- Historic Sites
The Case Of The Plodding Highwayman Or The Po8 Of Crime
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
The “Po8” had waited until he was forty-five years old before deciding to collect by force what he felt the world owed him. Before that, he was plain Charley Boles, an easterner born in Jefferson County, New York, who had originally hustled out to California with the Gold Rush in 1850. He was twenty then, and though he hadn’t found much gold by the time he drifted back eastward four years later, he had learned his way around parts of some mountainous northern California counties—Butte, Shasta, Trinity, El Dorado. He had an excellent sense of direction—and a long, long memory for topographical detail.
He never did get back to New York State. Illinois attracted him, and he bought a farm near Decatur. By the time the Civil War came he was married and had three little daughters, but he joined the iioth Illinois Infantry Volunteers nonetheless and served three years as a sergeant. (A decade or so later, like many another veteran of that war, he promoted himself—to captain.)
At war’s end he was thirty-five, had sustained some minor wounds, and had no desire to return to the farm. He sold it, moved his family to Oregon, Illinois, and then decided to go to Montana. He went alone, and it was the last his dear Mary and the children ever saw of him. He did send them money for about two years, but then he stopped writing, and Mary became convinced that Indians had massacred him. (Much later, after his career as a road agent had ended and he was doing time, he wrote to her again, for a while. His letters were loving, but vague about plans to return home. He was a born drifter, and by then he seemed to know it.)
In 1875 he found himself in San Francisco. He may have come in that direction because he had a sister living in the vicinity. At any rate, 1875 was the critical year for Charley Boles. So far as we know, he had never stolen so much as a penny pencil, but now something pushed him a little too far. Perhaps he suddenly saw himself for what he was, a graying, middle-aged failure. He was bitter, or told himself he was, at the vested interests, and he seized upon the notion of squaring accounts by robbing some Wells Fargo stages. But he would be scrupulous about it, he promised himself: no robbing of passengers, no bloodshed; all he wanted was what the entrenched, moneyed interests had kept him from getting legitimately all his life.
His first stage robbery was in mountainous CaIaveras County, east-northeast of San Francisco, the very county that Mark Twain’s jumping-frog story made famous. He had decided on robbing the Sonora-toMilton stage, and he’d picked a curve in the road flanked with big rocks. Shortly his technique was going to change in some respects, but on this first plunge he seems to lune felt nervous about working without help, and he supplied the need in a way schoolboys know by heart: he cut six or eight gunbarrel-sized tree branches and wedged them between roadside rocks, pointing toward the place the stage would stop. And it actually worked, even though the driver was a veteran in the service.
“No use trying to do anything,” he advised his passengers. “Look at those guns.”
Down came the express box, and Boles chopped it open. What it yielded, Wells Fargo did not reveal—they were often close-mouthed about losses, not caring to entice incipient thieves with too many luscious facts—but it was enough to encourage Boles in his new career. This was July; he lay low for five whole months and then planned another job three days after Christmas, shifting to the countryside about fifty miles north of Sacramento.
Again he got enough to make it interesting, and after another five-month layoff he pulled his third job, also in northern California. After his first holdup he dropped the tree-branch guns, maybe because he had not removed them and the ruse had been discovered on the stage’s return trip. But the flour-sack mask and the duster were enough to stamp all the holdups as the work of one man, and so was his invariable fourword command to the stage driver: “Throw down the box.”
Until he gave himself a name, he was anonymous. Then, on his fourth holdup—he had let fourteen months pass this time between jobs—he gave the lawmen a handle to use, and he was from then on Black Bart the Po8.
No poet—or PoS—ever rode to fame on so meager an output. In his whole career Bart wrote but two poems, though he did claim to have had a third ready for job No. 29, the one he never got to pull. The second, and last, poem was again written on a waybill and was left at the scene of his fifth stage robbery. It consisted of two new stanzas with the first poem sandwiched between. The two new stanzas read:
here I lay me down to Sleep to wait the coming Morrow perhaps Success perhaps defeat And everlasting Sorrow let come what will ‘I’ll try it on My condition can’t be worse And if theres money in that Box Tis Munny in my purse
He purposely vulgarized the spelling and punctuation for he knew better, as his letters home show very clearly.