The mystery of what happened to the bandit poet, Black Bart

Time Before Now, August 1881President James Garfield lay near death after being shot by Charles Guiteau, who claimed he had been denied an ambassadorship.  The president would die just 20 days later.  Heroic Civil War Clara Barton  had founded the American Red Cross in May, legendary Lakota leader, Chief Sitting Bull surrendered in North Dakota and  New Yorker Henry W. Seeley submitted a patent application for his “electric flat iron,”  (right) winning approval the next year.  It was the only patent Seeley ever received.

August 31, 1881

On this day, the highway man’s poet laureate, Black Bart, staged another encore performance, sticking up the Roseburg/Yreka, California, stage for the second time.  In all, he picked off the same stage a total of six times.

Black Bart a.k.a. Charles Earl Boles, Bolles or Bolton, (left) successfully carried out a total of 28 highway heists between 1878 and 1883.  Averaging slightly more than nine robberies a year, the losses were more than enough to irritate Wells Fargo.

Most historians believe Boles was born about 1829 in Norfolk, England.  Several sources in England, perhaps not eager to claim him, insist he was actually born in New York.  All agree he was raised on a farm a stone’s throw from Canada, near Plessis Village with seven brothers and three sisters.

In 1849, Charles Boles and a brother, James, and another brother or perhaps a cousin named David, joined the thousands of hopeful miners in the California gold fields, prospecting along the North Fork of the American River near Sacramento.

Gold Rush mining camp on the North Fork

Boles and the relative, David, returned to New York in 1852, traveling back to California with yet another brother, Robert. Charles was the only member of the trio to survive.  Robert and David both perished in California from unknown causes, souring Boles on the idea of prospecting.   Heading back east at some point, he met and  married Mary Elizabeth Johnson in Illinois.  The couple settled in Decatur and had three, or perhaps four, daughters.

A restless farmer, Boles joined the 116th Illinois Regiment on August 13, 1862, and proved to be an excellent soldier.   He was seriously wounded in the Battle of Vicksburg in the summer of 1863 and managed to recover in time to join General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea the next year.  

Following the war Boles moved his family to New Oregon, Iowa, but by 1867 he wandered off again.   This time it was the gold fields in Montana, leaving Mary Elizabeth and the girls behind.

 His abrupt career change from hopeful miner to highwayman came in 1875.  Apparently prompted by a dust-up with two Wells Fargo employees, Boles wrote Mary Elizabeth that he planned to get even.

1880s Wells Fargo stage in California 

Never your typical Wild West bandit, he was reportedly terrified of horses, committing all of his robberies in the English manner – on foot.  Always courteous, according to the unlucky stage drivers he encountered, he never cursed and never fired a shot but became famous for the taunting, vulgar little verses he left behind.  

“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.     Black Bart, 1877”  

But the poet’s luck ran out on November 3, 1883, not far from Copperopolis, California.  Stage driver, Reason McConnell (left) gave young  Jimmy Rolleri a lift from Reynolds Ferry Hotel up nearby Funk’s Hill.  Rolleri jumped off the stage halfway up planning to hunt deer on the way back down.  

Apparently Bart had witnessed Rolleri ‘s departure but decided to risk the robbery anyway.  The entire sequence of events that followed is not clear but the deer-hunting Rolleri (left) reappeared, McConnell took a shot at the dapper bandit with the Rolleri’s gun as he ran into the brush, wounding him in the hand. 

Injured but still ambulatory, Black Bart stuffed the proceeds from the very profitable holdup into a fallen log, some $4,700 in amalgamated gold, coins and raw ore, about $45,000 today.  Alas, however, he also left behind his eyeglasses and a handkerchief with the laundry mark, “FXO7.” 

The wily bandit took the long way home, trekking 100 miles through the rugged mountain terrain to Sacramento and then taking a train to Reno, Nevada.  From Reno he wrote his landlady and, unfortunately, the man who ordinarily received his laundry, saying to hold it until he returned to San Francisco. 

A determined Wells Fargo detective, James B. Hume, (left) reportedly determined to visit all 91 laundries in San Francisco if necessary, arrived at the Biggs California Laundry on  Stevenson Street with the incriminating handkerchief just 10 days later. The laundry directed him to their agent, Thomas C. Ware, the owner of a cigar shop on Post Street.  Cigar stores of the era served as an early version of the convenience store, serving San Francisco’s highly transient population.  Yes, Ware said, the owner had instructed him to hold the delivery from Biggs until his return. 

Ware said the dapper 54-year-old chap lived at 37 Second Street, just four blocks from Wells Fargo headquarters.  When arrested the urbane Brit finally confessed, after a fashion, and was sentenced to six years in San Quentin.  Wells Fargo chose to prosecute him only for the final ill-fated robbery and ignoring his previous crimes.  He remained he perfect gentleman and was a model prisoner, released after four years.  The event attracted a scrum of reporters and legions of Black Bart fans.  

San Quentin Prison, circa 1885

But the relatively short confinement had taken a toll.  His health was not entirely robust and his eyesight was failing.  Boles told the crowd of reporters, “I’m done with crime for good.”  When asked if he would continue to write poetry, he responded,  “Didn’t you hear me.  I said I was done with crime for good.”

What happened next remains a mystery.  Boles never returned to his wife and daughters. In a letter to Elizabeth in February of 1888, he wrote he was tired of being “shadowed by Wells Fargo” and “wanted to get away from everyone.”    He may have done just that.    Not long after writing Elizabeth, the owner of the Visalia House hotel in Visalia, California, said a man answering Boles’ description checked in and then simply disappeared. 

Some sources believe he died in New York in 1917.  Others say he was lured back to the gold fields in Montana.   However, given the state of his health, according to historians  that seems unlikely.  And yet another story claims he died on February 28, 1888, at the age of 58 or 59, location of burial unknown. 

Perhaps the most persistent rumor, however, was that Wells Fargo had paid the elusive Black Bart handsomely to just disappear.  He apparently lived up to his end of the bargain but the company always denied the bargain ever existed.

The Calevaras County Museum Complex, 30 North Main Street, San Andreas, California, was the scene of  the poet/bandit Black Bart’s 1893 robbery trial and the jail where he was held. The former Calevaras Court House built in 1867, is located on the historic community’s main street.  In addition to its Black Bart connection, the museum features exhibits on mining, firearms and Native American artifacts. 

Open 10 to 4 daily, it is closed only on major holidays.  Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for seniors and $1 for children under 12.  For more information go to, call (209) 754-1058 or write Calevaras County Historical Society, P.O. Box 721, San Andreas, CA 95249.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

 Head On West strives for historic accuracy with a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.