Charles “Black Bart” Bowles – The Poet Outlaw


Charles "Black Bart" Boles

Charles “Black Bart” Boles

Charles E. Bowles aka: Black Bart, Charley, Charles E. Boles, Charles Bolton, T.Z. Spalding (1829-1917?) – One of the most notorious stage robbers to operate in northern California and southern Oregon, Black Bart was considered a gentleman bandit with a reputation for style and sophistication.

Bowles was born in Norfolk England to John and Maria Bowles in 1829. When he was just two years old, he and his family immigrated to Jefferson County, New York , where his father purchased a farm four miles north of Plessis Village. Charley received a common school education as a child and when he grew up, he and a cousin named David set out for the goldfields of California in 1849. After spending the winter in Missouri they continued their trek to California arriving in 1850 and started mining at the north fork of the American River, near Sacramento.

After much hard work and no luck, the pair returned home in 1852. But, their stay was brief, and they, along with Charley’s older brother Robert soon returned to the California goldfields. Unfortunately, both David and Robert took ill soon after their arrival and died. Charles stayed on for two more years before returning east again. During the time he was gone he changed the spelling of his last name from Bowles to Boles. In 1854 he married Mary Elizabeth Johnson and the couple would eventually have four children and the two settled on a farm in Illinois.

Several years later when the Civil War erupted, Charles volunteered to join the Union Army in August, 1862. He became a Sergeant the following year and was seriously wounded in the Battle of Vicksburg in May, 1864. After his recovery he returned to his unit and fought tin the Battle of Atlanta. He received brevet commissions as both second lieutenant and first lieutenant, and on June 7, 1865, was discharged with his regiment in Washington, D.C..

After the war Charley returned home to Decatur, Illinois and started farming again, but it would not last for long. He soon made his way to Montana once again hoping to make his fortune in mining. While there he located a small mine which he worked with a friend from Missouri. Somewhere along the line, several men connected with Wells Fargo tired to buy them out as they wanted the land upon which the mine was located. However, Charles and his friend refused to sell and before long his potential buyers cut off their water supply, which forced them to abandon the mine. At this time he wrote several letters home telling of his anger and frustration, and saying that he was going to take steps to correct his grievances. The last letter Mary Boles received from Charley was from Silver Bow, Montana, dated August 25, 1871. Though Charles had been in the habit of writing home often, the letters stopped. Months turned into years and when Mary heard a rumor that a party of travelers had been killed by Indians, she believed him to be dead.

In the meantime, a “new” Charles appeared on the scene — an elegantly dressed man in his mid-fifties that went by the name of Charles Bolton. He was described as being 5 feet 8 inches tall with clear blue/grey eyes and a brushy moustache.

Nearly four years after he had written his last letter to his wife, this dapper middle-aged man robbed his first stagecoach on July 26, 1875. Along the Copperopolis and Milton Road in Calaveras County, California a small man, wearing a long linen duster with a  flour sack with holes that had been cut for eyes over his head, and a derby, jumped out from behind a large boulder and waved a shot gun at the driver. Speaking in a deep and resonant tone, the thief politely ordered the stage driver, a man named John Shine (later a U.S. marshal and a California state senator) , to thrown down the strongbox. When it appeared that the stage driver was hesitating, the robber said “If he dares to shoot, give him the solid volley, boys.” Looking around quickly Shine noticed several rifle barrels pointed at him from the nearby bushes and quickly threw down the strongbox. In the meantime a woman offered to surrender her purse, but the bandit declined, saying that he only wanted the Wells Fargo shipment.

As the driver and the passengers looked on, the outlaw hacked open the box and removed several bags of gold coins and a few express packages before fleeing the scene. Afterwards, John Shine went to recover the empty strongbox and upon examining the area, he discovered that the “men with rifles” were actually carefully rigged sticks. The man soon to be known as “Black Bart” had committed his first robbery netting him $160.

His next robbery occurred on December 28, 1875, when he stopped the stage from North San Juan to Marysville, California. Like the first robbery, other men were said to have been hiding in the bushes. However it was later found that the “rifles” used in the heist were nothing more than sticks wedged in the brush. On June 2, 1876 he robbed another taking the Wells Fargo Box and mail five miles north of Cottonwood, California

Wells Fargo Stage Coach

Wells Fargo Stage Coach

His fourth robbery on August 3, 1877 was the first time that he identified himself as “Black Bart” and a poet. Stopping the stage between Point Arena and Duncan’s Mills, California, wearing the same dress as he had in the past, he once again broke open the strong box and made off with $300. This time; however, 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.

It was signed Black Bart – The PO8

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