On July 26, 1875, John Shine clicked the reins to spur his team of four horses up Funk Hill. The California sun shone hot on his ten-gallon hat, and he sweated inside his white shirt and leather vest as the stagecoach rattled along the rutted road.
A few minutes later, he pulled gently on the reins to slow his team as the coach rounded a bend in the mountain pass. In the haze of heat, he saw a man standing before him. He pulled harder on the reins, stopping the coach.
The man wore a long, soiled duster over his clothes. Over his head was a flour-sack with holes cut for eyes. In his hands was a double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun. In a deep voice, he said, “Please throw down the box!”
John Shine hesitated. His shotgun was under the seat. Could he reach it under pretence of grabbing the box and fire before the robber did?
The man then called, “If he dares shoot, give him a solid volley, boys!”
Shine looked around. Protruding from the boulders were six rifles. He reached beneath his seat, withdrew the strongbox, and tossed it and the mail sacks onto the ground. He called back to the passengers in the coach—two men, five women, and three children—“We’re being robbed. Don’t do anything stupid or you’ll get us all killed.”
One of the women inside the coach threw her purse out the window.
The robber picked it up, dusted it off, and handed it back through the window. He bowed and said, “Madam, I do not wish your money. In that respect I honor only the good office of Wells Fargo.” With a sweep of his hand, he dismissed Shine, who drove away, glancing back in time to see the man attack the strong box with a hatchet.
About half a mile further up the road, he stopped the coach, hopped off the driver’s seat, and told the passengers to stay put. Then he walked back to the site of the robbery to see if he could salvage anything.
Dust swirled around his booted ankles as he walked. He squinted against the sunlight reflecting off the rocks. As he approached the remains of the strongbox, he saw rifles pointing at him from between the boulders. His heart slammed against his ribs, and he froze. But when nothing happened after several seconds, he narrowed his eyes and began to move cautiously forward.
Damn. Damn and blast. They were no rifles but mere sticks stuck between the rocks.
Over the next two years, three more Wells Fargo stagecoaches were robbed along mountain roads in Northern California. The robber was always a gentleman. He said please. He was courteous to the passengers, especially the women. He never took their cash and jewelry, only the strongbox and mail.
On August 3, 1777, the gentleman-bandit robbed his fourth stagecoach. When Wells Fargo recovered the strongbox, left inside was a note in rhyming verse.
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
For nearly a year, all was quiet on the roads of northern California. Then, on July 26, 1778, almost three years to the day after his first robbery, Black Bart struck again. One mile from the Barry Creek Sawmill in Butte County, as the Wells Fargo stagecoach slowed to round a dangerous curve in the mountain road, Bart appeared and said in his deep voice, “Please throw down the box.”
After only four robberies, he was already a legend. The driver threw down the box.
Later, when he went back to retrieve the hacked-up strongbox, he found another note inside, longer than the first, but still in rhyme.
Here I lay me down to sleep
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,
And if there’s money in that box,
‘Tis money in my purse.
Black Bart, the P o 8
Over the next five years, Black Bart robbed 23 more stagecoaches, stealing almost $18,000. He left not a single clue—nor another poem. But in November 1883 his luck ran out right where it had begun: while robbing a stagecoach on Funk Hill, he was shot in the hand and eventually captured.
Turns out the much-feared gentleman-bandit was a quiet and grandfatherly man named Charles E. Boles. Gray-haired and mustachioed, he walked ramrod straight, carried a short cane, and had a preference for diamonds, fine hotels, and excellent restaurants. No one seeing him walk the streets of San Francisco would have dreamed this kindly and prosperous gentleman was the infamous robber-poet who for eight years had supported his preferred lifestyle through, shall we say, less than legitimate means.
Three weeks after his last robbery, Charles “Black Bart” Boles took a six-year trip to San Quentin Prison.
To which I can only say:
27 robberies. 27 times scot-free.
You thought you’d try again.
You thought you couldn’t fail.
But 28 just did you in,
And now you’re stuck in jail.
I’d feel bad for you, Bart,
With all my heart,
But surely you can see
That I can’t muster up pity
For blokes who write bad poetry?
Photo by Eric C Bryan, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Kimberlee Conway Ireton, author of The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year.
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