"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Legendary Stagecoach Robber Black Bart Led A Merry Chase

by Don Baumgart

In the first year of the Gold Rush a miner could, and did, leave his tools to mark his claim. He carried his gold dust on him and was fairly safe doing so.

The following years were much different.

Hugo Reid, a California rancher, wrote to a friend, "Do not go to the mines on any account. They are loaded to the muzzle with vagabonds from every quarter of the globe, scoundrels from nowhere...assassins manufactured in Hell for the express purpose of converting highways and byways into theaters of blood!"

A bit strong, perhaps, but the criminal element did flourish then, as it does now, as an attractive alternative to hard work. Their numbers grew as the years rolled on and the gold was pried from the ground.

Masked in a flour sack and wearing a long linen duster, training a double barrelled shotgun on the stagecoach driver who was now sweating nearly as much as his team of horses, one of the most famous Gold Rush bad men made his four-word challenge famous: "Throw down the box!"

He began his career beside the Russian River in August, 1877, leaving behind a bit of verse, signed "Black Bart, the PO8." A year passed, then in the Feather River Canyon, Black Bart the poet-bandit struck again. The officers who found the broken-open box also found a verse that read, in part, "...if there's money in that box, 'tis munny in my purse."

California's governor offered a reward of $3OO, to which the Wells Fargo Company added another $300. Postal authorities laid on $200 more. In spite of the reward the robberies became more frequent. In less than a week Black Bart struck again, this time hitting the stage from LaPorte to Oroville. In one holdup the driver managed to fire at the fleeing bandit and a hat was later found decorated with three gunshot holes.

By 1883 Black Bart had grown to legendary status. A Wells Fargo flyer described him thus: "He is polite to all passengers, and especially the ladies. He comes and goes from the scene of the robbery on foot; seems to be a thorough mountaineer and a good walker."

Wells Fargo and other gold shippers took to bolting their strongboxes to the stages, and during one holdup the time it took to smash into the box gave a young man on foot time to fire three rifle shots at the famous outlaw. And miss. Wells Fargo rewarded him for his effort by

presenting him with a rifle inlaid with silver engraved with his name, Jimmy Rolleri, and the date of the shooting. The first time he tried to use the splendid rifle, it blew itself to bits in his hands.

The holdups grew to twenty-eight, but Bart's total eight-year take was small -- his final holdup yielded Black Bart less than $5,000.

Eventually it was the scene of young Jimmy's firing upon the desperado that yielded the clues to Black Bart's downfall. Behind a rock lawmen found a number of articles in a spot that apparently had been a cold camp: two paper bags containing crackers and granulated sugar, stamped with the name of a grocery store in nearby Angels Camp, a leather case for field glasses and a handkerchief filled with buckshot. On the handkerchief was a laundry mark. It led to a San Francisco laundry and a man named Charles E. Boles. The mystery was solved. Black Bart was convicted and went to San Quentin prison.

He was released in January, 1888, after spending four years of a six-year sentence behind bars...and stepped into history. Some say he went to Idaho, others say Japan. Stories of his further criminal deeds sprang up like weeds, spreading confusion. "Is Black Bart on the Road Again?" headlines asked after every holdup, trying to revive the paper-selling legend.

A New York newspaper is said to have reported the death of a Charles E. Boles in 1917, age 87.

Left behind was this poem, which might well serve as Black Bart's epitaph.

And risked my life for that damned stage

That wasn't worth the robbin'

— end —
(Copyright 2001, Don Baumgart)

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