Search This Blog

Monday, May 19, 2014

BLACK BART: A Look at the Life of California's Famous Stage Bandit by Gail L. Jenner

Dubbed ‘BlackBart, the Poet (Po-8) Bandit’, Charles E. Bowles was an enigma to all.  He was born in New York, although his parents were from England and at least one brother was born there before emigrating to the U.S.  His father was a “barn builder” but Charles, very likely a “dreamer” from youth, did not want to take up the family business. He left NY for CA during the gold rush, with two brothers – one of whom died in San Francisco. Charles returned home only to leave again to wander and try his hand at many things… 

Charles was a Civil War veteran who fought courageously under General Sherman in many battles, including Vicksburg and others. He was intelligent and well-learned and took up life as a schoolmaster and farmer, though he disliked both occupations and abandoned them after a time. Married, with three daughters (a son died in infancy), he also abandoned his family in Iowa when he left in 1870 to carve out a life for himself.
He eventually moved from Montana to California where he took up his infamous life of crime.
Soft-spoken, with a sense of humor, his gentlemanly appearance belied his true identity as the most successful Wells Fargo bandit in California history. From 1875 - 1883, he successfully held up 28 stages, each time baffling the driver by appearing “out of nowhere” and disappearing “into thin air.” He wore flour sacking and a derby hat and approached the stage drivers politely, asking them to “throw down the box.” He never rode a horse, but walked, sometimes covering more than 60 rugged miles in less than 24 hours. He used a plugged shotgun, reportedly never held up a passenger or harmed anyone, and occasionally left rhymed verse at the site of his robberies.

Throughout his career as a thief, he lived in San Francisco and became friends with many notables of the time. With his bowler and walking stick, he was thought to be a mining engineer.
Stories abound about Charles and a woman who became the love of his life. Were the stories true? What happened to her? To them? Charles’s wife spent her remaining years in Hannibal, Missouri, listing herself as “widow” in the census. Sadly, his daughters never saw their father again and it is not clearly known what they felt or thought when they eventually learned the truth.
Charles disappeared from history after his capture (through a strange twist of fate) and spending four years (out of a six-year sentence) in San Quentin. A popular figure in the headlines even then, when released, he was asked by journalists if he’d given up his life of crime. He responded, “Certainly.” Asked if he’d given up writing verse, he replied (tongue in cheek), “I told you, I’ve given up crime.” Some historians say Wells Fargo subsequently paid Charles to stay away from their stages because he was their number one nemesis; some say Charles sailed to Japan, while others say he went on to rob again -- perhaps in Alaska? Others believe an empty grave in Knight’s Landing, CA, became his final resting spot. Still others say he died in New York in 1917.
Few letters or primary documents remain to tell us the real story of his family or his relationship to them or his final years; however, it is known that Charles contacted his wife after his arrest and release and she eagerly responded to his request to see her again...but after that, there are no other letters or reports of his whereabouts.

In putting together our novel, BLACK BART: THE POET BANDIT, coauthor Lou Legerton (who worked for Wells Fargo for 30 years and followed in Charles’s footsteps over a six year period) and I did get to connect with a great niece who gave us the FIFTH only known photograph of Charles as a young man, with his family in New York. She was in her nineties at the time.
BLACK BART: THE POET BANDIT is the FIRST and ONLY historical novel to be written about Charles Boles, aka Charles Bowles, aka Charles Bolton, aka Black Bart. Four books, which have collated his litany of stage holdups, have been written, but no other novel has been written that explores his life BEFORE or during his tumultuous years as a stage bandit.

Our novel placed 2nd in the Jack London Novel Contest before it was published. A YA/crossover novel, it delves into the life behind the linen mask and plugged shotgun. It is available online at amazon or Illustrations were done by Glen "Lawrence" Harrington.

Leave me a POST (including your mailing address) and you'll be entered into a  DRAWING for an autographed copy of BLACK BART: THE POET BANDIT!  I'll draw the winning name on Wednesday of this week. 
It's a story that has been waiting to been told.....


  1. Gail,

    Don't you just love a mystery and the gift of being given a great story? It seems every time we really delve into the 'story' it is always so much more than we expect.
    I'd heard stories of the 'poet' bandit and thank you all for bringing the story to life. Doris

    1. Hi! Yes, Charles was such a fascinating character! His life was riddled with riddles!! :-)

  2. What an interesting story about someone I knew very little about. You must have had a ton of fun writing about him, Gail. Congratulations on the accolades for this book you've already garnered, and many more to come, I'm sure.

    Now this is kind of weird, but my husband has a cousin named Charles Bowles. LOL

    I have to say, Black Bart looks nothing like a bandit, does he? Probably why he got away with it for so long.


    1. Wow - Does your husband's cousin have family that lived in NY? Has he done any genealogy???? I'd love to know more about him!! No, he was anything but a thief to everyone who ever met him or knew him!

  3. I knew a little about Black Bart--his general history and legacy--but this was new information for me. How interesting, too. He cut such a handsome, aristocratic figure in his photographs. It also sounds like he never regretted the life he chose to live. Thanks for sharing a bit of your research.

    1. Thanks, Kaye! He didn't seem to have much remorse -- and yet was quite soft-spoken, educated, didn't ever really threaten anyone. An enigma, in so many ways!

  4. I HAVE A WINNER -- DORIS! YOU HAVE WON AN AUTOGRAPHED COPY OF BLACK BART: THE POET BANDIT! Please send me your mailing address ( and I will get it in the mail ASAP!! And congratulations!
    Hope you enjoy the story!! :-)

    1. Thank you so much!!!!! I feel like I am one of the lucky one.