The Case Of The Plodding Highwayman Or The Po8 Of Crime


This fifth stage robbery, on July 25, 1878, almost a year after the fourth one, was in the mountainous Feather River country of north-central California. While still no bonanza, it did bring Bart about $600 in coin and equivalents.

By this time, Bart had settled into a pattern for his robberies in every respect except the time lapse between them, which was erratic. That may have been dictated simply by economic need, for Bart was not greedy. The most amazing thing is that this quite conservative man should have become so successful a thief. Or perhaps his conservatism was the explanation: his cautious methods made him very difficult to catch.

Wells Fargo’s Detective Hume knew that he couldn’t expect a great deal of help from sheriffs in the counties where stage robberies occurred: few of them were really good at careful police work. Hume, a big, quiet man who usually had a cigar clamped between his teeth, was on his own. But in the duel of wits with Black Bart, Hume held the best cards, and in the end the winning ones: experience, the better mind, the organization to back him. Another trump was added after Bart’s fifth holdup—a reward. The governor of California, William Irwin, offered $300 for Bart’s capture; Wells Fargo matched it; the post office department—whose pouches Bart regularly slit open and plundered, ignoring the fact that the mail was not necessarily owned by the vested interests he was supposed to be fighting—added $200 more. To collect this total of $800, a person would have to capture Black Bart and produce the evidence needed to land him in jail. But for the one who succeeded there was the possibility of added compensation, for it was customary to give a road agent’s captor one-quarter of any booty that might be recovered.

For a while at least, instead of helping bring him to book, Black Bart’s victims exalted him into an awesome legend, a superman who appeared out of nowhere and vanished into nothingness. It was so unusual for a highwayman to walk any distance, let alone across rugged open country, that it is no wonder the legend was embroidered with tales of a phantom horse, or of a devil’s disciple flying by dark of night.

So it was that as he continued his road-agentry, the man who had been a failure all his life found himself an immense success. Although he relished it hugely, he hardly ever talked about it to anyone. But one day in the fall of 1880, about ten days after his thirteenth stage robbery, Bart was in Sonoma County, about 150 miles south of where the holdup had taken place. On foot as usual and finding himself still a distance from food and lodging at sundown, he took politick with a lone logger, one Elisha Shortridge, who had a ranch west of Santa Rosa.

By this time Bart had abandoned the use of the cumbersome valise. Law officers found it beside a creek but could extract no useful clues from it (fingerprints as a police tool did not come into use until after the nineteenth century had ended). When he met the logger, Bart was carrying a bedroll over his shoulder and was cradling his shotgun, so that Shortridge took him for a hunter. Afterward the logger said, “Just two things about him struck me. His voice sounded like he was talking into an empty barrel, and he had eyes that seemed to look clear through you.” He added: “I thought maybe he was looking the country over, sizing up land and timber.”

Bart corrected that error the next morning. After breakfast, Shortridge was giving the stranger’s gun a friendly once-over, a usual thing between gun fanciers, and noticed that it was an early type of breech-loader. He opened it, found that the barrels were clean and bright, and observed to its owner that it was a good weapon.

Bart smiled. “It always gets what I go after. I never waste ammunition. I save money in other ways, too,” he said. "1 don’t drink or smoke.”

Then he asked what he owed his host for the hospitality. It was a somewhat peculiar question in a pioneer territory, where a stranger was welcomed as a guest. Shortridge courteously refused payment, but Bart couldn’t let it go at that. “Did you ever hear,” he said with a sudden smile, “of Black Bart?”

“Hear of him!” Shortridge cried. “He’s one of the main things talked about in these parts nowadays.”

“Well,” said Bart, “I’m Black Bart. I just thought that if you knew who I am, you might be willing to accept something for your kindness.”

The logger thought he was joking. “Sure you ain’t Joaquín Murrieta, or some other tough hombre we all thought was planted safe under the dirt?”

Bart didn’t take the joshing at all kindly. His sense of humor never did work when someone made fun of him. The smile disappeared, Shortridge recalled years later, and the jaw muscles hardened as he repeated his identity in sepulchral tones. This time Shortridge got the full voltage, and he drew a long breath and shakily thanked Bart for not telling him on the previous evening and spoiling a good night’s sleep. There had been no danger, Bart said; he had never harmed a soul. Then he added something that stuck in Shortridge’s mind for over three years before he realized what it meant: “You’d feel easier if I told you some other things, but it would be too risky.”

The thing Bart couldn’t risk revealing was that he held up stages with an empty gun. Shortridge recalled later that not only was Bart’s shotgun empty when he examined it, but not even one of his guest’s pockets was lumpy with shells. Bart himself was quoted after his capture as saying that “the moral effect” of a shotgun was sufficient for his purposes.