31 Days of History: 26 July

Charles E. Bolles was an English-born immigrant who settled in New York when his family came to the United States in 1831. In late 1849, Bolles and his cousin took part in the California Gold Rush, eventually ending up on the North Fork of the American River in northern California. After an unsuccessful attempt at mining gold, Bolles returned east where he met and married Mary Elizabeth Johnson in 1854. By 1860, the couple had made their home in Decatur, Illinois.

Charles E. Bolles

On 13 August 1862, Bolles enlisted as a private in Company B, 116th Illinois Regiment. He was an adequate soldier, taking part in numerous battles and campaigns and was discharged on 7 June 1865 in Washington, D.C. (there’s your only connection to DC for today). He returned home to his wife in Illinois, but the quiet life of farming held little appeal to him. Two years later, he had left to prospect for gold in Idaho and Montana, promising to write to his wife when he “struck it rich”. In an August 1871 letter to his wife he mentioned an unpleasant incident with the Wells Fargo Bank and vowed to “pay them back”. That was his last letter; he stopped writing and never made contact again with his wife. She could only assume he was dead.

Time moves on, and the scenery moves west. It is 1875, in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. The Wells Fargo Bank was extremely profitable, and their famous stagecoaches carried large sums of money throughout the west. As a stagecoach slowly winds through the mountain passes, the driver is forced to stop at the sight of a man standing confidently in the middle of the road. He wears a long dirty coat and has a flour sack over his head with a pair of holes cut for the eyes and brandishes a double-barreled 12 gauge shotgun. He politely tells the driver, “Please throw down the box”. The legend of Black Bart-the nicest, most polite, mild-mannered and articulate-stagecoach robber in history- is born.

Here’s where things gets even more interesting. In the early 1870s, the Sacramento Union (a local newspaper) ran a serial-style adventure series called The Case of Summerfield. In the story, the villain, who dressed in black, had long unruly black hair, a large black beard and wild grey eyes, would rob Wells Fargo stagecoaches and brought great fear into those who were unlucky enough to cross him. The character's name was Black Bart, and apparently life decided to imitate art, as “someone” brought Black Bart to life.

Between 1875 and 1883, at least 28 Wells Fargo stagecoaches were robbed across northern California and Oregon. Black Bart was having a very successful career and made off with thousands of dollars a year. To make things more interesting, he began to leave poems at the sites of his crimes as his “signature”. Here are a couple of his poems:

"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.”


"Here I lay me down to sleep
To wait the coming morrow,
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat
And everlasting sorrow.
Yet come what will, I'll try it once,
My conditions can't be worse,
And if there's money in that box,
'Tis money in my purse.”

Wells Fargo was not content to let these crimes continue. In the 1870’s, they hired James Hume, one of the West’s most prominent detectives and lawmen, as a Special Agent. Hume would spend much of the next 8 years tracking Black Bart. He visited the sites of all the robberies and patiently put together a valuable list of information, interviewing all of the witnesses and Wells Fargo employees that had any connection to the crimes. As hard as he worked, he could never catch Black Bart, who on at least one occasion, told the stagecoach driver (as he was leaving with the cash), “Give my regards to Detective Hume.”

The big break came on 3 November 1883. In the process of robbing a stagecoach outside of Sonoma, Black Bart was wounded by a Wells Fargo driver and fled the scene of the crime. A bloody-handkerchief was left behind with the laundry mark “F.X.0.7”. With this evidence, Hume decided to visit every laundry in California if he had to, starting in San Francisco (that’s where he lived and worked). After visiting 56 laundries, he hit paydirt: the “F.X.0.7” mark was identified as belonging to “C.E. Bolton”, a man who lived in a hotel on Second Street. The arrest of Black Bart was at hand.

James Hume

Bolton described himself as a "mining engineer" and made frequent "business trips" that happened to coincide with the Wells Fargo robberies. After initially denying he was Black Bart, Bolton eventually confessed. When booked, he gave his name as “T. Z. Spalding” but the police found a Bible among his possessions, a gift from his wife, inscribed with his real name: Charles E. Bolles.

Black Bart, aka C.E. Bolton, aka Charles E. Bolles

Bolles was convicted and sentenced to six years in San Quentin Prison, but his stay was shortened to four years for good behavior. When he was released in January 1888, his health had clearly deteriorated-he had visibly aged, his eyesight was failing, and he had gone deaf in one ear. Reporters swarmed around him when he was released. They asked if he was going to rob any more stagecoaches. "No, gentlemen," he replied with a smile. "I'm through with crime."

Bolles disappeared without a trace shortly after his release from prison. His San Francisco boarding-house room was found vacated in February 1888 and he was never seen again. However, one 14 November 1888 (7 months later) another Wells Fargo stagecoach was robbed by a masked highwayman. The lone bandit left a verse that read:

“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'”

Once again, Detective Hume was called to examine the note. After comparing it with the Black Bart poetry from the past, he declared the new poetry was the work of a copycat criminal and declared the case closed. No sign of Black Bart, real or imagined, was ever seen again.

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