Many bandits of the Old West ended up hanging at the end of a rope but there were exceptions, such notorious stagecoach robber Black Bart.
According to the Library of Congress, Black Bart robbed 28 stagecoaches between 1877 and 1883. He was apprehended on Nov. 12, 1883, and four days later he entered a guilty plea.
According to San Quentin’s record, he was 48 when he arrived to serve his six-year sentence. By all accounts, he was a model inmate and was paroled in 1888.
The prison was focused on rehabilitation and Black Bart may be an example of those early efforts.
Who was Black Bart?
That was the question haunting Wells Fargo agents and law men in Northern California. Known as the gentleman bandit, or the Poet of the Sierra, Charles “Black Bart” Boles was a wanted man. Hiding behind boulders on dusty stagecoach routes, Boles would step out while brandishing a gun. His favorite targets were the Wells Fargo stages. He was polite, never fired a shot and usually left behind poems for the investigators.
According to many accounts, he was a veteran of the Civil War, fighting with the 116th Illinois Infantry Volunteers. In the military he reportedly earned the rank of sergeant. After the war, he returned to the family farm with his wife and three young daughters. According to all accounts, he didn’t swear, drink alcohol or use tobacco.
Years later, after his arrest in San Francisco, he admitted his guns were never loaded because he didn’t want to hurt anyone. He said he’d seen enough bloodshed during the war.
Black Bart’s first appearance as a bandit in California was Aug. 3, 1877, when he robbed a stagecoach making its way from Fort Ross to the Russian River. Using a double-barrel shotgun, he politely demanded the treasure box and mail bags be thrown to him.
After robbing a Quincy-to-Oroville stagecoach on July 25, 1879, he left behind a poem:
“Here I lay me down to sleep
To wait the coming morrow,
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat,
And everlasting sorrow.
Yet 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.”
It was signed, Black Bart, the P o 8.
Stagecoaches were target of Black Bart
He hit stagecoaches running from Jackson to Ione, Lakeport to Cloverdale, Laporte to Oroville, Ukiah to Cloverdale, Yreka to Redding and many others.
One stagecoach driver had the notion to catch Bart and claim the reward but he was outfoxed.
“Dan Shealy, a driver of a stage running out of Copperopolis, … told detectives, ‘I’d gotten about five miles out of old Cop when somebody sung out ‘halt,’ and I heard two sharp clicks. Seems as if the (horses) knew what’s the proper thing for they stopped as quick as if they’d struck a stable. Then somebody in the bushes asked me pleasant-like to hold my hat on with both hands for some buckshot might blow it off. … I dropped the express chest with $1,100 of Wells Fargo’s coin and drove off just like it was the regular thing. When the posse got back there they found an old ax that he’d used to bust the box, and on the cover he’d stuck this:
‘Once I toiled for gold in ditches,
Now with ease I amass riches,
Daniel; now I’m on this lay,
I’ll come against another day.'”
The bandit hit Shealy’s stagecoach again.
“(Bart) was dressed in a long linen duster and had a flour bag over his head. Said he’d taken a fancy to my gun (last) trip, and I let him have it. But darned if he didn’t shove a $50 (bill) onto the box to pay me when he’d gotten through. … I remember the poetry he left that time. It was:
‘Daniel, it grieves me to say it,
Next time you attempt to play it,
Buy an overcoat of pine,
And I’ll send the corpse in time.’”
Bandit was polite to women, but ‘merciless’ to men
“Black Bart, Shasta County’s notorious highwayman, asks all the people he stops to contribute to an orphan asylum. And, there is something so forbidding in his appearance that all the travelers shell out without asking where the asylum is, or how much it needs,” reported the Daily Alta California, September 23, 1882. “The rascal is described as being very ‘gentlemanly,’ never forgetting to raise his hat to the ladies, and seldom asking them for donations.
“But he is unmerciful to men, and they are never out of range of his deadly gun. Some day though, ‘Black Bart, the PO8 (‘poet’) of the Sierras,’ (will be captured). J.B. Hume, the express company’s detective, has gone to Redding to give chase to the highwayman.
“Black Bart despises Hume, but never fails to send that gentleman his regards after committing a robbery. He is a smart fellow, and has written some clever verses, forwarding them through the mails to different papers up north. After committing a highwayman’s act, he never leaves any traces whereby he can be identified. He very politely asks that the treasure box be thrown from the stage. Then he urges the necessity, at the muzzle of his gun, of the stage driver’s moving on, ‘Very quietly, sir, if you please.’”
Coach-robbing career comes to end
In 1883, he held up his last stagecoach. Thanks to a feisty stagecoach driver, the happenstance of a young man wandering nearby and the carelessness of Black Bart, his stagecoach-robbing days were over.
“Last Monday evening, the detectives of Wells Fargo & Co., of whom J.B. Hume is chief, succeeded in running down and capturing, after a long chase of about six years, one of the most noted and daring stage robbers of the country, ‘Black Bart,’ as he is generally known,” reported the San Francisco Bulletin, Nov. 14, 1883.
While attempting to hold up a stagecoach on Nov. 3, he finally left behind a clue.
“As the Sonora and Milton stage was running over the mountain road, a man, whose face was concealed by a flour sack that had been ripped open and cleansed, jumped from behind the thicket skirting the roadway and commanded a halt. The driver, McConnell, was compelled to get down from his seat, unharness the horses and drive them behind the conveyance. The robber then broke open the treasure box of Wells Fargo & Co. and took amalgam, valued at $4,100, gold and $550 in gold and silver coin.
“As McConnell drove the animals to the rear of the stage, he noticed a boy (nearby), carrying a Henry rifle (for hunting). He beckoned to him, and the lad came. The robber had secured his booty and was making off with it, when McConnell seized the rifle from the boy’s hands and fired at the despoiler. Black Bart ran.
“McConnell pursued and discharged three more shots at him. In running, Black Bart lost his hat, a little round Derby, and his handkerchief fell out of his pocket. (Later,) a further clue, another piece of property, which is presumed to belong to Black Bart, was found behind some rocks near the spot where the stage was stopped. This was the case of a pair of spyglasses, which it is thought he used to (spot) the stage from afar and to note how many were about it. On the handkerchief was a laundry mark, which was the means of securing his arrest.”
Dirty laundry leads to arrest
The investigators found a launderer with that mark in San Francisco on Bush Street. From there, they discovered the owner of the handkerchief was “C.E. Bolton,” who was staying at a nearby hotel.
Bolton, who also went by Boles, was put under surveillance and Sheriff Thorn got a warrant for his arrest.
“It was found that (Bolton) was a well-known man about town. He was thought to be a mining man, having conveyed that impression in the society of others by his conversation,” reported the newspaper. “His departures from the city at various intervals were accounted for on this supposition.”
They arrested him. On Nov. 16, 1883, he pleaded guilty and was sent to San Quentin.
A new life for Black Bart
When he was released from San Quentin on New Year’s Day, 1888, he vowed to give up his life of crime.
“He declared that he had robbed his last stage, and that when he got out he would lead an honest life. A model prisoner, giving no trouble to the officers, he has worked during the greater part of his imprisonment in the drug department of the prison, becoming an expert chemist,” reported newspapers at the time.
According to the Calaveras Heritage Council, when he stepped out of the gates of San Quentin, he was swarmed by reporters.
“He had visibly aged, his eyesight was failing, and he had gone deaf in one ear. Reporters swarmed around him when he was released and asked if he was going to rob any more stagecoaches. ‘No, gentlemen,’ he smilingly replied; ‘I’m through with crime.’ Another reporter asked if he would write more poetry. Boles laughed and said, ‘Now, didn’t you hear me say that I am through with crime?'”
Boles said he hoped to use his newfound chemist skills to work for a druggist.
In the Prison Board of Directors Report, dated Nov. 1, 1880, Warden J.P. Ames emphasized rehabilitation as a means to reduce recidivism.
“The criminal should not only be restrained of his liberty, but … every effort should be made to reclaim the criminal through reformatory influences,” he wrote. “Labor is indispensable as a means of reform, but the labor should be productive, and not merely penal, unproductive labor, which affords no mental exercise, and simply serves to degrade the convict. … I feel convinced of the necessity of having every prisoner taught some trade by which he may be enabled to obtain livelihood after his discharge.
“The (job training) should be some industry for which there is demand, or the convict, after his release, will find himself as incapable of making a living as he was before his imprisonment. … The prisoner should receive encouragement, and should be made to feel that, although he has transgressed against the laws of society, there is yet hope for him in the future.”
Early rehabilitation programs began in 1880s
Many of the rehabilitative programs started under Warden Ames continued through the mid-1880s under Warden Paul Shirley.
In an 1884 report, Warden Shirley extolled the benefits of job training for inmates as well as allowing them to earn a small salary for their work.
“(He) learns that the reward of industry … being only 10 cents per day, properly expended, materially benefits his condition,” Warden Shirley wrote. “By the exercise of proper economy, a small capital can be secured, with which, at the expiration of his sentence, each convict can reenter a free life not dependent upon the charity of the world, or compelled to illegal and vicious practices for means of sustenance.
“Those having families secure at least a portion of the means needed to guard their little ones from the pathway of vice. … There is no good reason why (convicts) should not leave the prison much better men than when they entered, and with sufficient skill acquired in some field of industry to enable them to live well and honestly thereafter.”
What happened to Boles after his release remains a mystery but one thing is certain – he never returned to San Quentin State Prison.
Despite some rumors that he returned to his life of crime, they were often proven to be copycat bandits. There were also rumors that Boles was hired by Wells Fargo as a consultant to dissuade him from robbing future stagecoaches. According to many reports, this was also a rumor that found print decades later in an east coast magazine.
An obituary notice for a Charles Boles was reportedly published in 1917, which would have put him at 88 years old, although his death was never confirmed.
Lawmen find fame of their own
Those who played a role in the Black Bart story went on with their lives but because of their association with the 19th century’s most infamous bandit, they also experienced a level of celebrity.
James Bunyon Hume, Wells Fargo detective
“Peaceful death ends stirring career of famous sleuth who for many years directed the work of the Wells Fargo Detective Bureau,” reported the San Francisco Call, May 19, 1904.
He died at his home in Berkeley at 77 years of age. His law enforcement career began when he settled in California in 1850.
“The first service Mr. Hume saw on the fire line was in El Dorado County shortly after he came to California,” the paper reported. “The people of that county elected ‘Jim’ Hume sheriff and in that capacity it was his duty to convict or dislodge all the criminals that infested the wiles of that country in those days. He made himself the terror of the lawless element of El Dorado and upon his record alone he was appointed warden of Carson (jail). This was now 1870.”
Two years later, he took a job with Wells Fargo.
“Mr. Hume’s most distinguished capture was of the famous ‘Black Bart,’ the fellow who alone held up stage after stage of Wells Fargo throughout the state. It was a long chase but Black Bart was finally run down with the aid of a simple laundry mark. Such desperadoes as Sonntag and Evans, the Dalton brothers and others have been successfully apprehended through his advice and activity,” reads his obituary notice.
Ben K. Thorn, Calaveras County sheriff
“Ex-Sheriff Ben K. Thorn of Calaveras County, whose death occurred in San Francisco, was one of California’s (colorful) characters,” reported the Press Democrat, Nov. 17, 1905. “In the early days he achieved a reputation for bravery and daring that has never been surpassed by any peace officer of the state. Joaquin Murietta, Sam Brown, Black Bart and many others of like ilk were run to earth by brave Sheriff Thorn.”
He had been with the sheriff’s office for more than 50 years. He settled in California in 1849 and was 75 years old when he passed.
Harry N. Morse, detective
At 14 years old, Harry Morse came to California as a teenager in 1849. He ended up in Redwood City for a short time, building and operating the town’s first hotel when he was only 17.
He also became a firefighter, joining the small town’s volunteer fire brigade.
Morse later served as sheriff of Alameda County from 1864-1878. He then formed the Morse Detective Agency and is credited with capturing Black Bart. Nabbing the bandit allowed him to collect the $300 reward in 1883.
Morse made headlines again when his son George was slain by 14-year-old Claude Hankins on a ranch near Marysville.
“According to the story told by Hankins, he followed Morse to where he was milking a cow Tuesday evening and, approaching him without exciting suspicion, fired the fatal shot, robbed him of his purse and then departed,” reported the San Francisco Call, July 21, 1904. “Hankins hardly seems to realize the seriousness of his crime.”
Three years later, he buried his wife, Virginia, according to the San Francisco Call, May 26, 1907.
Detective Morse had other interests as well. He “was an early investor in the Gold Park Mining District in Nevada and ran the district from 1896-1912,” according to the University of Nevada, Reno.
His last well-known case was the 1905 poisoning death of Jane Stanford, founder of Stanford University.
After his death in 1912, newspapers recounted his career.
“Morse was a pioneer peace officer in California, his exploits in the early history of Alameda County in dealing with desperadoes and criminals forming a startling chapter. He frequently rode across the state and captured criminals in the (vastness) of the Sierra Nevada mountains and then escorted them here for trial. He engaged in numerous rifle duels in taking bandits. Later he founded a detective agency, which bore his name, and he continued in active management until his death,” reported the San Francisco Call, June 26, 1912.
He was laid to rest by his wife’s side.
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Learn more about California prison history.