Monday, July 17, 2017

Black Bart -- California Bandit -- Part 2

Black Bart Wells Fargo Wanted Poster
Dear Friends,

When we left off in Black Bart -- California Bandit -- Part 1, Charles Boles, the man who would become known as Black Bart, had just robbed his first stage. I was talking about how some historians seem to fawn over him as if he were more than just a criminal stealing other people's money.

Among what some of the things that they like to point out is the way he dressed. As I stated before, some seem almost giddy when describing him as "impeccably dressed" in a tweed suit with a topcoat that had an "exquisite velvet-collar", a cravat with a diamond stickpin, wearing an "elegant bowler" hat.

Of course, that's not the man who stopped stages to commit armed robbery. For his robberies, Charles Boles concealed his identity from head to toe. He wore a full length linen coat to conceal how he was dressed, and he wore a flour sack over his head to conceal his face. There were two holes in the sack so that he could see who he was robbing.

If that manner of disguise reminds you of something, it should. Those who dress in hoods and sheets do so to hide who they are so they won't be recognized later. It enables them to brake the law and get away with it. Boles himself was not caught for eight long years mainly because of his total concealment which the hood and long linen coat did so well. In fact his appearance was concealed so well, that nothing of himself was showing and it was his voice the was later recognized.

For years, no one knew who he was and there were no descriptions of him other than the sack hood, long linen coat, and of course a double-barrel shotgun. And by the way, depending on the driver that it was pointed at, that shotgun was said to grow in size in the reports. For example, some swore it was a 16 or 12 gauge gun while others said it must have been a large 10 gauge.

Now as for those who say that he leveled his shotgun at those on the stages but was "polite about it when doing so"? Polite or not, he was threatening to kill them. Polite or not, the threat of a shotgun is nothing to screw with and those on the stages that he held up knew that very well.

As for those who insist that Boles never even loaded his shotgun? Unloaded or not, show me someone who was daring enough to call that bluff if that is somehow fact. Fact is, I don't know who would be dumb enough to make the assumption that his shotgun wasn't loaded and disregard it when it's pointed at you.

Where do people come up with things like that? If a driver or anyone thought that his shotgun was not loaded, and was not a threat, then they would not have allowed themselves to be robbed. And while some make it sound as if Boles merely pointed the shotgun but was never a threat, I can assure them that being on the receiving end of a shotgun, just as on the receiving end of any gun, pointed at you with the intent of being used to kill you, that's indeed a threat.

Boles knew that shotguns are intimidating when looking down the business end of one. He knew that his shotgun would prevent just about everyone from acting the fool. And friends, it is ludicrous to think that the folks on those stages were not in fear of their lives, or that they did not think that Boles would kill for money. His actions made it known that he was willing to kill for money.

Remember, he accomplished what is believed to be 28 stagecoach robberies. It is very obvious that the drivers, the shotgun messengers, and the passengers of those stages all thought that they were in mortal danger. They all turned over their strongboxes, the mailbags, and whatever money and jewels that they had on them to stop from being murdered. Yes, contrary to some strange idea that this was some sort of "sophisticated bandit", people feared for their lives and gave him what he demanded. That included taking money and jewelry from the passengers.

This myth that he somehow stopped in the middle of a robbery to hand a woman back her jewelry or to hand back over some money to a poor man is imaginative but not reality. Witnesses said they feared for their lives that he was going to kill them unless they give him everything they had.

These stories about this supposed "polite sophisticated bandit" who only stole from Wells Fargo as if he were Robin Hood is silly. Whose money do folks think was in those strongboxes? Whose money was in those mailbags? That money was the hard earned dollars of people, who unlike Boles, who actually worked for a living.

We forget that when talking about bank robbers or train robbers, or stage robbers, that criminals like Charles Boles were no different than the James Gang in that they stole payrolls, life savings, the wages of others. And in the process of their crimes, those robbers took the food off the table of hard working people every time they robbed a bank, a train, or a stagecoach.

Fact is, banks at the time were not Federally Insured and covered against such loss as they are today. The FDIC only started in the 1930s. Before that, there were no insurances as we have today. Back then if payrolls were stolen, workers didn't get paid. If a business is running on a shoestring budget and can't weather the hit of a robbery, that business closed and people were laid off. In some cases where a single employer is all a town has, once they were out of business and the people who worked there no longer had jobs, people moved to look for work. And yes, that's how towns dried up.

Ever wonder how posses were easily manned by local citizens? Ever wonder why citizens armed themselves and were ready and willing to go after bandits? Knowing the ramifications that a robbery has on a town got a lot of people to take up arms. A robbery united townsfolk to take up arms and fight such bandits. Yes, they took it very personal when their money was stolen because it was their money. And yes, that's why in many cases robbers were hanged no differently than how they hanged murderers.

So why was Charles Boles called Black Bart? Well, I read where he borrowed his pen name from a character in a popular book. Another source said it was from a character in a comic strip that appeared in a Sacramento, California, newspaper at the time.

Later he supposedly used it to sign two poems as Black Bart. Yes, poems that he left behind for some reason or another that no one can really explain. And while no one really knows why he left the poems behind at two robberies and not all, some think it was like how Jessie James left behind his own press notices. Basically it was because he wanted to see what he wrote in the papers. Then again, some think Boles left them behind simply because he wanted to stick it to the people he was stealing from and taunt the law that was chasing him.

On August 3rd, 1877, Boles was said to have robbed a stage near the Russian River, a few miles south of Fort Ross. This was supposedly his fourth stage robbery. This and the fifth robbery were the only two when he left a poem. The story goes that after breaking open the strongbox and before making off with the loot, that he took the time out to leave behind a poem inside the empty box. It read:

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

Since the poem was signed "Black Bart, the Po8," Wells Fargo's Chief Detective, Jim Hume, used the name Black Bart to give the unknown robber a name. Especially for the newspapers, which like today were clamoring for information.

On June 23rd, 1883. Boles robbed a Wells Fargo stagecoach in Amador County about four miles from the town of Jackson. Then a few months later on November 3rd, Boles robbed his last Wells Fargo stagecoach. This time he was back in Calaveras County.

The irony is that his last robbery would be at the exact same place where he robbed his first stagecoach. Yes, that was right here in Calaveras County on Funk Hill in the Stanislaus River Canyon on the road from Sonora to Milton.

In his last robbery, the Wells Fargo stage driver was 31 year old Reason E. McConnell. McConnell picked up 19 year old Jimmy Rolleri at the Reynolds Ferry Hotel. McConnell knew the younger Rolleri. Rolleri is said to have wanted a ride to a spot up near Funk Hill where he could hunt deer.

It is said that Jimmy Rolleri thought that the storm the previous night may have driven deer down from the high country. So he wanted to hitch a ride to where the hunting might be better. McConnell agreed, and Rolleri was armed with his .44 Henry rifle when he climbed aboard the Wells Fargo stage. 

The coach was half-way up Funk Hill when Rolleri said that he'd get off and work his way around the hill looking for deer. After Rolleri left the coach, McConnell started the slow climb up Funk Hill. McConnell is said to have been rounding Yaqui Gulch close to the top of the ridge when a man in a hood and long linen coat brandishing a shotgun appeared out of nowhere.

Boles ordered McConnell to throw down the strongbox. McConnell said that he couldn't because it was actually bolted to the floorboard as a precaution against robbers. Boles then told McConnell to get down off the stage and unhitch the horses. And believe it or not, they have words as McConnell tells Boles that the brakes on the stage wouldn't hold if he got down and the coach would roll down the hill.  

Boles is said to have gotten angry and finally tells him to get down from there and do it quick or else. McConnell did so fearing for his life. He is said to have gotten down, places a rock under a wheel, then unhitched the team of four horses. The whole time, Boles has his shotgun aimed at McConnell.

Boles tells McConnell to take the horses away up the hill. As he leaves, Boles climb up and started to smash open the strongbox with a hatchet that was on board the stage. McConnell who lead the horses about 200 yards away still hears Boles smashing at the strongbox when he sees Jimmy Rolleri coming toward the stage. McConnell wanting Rolleri's Henry rifle to either capture or kill Boles, actually starts waving to get his young friend's attention.

Getting him to go around, so that Boles doesn't see him, McConnell explained to Rolleri what was taking place and soon the two start toward the coach. The two are said to have been about 100 yards away when Boles finally opened the bolted strongbox. It was also about then that Boles grabs what he could and starts to jump off the coach when he sees McConnell and Rolleri coming toward him. 

McConnell now had the Henry rifle and fires twice at Boles who now off the stage and starting to run into the bushes. While a shotgun is great at close range, it was no match for a Henry rifle at 100 yards. But, Boles was lucky because McConnell missed both shots.

After missing twice, young Jimmy Rolleri grabbed the Henry rifle and fires at Boles just as he was entering the thick brush. Seeing him fall, both McConnell and Rolleri slowly move to where they had last seen the robber hit the ground. Remember, they were about 100 yards away when they shot at Boles. Once at where he fell, Boles was already gone.

Instead of finding Boles, they find a bundle of mail that Boles had dropped and blood was on some of it. Yes, Boles was believed wounded. With that McConnell and Rolleri hitched up the team, gathered the strewn mail, and continue to the town of Copperopolis to report the robbery.  

Once there, immediately a posse was formed and young Jimmy Rolleri leads them back out to the site of the robbery. After searching the area, they find a worn leather valise that Boles left behind in his hast to get away. The leather bag contain a case for a pair of field glasses,  a razor, a belt, three soiled linen shirt cuffs, two paper sacks containing crackers and sugar, and two empty flour sacks. Also in the bag was a handkerchief with a laundry mark.

Calaveras County Sheriff Ben Thorn reached the scene before nightfall and also began a search for any additional evidence. All evidence was turned over to famous California lawman and Wells Fargo Detective Harry Morse who was hired by John Hume to specifically track down Boles. 

The handkerchief with the "F.X.O.7.5" laundry mark was their best clue. Since the Wells Fargo headquarters was in San Francisco, they decided to start there and check out the 91 laundries in the city at the time.

It's said that Harry Morse went from laundry to laundry looking for a match to the laundry mark. Then after about a week, on November 12th, lawman Harry Morse identified that the handkerchief belonged to a Charles E. Bolton. Yes, Bolton is believed to be the alias that Boles was using in San Francisco. 

Once they found him, Boles was questioned at length. As the interrogation at the Wells Fargo offices there in San Francisco went along, Boles' cover story of being a mine owner soon fell apart. It's said he lost his temper, but then asked to cut a deal for a lighter sentence. The result of the questioning was that Boles struck a deal to plead guilty to only one robbery if he'd turn over the loot from the last robbery.

After being assured that the deal was good, he directed the lawmen back to Funk Hill where he had stashed the stolen gold in the hollow of a nearby tree. After that, he was taken to the Calaveras County jail located in San Andreas which is the county seat.

Just four days later on November 16th, 1883, he was escorted to court of Judge P.H. Kean there in San Andreas. Charles Boles entered a plea of "guilty" to the single charge of having robbed the Sonora-Milton stage on Funk Hill. He was bound over to the Calaveras County Superior Court for trial but the following day waived his right to a jury trial. Superior Judge C.V. Gottschalk sentenced Boles to six years in prison. On November 21st, just a few weeks after his last stage robbery, Boles began serving his sentence in San Quentin Prison.

It was a laundry mark that the law needed to identify him. The men who hunted him down were California lawman and famous Wells Fargo agent Harry Morse, Wells Fargo's chief detective, Jim Hume, Calaveras County Sheriff Ben Thorn, San Joaquin County Sheriff Tom Cunningham, San Francisco Police Captain A.W. Stone, and Wells Fargo Special Agent J.W. Thacker.

Black Bart had carried out his last robbery at same place where he started his career as a bandit right there at Funk Hill in Calaveras County. Funk Hill is said to now be under water. Actually, Funk Hill is located under the New Melones Lake.

As I've stated a few times, over the course of 8 years from 1875 to 1883, it is believed that Charles Boles stopped and robbed at least 28 Wells Fargo stagecoaches all over Northern California at gunpoint. Fact is, while it is suspected that he did all 28 robberies, no one really knows if it was indeed him or a copycat who learned about his method of operating from newspapers.

For example, on November 14th, 1888, a Wells Fargo stage was robbed by a hooded bandit that met the known description of Boles. That bandit also left a poem behind. It read:

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

Wells Fargo's Chief Detective Jim Hume was called in to examine the poem. It was reported that after comparing it with the handwriting of the others, Hume declared that that holdup was the work of a copycat criminal. So as you can see, things were no different than what takes place today in that there are copycat criminals.

Also, later after being caught and having confessed, it is interesting to note that Boles disavowed writing the poems or committing many of the other robberies. Of course, he was caught after his last robbery when he left evidence that helped the law to track him down. But as for all of the others, could there have been other bandits who wore hoods and linen coats and brandished shotguns? It is very possible. Certainly the stage robbery in 1888 proves that that could have been the case. But frankly, we will never know as he's gotten credit for all of them.

On January 23rd, 1888, after serving four years of his six-year sentence in San Quentin Prison, he was paroled for good behavior. After being released, he boarded a train headed south to California's central valley. He arrived in Visalia, California, and got off the train there. After that, he simply disappeared. He simply vanished.

Tom Correa

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