November 3rd, 1883 – The Legend of Black Bart


On November 3rd, 1883, “gentleman bandit” Charles Earl Bowles, also known as Black Bart, committed the last of his 28 stagecoach robberies . . . but why was it his last?


Charles Earl Bowles (b. 1829; d.after 1888)

Bowles was an English-born outlaw noted for the poetic messages he left behind after two of his robberies. Often called Charley by his friends, he was also known as Charles Bolton, C.E. Bolton and Black Bart the Poet. Considered a gentleman bandit with a reputation for style and sophistication, he was one of the most notorious stagecoach robbers to operate in and around Northern California and southern Oregon during the 1870s and 1880s.

Bowles, as Black Bart, robbed Wells Fargo stagecoaches at least 28 times across northern California between 1875 and 1883, including a number along the historic Siskiyou Trail between California and Oregon. He only left two poems – at the fourth and fifth robbery sites – but this came to be considered his signature and ensured his fame. Black Bart was quite successful, often taking in thousands of dollars a year.

Ironically, Bowles was afraid of horses and made all of his robberies on foot. Together with his poems, this earned him notoriety. Also, throughout his years as an outlaw, he never once fired a weapon.

Bowles was invariably polite and used no foul language, despite its appearance in his poems. He dressed in a long linen duster coat and a bowler hat, using a flour sack with holes cut for his eyes as a mask. He brandished a shotgun, but never used it. These features became his trademarks.

black-bart-wanted-posterOn July 26th, 1875, Bowles robbed his first stagecoach in Calaveras County, on the road between Copperopolis and Milton. What was unusual were the outlaw’s politeness and good manners. He spoke with a deep and resonant tone as he ordered stage driver John Shine, “Please throw down the box.” As Shine handed over the strongbox, Bowles shouted, “If he dares to shoot, give him a solid volley, boys”. Seeing rifle barrels pointed at him from the nearby bushes, Shine quickly handed over the strongbox. Shine waited until Bowles vanished and then went to recover the empty strongbox. When he examined the area, he discovered that the “men with rifles” were actually carefully rigged sticks. Bowles’ first robbery netted him $160.

His last holdup took place on November 3rd, 1883 at the site as his first robbery on Funk Hill, southeast of the present town of Copperopolis. Driven by Reason McConnell, the stage had crossed the Reynolds Ferry on the old road from Sonora to Milton. The 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 and meet the stage on the other side. When he arrived at the western end, he found that the stage was not there and began walking up the stage road. Near the summit, he saw the stage driver and his team of horses.

McConnell told him that as the stage had approached the summit, Bowles had stepped out from behind a rock with a shotgun in his hands. He forced McConnell to unhitch the team and take them over the crest of the hill. Bowles then tried to remove the strongbox from the stage, but it had been bolted to the floor and took Bowles some time to remove.

blackbart_illustration4Rolleri 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 twice Bowles twice but missed. Rolleri took the rifle and fired as Bowles entered a thicket. He stumbled as if he had been hit. Running to the thicket, they found a small bundle of mail he dropped. There were drops of blood on it.

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

When Bowles 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. Wells Fargo Detective James B. Hume found these 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.

Charles_Bowles_aka_Black_BartBowles called himself as a mining engineer and made frequent “business trips” that coincided with the Wells Fargo robberies. After initially denying he was Black Bart, Bowles eventually 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.”

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. When he was released in January 1888, his health had clearly 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?”

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


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