Black Bart and Clean Handkerchiefs
by Susan Saperstein
Charles Bowles – aka Charles Bolton, C. E. Boles, Black Bart, and Po8 – robbed twenty-seven Wells Fargo stagecoaches between 1875 and 1883. A resident of Second Street in San Francisco, he would travel to Stockton, California, walk into the mountains, and later appear on roads where stagecoaches traveled. After each robbery, he left behind a poem. Black Bart wore a light-colored overgarment covering his clothes, a flour sack over his head, and a derby hat on top of it.
His first poem, written on a waybill and left weighted by a stone on top of a tree stump, appeared after Bart robbed a stage in Sonoma County.
"I've labored long and hard
for bread and honor and for riches
But on my corns too long you've tread
You fine haired sons of bitches."
Black Bart is said to have told passengers, “I don't need your money. I only want Wells Fargo’s.” He robbed stages in the counties of Mendocino, Butte, Shasta, Sonoma, Siskiyou, Nevada, Plumas, Amador, and Calaveras.
Black Bart was described as well educated and well dressed. A Civil War veteran, he had served under another former San Francisco resident, General William Sherman. He was born Charles Bowles in Norfolk County, England, to parents who settled in upstate New York when he was two. Charles and his cousin went to mine gold in California in 1849, but he returned home, enlisted in the army, and during the Civil War was part of General Sherman’s March to the Sea campaign. After the war he farmed in Iowa and worked in silver mines in Idaho and Montana before heading back to the gold fields of California. His wife assumed he was dead when he stopped writing from his various travels around the West.
One theory about Charles Bowles is that he modeled himself after characters in serial adventure stories – dime novels – that appeared in the local newspapers. In one such serial, the villain of the story dressed in black with unruly black hair, large black beard, and wild eyes. That character, Bartholomew Graham, also called The Black Bart, was wanted for crimes against humanity and the Wells Fargo Company.
After what was to be Black Bart’s last stage robbery, the sheriff of San Joaquin County, quickly at the scene in search of evidence, picked up a handkerchief with the laundry mark FX07. The Wells Fargo detectives checked ninety-one San Francisco laundries to find that the handkerchief belonged to Charles E. Bolton, who lived several blocks from the Wells Fargo Headquarters. He was convicted and sentenced to San Quentin Prison for six years, but was released after four years for good behavior. He was last seen in San Francisco on February 28, 1888. The next day he was gone, leaving his belongings behind at his hotel and disappearing from sight.
Wells Fargo website at http://wellsfargo.com and Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco website at http://www.sfmuseum.net
Historic photo reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.
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