Writers Of The Purple Prose

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Least of all should one ignore Joseph Henry Jackson’s account of California bandits ( Bad Company , Harcourt, Brace, 1949), for Mr. Jackson brings to his task all the qualities one could hope for in a writer about the Wild West bad men: careful scholarship, a lucid prose style, a healthy skepticism about even his primary sources, and—rarest of all—wit. Those who pick up Bad Company are in for a most pleasant evening. They will meet, among others, Black Bart, who should be everybody’s favorite road agent.

From 1877 to 1883 Black Bart held up twenty-eight stage coaches, and he never had to use his gun. After his fourth robbery, the Wells, Fargo people found that he had left a scrap of paper in the looted strongbox. On the paper was written:

I’ve labored long and hard for bread, For honor and for riches, But on my corns too long you’ve tred, You fine-haired sons of bitches.

This was signed, “Black Bart, the Po 8.” Po 8? What cabalistic symbol was this? Before long the sleuths deduced that Black Bart was suggesting that he was the author of “Po-8ry” and, sure enough, a few robberies later he left behind another scrap of paper:

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 there’s money in that box ‘ ’Tis munny in my purse.

He was caught, and jugged in San Quentin. He behaved himself and was, after a few years, released on parole. When he strolled out, he was at once surrounded by reporters. The interview proceeded along well-worn lines. Was it back to a life of crime? Certainly not. What did he plan to do? None of your business. Presently Black Bart turned away; but one persistent reporter asked, “Maybe you’ll be writing some more poetry?” Black Bart swung around. “Young man,” he said testily, “didn’t you hear me say I’d given up a life of crime?”

—Peter Lyon