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Sarah:

Black Bart: The Gentleman Outlaw

Black Bart, Charles E. Bowles - Outlaw
Black Bart, the Gentleman Outlaw

Introduction

In the present time, when a bank fucks you over, they simply right their error - and usually fairly quickly. Back in the early-mid 1800s, getting them to recognize and rectify their errors didn’t really happen. You were typically stuck just living with it, and usually losing out. Well, not for one Wells Fargo account holder by the name of Charles E. Boles.


Background

Charles was born in 1829 to Maria and John Boles in Norfolk, England. He was the third child born out of a whopping ten children. He had six brothers and three sisters. When Charles was 2 years old, his family packed up and left England and immigrated to the states. They settled in Jefferson County in New York where his father had purchased a nearly 100-acre farm. He was decently educated and knew how to read. He also liked to be outside playing sports. He worked incredibly hard on the family farm, but he and a couple of his brothers grew tired of it and chose to leave.


In 1849, they seemed to be your typical and ordinary New Yorkers, and like many others at this time, 20-year-old Charles, his brothers, David and Robert, would go on to take part in the California Gold Rush in the early 1850s, where they were prospecting in the North Fork of the American River near Sacramento. This was a tough time for these guys, they didn’t have much success at mining. Two of the brothers that went along with Charles died after falling ill. Charles wound up going back to New York in 1852, but didn’t stay long, as he went running back to California shortly after returning.


He mined for gold for another two years before he went to Illinois and married a woman named Mary Elizabeth Johnson in 1854. By 1860, the couple had four children in Decatur, Illinois.


Two years later, at the age of 33 in 1862, Charles enlisted as a Private in the 116th Illinois Regiment. He even took part in Sherman’s March to the Sea. He became a First Sergeant within a year but was badly injured in the Battle of Vicksburg. On June 7th, 1865, after three years of service, Charles was discharged, and he soon returned home to Illinois to be with his family.


He spent the next several years in Illinois, farming with his family but decided, yet again, that he wanted to search for gold. There isn’t a lot of documented history here until a letter addressed to his wife came. It told of how he had an incredibly unpleasant experience with a couple of Wells Fargo agents, and how it changed his life. From my research, I was able to find that he was mining with a friend in Montana and somewhere along the line, numerous men from Wells Fargo tried to buy them out, but Charles and the friend refused and Wells Fargo, the potential buys, cut off their water supply which forced them to abandon the mine. Charles vowed he would get his revenge against them, which in turn led him to a life of crime - and ultimately one of the most notorious stagecoach robbers in Northern California as well as Southern Oregon during the 1870s and 1880s. Mary would never hear from Charles again. She would later be told by a third party that a rumor was floating around that Charles, along with the people he was with, was killed by Indians. With that rumor, and no proof otherwise, she assumed that he was dead.


The Beginning of His Life of Crime

When Charles settled down in California, he chose to stay in San Francisco, and under the name of Charles Bolton. He was in his 50’s by now. He stood 5 foot 8, so not a really big guy. He is said to have had blue/grey eyes and a wirey/brushy mustache. He lived his life there, without his family, as a very polite socialite. He would tell his rich friends that he owned a mine. He lived at Webb’s Hotel, wearing nothing but the finest clothing, and dining at nothing but the absolute best restaurants that San Francisco had to offer. He was the poster boy for what you’d expect to see in an established, sophisticated and polished man of the world. However, it wouldn’t be long before the facade would end and people would realize he wasn’t as well-rounded as he wanted everyone to believe he was, but then again, he kind of was.


The Beginning of His Career in Crime

Charles took the nickname of Black Bart and would proceed to rob Wells Fargo stagecoaches. This happened at least 28 times across Northern California and Southern Oregon between 1875 and 1883. He left two poems, one at the fourth robbery spot, and one at the fifth robbery spot. However, this would continue on and become his signature, which ensured his fame, even though it has only happened twice.


Black Bart was a very successful robber, he took in thousands of dollars per year. In total, he was able to take $18,000 dollars over his span of crimes. I used David’s trusty inflation calculator to see what it would be in today's money. In total, he was able to take $18,000 dollars over his span of crimes. In today's money that equals out to be $566,848.42.


With Black Bart’s polite demeanor, he gained notoriety. He reportedly never once fired a weapon, and never once killed another. He was polite, and used no foul language, even though he used the word “bitches” in his poems. These would go on to be his trademarks.


The Crimes

On July 26th, 1875, Charles robbed his first stagecoach in Calaveras County, California. This happened between Copperopolis and Milton. He was wearing a long cloth duster with a flour sack with holes for the eyes. He jumped out from behind a boulder, and it is said that he spoke very politely, with a deep voice, and ordered the driver, John Shine, to “throw down the box”. Shine did as asked and handed over the strongbox. Charles shouted, “If he dares to shoot, give him a solid volley, boys”. Shine saw all of the rifle barrels poking out from the bushes, so he did as told. There was even a woman on the stagecoach that offered up her purse, to which Black Bart declined and stated he only wanted the Wells Fargo shipment. Shine then waited until Charles disappeared before examining the area. He found that the “men with rifles” were actually just well-placed sticks.


His second robbery would take place on December 28th, 1875. He had stopped the stagecoach on its way from North San Juan to Marysville, California. As with the first robbery, other men had been said to be hiding in the bushes, but we know now that there were no other men, just well-executed sticks.


On June 2nd, 1876, Black Bart robbed another stagecoach and took only the Wells Fargo box and mail five miles north of Cottonwood, California.


Black Bart’s fourth robbery was on August 3rd, 1877 on a trail from Point Arena to Duncan Mills, California. This was the very first time he identified himself as a poet. He stopped the stagecoach between Point Arena and Duncan’s Mills, California. He was wearing the same type of clothing he had worn previously and once again; he broke into the strongbox and took off with the $300 that was inside. This time, he left behind a note:

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.

-He signed it “Black Bart - The PO8”


A little over a year later, on July 25th, 1878 - Black Bart struck again. This time on a stretch between Quincy and Oroville, California. With this being his fifth robbery, it would also be the last one where he left a note:


Here I lay me down to sleep

To await the coming morrow

Perhaps success, perhaps defeat

And everlasting sorrow.


Let me come what will, I'll try it on

My condition can't be worse

And if there's money in that box

‘Tis money in my purse

-Again, he signed it “Black Bart - The PO8”


Even though this was the last poem, his signature robberies would continue on through November of 1883.


On November 3rd, 1883, he went back to the same area from his first robbery. He found the stagecoach, which was driven by Reason McConnell and had just one passenger, named Jimmy Rolleri. When the coach slowed down to ascend the ride, Jimmy jumped off, in hopes of doing a little hunting. But just before the coach came to the top of the hill, Black Bart appeared out of the bushes and ordered McConnell to throw the strongbox down. Unfortunately, this time, the box had been bolted to the floor of the stagecoach. This was definitely something Black Bart was not prepared for or ready to deal with. He ordered McConnell to unhitch from the coach and take Jimmy over the hill. All the while, Black Bart was in the coach working to free the strongbox, or at least bust it open with the ax he had. He was successful and made off with mail as well as a heavy sack of gold. Jimmy then appeared out of the bushes and fired two shots Black Bart tried to flee, then McConnell fired off two shots, one of which hit Bart in the hand - forcing him to drop the mail. He was able to get away with the sack of gold though.


Though Black Bart had made his getaway, he had also dropped his glasses, some food and a handkerchief that had a laundry mark of F.X O.7 on it as he fled. And on that handkerchief was a distinct laundry mark. This would be the end of Black Bart. Wells Fargo Detectives, James B. Hume and Harry N. Morse, were able to use the handkerchief to track him to laundry houses in San Francisco, and then ultimately to him directly.


Capture

Detectives learned that Charles Boles took a lot of business trips that just so happened to coincide with each and every one of the Wells Fargo stagecoach robberies. He initially denied he was Black Bart when the law caught up to him. However, he ended up admitting to everything but only confessed to the crimes prior to 1879. He threw out the statute of limitations and how with that anything after that was still within the timeframe to be tried for them. That didn’t matter to the detectives. They booked him, and he claimed his name was T.Z. Spalding. But again, he would be found out, as he still had a bible on him that his wife had given him, that had his real name inscribed inside of it.


On the police report it said that Charles was “a person of great endurance. Exhibited genuine wit under most trying circumstances and was extremely proper and polite in behavior”.


Conviction and Sentence

Wells Fargo chose not to throw the entire book at him when they pressed charges, seeing as though they ONLY pressed charges for the last robbery committed. Charles was convicted and sentenced to six years in the infamous San Quentin Prison. He would only serve four of those six years though because he was well behaved and was released in January of 1888. Charles's health had begun to deteriorate while he was in prison, and some say because of his time in prison. He had aged rapidly, his eyesight was diminishing, and he had gone fully deaf in one of his ears. You can imagine that upon the news of his release, reporters were there trying to catch sight of the gentleman robber. They asked him when he was released if he was going to rob any more stagecoaches and he smiled and replied “No, gentlemen, I’m through with the crime”.


End of Life

Charles would never return to his wife after being released from prison, but he did write letters to her. In one of the letters, he said he was exhausted, he was tired of Wells Fargo shadowing his every move. He said he felt demoralized and wanted to just be away from everyone. In February of 1888, Charles left the Nevada House and disappeared. Detective Hume tracked him all the way to the Visalia House hotel in Visalia. The owner of this hotel said a man with the description of Charles had indeed checked in, but then vanished.


February 28, 1888 is the last time anyone saw Black Bart. That anyone knows of anyways.


There was a rumor going around saying that Charles lived in Marysville, California near the end of his life and he worked as a pharmacist. It is believed by many that his gravesite is located in the Marysville Cemetery. Black Bart had also been rumored to have been buried in an unmarked gravesite in the Knights Landing Cemetery in Knights Landing, California.


A Wells Fargo detective that played part in Charles’s arrest stated in 1897 that he knew for certain that Charles had moved away from the US and was living in Japan.


Case of the Copycats

On November 14th, 1888, there was yet another Wells Fargo stagecoach that was robbed by a masked man on the highway. This man left a poem behind that 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 robin.


Detective Hume, the Wells Fargo detective that was the lead in locating and capturing Black Bart, examined this poem. He compared the handwriting against the two poems that were authenticated as being from Black Bart against this third poem. He was confident in declaring that this was in fact NOT Black Bart…just the work of a crazed fan and copycat criminal.


The Fun Bits

  • In Redwood Valley, California, there is an annual Black Bart Parade that features a man dressed as Black Bart and mimicking what a stereotypical Old West villain would do.

    • There is a large rock on the side of Highway 101 near Redwood Valley that is known by the locals there as Black Bart Rock, even though it’s not the actual rock he had been rumored to have hidden behind while waiting on a stagecoach.

  • In Duncan Mills, California, there is a plaque commemorating Black Bart and actual show his first poem left at a scene.


 

David:

Snake Oil and Medicine Shows

Medicine Show, Dr. C. Stanley
Art depicting what a medicine show would look like.

PT Barnum was most quoted saying “There’s a sucker is born every minute.” Unlike Black Bart taking your money by gunpoint some people like Clark Stanley and many other “Doctors” would have to be a little more convincing to get their hands on your hard-earned money.


Medicine shows or snake oil salesmen tend to be associated with the wild west, but they have been around as far back as the Dark Ages after the church banned theatre in these times as it was seen as sinful and pagan activity. Theatre was associated with debauchery, violence, and other immoral behavior. So, these theater performers would take to the markets and perform their acts on the streets. These street performers may also be shysters or charlatans. They were also known as mountebanks. One example of a mountebank is The Pardoner from “The Canterbury Tales” who tricks sinners into buying fake religious relics.


Most of these mountebanks would travel to small and larger cities selling their miracle elixirs with a small street show and miraculous cures. My assumption on these cures would be making a blind man see or someone with a walking disability able to walk without a limp or upright as if nothing was wrong. These traveling peddlers of cure-all or miracle elixirs would start to appear in the American colonies before 1772 when legislators in New Jersey and Connecticut would prohibit them from selling door to door. Moving them to travel and sell their medicines in rural areas.


By the nineteenth century, mountebanks would give way to medicine shows. The rapid growth of patented medicines or what we would commonly known as OTC medicine like Tylenol for example. By 1858 there were at least 1500 patent medicines on record since the beginning of the century. Which made it much easier for these traveling salesmen to sell a specific product. As most of us have seen in movies and television they generally would market their product as either a tonic or an elixir. I will admit for the longest time I just assumed they meant the same thing and elixir sounds more professional, but there is an actual difference.


Tonics by definition are medicinal substances taken to give a feeling of vigor or well-being overall. For example, soda or pop so nobody can come at me for it, could be considered a tonic, especially the original Coca-Cola formula that contained cocaine. Which when was considered a health drink to cure headaches, neuralgia, or nerve pain in plain English, hysteria, and melancholy. Now, this is where I’m going to burst the soda bubble about the cocaine in Coke. Each bottle of Coca-Cola syrup contained 3.5 grams of the devil's dandruff. So, when it was mixed into actual soda at the pharmacies it was significantly less.


Elixirs are more botanical-based and created for one specific ailment, such as the common cold. Elixirs are sweeter than their tonic counterparts for example medicine with bubble gum flavoring we would get as kids could be considered an elixir of a sort.

By the 1900s patent medicines were an 80-million-dollar business even though, most of these patent medicines seldomly treated what they were marketed for. Instead of having stimulants and actual medications they mostly contained alcohol, opium, and cocaine commonly. Which in turn would get consumers addicted and continue to buy them.


One of the most well-known medicines sold by one of these shows was Sagwa from the Kickapoo Indian Medicine company.


They claimed that Sagwa was a blood, liver, and stomach regulator. Also, it would cure constipation, headache, torpid liver, and biliousness. They would pitch it as a genuine Native American remedy. Which of course was total bullshit considering Kickapoo medicine was founded by two white men. They would make the claims Sagwa was made from Uva Ursi, mandrake, rhubarb, senna, anise seed, coriander seed, cinchona bark, yellow dock, burdock, dandelion, cascara, licorice, and aloes. Sagwa really was made from a mixture of grain alcohols, beer, and laxatives.


They would even enlist showman Buffalo Bil of the Buffalo Bill Wild West show to sell Sagwa by claiming Indians would soon be without his horse, gun, or blanket as without Sagawa.


These medicine shows were a popular form of entertainment, as these self-proclaimed doctors would give their sale pitch on their cure-alls or device. Most of these shows were performed outdoors from their wagons or tent or inside a theater. They would pitch their products worked more than likely along with planted testimonials in the crowd that gathered to watch. They would create a fake fear or need for their unique medicine as the only cure. They would alternate with using entertainment and sale pitches to wear down their audience to finally give in and buy their product. They would use a combination of musicians, strong men, dogs doing tricks, etc. for their entertainment breaks in between pitches. Most of these shows would only spend one night in these towns and move on to the next before people could realize what they were sold never worked as intended.


One of these pitches might have sounded something similar to this...


“How much is your health worth, Ladies and Gentlemen? It’s priceless, isn’t it? Well, my friends, one half-dollar is all it takes to put you in the pink. That’s right, Ladies and Gents, for fifty pennies, Nature’s True Remedy will succeed where doctors have failed. Only Nature can heal, and I have Nature right here in this little bottle. My secret formula, from God’s own laboratory, the Earth itself, will cure rheumatism, cancer, diabetes, baldness, bad breath, and curvature of the spine.”


By 1906 medicine shows started to fade out as the pure food and drug act would lay the groundwork for the FDA today. Some of these medicine shows went on until the 1930s but more as a form of entertainment. Some of these shows would last up until the 1950s and in competition with advertisements on television and medicine shows would be considered a relic of a much more innocent era.


Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment would be one of these first bullshit concoctions to fall to the newly passed act. After ripping off a healing salve used by Chinese immigrants made from water snakes in their home country Stanely would start to sell his snake oil. In 1879 would claim after working as a cowboy and with Hopi medicine men for two years he learned the secret of snake oil. Stanley would first market his product at the 1893 world's fair in Chicago. His audiences would watch as he would take a live snake from a bag slice it open and toss the snake into a boiling pot. Then would proceed to skim the oil left behind on the water's surface, selling it to his audience. His snake oil would have a long list of cures. Some of these would be toothaches, sprains, swelling, sore throat, animal bites, lumbago (lower back pain) even frostbite. There is even more but I just wanted to give you a few examples.


Unlike its true counterpart from Chinese water snakes that are high in Omega-3 acids that reduces inflammation, Stanley’s didn’t contain anything that had medicinal properties. So, what was in his snake oil? After the newly founded FDA tested his snake oil only contained mineral oil, fatty compounds from beef, capsaicin from chili peppers, and turpentine. He would be fined 20 dollars (575.33 today).


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