Black Bart started out his life as Charles E. Bolles (v. Boles). Very little is known about his early life. Some stories say he was born in England, others say New York. His family settled in Decatur, Illinois, where he served with an Illinois Volunteer regiment during the Civil War. He was honorably discharged. Some time after the war he came west to California.
On July 26, 1875, John Shine was driving the stage from Sonora to Milton, California. He was approaching his first stop at Copperopolis, when a man jumped out from behind a huge boulder and waved a shotgun at him. The thief demanded the treasure box. For a second, Shine thought about resisting. Then he heard the robber say, "If he dares to shoot, give him the solid volley, boys." He looked around and saw six guns trained on him. He abandoned all thought of resisting and turned over the Wells Fargo chest. The bandit hacked open the box on the spot and removed several bags of gold coins and a few express packages. Then the bandit vanished. The bandit was none other than Charles E. Bolles, soon to be famous as Black Bart.
As soon as the thief was out of sight, Shine returned to the scene. After looking closely he noticed that what he thought were guns were actually tree limbs carefully placed to look like guns. He then hastened on to Copperopolis, where he quickly reported the theft. He described the bandit as tall and wiry. He wore a duster coat and a white flour sack over his head. He wore socks over his shoes to mask his footprints. And he was exceedingly polite. The law went out after him immediately, but the thief was long gone.
The furor had died down when Black Bart struck again in December. He waited another six months before robbing another stage. His robbery of the stage on August 3, 1877 was notable for the scrap of paper he left behind. The stage had been bound for Duncan Mills. After breaking open the treasure box and stealing $300, he left behind this note:
It was signed Black Bart - The PO8.
Wells Fargo detective James B. Hume led the hunt to find Black Bart. He had posters printed and widely distributed. He followed up every clue. He interviewed people in the countryside. But he found no promising leads.
It was 11 months before, Black Bart struck again. On July 25, 1877, he robbed the Quincy to Oroville stage. He got about $400 in cash and jewelry. And he left behind another poem:
No one had even come close to capturing him, when he struck again five months later. Two months after that he robbed two stages in two days. In between each job, it seems he spent most of his time in San Francisco, posing as a successful businessman complete with diamond stick pin and walking cane. He also posed as a tired traveler, politely asking for a meal at isolated homes. The only trouble he ever encountered was on his twenty-third holdup on July 13, 1882, when he attempted to hold up the stage on its way to Oroville. For the first time, he met resistance. The express messenger, George W. Hackett, actually fired at him. Black Bart disappeared into the bushes and escaped.
The attempted robbery of stage bound for San Francisco on November 3, 1883 would be his last. Reason E. McConnell drove that day. On board was Jimmy Rolleri. At the bottom of a steep grade, Rolleri got off the stage to go hunting. He told McConnell he would meet him on the other side of the hill. Meanwhile, at the top of the grade, who should McConnell meet but Black Bart. This time the treasure box was securely fastened onto the stage. While Black Bart was busy trying to get it loose, Rolleri strolled up with his shotgun. Before he knew it, Black Bart was shot at three times, one shot wounding him. He fled into the brush and disappeared with a heavy sack.
McConnell hastened into Copperopolis and reported the crime. When Hume and other detectives arrived on the scene they found many of Black Bartís possessions that he hastily left behind, including a razor, a belt, a magnifying glass, and his black derby hat. And on a handkerchief they finally found a definitive clue--a laundry mark of FX07. Hume assigned Detective Harry N. Morse to track down the laundry. The obvious place to look was San Francisco, where they were approximately 90 laundries.
It took several days, but Morse found the right one, belonging to Thomas C. Ware on Bush Street. After checking his records Ware identified the owner of the handkerchief as belonging to a C.E. Bolton, known as a mining man, who came to town frequently on business. He even knew that Bolton was in town at that moment, staying at the Webb House on 2nd Street. Morse asked Ware to accompany him there to identify Bolton. Morse pretended he was a mining man and that he had a friend that wanted to discuss business. He took him to the Wells Fargo office, where at first Hume went along with the ruse. When he started to question Bolton more closely, he clammed up.
Hume called the police and they escorted Bolton back to his hotel. When police searched his belongings, Morse found another handkerchief with the same laundry mark. They arrested him on the spot, but he continued to plead innocence. They took him to San Andreas, near the scene of his last job. There they questioned him for several hours before he finally admitted he was Black Bart. He gave a full confession of each of his robberies and how he had planned them. He told them he took the name of Black Bart from a book called "The Case of Summerfield."
The next day he pled guilty to Judge P. H. Kean in San Andreas. The next morning, he waived his right to a jury trial and Judge C. V. Gottschalk sentenced him to six years at San Quentin. He arrived there on November 21, 1883. He was released on January 4, 1888, for good behavior. After his release he disappeared from sight. Some rumors persist that Wells Fargo paid him off so that he would forever leave their stages alone. Wells Fargo vigorously denied it.