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The Case Of The Plodding Highwayman Or The Po8 Of Crime

July 2024
14min read

“All right,” said the hollow voice from inside the flour sack. “You may drive on.”

The driver didn’t waste time. On this particular day—the third of August, 1877—he was alone on the stagecoach; not even a passenger was with him. Glancing down at the tall figure by the roadside holding the old-fashioned shotgun, he released the big hand brake on the Wells Fargo coach and slapped the reins over the six-horse team. He risked one look back (the man with the gun raised his left hand in a genial farewell) and then he was oft, hell for leather, bound for Duncan’s Mills to tell everybody about the most original damned bandit he’d ever run into in Sonoma County, California—or anywhere else.

Instead of a neat mask or a bandana to hide his face, this peculiar road agent was wearing one of the most awkward getups in the history of banditry: over his head—and over his derby hat as well—was a Hour sack with eye holes cut out of it; and a clinging linen duster flapped about his ankles like a Mother Hubbard. True, his shotgun looked businesslike (though there was something odd there, too, that would come to light in time), and his hollow voice, which seemed to be issuing from the deeps of an abandoned mine, had a strange, disquieting effect. He said very little. He was alone, so far as the driver knew, and on foot. Lone highwaymen were not unheard of, but even lone ones usually found a horse an indispensable professional asset.

If the driver could have seen what was happening next at the scene of the holdup as he pounded south over the curving road through the hills of the Russian River country, he would have had a still better story. The road agent whipped off his duster and his mask—revealing, beneath the dapper derby, a pair of sharp blue eyes, a waterfall mustache, and a jaunty imperial. At once he snatched up an axe and chopped open the green express box the driver had thrown to the ground. The take was disappointing: Sgoo in coin, a check that was loo risky to cash, and some odds and ends of mail.

If the road agent was annoyed witli this so-so luck, he did not show it. From its hiding place in the roadside shrubbery he produced a travelling-man’s leather valise; into it he tucked his loot, his flour sack and duster, and his shotgun. The axe he abandoned. Then, pausing a few minutes before picking up the valise and marching off through the wooded, hilly countryside, this bandit did one more very odd and unbanditlike thing: he took a waybill from the plundered express box, wrote a message on it—probably chuckling to himself as he wrote—and left it behind.

Then, cocking the derby slightly to the left on his head, and drawing himself up to his lull five feet seven and a half inches, he strode oil through the open country toward Guerneville, a hard six hours’ hike eastward; there a man could hire a ride toward San Francisco, seventy-five miles away.

By the lime our gentleman bandit reached the big city, a report of his crime was on the desk of fames B. Hume, head of the Wells Fargo police. And among the most important evidence was the message on the waybill. Jim Hume, a level-eyed, poker-faced man who had once ridden shotgun on stages himself, looked carefully at the four lines of the highwayman’s message. They constituted, if you please, a poem, or anyway a verse:

I’ve labored long and hard for bread for honor and for riches But on my corns too long you’ve tried, You fine haired Sons of Bitches.

This poetical work was not titled but it was signed, complete with a clue in the form of a kind of rebus in case anyone didn’t recognize a poet when he read one: “BLACK BART, the Po8.”

Jim Hume had never seen the name before, but the holdup man’s method of operation was familiar. A hunt for just such a criminal had already been quietly under way for two years, ft would last for six more. Over those eight years Black Bart, who was neither Bart nor black (he had lifted the name from a magazine story) racked up the amazing score of twenty-seven successful stage robberies out of twenty-eight tries- better than anyone before or since. He was always alone and on foot, never resorted to violence, and worked as methodically as a bookkeeper. He came to be old California’s most famous road agent in spite of the fact that he went into the business when the lush days of the mining camps and S100,000 shipments of bullion were only golden memories. Old Bart’s juiciest haul came to less than .15,000, and he didn’t get to keep that one, for it was bis last, and the one that finally tripped him. The sad fact is, gentlemanly Black Bart never did make a handsome living at his risky occupation. But he did manage to make a bit of history, and he has not been entirely forgotten: today in Menclocino County, California, one of the areas where he robbed stages, there is an annual carnival-like celebration known as Black Bart Days.

The “Po8” had waited until he was forty-five years old before deciding to collect by force what he felt the world owed him. Before that, he was plain Charley Boles, an easterner born in Jefferson County, New York, who had originally hustled out to California with the Gold Rush in 1850. He was twenty then, and though he hadn’t found much gold by the time he drifted back eastward four years later, he had learned his way around parts of some mountainous northern California counties—Butte, Shasta, Trinity, El Dorado. He had an excellent sense of direction—and a long, long memory for topographical detail.

He never did get back to New York State. Illinois attracted him, and he bought a farm near Decatur. By the time the Civil War came he was married and had three little daughters, but he joined the iioth Illinois Infantry Volunteers nonetheless and served three years as a sergeant. (A decade or so later, like many another veteran of that war, he promoted himself—to captain.)

At war’s end he was thirty-five, had sustained some minor wounds, and had no desire to return to the farm. He sold it, moved his family to Oregon, Illinois, and then decided to go to Montana. He went alone, and it was the last his dear Mary and the children ever saw of him. He did send them money for about two years, but then he stopped writing, and Mary became convinced that Indians had massacred him. (Much later, after his career as a road agent had ended and he was doing time, he wrote to her again, for a while. His letters were loving, but vague about plans to return home. He was a born drifter, and by then he seemed to know it.)

In 1875 he found himself in San Francisco. He may have come in that direction because he had a sister living in the vicinity. At any rate, 1875 was the critical year for Charley Boles. So far as we know, he had never stolen so much as a penny pencil, but now something pushed him a little too far. Perhaps he suddenly saw himself for what he was, a graying, middle-aged failure. He was bitter, or told himself he was, at the vested interests, and he seized upon the notion of squaring accounts by robbing some Wells Fargo stages. But he would be scrupulous about it, he promised himself: no robbing of passengers, no bloodshed; all he wanted was what the entrenched, moneyed interests had kept him from getting legitimately all his life.

His first stage robbery was in mountainous CaIaveras County, east-northeast of San Francisco, the very county that Mark Twain’s jumping-frog story made famous. He had decided on robbing the Sonora-toMilton stage, and he’d picked a curve in the road flanked with big rocks. Shortly his technique was going to change in some respects, but on this first plunge he seems to lune felt nervous about working without help, and he supplied the need in a way schoolboys know by heart: he cut six or eight gunbarrel-sized tree branches and wedged them between roadside rocks, pointing toward the place the stage would stop. And it actually worked, even though the driver was a veteran in the service.

“No use trying to do anything,” he advised his passengers. “Look at those guns.”

Down came the express box, and Boles chopped it open. What it yielded, Wells Fargo did not reveal—they were often close-mouthed about losses, not caring to entice incipient thieves with too many luscious facts—but it was enough to encourage Boles in his new career. This was July; he lay low for five whole months and then planned another job three days after Christmas, shifting to the countryside about fifty miles north of Sacramento.

Again he got enough to make it interesting, and after another five-month layoff he pulled his third job, also in northern California. After his first holdup he dropped the tree-branch guns, maybe because he had not removed them and the ruse had been discovered on the stage’s return trip. But the flour-sack mask and the duster were enough to stamp all the holdups as the work of one man, and so was his invariable fourword command to the stage driver: “Throw down the box.”

Until he gave himself a name, he was anonymous. Then, on his fourth holdup—he had let fourteen months pass this time between jobs—he gave the lawmen a handle to use, and he was from then on Black Bart the Po8.

No poet—or PoS—ever rode to fame on so meager an output. In his whole career Bart wrote but two poems, though he did claim to have had a third ready for job No. 29, the one he never got to pull. The second, and last, poem was again written on a waybill and was left at the scene of his fifth stage robbery. It consisted of two new stanzas with the first poem sandwiched between. The two new stanzas 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 theres money in that Box Tis Munny in my purse

He purposely vulgarized the spelling and punctuation for he knew better, as his letters home show very clearly.

This fifth stage robbery, on July 25, 1878, almost a year after the fourth one, was in the mountainous Feather River country of north-central California. While still no bonanza, it did bring Bart about $600 in coin and equivalents.

By this time, Bart had settled into a pattern for his robberies in every respect except the time lapse between them, which was erratic. That may have been dictated simply by economic need, for Bart was not greedy. The most amazing thing is that this quite conservative man should have become so successful a thief. Or perhaps his conservatism was the explanation: his cautious methods made him very difficult to catch.

Wells Fargo’s Detective Hume knew that he couldn’t expect a great deal of help from sheriffs in the counties where stage robberies occurred: few of them were really good at careful police work. Hume, a big, quiet man who usually had a cigar clamped between his teeth, was on his own. But in the duel of wits with Black Bart, Hume held the best cards, and in the end the winning ones: experience, the better mind, the organization to back him. Another trump was added after Bart’s fifth holdup—a reward. The governor of California, William Irwin, offered $300 for Bart’s capture; Wells Fargo matched it; the post office department—whose pouches Bart regularly slit open and plundered, ignoring the fact that the mail was not necessarily owned by the vested interests he was supposed to be fighting—added $200 more. To collect this total of $800, a person would have to capture Black Bart and produce the evidence needed to land him in jail. But for the one who succeeded there was the possibility of added compensation, for it was customary to give a road agent’s captor one-quarter of any booty that might be recovered.

For a while at least, instead of helping bring him to book, Black Bart’s victims exalted him into an awesome legend, a superman who appeared out of nowhere and vanished into nothingness. It was so unusual for a highwayman to walk any distance, let alone across rugged open country, that it is no wonder the legend was embroidered with tales of a phantom horse, or of a devil’s disciple flying by dark of night.

So it was that as he continued his road-agentry, the man who had been a failure all his life found himself an immense success. Although he relished it hugely, he hardly ever talked about it to anyone. But one day in the fall of 1880, about ten days after his thirteenth stage robbery, Bart was in Sonoma County, about 150 miles south of where the holdup had taken place. On foot as usual and finding himself still a distance from food and lodging at sundown, he took politick with a lone logger, one Elisha Shortridge, who had a ranch west of Santa Rosa.

By this time Bart had abandoned the use of the cumbersome valise. Law officers found it beside a creek but could extract no useful clues from it (fingerprints as a police tool did not come into use until after the nineteenth century had ended). When he met the logger, Bart was carrying a bedroll over his shoulder and was cradling his shotgun, so that Shortridge took him for a hunter. Afterward the logger said, “Just two things about him struck me. His voice sounded like he was talking into an empty barrel, and he had eyes that seemed to look clear through you.” He added: “I thought maybe he was looking the country over, sizing up land and timber.”

Bart corrected that error the next morning. After breakfast, Shortridge was giving the stranger’s gun a friendly once-over, a usual thing between gun fanciers, and noticed that it was an early type of breech-loader. He opened it, found that the barrels were clean and bright, and observed to its owner that it was a good weapon.

Bart smiled. “It always gets what I go after. I never waste ammunition. I save money in other ways, too,” he said. "1 don’t drink or smoke.”

Then he asked what he owed his host for the hospitality. It was a somewhat peculiar question in a pioneer territory, where a stranger was welcomed as a guest. Shortridge courteously refused payment, but Bart couldn’t let it go at that. “Did you ever hear,” he said with a sudden smile, “of Black Bart?”

“Hear of him!” Shortridge cried. “He’s one of the main things talked about in these parts nowadays.”

“Well,” said Bart, “I’m Black Bart. I just thought that if you knew who I am, you might be willing to accept something for your kindness.”

The logger thought he was joking. “Sure you ain’t Joaquín Murrieta, or some other tough hombre we all thought was planted safe under the dirt?”

Bart didn’t take the joshing at all kindly. His sense of humor never did work when someone made fun of him. The smile disappeared, Shortridge recalled years later, and the jaw muscles hardened as he repeated his identity in sepulchral tones. This time Shortridge got the full voltage, and he drew a long breath and shakily thanked Bart for not telling him on the previous evening and spoiling a good night’s sleep. There had been no danger, Bart said; he had never harmed a soul. Then he added something that stuck in Shortridge’s mind for over three years before he realized what it meant: “You’d feel easier if I told you some other things, but it would be too risky.”

The thing Bart couldn’t risk revealing was that he held up stages with an empty gun. Shortridge recalled later that not only was Bart’s shotgun empty when he examined it, but not even one of his guest’s pockets was lumpy with shells. Bart himself was quoted after his capture as saying that “the moral effect” of a shotgun was sufficient for his purposes.

He was right on this point twenty-six times out of twenty-eight. The first time the bluff failed was on July 13, 1882, when a plucky shotgun messenger took a chance and fired in Bart’s general direction. The driver of the stage immediately cracked his whip and the horses plunged ahead, bowling Bart to one side and leaving him sprawled in the road. It was his only utter fiasco—perhaps because he made the mistake of trying to hold up a stage on the thirteenth day of the month.

The second time that his unloaded gun failed of its full moral effect occurred sixteen months later, in November of 1883, and that turned out to be his last holdup. The stage he planned to rob was the one that ran between Sonora and Milton—by some coincidence (dare we call it poetic justice?) the very same one he had knocked off on his premier holdup. First Bart headed for Tuttletown, California, where at irregular intervals a stage picked up amalgam from Patterson gold mine. By making friends and keeping his eyes and ears open, Bart found out that the next shipment was scheduled for November 3.

He then set off on foot and walked most of the route the stage would take, to find the best place for a holdup. (Notice the patient, plodding technique—the minute re-examination of an already familiar road.) He decided on a spot a mile from his first holdup. Then, a few days before the shipment was due, he hiked higher into the mountains and set up camp, with a good view of the road below. His gear included field glasses to follow the course of the stage and a watch to time it with; his usual camp fare of coffee, crackers, and sugar; a pot in which to boil creek water; matches and a knife; two pairs of detachable cuffs; his bedroll; his flour-sack-and-duster disguise; a shotgun; and an axe.

Two or three days before the shipment was to be made, he established an observation post quite near the road. His strategy was by now routine: to step out into the road as the stage came thundering along; aim his shotgun at the driver’s heart; shield himself by standing in front of one of the lead horses as the stage squealed to a halt; and call out in his hollow voice, “Throw down the box.” Then, after sending the stage on its way again, he would chop open the express-company box, scoop up the valuables, and leave—at once and on foot.

But this time a little thing went wrong. A nineteenyear-old youth, one Jimmy Rolleri, had hitched a ride with the stage driver, and Jimmy had a gun. If he had stayed on the stage, Bart could have handled him, but Jimmy was hunting small game that day, and he got off the stage, intending to take a shortcut over the hill and catch up with it again on the other side.

Bart had seen this passenger through his field glasses and was rattled a bit when the stage arrived at the ambush without him. The driver told him the truth—that the boy had got off to hunt small game—but Bart’s timing was then thrown off a little more because Wells Fargo had recently decided to bolt their express boxes to the floors of the stages. Rather than waste time getting this one unbolted, Bart ordered the driver to unhitch the horses and take them up the road a piece while he himself climbed inside the stage and hacked open the box. He had got the treasure out and was already running for the woods when it happened.

The boy with the gun had found the driver standing with the unhitched team, and the two crept up on the stage and opened fire on the fleeing road agent. Bart was winged, but the main damage was not to his person but to his performance. As he scuttled away into the brush, he dropped things: his derby, his crackers and sugar, the case for his field glasses. Of all the miscellany he left behind, only one item proved a good clue, and it was as prosaic a clue as one could imagine—a handkerchief with the laundry mark F.X.O.7.

About six months earlier, Detective Hume had hired a special operative, Harry N. Morse, to spend all his time running Black Bart to earth. Now, with the laundry-marked handkerchief in his hand, Morse knew that he was finally closing in. By great good luck he began his search in San Francisco, where Black Bart was then living under the name of C. E. Bolton, supposedly a prosperous mining man—which, in a second-hand way, he was.

Morse ran the laundry mark down in a week, located Bart at a lodging house at 37 Second Street, and it was all over but the confession. Bart held out for three days, standing on his dignity, feigning outrage at being questioned, and even inventing an instant new alias, “T. Z. Spaulding.” Nevertheless, he was booked on suspicion of stage robbery, and when the authorities took him back to the holdup area and people began recalling him as having just been seen there, he cracked. By moonlight he led Morse and the local lawmen to a rotting log in which he had cached the gold amalgam—$4,200 worth—and told them everything they wanted to know.

In return for his co-operation Bart got a light sentence—six years, based on his confession to the one holdup. He became Prisoner No. 11,046 in San Quentin Prison on November 21, 1883, only eighteen days after his last stage robbery. With time off for good behavior, he was a free man once again on January 21, 1888, having served four years and two months.

As Black Bart the PoS he was still news. A reporter sent to interview him upon his release asked whether he had any more poetry to give out. The years behind bars had not destroyed Boles’ sense of humor. He replied with a grin: “Young man, didn’t you just hear me say I will commit no more crimes?”

Nor did he, so far as is known, though for a while Hume suspected him of two holdups that occurred later that year. Nevertheless, two more poems were linked to old Bart’s name. One was produced by a newspaper man in the mining country, who tried to palm it off as Bart’s work:

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

The other verse connected with his name was a long, rambling affair written by Ambrose Bierce, then running a column in the San Francisco Examiner, as a comment on Bart’s prison-release news conference. The most memorable stanza was this:

What’s that?—you ne’er again will rob a stage? What! did you so? Faith, I didn’t know it . Was that what threw poor Themis in a rage? I thought you were convicted as a poet!

Black Bart’s poetry may have lacked Bierce’s classical allusions, but it scanned better.

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