The Case Of The Plodding Highwayman Or The Po8 Of Crime


“All right,” said the hollow voice from inside the flour sack. “You may drive on.”

The driver didn’t waste time. On this particular day—the third of August, 1877—he was alone on the stagecoach; not even a passenger was with him. Glancing down at the tall figure by the roadside holding the old-fashioned shotgun, he released the big hand brake on the Wells Fargo coach and slapped the reins over the six-horse team. He risked one look back (the man with the gun raised his left hand in a genial farewell) and then he was oft, hell for leather, bound for Duncan’s Mills to tell everybody about the most original damned bandit he’d ever run into in Sonoma County, California—or anywhere else.

Instead of a neat mask or a bandana to hide his face, this peculiar road agent was wearing one of the most awkward getups in the history of banditry: over his head—and over his derby hat as well—was a Hour sack with eye holes cut out of it; and a clinging linen duster flapped about his ankles like a Mother Hubbard. True, his shotgun looked businesslike (though there was something odd there, too, that would come to light in time), and his hollow voice, which seemed to be issuing from the deeps of an abandoned mine, had a strange, disquieting effect. He said very little. He was alone, so far as the driver knew, and on foot. Lone highwaymen were not unheard of, but even lone ones usually found a horse an indispensable professional asset.

If the driver could have seen what was happening next at the scene of the holdup as he pounded south over the curving road through the hills of the Russian River country, he would have had a still better story. The road agent whipped off his duster and his mask—revealing, beneath the dapper derby, a pair of sharp blue eyes, a waterfall mustache, and a jaunty imperial. At once he snatched up an axe and chopped open the green express box the driver had thrown to the ground. The take was disappointing: Sgoo in coin, a check that was loo risky to cash, and some odds and ends of mail.

If the road agent was annoyed witli this so-so luck, he did not show it. From its hiding place in the roadside shrubbery he produced a travelling-man’s leather valise; into it he tucked his loot, his flour sack and duster, and his shotgun. The axe he abandoned. Then, pausing a few minutes before picking up the valise and marching off through the wooded, hilly countryside, this bandit did one more very odd and unbanditlike thing: he took a waybill from the plundered express box, wrote a message on it—probably chuckling to himself as he wrote—and left it behind.

Then, cocking the derby slightly to the left on his head, and drawing himself up to his lull five feet seven and a half inches, he strode oil through the open country toward Guerneville, a hard six hours’ hike eastward; there a man could hire a ride toward San Francisco, seventy-five miles away.

By the lime our gentleman bandit reached the big city, a report of his crime was on the desk of fames B. Hume, head of the Wells Fargo police. And among the most important evidence was the message on the waybill. Jim Hume, a level-eyed, poker-faced man who had once ridden shotgun on stages himself, looked carefully at the four lines of the highwayman’s message. They constituted, if you please, a poem, or anyway a verse:

I’ve labored long and hard for bread for honor and for riches But on my corns too long you’ve tried, You fine haired Sons of Bitches.

This poetical work was not titled but it was signed, complete with a clue in the form of a kind of rebus in case anyone didn’t recognize a poet when he read one: “BLACK BART, the Po8.”

Jim Hume had never seen the name before, but the holdup man’s method of operation was familiar. A hunt for just such a criminal had already been quietly under way for two years, ft would last for six more. Over those eight years Black Bart, who was neither Bart nor black (he had lifted the name from a magazine story) racked up the amazing score of twenty-seven successful stage robberies out of twenty-eight tries- better than anyone before or since. He was always alone and on foot, never resorted to violence, and worked as methodically as a bookkeeper. He came to be old California’s most famous road agent in spite of the fact that he went into the business when the lush days of the mining camps and S100,000 shipments of bullion were only golden memories. Old Bart’s juiciest haul came to less than .15,000, and he didn’t get to keep that one, for it was bis last, and the one that finally tripped him. The sad fact is, gentlemanly Black Bart never did make a handsome living at his risky occupation. But he did manage to make a bit of history, and he has not been entirely forgotten: today in Menclocino County, California, one of the areas where he robbed stages, there is an annual carnival-like celebration known as Black Bart Days.