“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!”
Imagine being the driver for a Wells Fargo stage and carrying money or gold from one town to the next when out of the brush steps a polite, slim man on foot, wearing a long duster and bowler hat, with a flour sack over his head –two holes cut out in order to see. Oh yes—and the man is carrying a shotgun.
“Throw down that box!”
* * * * * *
With a list of 28 known robberies in northern California and southern Oregon, all performed on foot with an amiable, polite nature, without foul language, and without firing a shot, Black Bart acquired notoriety during his lifetime and became a legend. In the midst of bandits and thieves who were brought down in a gunfight or jailed or hung from a tree, this man could not be caught!
Black Bart’s real name was Charles Bowles. He was born in 1829 in Norfolk, England and emigrated with his family to New York when he was a toddler. His early years were spent farming. In 1849 he sought his fortune in the California Gold Rush. In 1854 he married, and in 1860 he and his wife were living with their four children in Illinois. He served in the Civil War before returning home to his family in 1865. By 1867 he was off again, searching for gold in Montana.
In 1875 at the age of 46, he made his first $160 from a robbery in northern California. It was at his fourth hold-up that he left a poem he had written and signed it at the bottom Black Bart – PO8. A second poem was left at his next robbery. Although that is the total of known poems he wrote, it sealed his fame as the poet bandit. The other intriguing fact that marked his individuality is that, being afraid of horses, he always traveled on foot.
His final holdup took place in the exact same spot as his first in 1883, this time for his largest haul – $4200 worth of gold. In the years between, Black Bart did well financially as a highwayman. He would hold up a stage one day and the next day be fifty miles away. As he became more well-known, amateur sleuths would rush to the site of the hold-up to try to trace his tracks, only to obliterate them before the detectives could arrive.
Since he always wore the flour sack over his head, it took many years to put together a description of the gentleman bandit. Individuals who had talked with him in passing could not believe him to be the Black Bart. He was simply too pleasant, a “devilish nice fellow!” It was by a fluke that he was caught (and that is another story!) Wells Fargo detective J.B. Hume and detective H.N. Morse finally caught up to Black Bart.
Upon being processed for his sentence in San Quentin, he showed his spunk. On the form he is described as being five feet, eight inches, light complexion, and with a nearly white mustache and hair. He weighed 160 pounds. He declined using tobacco or alcohol or opium in any form. He didn’t use foul language. When asked about his education, instead of answering with the number of his completed grades, he simply replied, “Liberal!”
He spent four years of his six-year sentence and was released on good behavior in 1888. After that, he faded into legend—literally. People would say they had seen him, but he would slip away before anybody could be sure. Copycat poets and small-time bandits would say they were him. A Robin Hood-type legend sprang up.
Since then, Black Bart has been the fodder of dime novels, songs, stories, TV shows, and commercials. Roads, festivals, and parades, inns and restaurants have been named in his honor.
* * * * * * * ** *
I think it might be quite interesting to sit down and have a chat with Black Bart. What about you? Who would be your choice to talk with in history?
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