Black Bart – PO8 (poet)

“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.

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
Charles Bowles (aka Black Bart) Creative Commons

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.

Concord Stage
Concord Stage – Wells Fargo Stagecoach
(Creative Commons)

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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36 thoughts on “Black Bart – PO8 (poet)”

  1. Interesting fellow – Mr. Charles Bowles. I admire his quirkiness and polite manners, though not his thievery (of course!). I can’t help but wonder what his wife thought of his activities. Did she know? Or since he was away hunting gold was she completely oblivious? In my imagination, she had no idea and was terribly shocked when he went to prison. Wonder if she welcomed him back after he was released? The storyteller in my is intrigued. 🙂

    • Hi Karen.

      Thanks for stopping! Yes– he is quite intriguing! I also wondered about his wife and children He did write home a time or two and I myself wondered if he sent money when he did. A man with his upbringing and slightly askew morals seems like someone who would–although I doubt that she knew. In one letter to her before his started on his life of crime, he mentioned that he had been treated poorly by Wells Fargo.

  2. I’d like to talk to my 5 times great-grandfather Jesse who was born in 1765 in North Carolina, and who lost his father Jeffrey at just 14 and the family farm as well which was right in the middle of the action of the American Revolution. Jesse grew up in NC, but later moved to Augusta, Ga., with his wife’s family, and then again after winning a land lottery to more central Ga. Finally, with his grown sons he moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he lived until passing in 1852. Quite old for that time.

    I know quite a bit about Jesse’s father Jeffrey and his grandfather Edward who came to Penna. in the 1680s, but for some reason unknown to me I’ve always been “pulled” toward Jesse. Oh how I’d like to talk to him and see history and family through his eyes. But, I wouldn’t turn down the chance to meet any of my ancestors first hand!

    It’s not “just” genealogy to me, and I felt this way a long time even before I lost my mom last year, the very last member of our family besides my son and me. MY ancestors are “living” for me in a way–if that doesn’t sound too crazy.

    • Hi Eliza,
      thanks for stopping by and commenting! I enjoy your posts so much–always very thoughtful and rich. I “get” what you mean about your ancestors living still and it does not sound crazy to me at all. I feel the same connection. They have handed down your genes (the good ones and the bad!) so no wonder they feel close to you.

  3. I’d like to talk to Charles Darwin. Or maybe to one of my relatives who -supposedly- was a pirate. Not in the Caribbean, though.

  4. Oh boy… so many individuals through time that it would be interesting to talk to… especially the bad guys… what made them who they became, why steal or even where they hid things…

    • Hi Colleen,
      I agree–I’ve always wondered why “bad” guys chose the path they did. Some, I think were so smart they thought they could get away with it, some were so dumb they thought they could get away with it, some where driven to it perhaps by their upbringing…some probably where sociopaths…and I’m sure there are a host of other reasons. That’s what makes Black Bart so interesting. He seemed to have morals…and yet he stole money.

  5. What an interesting fellow! Evidently, he was a bad guy who was really a decent man. I would love to talk to my great-grandfather who lived in a sod house in South Dakota.

    • Hi Cheryl!

      Thanks for stopping by Wildflower Junction. That would be an interesting conversation! I have several long gone relatives that I would like to talk to. I’ve heard bits and pieces over the years that my mother has discovered through genealogy research.

  6. Well, actually I’m from Finland. My guess is, if he indeed was a pirate, he was causing problems on the seas in Europe.

  7. There are so many historical figures both well known and not so well known with whom I’d love to sit down and chat…. There’s no way I could pick just one.

  8. That is just about how I feel! I think sitting down and talking to Wyatt Earp would be pretty interesting though.

  9. Weddings and anthologies, a great combination.
    Thank you for an interesting post on Black Bart. Did they ever find out why he turned to robbery?

    If I could go back in time, it would be interesting to talk with the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, especially Sacajawea.

    • Hi Patricia,

      His wife received a letter while he was searching for gold in Montana (just before he moved to California). In it he complained that he had been wronged by Wells Fargo. The book I read for research did not go any deeper than that. And then it was about a year later that he executed his first robbery in norther California.

      I’m so glad that Sacajawea is one woman who was not forgotten by male historians when history was written. It would be something to talk with her!

  10. I love anything on Charles Boles, aka Black Bart. I coauthored the first and only fictionalized biography of Charles in 2008; the novel placed in the Jack London Novel Contest and last year I appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s and Fox’s “Legends and Lies” episode on Charles. Our novel was based on six years and 12,000 miles — tracking every place that Charles lived. He did indeed abandon his wife and children after losing his only son, youngest of the children. He was a man of great intelligence and wit and here in our region (I live in the area that he traveled and held up stages), a number of people came to know him — of course, never knowing his real identity. He and James Hume were in many ways two sides of the same coin and Hume was determined to capture Charles, which he did after Jimmy Rollieri got a shot off after Charles held up the stage (at Copperopolis, the same site of his first hold up). He ran and dropped his handkerchief, which eventually led detectives to uncovering his identity.

    As to why Charles turned to robbery, there are several ‘stories’ but no concrete information or documentation. Some believe he was angry with Wells Fargo after an incident in MT over water and mining rights, while others say it was because Wells Fargo lost the gold/money he was sending his wife and family and would not reimburse him. Others believe it was because he hated everything else he tried, from school teaching and farming, although he was a successful and honored soldier in the Civil War. In fact, it was there he learned to walk (he served as a quartermaster in the infantry and was responsible for soliciting or garnering supplies for his soldiers)…

    • Hi Gail! thanks so much for popping in and giving us more background on Black Bart! His relationship with James Hume intrigued me and reminded me of several other fascinating similar ones in history. ( Frank Abagnale) and the fictional Fugitive. And congratulations on the success you’ve had with your fictional biography!

  11. This is very interesting. I would like to read more about him. I don’t know how to narrow down the people I would like to talk to. I know a little bit about my family’s history and would like to talk to several of them but, I also would like to talk to several important people in history.

    • Hi Connie!
      So nice to see you here! Yes–I think I will have to pick up the book that Gail Jenner mentioned– Legends and LIes. I’ve seen it at CostCo. I’d like to read more on him and some of the other famous people who called America home.

      • If you are looking for more on Black Bart, you can also check out the novel I coauthored…it is based on 6 years of research and interview and travel: BLACK BART: THE POET BANDIT. It’s available on amazon:

        Legends and Lies is also a book with information about him, from last year’s Fox Network’s “Legends and Lies!” It was great fun being interviewed for the production. They flew me to MT and I spent 3 days there. I am also pursuing another book about Charles and his nemesis James Hume (potentially already under contract!!), but it will be a while before it’s out.

  12. Thank you all for stopping by and commenting! I’ve put your names in my “Stetson” (ie: random number and pulled out a winner for a copy of Western Spring Weddings!

    MINNA is the lucky winner!

    Minna — Please contact me at kathryn @ kathrynalbright dot com about your book.

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