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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Black Bart's First Robbery, July 26, 1875

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Today in 1875, a man wearing a flour sack over his head robbed a stage coach traveling between Sonora and Milton, both towns in California. Thus began the criminal career of Charles Bolles, the man who would soon be known by the self-proclaimed nickname "Black Bart". It is unlikely that any time in history has produced a more well-heeled and likable criminal mastermind.

Charles Earl Bolles was most likely born in Norfolk, England in 1829. Two years later, his parents came to the United States and settled in upstate New York on a farm. Boles was 21 when he left New York to find his fortune in California during the Gold Rush year of 1850. He moved around a lot, never finding the gold he sought. He returned to New York later in the decade, got married, and had two daughters.

After the Civil War began in 1861, Bolles enlisted in the Illinois Infantry, where he served with bravery and valor through several campaigns. After his discharge in 1865, Bolles and his family moved to Iowa and started a farm. He confided to his wife that he was finally ready to settle down.

Despite his desire for the quiet life, the urge for adventure proved too much for Bolles, who was soon off hunting for gold again by the end of the 1860's. He stopped writing to his wife for almost four years in the early 1870's, leading her to believe that he was dead. Mystery surrounds his activities during these years, but one thing is certain: by 1875, Charles Bolles had decided to rob stage coaches for a living.

What made Bolles memorable as a robber was his politeness and impeccable speech, which was free from obscenity. During his first robbery today in 1875, he asked the stage driver to "Please throw down the box", meaning the locked box of valuables that most stage coaches carried. He almost always covered himself with sack cloth or a long duster in an attempt to hid his clothing and physical appearance.

The name "Black Bart" was a nickname of Bolles' choosing. He copied it from a villain in a series of adventure stories being printed at that time by the Sacramento Union newspaper. Soon thereafter, "Black Bart" began leaving a calling card behind: a short, original poem. Here's a sample:

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....

Well, you know the rest. Black Bart's robberies continued for over eight years. Almost all of them took place in California, with the exception of two robberies in Oregon in 1880. Through them all, Black Bart remained courteous and even engaged in conversation with some of the drivers he was robbing. He never robbed the passengers of the stage coaches; as he told one distraught lady, "No, don't get out. I never bother the passengers."

Bolles eight-year spree ended in 1883. During his last heist, he was shot but escaped, leaving behind him several personal items, including a handkerchief with a laundry mark. Two Wells Fargo detectives scoured the region to find the laundry responsible for the mark, finally settling on one in San Francisco. They traced the handkerchief to one C.E. Bolton, who lived in a nearby boarding house. Under questioning, Bolles, Bolton, Black Bart confessed to several robberies, but only ones committed before 1879. The reason for this is unclear, although is it believed that he thought the statute of limitations for those crimes had expired. It had not.

Wells Fargo eventually only collected enough evidence to have Bolles prosecuted for his final robbery. He was found guilty and given six years in San Quentin Prison. He was, of course, a model prisoner and was released after four years for good behavior. Upon his release in January, 1888, Bolles, then a minor celebrity in the San Francisco area, was asked by a reporter if he was going to go back to robbing stage coaches. "No", he said, "I'm through with crime."

One month later, Charles Bolles disappeared. His boarding house room was found empty. Witnesses claimed to have seen him in New York City, where he was rumored to have died in 1917. However, no evidence exists to support this. Charles Earl Bolles simply disappeared into history.

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