Friday, September 11, 2009

Black Bart, Gentleman Poet

Charles E. Bolton, AKA Black Bart, the PO8

THE stagecoach clattered down the final stretch of a lonely rutted coastal route that stretched from Point Arena to Fort Ross. The driver had forded the summer banks of the Gualala River without mishap to Fort Ross, perched on the edge of ancient sea terraces that jutted out in a thin band below the long coastal ridge. So far, so good.

At the crack of dawn, the stagecoach driver hitched up some fresh horses, and pulled out of the Wells Fargo stage stop at Fisk Mills nestled on the sleepy Sonoma coast below Stewart's Point. He waved goodbye to no one in particular, and swung inland near the Fort Ross cemetary, avoiding a stretch of impassable sheer sea cliffs that rose 1,500 feet straight up from sea level. There were few safe routes along this desolate section of the rugged Northern California coast. The stretch of dirt road on either side of Fort Ross was notorious for landslides.

The stagecoach climbed up the steep incline to Seaview Ridge (some folks called it the Campmeeting Ridge—due to a plethora of summer revival camps, I suppose). The stage followed the flat ridge south, and wended its way down Meyer's Grade without losing a wheel or other mishaps.

The driver had heard that the Wells Fargo stage was robbed just north of Fort Ross, near Henry's Station in 1877. Not on his watch. No sir. He had a clean record. He planned to keep it. People were still abuzz over the daring stagecoach robbery in Nevada County in 1875 and there was considerable speculation that the road agent haunting these parts was one and the same.

The driver never grew tired of the view of Point Reyes, and the Farallones from Meyer's Grade. Floating islands, he thought. How poetic. The mountains to the east of Creighton Ridge were impassable, with ornery names like Devil's Ribs, Devil's Backbone, Hellhole, the Brain, The Roughs, The Butcherknife. Black Mountain was like a knife edge, or an Oriental painting he'd once seen on a silk scroll in San Francisco.

He dropped down the switchbacks into Russian Gulch, his brakes smoked and howled like banshees as he descended down the ravine that dropped 1,400 feet to the sea. He needed to grease his axles in Guerneville. Bear grease was best, as it lasted the longest, but with all the weekend warriors running amok in Cazadero, it increasingly hard to find. 

The driver watered the tired horses, let the brakes cool and checked the axles for damage. He hugged the thin outer lip of the coastal mesa south toward Jenner, turned inland following the Russian River, and headed east towards Santa Rosa.

Rule Ranch, 1877 (Thos H. Thompson)

As he rounded the river bend toward the tiny outpost of Duncan's logging camp nestled on the floodplain at the confluence of Austin's Creek, he figured he was nearly at the end of a long run.

Next stop, Guerneville and then Santa Rosa. Maybe he'd take the Petaluma steamer down to 'Frisco for a little R&R on the Barbary Coast. He had some free time coming. No robberies to stain his perfect record. He always delivered. Maybe there was a bonus in it for him.

But near the mill, an outlandish strange figure dressed in a linen duster and flour sacks stepped into the road at Duncan's Mills and cried "Halt!"

The startled Wells Fargo driver reined up short and stared at the clownish apparition dressed in a long linen shroud, wheat bags shrugged up over his legs, a flour sack over his head, with slits cut out for his eyes—and topped by a black derby hat! He didn't know whether to laugh or quake.

The Well Fargo guard riding shotgun gave up any notion or idea of a sunstruck ghost feeling faint in the sizzling August heat when the "ghost" demanded that he "Throw down the treasure box."

The guard, looking down the working end of a very real 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun, decided that discretion was the better part of valor. Besides, it wasn't his money. Only $300. Too bad about the clean record. He unstrapped the stout metal and wood strong box and handed it down to California's most notorious outlaw.

When the apparition melted into the coyote bush on foot, the Wells Fargo stagecoach driver took off to Guerneville, lickety-split, cracking his whip and careening the stage along the dusty Russian River road to report the robbery. Maybe there was some free beer in it for him. Already he was working on his storyline.

When the sheriff arrived at the scene of the crime later that day, he noted that it was in the same place as the last robbery some three years earlier. The mail sacks were slashed in the characteristic "T" shape that was Black Bart's M.O., and he found the hacked up strong box abandoned in the bushes, devoid of cash and gold bullion—except for a scrap of paper weighted down on a stump with a rock, and scrawled on the back of the handbill was this message:

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 PO8 (Aug. 3, 1877)

So began the renown and extended literary career and sleight of hand of Black Bart, the Gentleman Bandit, who, for the next eight year, successfully hoodwinked Wells, Fargo and Company, relieving them of their petty cash to the tune of—or should I say
pome of—thousands of dollars a year.

California's first, and the most notoriously daring stagecoach robber of the Wild West, Black Bart both wooed the muse and dared the lawmakers to catch him by leaving a most unusual calling card—a note with a penned verse. Obviously this was a man with a lot of free time on his hands to hand scribe poseys at the scene of the crime. Another verse that was found in the smashed strongbox left at the scene of 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
PO8 (July 25, 1878)

The notorious stagecoach robber and gentleman po8, Black Bart caught the fancy of the public as a Robin Hood figure, and he managed to elude the law for nearly a decade until his capture in 1883. His eventual undoing was an expensive silk handkerchief dropped at the scene of his last crime.

Apparently the dapper C.E "Charles" Bolton, a San Francisco businessman, who had an interest in mining, had a big bone to pick with Wells Fargo and so he decided to lighten Wells Fargo stages of their payload.

Charles Bolton (aka Bowles) was born in Norfolk, England in 1829, and raised in upstate New York. He arrived at the California gold fields in 1849 with a cousin. After an unremarkable attempt at mining, he returned home to Illinois, but the straits of Chrysopylæ in California beckoned, so he returned with his brother. After his brother tragically died, Bolton returned the east coast, but he soon grew weary of the dull life of an itinerant farmer.

Bolton enlisted in the Civil War, fought at the Battle of Vicksburg, where he was seriously wounded, and in the winter of 1864, he served under Major General Sherman and participated in his March to the Sea. Bolton received medals and a lieutenant's commission, but he again grew weary of the ongoing monotony of farm life in Iowa, and took up prospecting in Idaho and Montana.
Sherman's March to the Sea

In August 1871, Bolton wrote a letter to his wife, Mary Johnson, who he had married in 1854, and had two children with, of a dispute he had with Wells, Fargo & Company. It seems Wells Fargo forced him off his land in Montana by strong-arming him, cutting off his water supply, making it impossible for him to mine his silver claim. Bolton lost everything including the mine to Wells Fargo, and he vowed to get even.

Thus began Bolton's life of crime. California's first stagecoach rustler, Charles Bolles/Bolton, was a man of many guises and aliases—including Charles E. Boles and T. Z. Spalding. He robbed his first stagecoach in July, 1875 in Calaveras County. He pretended he was with a gang of robbers and no one ever doubted him, mistaking his strategically placed sticks for rifles.

Victims reported that he was always well spoken and exceedingly polite, saying, "Please throw down the box," in a deep, resonant voice. If there were passengers on the stage, Black Bart was said to have spared them. At the Quincy robbery he reputedly told one woman, "No, ma'am, don't get out. I never bother the passengers." Another passenger reported that Bolton said, "I don't rob the passengers. I'm only after Wells Fargo."

Bolton quickly became the working man's hero, a self-fashioned Wild West Robin Hood, his escapades also made good copy for the tabloids. The highwayman's daring and sensational exploits delighted readers—and sold plenty of newspapers. Black Bart made good serialized copy. 

Stories and rumors spread like wildfire. One driver claimed he shot Black Bart in the head but he ran off, giving rise to the story that he was a ghost. Turned out  that Bolton, sensitive about his height, wore a bowler under the flour sack to give him more height.

During one robbery, Black Bart was reported to have said, "Sure hope you have a lot of gold in that strongbox, I'm nearly out of money." And near French Gulch, Bart quipped, "Hurry up the hounds; it gets lonesome in the mountains." In Shasta County, stage driver Horace Williams asked Bart, "How much did you make?" Bart answered, "Not very much for the chances I take."

Wells Fargo estimated their total losses to the hands of Black Bart at the sum of $40,000. Now even in those post-gold rush days, that was a lot of "stand and deliver,"  $40,000 still was a lot of moolah. I wonder what Black Bart did with it all. Buried it? Gave it away? He would've been hard pressed to spend $5000-6000 a year. Perhaps Wells Fargo grossly overestimated the actual losses they suffered at the hands of the notorious Black Bart.

Wells Fargo agents soon took to bolting the strongbox to the carriage floor in order to impede Black Bart's extraordinary progress. But there were so many lonely stretches of road that naturally lent themselves to highway robbery.

Black Bart, who pulled off at least 28 Wells Fargo robberies in eight years, often revisited the scene of his former crime sprees, and with great success. He favored steep mountain passes, where the tired horses pulling the heavy stagecoach were forced to a slow walk. The isolated stagecoach run from Clear Lake to Cloverdale was dubbed: "The longest 30 miles in the World."

Charles Bolton often took the train to Stockton and thought nothing of walking out 40 miles. He knew every road, trail and pass from Sacramento to San Francisco. Perhaps it was the sheer distances he traversed on foot that led him to the idea of robbing stages with such ease. No one expected to find a man on foot in the middle of nowhere without a telltale getaway horse.

During the early 1870s, the Sacramento Union ran a dime novel serial, "
The Case of Summerfield" written in the format of a deposition by lawyer William Henry Rhodes, who went by the pseudonym of Caxton, where a highwayman, Bartholomew Graham, AKA Black Bart, made a habit of exclusively robbing Wells Fargo stages.
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.... The Case of Summerfield
A strange case where reality mirrored fiction, Bolles/Bolton adopted the moniker of of the infamous Black Bart who was wanted for crimes against humanity and against Wells, Fargo and Company. And poetry has never been the same since.

Black Bart Wanted poster (UC Berkeley Bancroft Library) Since Black Bart was captured after he was finally identified, I suspect this is not a real "Wanted" handbill. Bolton was wearing the same distinctive tweed suit in several photos. However, there were several reward on his head to the tune of $800.

Black Bart's last holdup was—oddly—at the scene of his first crime near Bret Harte's mythical town Poker Flat, four miles from Copperopolis in Calaveras County, the Sierra foothills. Bolton was winged by a hitchhiker, a young man, Jimmy Rolleri, who had thummed a ride, and hopped off the stage earlier to hunt some deer or rabbits. 

When Jimmy later caught up with the stage, he surprised Bolton mid-robbery, matching his wits against a secured strongbox holding $4,700 in gold bolted to the floor, and Jimmy clipped him with his rifle. Bolton fled the scene with a gold bar, leaving behind his stash of food, a magnifying glass, and a bloody silk handkerchief filled with buckshot.

Ironically Black Bart's shotgun was never loaded. The "rifles" he had trained on the stage were merely sticks propped up in trees. Bolton was reputed to have said he didn't want to take a chance hurting any of his victims.

The silk handkerchief was Bolton's undoing. He was identified by a laundry mark when Wells Fargo detective (El Dorado Co. sheriff and Hangtown tax collector) James Hume and Sheriff Tom Cunningham of San Joaquin County who found the handkerchief, and exclaimed, "At last we have a clew!"

After visiting some 91 laundry steamies in San Francisco, Wells Fargo detectives
James Hume and Henry Morse traced a laundry mark, F.X.0.7. inked on the silk handkerchief, to The California Laundry on Bush Street that Bolton used. When who should walk in out of the blue but the elegantly dressed Bolton himself. Morse engaged Bolton in a mining scheme idea and when he cornered Bolton with some questions on stage coach robberies, the outlaw knew the jig was up, raised his hands and exclaimed in his best poker voice, "Gentlemen, I pass."

Charles Bolton pleaded guilty to the charge of one count of stagecoach robbery and was sentenced to six years in San Quentin prison on Nov. 21, 1883. Police reported that Bolton, who was missing two front teeth, with his graying brown hair and deep-set piercing blue eyes hooded under heavy brows, was "a person of great endurance." Witty under the most trying of circumstances, he was "extremely proper and polite in behavior. Eschews profanity." Bolton may have gone meekly to prison but he bristled if they made fun of his verses.

Bolton, broken, and in ill health, was released from prison some four years later, on a cold dank morning Jan. 22, 1888. Bolton was greeted by a thronging circus of reporters who asked if he was planning on robbing any more stages: Bolton threw back his head and laughed, "No gentlemen, I'm through with crime."

When the reporters clamored if Bolton intended to write more poetry, he chuckled and replied, "I repeat, gentlemen, I am through with a life of crime."

With that, Bolton disappeared into the void a month later, leaving behind his possessions at the boarding house, and he was never heard from again. Rumors spread like wildfire. He was said to be living like a king in Mexico City or New Orleans. 

But his work inspired copycat robbers to pen their verses left at the scene of their crimes. Agent Hume was called in several times to verify their poseys, but Hume (Black Bart's literary executor?) was sure their doggerel wasn't the work of the Gentleman PO8.

This is a very expanded version of an article I wrote in May, 1983, for The Paper (or the Sonoma County was written on their stationery, but they folded by then.) The problem with revising old text is in rendering the order of information. Where I began the story, in medias res, provided some complications in that I felt I had to set the scene, historically, for a wider audience. At the time, there was a publication just out on Sonoma County history and because the audience was insular (West Sonoma Co.), there was less need for setting the scene. Now it really reads like a dime novel! Oh well.

NB: as I uncover more information on Black Bart, this piece will probably change. When I first wrote this piece, there was no internet, and there was almost no ready information on Black Bart other than by word of mouth, and in a few old and funky Sonoma County history books. My friend Simone Wilson later co-authored The River of Time (1990). We often discussed Black Bart in great length. That was the backbone of her story. The stagecoach driver coming down from Fort Ross is solely my own invention.

For more information on Black Bart

Note Bene: The Black Bart photos are used with permission from Poltroon Press, and are from the UC Berkekey Bancroft Library collection—sorry, I don't have a link. (There's so little on the internet on Black Bart). I was working with Poltroon Press scanning my photos for an upcoming book, Life of Crime—Letters from the Black Bart Poetry Society, and wound up also cleaning this seriously damaged (electronic copy) of Black Bart in Photoshop. The original never looked so good!

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