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The Case Of The Plodding Highwayman Or The Po8 Of Crime
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
He was right on this point twenty-six times out of twenty-eight. The first time the bluff failed was on July 13, 1882, when a plucky shotgun messenger took a chance and fired in Bart’s general direction. The driver of the stage immediately cracked his whip and the horses plunged ahead, bowling Bart to one side and leaving him sprawled in the road. It was his only utter fiasco—perhaps because he made the mistake of trying to hold up a stage on the thirteenth day of the month.
The second time that his unloaded gun failed of its full moral effect occurred sixteen months later, in November of 1883, and that turned out to be his last holdup. The stage he planned to rob was the one that ran between Sonora and Milton—by some coincidence (dare we call it poetic justice?) the very same one he had knocked off on his premier holdup. First Bart headed for Tuttletown, California, where at irregular intervals a stage picked up amalgam from Patterson gold mine. By making friends and keeping his eyes and ears open, Bart found out that the next shipment was scheduled for November 3.
He then set off on foot and walked most of the route the stage would take, to find the best place for a holdup. (Notice the patient, plodding technique—the minute re-examination of an already familiar road.) He decided on a spot a mile from his first holdup. Then, a few days before the shipment was due, he hiked higher into the mountains and set up camp, with a good view of the road below. His gear included field glasses to follow the course of the stage and a watch to time it with; his usual camp fare of coffee, crackers, and sugar; a pot in which to boil creek water; matches and a knife; two pairs of detachable cuffs; his bedroll; his flour-sack-and-duster disguise; a shotgun; and an axe.
Two or three days before the shipment was to be made, he established an observation post quite near the road. His strategy was by now routine: to step out into the road as the stage came thundering along; aim his shotgun at the driver’s heart; shield himself by standing in front of one of the lead horses as the stage squealed to a halt; and call out in his hollow voice, “Throw down the box.” Then, after sending the stage on its way again, he would chop open the express-company box, scoop up the valuables, and leave—at once and on foot.
But this time a little thing went wrong. A nineteenyear-old youth, one Jimmy Rolleri, had hitched a ride with the stage driver, and Jimmy had a gun. If he had stayed on the stage, Bart could have handled him, but Jimmy was hunting small game that day, and he got off the stage, intending to take a shortcut over the hill and catch up with it again on the other side.
Bart had seen this passenger through his field glasses and was rattled a bit when the stage arrived at the ambush without him. The driver told him the truth—that the boy had got off to hunt small game—but Bart’s timing was then thrown off a little more because Wells Fargo had recently decided to bolt their express boxes to the floors of the stages. Rather than waste time getting this one unbolted, Bart ordered the driver to unhitch the horses and take them up the road a piece while he himself climbed inside the stage and hacked open the box. He had got the treasure out and was already running for the woods when it happened.
The boy with the gun had found the driver standing with the unhitched team, and the two crept up on the stage and opened fire on the fleeing road agent. Bart was winged, but the main damage was not to his person but to his performance. As he scuttled away into the brush, he dropped things: his derby, his crackers and sugar, the case for his field glasses. Of all the miscellany he left behind, only one item proved a good clue, and it was as prosaic a clue as one could imagine—a handkerchief with the laundry mark F.X.O.7.
About six months earlier, Detective Hume had hired a special operative, Harry N. Morse, to spend all his time running Black Bart to earth. Now, with the laundry-marked handkerchief in his hand, Morse knew that he was finally closing in. By great good luck he began his search in San Francisco, where Black Bart was then living under the name of C. E. Bolton, supposedly a prosperous mining man—which, in a second-hand way, he was.
Morse ran the laundry mark down in a week, located Bart at a lodging house at 37 Second Street, and it was all over but the confession. Bart held out for three days, standing on his dignity, feigning outrage at being questioned, and even inventing an instant new alias, “T. Z. Spaulding.” Nevertheless, he was booked on suspicion of stage robbery, and when the authorities took him back to the holdup area and people began recalling him as having just been seen there, he cracked. By moonlight he led Morse and the local lawmen to a rotting log in which he had cached the gold amalgam—$4,200 worth—and told them everything they wanted to know.
In return for his co-operation Bart got a light sentence—six years, based on his confession to the one holdup. He became Prisoner No. 11,046 in San Quentin Prison on November 21, 1883, only eighteen days after his last stage robbery. With time off for good behavior, he was a free man once again on January 21, 1888, having served four years and two months.
As Black Bart the PoS he was still news. A reporter sent to interview him upon his release asked whether he had any more poetry to give out. The years behind bars had not destroyed Boles’ sense of humor. He replied with a grin: “Young man, didn’t you just hear me say I will commit no more crimes?”