Friday, November 18, 2016

The History And Fiction of the Infamous Black Bart by Sarah J. McNeal

I love the movie, “A Christmas Story”, in which the young boy, Ralphie, yearns to get a Red Rider BB rifle with a compass on the stock. He even imagine a scene in which he uses his Christmas rifle to hold of Black Bart and his gang from his house and family becoming a hero in his daydream. What I didn’t know until now is that there was an actual robber named Black Bart. There was also a fictional Black Bart from old dime novels, but the real Black Bart was much more fascinating.

Charles Bowles, the Dignified Dandy

Black Bart was born Charles Bowles in Norfolk, England in 1829. He was the third of ten children with six brothers and three sisters. When he was two years old, his parents immigrated to Jefferson County, New York, where his father purchased a farm.

In late 1849, Bowles and his brothers David and James joined in the California Gold Rush, prospecting in the North Fork of the American River near Sacramento. Both brothers fell ill shortly after their arrival and died. Charles Bowles remained in California for another two more years before giving up.
He married Mary Elizabeth Johnson, moved to Decatur, Illinois and had four children by 1860. On August 13 (hope that wasn’t a Friday), 1862 he enlisted in the Union Army and was seriously injured in the Battle of Vicksburg. He also took part in Sherman’s March to the Sea. He had earned the rank of Lieutenant when he was discharged along with his regiment in Washington, D.C. and returned home.

In 1867, Bowles left his family to prospect for gold in Idaho and Montana. In a surviving letter to his wife from August 1871, he told her of an unpleasant encounter with some Wells, Fargo & Company agents and vowed to exact revenge. His wife never heard from him again, and in time she presumed he had died.

Apparently, Bowles had some deep-set issues with Wells Fargo because he targeted Wells Fargo stagecoaches to rob once he began his criminal career. He took on the nickname of Black Bart, probably from the fictional dime novel robber by the same name. Between 1875 and 1883, Black Bart robbed Wells Fargo 28 times. Twice he even wrote poems and left them at the fourth and fifth robbery sites. Somehow his poetry magnified his fame. He was quite successful at robbery and made thousands of dollars doing so.
Bowles, AKA Black Bart

Black Bart had some notable quirks which I particularly enjoyed discovering. Besides his poetic leanings, he never rode a horse, but did his robbing on foot because he was afraid of horses. Mercy, I’m just trying to imagine him outrunning a train on foot. He never shot a single person even though he brandished a shotgun and Bowles was a polite kind of thief using no foul language, despite its appearance in his poems. He always dressed in a long linen duster coat and a bowler hat, using a flour sack with holes cut for his eyes as a mask. These features became his trademarks.

At the fourth and fifth robberies Black Bart left behind poems.
At the fourth robbery:
"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, the P o 8"
At the fifth robbery:
"To wait the coming morrow,
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat
And everlasting sorrow.
Yet come what will, I'll try it once,
My conditions can't be worse,
But if there's money in that box,
It's munny in my purse.
Black Bart, the P o 8"
A little known fact is that on the first poem there was also a note scribbled under the verse. The poem and the note had each line written in a different hand. It is thought that Bart did this to disguise his handwriting.
The note reads:
Driver, give my respects to our old friend, the other driver. I really had a notion to hang my old disguise hat on his weather eye.

So what brought down the famous Black Bart and removed him from his life of crime? His last holdup took place on November 3, 1883. Maybe he should have reconsidered planning it at the same site of his first robbery on Funk Hill. (Funk Hill was just southeast of the present town of Copperopolis.) The stage had Reason McConnell as the driver as it crossed the Reynolds Ferry on the old road from Sonora to Milton. McConnell driver stopped at the ferry to pick up Jimmy Rolleri, the 19-year-old son of the ferry owner. Rolleri had his rifle with him and got off at the bottom of the hill to hunt along the creek. He was supposed to meet the stage on the other side, but when he arrived, the stage was not there so he began walking up the stage road. Near the summit, he saw the stage driver and his team of horses.

When he met up with McConnell, the driver told him Black Bart had stepped out from behind a rock with a shotgun in his hands just as the stage approached the summit. He forced McConnell to unhitch the team and take them over the crest of the hill. The notorious robber tried to remove the strongbox from the stage, but it had been bolted to the floor (I thought that was a very clever idea) so it took some time to remove.

Rolleri and McConnell went over the crest and saw Bowles backing out of the stage with the strong box. McConnell grabbed Rolleri's rifle and fired at the robber twice but missed. Rolleri took the rifle and fired as Bowles entered a thicket. Black Bart stumbled as if he had been hit. McConnell and Rolleri ran to the thicket and found a small, blood-stained bundle of mail Bowles had dropped.

Bowles had been wounded in the hand. He ran a quarter of a mile before he stopped and wrapped a handkerchief around his hand to control the bleeding. He found a rotten log and stuffed the sack with the gold amalgam into it, but kept $500 in gold coins. He hid the shotgun in a hollow tree, threw everything else away, and fled.

Criminals have a habit of messing up and Bowles (AKA Black Bart) was no exception. After he was wounded and forced to flee, he left behind several personal items. These included his eyeglasses, some food, and a handkerchief with a laundry mark F.X.O.7. The Wells Fargo Detective, James B. Hume, found these items at the scene. Hume and detective Harry N. Morse contacted every laundry in San Francisco about the laundry mark. After visiting nearly 90 laundries, they finally traced it to Ferguson & Bigg's California Laundry on Bush Street and were able to learn that the handkerchief belonged to a man who lived in a modest boarding house.

I’m thinking how Sherlock Holmes often said, “The proof is in the details.” Okay, maybe Sherlock didn’t say it exactly that way, but it was what he meant. It’s those tiny little bits and pieces of evidence that lead the law to the criminal and so it was with Black Bart.

The detectives learned that Bowles called himself a mining engineer and made frequent "business trips" that coincided with the Wells Fargo robberies. When the law caught up with Bowles, he initially denied he was Black Bart, but eventually came clean and admitted he had robbed several Wells Fargo stages, though he confessed only to crimes committed before 1879. Bowles apparently believed the statute of limitations had expired on those robberies. When booked, he gave his name as T. Z. Spalding, but police found a Bible, a gift from his wife, inscribed with his real name.

The police report said that Bowles was "a person of great endurance. Exhibited genuine wit under most trying circumstances, and was extremely proper and polite in behavior. Eschews profanity." Still, he did rob those Stagecoaches which wasn’t too polite.

Wells Fargo only pressed charges on the final robbery. Bowles was convicted and sentenced to six years in San Quentin Prison, but he was released after four years for good behavior, in January 1888. His health had deteriorated due to his time in prison. 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 replied, smiling, "I'm through with crime." Another reporter asked if he would write more poetry. Bowles laughed and said, "Now, didn't you hear me say that I am through with crime?"

Bowles never returned to his wife after his release from prison, though he did write to her. In one of the letters he said he was tired of being shadowed by Wells Fargo, felt demoralized, and wanted to get away from everybody. In February 1888, Bowles left the Nevada House and vanished. Hume said Wells Fargo tracked him to the Visalia House hotel in Visalia. The hotel owner said a man answering the description of Bowles had checked in and then disappeared. Black Bart was last seen on February 28, 1888. There are rumors that Wells Fargo had paid off the aging bandit and sent him away to keep him from robbing their stages, though Wells Fargo denied this.

Some believe that Bowles moved to New York City and lived quietly for the rest of his life, dying there in 1917, though this was never confirmed. Others believe the unlikely tale that the former poet bandit with failing eyesight had gone to the wilds of Montana or perhaps Nevada for another try at making a fortune.

Now this may amaze you, but there is actually a monument dedicated to Black Bart. In 1988 the Black Bart plaque was erected in Copperopolis, California. It was moved from its original location to the current location at Copper Park at a later date. Copper Park is located on Main Street between Mineral and Baker Street in Copperopolis.

So we have gone from the fictional Black Bart in Dime Novels, to the real life Black Bart, and back to the fictional Black Bart in a Christmas movie. History, myth, and legend have collided.  

Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Some of her fantasy and paranormal books may also be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Victory Tales Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media:


  1. That was a terrific post. A story in itself. Very entertaining.

    1. Thank you so much, Gini Rifkin, for your lovely comment. I am very happy you came to visit.
      I hope you will come and visit in December because all the Sweethearts of the West authors are going to post their personal stories of their Christmas memories and we're all going to be giving away prizes to commenters.

  2. His life ended in mystery much like the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
    I knew there was a real Black Bart, and even though we named our son Barton--called Bart--I did not think of the name because of this bandit. But when Bart was a kid he learned about Black Bart and dared anyone to call him that. Hmm, there might have been a school yard fight or two over that.
    We called our Bart "Barty Baby Boy" far too long, and he would throw a crazy fit trying to make us stop. He never like his name, so he often told or wrote to people that his name was Bartholomew. Today...I guess he likes it.
    The kid in A Christmas Story looked like our Bart, by the way. Chubby face, blond hair, and glasses.
    I love these odd stories, and I'd never read his entire story. I didn't know he feared horses--how odd.
    Thanks for a fascinating tale of a real person!

  3. I like the name Barton. Is it a family name? I also like Bartholomew. I can picture him looking like little Ralphie. So sweet.
    I had never heard of Black Bart except in the movie A Christmas Story until I started researching for an interesting western story for my blog here. I thought he was fiction because of the movie. But when I found out there was a real Black Bart and that he was so weird, well what can I say, I had to write about him. I really wonder where he ended up and what he did for the rest of his life. I felt sorry for his wife and kids.
    Thank you so much for coming by, Celia. You have become a dear friend to me, always so helpful and kind, and above all, forthright is all you say and do.

  4. Great post, Sarah. I didn't know Black Bart was a real person. Thanks for sharing his story with us.

    1. Me either, Lyn. I thought Black Bart was just a fictional character represented in A Christmas Story by Ralphie's imaginary stand-off.
      I also thought Robin Hood was pure fiction, too. As it turns out, according to the History Channel, Robin Hood was the culmination of several heroic men whose actions helped the poor. As the stories passed down the generations by word of mouth, the heroes merged into one man--Robin Hood. I love a good hero. But, of course, Black Bart was not a hero.
      Thank you for coming by and leaving a comment, Lyn. I really do appreciate it.


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