped out of the scrub and shadows on River Road and yelled, "Halt! We have you surrounded" The startled Wells Fargo driver reined up and stared at an apparition in the sizzling August heat. He rubbed his eyes. Was it a mirage?

A ghost dressed in a linen duster, wheat sacks on his legs, a flour sack over his head, topped by a black derby. He didn't believe the wild stories of a ghost bandit loose in these parts. But this was comical.

The driver soon gave up any notion of a sunstruck ghost when the "ghost" demanded in a deep, hollow voice, that brooked no opposition, that he "throw down the treasure box." And he waved his double barrel shotgun in punctuation.

The driver, looking down the working end of a very real 12-gauge shotgun, decided discretion was the better part of valor and handed over the strongbox with its $300 in coin, a cheque for $3.05, and a silver watch, to the notorious outlaw.

When the apparition disappeared into the chaparral on foot, the Wells Fargo driver took off to Guerneville lickety-split, cracking his whit as the carriage careening along River Road, to report the robbery.

When the Guerneville posse arrived at the scene of the crime, he noted that it was in the same place as the last robbery three years earlier, last July; the mail sacks were slashed with a characteristic "T" shape. "Yep, that's Black Bart's M.O., all right," he said to no one in particular.

The sheriff found the smashed strongbox in the underbrush, devoid of coin and cash. When he found the axe, he noticed a scrap of paper on a tree stump fluttering like a wounded bird, anchored under a rock He tossed the rock into the bushes and examined a waybill with a curious message in different hands, scribbled on the back:

I've labored long and hard for bread,
For honor, and for riches,
But on my corns too long you've tred,
You fine-haired sons of bitches.

Black Bart
the PO 8
Driver, give my respects to our friend, the other driver; but I really had a notion to hang my old disguise hat on his weather eye.
Respectfully, B.B. (1877)

And so began the dubious literary career of Black Bart, the Gentleman Bandit, who, for the next eight year, with numerous daring thefts, successfully hoodwinked and bilked Wells, Fargo and Company, out of $40,000, relieving them of their petty cash to the tune of—or should I say the pure po8try of—thousands of dollars a year. Someone quipped, that whatever Black Bart lacked as a rhymer, he sure made up for as a robber.

California's first, and most notorious stagecoach robber poet of the West, Black Bart, had left his calling card—a note with a penned verse at the scene of another crime. A second verse left inside a hacked up strongbox at a holdup on the Quincy - Oroville stage line, read:

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 there's money in that box, '
Tis munny in my purse.

Black Bart
PO 8
(July 25, 1878)

After the second poem, again, each line was written as if in a different hand, there was a price on Black Bart's head. Governor Irwin posted a $300 reward for the capture of Black Bart, PO8. Wells Fargo matched Irwin's reward and the US Post Office added another $200. An $800 reward for bad penmanship, bad poetry, and a whole lot of Wells Fargo's moolah.

The $800 bounty merely upped the ante, Black Bart brazenly robbed three more stages that week alone, but the reward went unclaimed for five years. But never again did he leave his calling card of odd verse at the scene of any crime. Perhaps Black Bart, with his busy burglary schedule, suffered from writer's block.

Apparently C.E "Charles" Bolton, a retired San Francisco mining engineer, had a bone to pick with Wells Fargo and so he decided to lighten Wells Fargo and Company stagecoaches of their payload.

Bolton was born Charles Bolles, in Norfolk, England in 1829, was raised on a farm in upstate New York from age two, and at age 20, he arrived to the California gold fields in 1849, and eventually changed his name to Bolton. After five unsuccessful years of mining ventures on the North Fork of the American River with his cousin and brother, Bolton returned to Illinois after his brother, Robert, died tragically in San Francisco.

Bolton married Mary Johnson in 1854, settled down to raise a family, but soon grew tired of the farmer's life in Illinois.

Bolton enlisted in the Civil War and fought at Vicksburg, where he was seriously wounded, and General Sherman's March to the Sea. He received medals and a commission, but grew weary of civilian life. His feet were itching, so in 1867, he took up prospecting in Idaho and Montana.

In August 1871, Bolton wrote a last letter to his wife, of a dispute with some Wells, Fargo & Company employees who had ruthlessly forced him off his land in Montana by cutting off his water supply, making it impossible for him to mine his silver claim. He vowed to get even.

And thus began Bolton's life of crime. And poetry. Charles Bolton—a man of many aliases including Charles E. Bowles/Boles/Bolles, and T. Z. Spalding when he was arrested, robbed his first stagecoach in July, of 1875 in Calaveras County. His favored pseudonym was "Black Bart."

During the early 1870s, the Sacramento Union ran a weekly serial, a dime novel, "The Case of Summerfield" where a highwayman, Bartholomew Graham, AKA Black Bart, made a habit of robbing Wells Fargo stages.

A case where reality mirrored fiction, Bolton adopted the moniker. The description and persona suited him to a "T."

"He [Black Bart] is five feet ten inches and a half in height, thick set, has a mustache sprinkled with gray, grizzled hair, clear blue eyes, walks stooping, and served in the late civil war....It is said that he was engaged in the late robbery of Wells & Fargo's express...."
— Caxton, "The Case of Summerfield"
The real Black Bart made good editorial copy, he was the press and the public's darling. An eyewitness later described him as having graying brown hair and deep-set piercing blue eyes under heavy brows.

What made the crimes unusual was that stagecoach passengers reported that Bolton was always very polite, saying, "Please throw down the box." He was a real Robin Hood, always courteous, never robbed them, making a point of returning their items, with a poetic bow or flourish, saying, "Ma'am, I don't rob passengers. I'm only after Wells Fargo."

Bolton often took the train to Stockton and thought nothing of walking 40 miles into the hills, a soldier's quirk he picked up during the Civil War. He knew every road, trail and pass from Sacramento to San Francisco like the back of his hand. And then some. Even Wells Fargo was impressed with his prowess, describing him as a very "thorough mountaineer."

Perhaps it was because of the sheer distances he routinely traversed on foot that gave him the idea to rob Wells Fargo stages. A highwayman riding shank's mare? No one expected to find a man on foot in the middle of nowhere without a telltale getaway pony.

Black Bart, who pulled off at least 28 robberies in eight years, often revisited the scene of his last crime spree, with great success. He favored steep mountain passes, where the exhausted horse team pulling a heavy stagecoach laden with gold, were forced to a slow walk.

Wells Fargo began bolting the strongbox to the carriage floor of the stages to impede Black Bart's progress. But there were so many lonely stretches of road that naturally lent themselves to highway robbery. The stagecoach run from Clear Lake to Cloverdale was dubbed "The longest 30 miles in the World."

There's a road named after Black Bart between Forbestown, once a large mining center, and Robinson Mills i(near Oroville). During one hot summer day in July, 1878, Black Bart held up a stage on the road from La Porte to Oroville. A traveler tried to give her valuables to Black Bart who leld up his hand and said: "No lady, don't get out. I never bother the passengers. Keep calm. I'll be through here in a minute and on my way." He nabbed the Wells Fargo strong box with $50 in gold and a silver watch, the mail sacks, and disappeared into the seething heat.

During one robbery Black Bart quipped, "Sure hope you have a lot of gold in that strongbox, I'm nearly out of money." In Shasta County, stage driver Horace Williams asked Bart, "How much did you make?" Bart answered, "Not very much for the chances I take."

And near French Gulch Bart said, "Hurry up the hounds; it gets lonesome in the mountains." Black Bart eluded the law for nearly a decade until his capture in 1883. His eventual undoing was a silk handkerchief he dropped at the scene of his last crime.

Black Bart's last holdup was—oddly—at the scene of his first crime on Funk Hill, near Copperopolis, in the Sierra foothills. Though he escaped into the hills with one gold bar after he was winged by a young hotshot hitchiker, Jimmy Rolleri, as he was trying to free the strongbox bolted to the stagecoach floor, Black Bart dropped a bloodied silk handkerchief at the scene of the crime.

Bolton was eventually identified by a laundry mark on the handkerchief and duly captured when Wells Fargo detective James Hume and Sheriff Tom Cunningham found the handkerchief, and exclaimed, "At last we have a clew!"

After visiting some 91 laundries in San Francisco, Wells Fargo detectives James Hume and Henry Morse traced a laundry mark, F.X.0.7., on the handkerchief to a Bush Street laundry that Bolton used. When who should walk in out of the blue but the dapper Bolton himself. Hume was startled, the resemblance was uncanny, he thought he was looking at his double in a mirror—right down to the broad white mustache.

Morse noted that Bolton was "elegantly dressed, carrying a little cane.... a natty little derby hat, a diamond pin, a large diamond ring on his little finger, and a heavy gold watch and chain.... One would have taken him for a gentleman who had made a fortune and was enjoying it...." At Wells Fargo's expense.

Hume and Morse engaged Bolton in conversation about mining investment schemes. They discovered that Bolton took frequent "business trips" that coincided with Wells Fargo robberies. Back at the Wells Fargo office, Hume's questions took another turn, stagecoach robberies. When an eyewitness identified him, Bolton knew the jig was up, raised his hands and exclaimed, "Gentlemen, I pass." He confessed that he was indeed "the P 08." Bolton may have gone meekly to his arrest but he bristled when they made fun of his verses.

Charles Bolton pleaded guilty to the charge of one count of stagecoach robbery (and two counts of poetry); he was sentenced to six years in San Quentin prison on Nov. 21, 1883.

Police reported that Bolton was a model prisoner. He was "a person of great endurance." Witty under the most trying of circumstances, he was "extremely proper and polite in behavior. Eschews profanity."

Black Bart's shotgun was never loaded. The "rifles" he had trained on the stage were merely sticks propped up in trees. He worked alone. His gang was an imaginary sleight of hand. Bolton was reputed to have said that he didn't want to take a chance of hurting any of his victims. "I never robbed a passenger or ill-treated a human being," he said.

After his early release from prison for good behavior, on Jan. 22, 1888, and in failing health, Bolton answered the bevy of reporters flooding the prison boat, one wanted to know how prison life treated him, another asked: did he intend to rob any more stages? He shook his head no, and said, "Gentlemen, I'm through with crime." One reporter pressed Bolton, did he intended to write more poetry verses? Bolton threw back his head and chuckled, "Now didn't you hear me say I was through with crime? I repeat, gentlemen, I am through with a life of crime."

Without so much as a goodbye, a month later, Bolton disappeared, leaving his belongings behind in a boarding house, and he was never heard from again. Wild rumors spread: he was spotted in Mexico City, living the life of a king. Or in New Orleans. He was never seen again.

But his work inspired many copycat robbers to pen their own verses left at the scene of their crimes.

So here I've stood while wind and rain
Have set the trees a-sobbin,'
And risked my life for that damned box,
That wasn't worth the robbin'

Agent Hume was called in several times to verify their poseys, but after examining the handwriting, Hume (Black Bart's literary executor?) declared; their doggerel was the work a copycat—it didn't match the work of the Gentleman PO8.

* * *

In May, 1983, in an irreverent history-making attempt— some 100 years after the capture of Black Bart—Sonoma County's own Black Bart Poetry Society held its first (and last) annual poetry festival and membership drive. Over 100 paying audience members were were held captive by poetry at the On Broadway Theatre in San Francisco's North Beach district.

Among the luminaries at the first and last Black Bart Poetry Festival were Beat poets Bob Kaufman, Joanne Kyger, and Bobbie Louise Hawkins; Sonoma State's novelist, Jerry Rosen, and Steve LaVioie, as well as other Bay Area poets. Steve Abbott, Cole Swensen, and Dave Benedetti also performed sets. One featured performer, [NPR's "All Things Considered"] Andrei Codresciu, was unable to attend, but sent his regrets.

The Black Bart Poetry Festival also aired the experimental films of William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlingetti, and Kenneth Patchen as well as streaming live feed overhead videos of the performers in action. Sets were broken up with punk-rock riffles by bass player Dan Schiff.

In an irreverant history making surrender to creative anarchy, Monte Rio's own Po8 Laure8, Pat Nolan and his sidekick in crime, Steve LaVoie, co-founders of the Black Bart Poetry Society, also held their first annual paid membership drive at penpoint. There were few takers.

Besides cajoling patrons to sign up for the "Life of Crime" newsletter, there were featured readings, video loops and random music events. Nolan interviewed several prominent poets and he has plans to produce a video essay on the current State of the Arts in Bay Area Poetry.

The Black Bart Poetry Society whose sole motto is,"For those who think poetry is a crime" was named after the illustrious outlaw with the nome de plume of Black Bart. Black Bart robbed many Wells Fargo stage coaches from Marin to Mendocino—the epicenter of his nefarious activities was in Sonoma—especially the Russian River area were among his favorite harvesting grounds.

Black Bart's colorful history and infamous motto certainly adds an ironic twist to the folk song, Pretty Boy Floyd, "some rob you with six guns; some rob you with a fountain pen." Black Bart always signed his highway robberies with a poem—his trademark, the PO8.

If you think poetry is a crime, or have a momentary lapse in judgment and wish to join BBPS to submit some of your own doggerel, call Outlaw in Chief, Pat Nolan at (707) 865-1253. Says Monte Rio’s PO8 Laure8, Nolan, “All Outlaw Members will be held responsible for memorizing the monthly newsletter that comes out sporadically, at best.”

Future plans include a Black Bart doggerel poetry contest to be held at Duncan's Mills, reputed to be the scene of the original crime.






BLACK BART POETRY FESTIVAL PHOTOS


Bob Kaufman & Pat Nolan


Bob Kaufman & Pat Nolan




Pat Nolan

Steve Abbott & Mimi Mimeaux

Lynn Wildly & ?? ANYONE KNOW WHO THIS IS?

Jerry Rosen

David Moe

HD David Moe




Cole Swensen & David Benedetti


Rod Iverson & Pat Nolan

Steve LaVoie, Gail KIng, Bill Hawley & wife, Susan, Phil & Tony Cotouri


Bobbie Louise Hawkins & Pat Nolan

Bobbie Louise Hawkins & Pat Nolan

Gail King & Bobbie Louise Hawkins


Bobbie Louise Hawkins

Lee Perron looking a little insane between sets





Lee Perron

David Benedetti

Alastair Johnston



Joanne Kyger
Alastair Johnston




















Pat Nolan & Steve LaVoie















© 1983 & 2009 Maureen Hurley Photo. Photos may not be used without express permission from me (except for Alastair Johnston). That's the fine print.

(a shorter version of this article was published in The Paper, Guerneville, CA, 5/83). The problem with revision is that it's endless. The previous version of Black Bart (9/11/09) and its endless revision took me two full days with no time off for lunch. This one ate up most of my Sunday. It's done by virtue of the fact that I'm sick of it. I've sent it onto its fate, whether it appears in the upcoming book, in its entirety, or in a vastly abbreviated format, or not at all, I'm done with it—or it's done with me. I later realized that I nicked the title from a later article I wrote on Black Bart & E. Clampus Vitis (next on board for the preservation of elderly typescript articles written in my hasty youth.) And what will I do for a title?

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