Not much has been written in fictional form about California's most successful stage bandit, Charles Boles (Bowles), aka BLACK BART. His life was an enigma to many; born and raised in New York, he traveled west during the gold rush to California. After trying his hand at mining, and after the death of one brother, he returned to NY, then settled for a time in Illinois. There he married; he taught school for awhile, but when war broke out, he enlisted in the 116th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. A good soldier, he was wounded and promoted to sergeant. Returning to his wife after mustering out, he tried farming, but found it frustrating and disappointing.
Charles was well-schooled and liked by all who ever met him. But, as my grandmother would have said, "he was a ne'er do well." Easily frustrated, wanting to make his way but not knowing how, he tried many things, but to no avail. Sadly, he abandoned his wife and daughters after an infant son died. Hoping to make his fortune again through gold mining, he went to Montana, c. 1872. Again, he was unsuccessful. By now, however, he was growing more and more frustrated.
History does not give us a lot of clues about why or how, but Charles did return to California for gold. But THIS time, he decided to steal it. Dressed in a duster and sack over his head (under which he wore a derby to make him appear taller) and armed with a plugged shotgun, he successfully held up 28 Wells' Fargo stage coaches all over Northern California without firing a shot. Called the poet bandit, he left verse, poorly rhymed and humorous, at the site of two of his hold ups.
James Hume, Wells' Fargo's chief detective, became obsessed with capturing Charles. Ironically, these two men had more in common than one might assume (including their profiles!). And so their game of cat-and-mouse began; for several years, Charles outsmarted Hume and the lawmen who tried to catch him. Ironically, too, it was a boy who finally shot the bullet that hit Charles (not fatally, just in the hand), which eventually led to his arrest in San Francisco. He served 4 1/2 years of a six-year sentence in San Quentin.....and then.....?
Because of my connection to this story, I was invited to be interviewed for an upcoming episode of "Legends and Lies," narrated and produced by Bill O'Reilly, to be aired on Sunday, May 10, on the Fox News Channel. Others have also been interviewed, but I invite you to watch the episode....it was great fun! (The link will take you to a video clip of it....)
Of course, as with all television programming, it will be interesting to see how little or how much I'm included in the episode! However, one important note: Lou and I were given the FIFTH only known photograph of Charles, by his great niece, which I did share with the producers of the show. I hope it makes its way into the episode!
I'm ending here with the Prologue of our novel : BLACK BART: THE POET BANDIT.
January 21, 1888
Charles stepped out into the foggy morning and sighed. He knew there’d be a crowd, and he wasn’t disappointed. Reporters, in dark suits and heavy coats, were awaiting his appearance.
“Mr. Bolton,” called one, raising his pencil, “how does it feel to be a free man?”
Charles took a long, deep breath. “I can’t lie, fellows. It feels good.”
The reporter nodded. “You’ve had enough thieving?”
Charles smiled as he looked around at the blur of eager faces. “Oh, I’m done with Black Bart and my life of crime. For one thing, I’ve grown a bit deaf and need spectacles. That would present a bit of a problem for a stage bandit, don’t you think?”
The men in dark suits laughed.
A second reporter stepped forward. “But what of your literary efforts, Mr. Bolton? Are you through writing poetry? You know, our readers enjoyed the verse.”
A ripple of good-hearted cheers passed through the crowd.
Charles tapped the brim of the bowler he’d been given by the warden just this morning. “If I managed a bit of a rhyme,” he said, tilting his chin, “like, as not, it might add to my time. It’s better left dead, buried alive, filled with lead—but I thank ye for asking, my fine friend.”
A round of applause erupted before Charles could continue. “Like I said, sir, I’m done with my life of crime.”
“And what about Mr. Hume? Has Wells, Fargo & Company given you any advice?”
“I would hope Mr. Hume is satisfied that justice was served,” said Charles. In truth, the Wells, Fargo & Company detective had avoided contact with him since his incarceration at San Quentin, but Charles knew the man was following his every move. No doubt he’d been disappointed when Charles was given an early release.
“You’ve not served your full sentence, and it’s been said that Mr. Hume is apoplectic over this turn of events. He says it’s a foolhardy gesture.”
“Gentlemen,” interrupted Charles, “I served my time and did so with no complaints. How can Mr. Hume be anything but satisfied? I’m satisfied,” he added, winking at a man near him.
“Here, here!” responded the man warmly.
Suddenly another journalist at the back of the crowd spoke up. “I do believe he questions your contrite heart, Mr. Bolton. After all, you did manage to fool him twenty-eight times. Perhaps even more than that, if all were told?”
Charles tried to capture the man’s glance. “I was able to keep Wells, Fargo & Company rather busy, wasn’t I?”
Those nearest him smiled and nodded.
“But you’re not repentant?” came the immediate reply from the back.
“Oh, I have much to repent, as do we all,” Charles said, his steady gaze on the reporter who had finally moved into his line of vision. He was handsome, young, and eager. “In fact, I would suggest,” he added, “that when you take the measure of a man, sir, be sure to take the full measure.”
“Very well. Does that mean there is something you’d like to add to your story? Our readers are anxious to know what you are about. Why you chose to rob only Wells, Fargo & Company, for instance.”
Charles grimaced as he considered the question. Tell all?
No, he’d not give these men, or anyone, such satisfaction. “May I get back to you?” He faced the rest of the crowd. “For now, I just want a beef steak and a glass of ale.”
“Indeed,” returned another man.
Just then a coach pulled up.
The crowd fell back and gave Charles clear passage even as they scribbled across their notepads. He moved past them, nodding to those closest.
“Good luck, Mr. Bolton.”
The earnest young journalist had moved to the end of the line of dark suits and his gaze was clear and focused. “Remember, sir, I’d appreciate your story in full, if you ever have a mind to share it. I work for the San Francisco Examiner,” he added, “and the name’s Randolph Hearst.”
For more on Gail L. Jenner's writing, visit her author site on Prairie Rose Publishing
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