On August 3. 1877, a stagecoach was held up at gunpoint while traveling from Port Arena to Duncan's Mills, California, by a man disguised by rags and cloths covering his head and body. He was notable, however, for his calm manner and the politeness with which he conducted the robbery. In a deep, pleasant, and courteous voice, he requested of the stage driver, "Please throw down the box." After emptying the cashbox of its cash, the robber politely took his leave and disappeared into the brush, but not before leaving a piece of paper behind. On it was written:
"I've labored long and hard for bread,
For honor, and for riches,
But on my corns too long you've tred,
You fine-haired sons of bitches.
- Black Bart, 1877"
Underneath the poem was this note: Driver, give my respects to our old friend, the other driver. I really had a notion to hang my old disguise hat on his weather eye. While it probably didn't take the sting out of being robbed, at least the stagecoach driver could take some comfort in knowing that he'd been held up by one of the most colorful figures in the Old West: Charles Boles, aka Black Bart the Poet.
Charles Boles is believed to have been born in England in 1829. At the age of two, he emigrated to New York with his parents, where his father set up a farm. In 1849, Boles joined thousands of other hopefuls in the California Gold Rush - apparently without too much success, since by 1854 he was back East to get married, and by 1860 he and his wife Mary were living on a farm in Illinois.
At the start of the Civil War, Boles enlisted in the 116th Illinois Regiment. He served with distinction, was wounded in the battle of Vicksburg,and received two honorary promotions, to second and first lieutenant. After the war, however, Boles couldn't seem to settle back into farming. He left his wife and wandered West to try his luck at prospecting. After a while, the letters home stopped, and his family believed he had died.
Nothing is heard of him from 1871 to 1875, when a stagecoach was robbed in Calaveras County, California, by a mild-mannered, well-spoken bandit disguised in rags. Charles Boles had become Black Bart, gentleman thief and poet. (Boles apparently had cribbed his moniker from a dime-novel serial .)
For the next eight years, stagecoaches up and down California were relieved of their money by Black Bart. Victims remarked upon his pleasant demeanor, refined wit, and lack of profanity. When one stage driver asked him, "How much did you make," he replied ruefully, "Not that much for the chances I take." On one occasion, after a robbery, he appeared at a lonely farmhouse, looking to buy his dinner; the family's 14-year-old daughter later described him to detectives as "intellectual in conversation, well-flavored with polite jokes." After a while, Boles began leaving poems behind, signing some of them "Black Bart PO8," and newspapermen of the day fell over themselves to publish them. Black Bart was as colorful as any fictional character, but the best part was that he was real.
Boles was finally captured in 1883, when the laundry mark on a handkerchief he dropped at a robbery led police to his boarding house in San Francisco. The detectives were clearly impressed by him. In their report, they wrote that Black Bart was "a person of great endurance. Exhibited genuine wit under most trying circumstances, and was extremely proper and polite in behavior. Eschews profanity." Despite his charm, Boles was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to prison for eight years. He served four years at San Quentin before being release early for good behavior. He assured the mob of reporters waiting for him that he was through with both robbing and poetry.
Black Bart, however, couldn't just fade slowly away. In February 1888, a month after his release, Boles' room in his boarding house was found vacated. While there were many copycat robbers after him, no definitive trace of Black Bart or Charles Boles was ever found.
from a stagecoach robbery on July 25, 1878 in Oroville, CA:"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 money in that box
'Tis money in my purse.