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The Poetic Tale of Literary Outlaw Black Bart

Stagecoach robber Charles Bole took the inspiration for his pseudonym from pulp fiction

"Black Bart" robbed at least 28 stagecoaches in his lifetime. He left poems at two of them. (Painted by Frederick Remington; now in public domain)
smithsonian.com

If the outlaw Black Bart’s name sounds poetic, that’s because it was meant to. He got it out of a book.

In the strange landscape of the Old West, Bart stands out. He was a successful stagecoach robber for eight years, and his modus operandi was unconventional to say the least: He liked to stand in the road with a flour bag over his head and a hat atop the bag, holding a gun, and demand the mailbags and strongbox from the stagecoach.  

Bart’s life history is somewhat mysterious, but it’s worth learning the little that the historical record has to say about him. Here are three things we know about Black Bart’s strange career, which came to an end on this day in 1883, according to History.com.

Charles Boles, aka Black Bart (Public domain)

He liked to leave poems at the site of his robberies

Between 1875 and 1883, writes Gary Kamiya for SFGate, Black Bart robbed at least 28 Wells Fargo stagecoaches in Northern California. In civilian life, however, he was a gentleman named Charles Boles who “lived in pleasant furnished rooms at Webb's Hotel, at 47 Second St.,” writes Kamiya. “With his luxuriant white mustache and gold watch chain, he looked every inch the successful San Francisco businessman.” Boles' cover story was that he was in mining, and it's true that following the Gold Rush is how he originally came to be in San Francisco.

In keeping with his genteel appearance (which was concealed by a flour sack with two holes in it during his robberies), he occasionally left poems behind him. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, though he only did this twice, his verse became famous. The best-known of his poems: ““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 was known for only robbing the Wells Fargo company and leaving the stagecoach passengers alone, so it’s fair to say he took issue with large companies, not everyday people.

He chose his robber name because of a thriller

If his poetic habits haven’t provided enough of a hint, Boles/Bart was a literary man. He chose his robber name when writing his first poem. It likely came from an adventure story published in the Sacramento Union.  “The Case of Summerfield” was published by American author William Henry Rhodes under a pseudonym in the early 1870s. The villain of that story, which can be read in full on the Project Gutenberg website, is a stagecoach robber named Black Bart.

As for where Rhodes got the name–well, he may have heard of an historic pirate named “Black Bart” Roberts, who also inspired Robert Louis Stevenson and perhaps later inspired the writer of The Princess Bride.

He was caught because of his laundry

Black Bart had never been identified or captured, which enabled him to continue living as Charles Boles–that is until his last robbery, which took place on this day in 1883. In the course of his robbery, writes Kamiya, Bart was injured and fled the scene, leaving behind him a handkerchief “bearing the mark F.X.0.7.” Marks such as these, known as “laundry marks,” were used by laundry services to tell workers who owned the items being washed–and they were traceable.

In his regular life, Bart maintained the illusion of being involved in mining. Wells Fargo chief detective Jim Hume and police officer Harry Morse visited him on the pretence of discussing mining matters. “After an interrogation in the Wells Fargo offices, during which Boles' cover story of being a miner fell apart and he lost his temper, Boles was arrested,” Kamiya writes.

Bole/Bart served four years in San Quentin Prison for the one robbery he was convicted of, and disappeared from the historical record after he was released. Where did he end up? There are a lot of stories out there, but nobody knows for sure.

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