Wells Fargo and Company stage driver Charlie Seevy drew his stage to a halt amid a cloud of swirling dust as the masked, shotgun-wielding bandit blocked his path on the Quincy to Oroville Road and demanded, “Driver, throw out the box!” Seevy quickly complied — unloading the Wells Fargo box and mail pouches the stage was carrying — then driving on as ordered.
The date was July 25, 1878, and Charles E. Boles (aka Charles E. Bolton, aka Black Bart) had just committed his fifth stagecoach robbery.
The next day, as if to confirm the identity of the masked holdup man, a note found with the smashed Wells Fargo box 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 munny in that box,
Tis munny in my purse.
Black Bart, the Po8”
From that one robbery, Black Bart got away with $ 379 in coin, a $200 ring, and a $20 silver watch, as well as an undetermined amount of money from the mail pouches. Then Tuesday, July 30, 1878, five miles south of LaPorte on the LaPorte to Oroville Road, Black Bart struck again.
Around 8 a.m. a lone bandit, wearing a distinctive flour sack mask and a soiled duster over rough miner’s clothes, stepped out from the heavily wooded roadside into the path of the stage, leveled a double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun at stage driver Dan Barry and politely ordered him to “Please throw down the box!”
Amid the early morning dust from the wagon wheels and milling horses’ hooves, the deed was done, and in less than two minutes the stage was back on its way, minus its express box and mail sacks, and Black Bart was richer by $50 in gold and another silver watch.
While robbing that stage, legend has it that a woman passenger threw out her purse in panic. Black Bart, reportedly picked it up, bowed to the lady, and handed it back to her, saying, “Madam, I do not wish your money. In that respect I honor only the good office of Wells Fargo.” With that, he took the mail sacks and express box and was gone.
A posse dispatched by Plumas County Sheriff James Yeates found no further poetry or clues other than footprints at the scene. Black Bart had successfully robbed his sixth stagecoach.
Black Bart would go on to elude the officers of the law for several more years as he continued to rob stagecoaches throughout Butte, Shasta, Plumas, Nevada and surrounding counties, while at the same time leading a double life as a well-to-do man about town in San Francisco.
At the time of his stage-robbing career, Charles Boles (known to his West Coast friends as Charles E. Bolton) was a man well into his 50s with gray hair and a gray mustache. He was a natty dresser, favored diamonds and carried a short cane. He was a man who liked to live well and stayed in fine hotels, ate at the best restaurants, and wore the finest clothes — seemingly a true gentleman.
However, the truth was that Charles Boles was also known by another moniker, Black Bart, and financed his well-to-do lifestyle by periodically robbing stagecoaches, later stating that he “took only what was needed when it was needed.”
In a career of banditry that spanned eight years from 1875 to 1883, Black Bart managed to strike some 28 times (not all successfully) and get away with as much as $18,000.
Always extremely courteous to passengers, he made a favorable impression on drivers and passengers alike as a gentlemanly and courteous robber who apparently wanted to avoid a gunfight at all costs — managing all this alone, on foot, without ever firing a shot, and carrying an unloaded shotgun!
Relentlessly pursued by local lawmen as well as Wells Fargo Chief Detective James B. Hume, Black Bart’s career was nearly cut short here in Plumas County when July 13, 1882, in his 24th stage holdup he was shot and wounded by Wells Fargo messenger George Hackett.
If he had successfully pulled off that robbery, Black Bart would have relieved the LaPorte to Oroville stage of $23,000 in gold. As it was, he bore a narrow scar along the top of his right temple for the rest of his life.
As it was with all brazen criminals, Black Bart’s days of thieving came to an end in 1883, when he was tracked down through a laundry mark on a handkerchief he had left at his last holdup and arrested by San Francisco police and detective Hume.
Black Bart began serving a six-year sentence at San Quentin Prison on Nov. 21, 1883, only 18 days after robbing his last stage.
After serving four years and two months of his sentence, the “gentleman bandit” was released Jan. 21, 1888, for good behavior — and walked out a free man.
After his return to San Francisco, Wells Fargo agents kept Black Bart under close watch. He managed to disappear mysteriously in February 1888. Nothing more is known of his fate ... or is there?
To find out more about the thrilling exploits of Black Bart and his later career and mysterious disappearance, you are invited to share an afternoon Sunday, May 2, from 2 to 4 p.m. with Black Bart and James Hume at the Plumas County Museum.
The lively first-person recounting of the life and times of Black Bart will be presented by Old West historian and re-enactor Lee Dummel and members of the Law Dawgs & Pistoleros of the Olde West as a fundraiser for the Plumas County Museum. Cost is $5 at the door, and refreshments will be served. Call 283-6320 for more information.
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