The True Identity of Black Bart – Part 1

As promised, following the publication of John Boessenecker’s new book – Gentleman Bandit – which acknowledges my work on discovering the baptism and family of wild west outlaw, Charles E. Boles aka Black Bart, I am reproducing a series of blogposts originally published on Norfolk Record Office’s blog ( Below is the first of three, which reports the highlights of Charles’ known life, explaining how he went from a respected sergeant, who fought bravely in the American Civil War, to the famously polite perpetrator of some 29 stagecoach robberies. The account below contains a few corrections and additions made in the light of John Boessenecker’s work.

The Outlaw

Black Bart was an infamous US outlaw who committed some 29 holdups of Wells Fargo stagecoaches, in California, between 1875 and 1883. He was known for his politeness, for taking only the contents of the strongbox and the mail – he never stole from the passengers – for never firing a shot or harming anyone and, after the 4th and 5th robbery, for leaving a poem at the scene.

His modus operandi was to halt the stage on foot by brandishing a shotgun, he wore a long linen duster coat, a bowler hat and a flour sack with eyeholes as a disguise. He would pretend that he was part of a gang and indeed the driver would see 4 or 5 shotguns aimed at him from bushes. After requesting that the driver “Please throw down the box” he would use a hatchet to break into the box, take the gold and mail and escape on foot whereupon the driver would eventually realise that the other shotguns were merely strategically placed sticks.

It is estimated that Bart netted some $18,000 during his career, but his luck finally ran out on the 3rd November 1883. At the scene of his very first robbery, on Funk Hill in Calaveras County, Bart held up his last stage. The driver had given a ride to a hunter and dropped him off shortly before the holdup. As Bart was breaking into the strongbox, the driver saw the hunter and beckoned him over whereupon he opened fire. Bart made his escape, but was hit on the hand.  The alarm was raised and a posse set out in pursuit. Bart was on foot, exhausted and bleeding, he jettisoned his belongings and much of his haul. He did escape, but found among his belongings was handkerchief which bore the laundry mark ‘FXO7’.

A Wells Fargo detective, James B Hume, had been trailing Bart since his early robberies. He set about tracing the laundry mark and eventually tracked it an outlet in a tobacco shop in San Francisco. The proprietor recognised the clothes as belonging to his friend, C. E. Bolton, a mining man, who was frequently away, at times it was later found that coincided with the robberies. Hume had his man. The photograph, which was taken at the time of his arrest, portrays an elegantly dressed man, carrying a cane, wearing a diamond ring and pin, with piercing blue eyes and a thick moustache.

At first, he denied the crimes, but eventually confessed, but he insisted his name was C. E. Bolton, not Charles E. Boles. However, a bible in his room, bore the following inscription:

‘This precious Bible is presented to Charles E. Boles, First Sergeant Company B, 116th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, by his wife as a New Year’s gift, God gives us hearts to which His — faith to believe. Decatur, Illinois, 1865.’
The dedication was signed “Mary Boles.”

Charles E. Boles, aka C. E. Bolton, aka Black Bart, was charged with the final robbery only, he pled guilty and was sentenced to 6 years in San Quinton Prison. He always denied being Black Bart or Charles E Boles, but during his incarceration he did send and receive letters from his wife Mary Boles and other family members, so there can be no doubt about his identity. On 21st January 1888, he was released for good behaviour after serving 4 years 2 months. He was met by reporters to whom he declared that he was through with crime. He did not return to his family, but did write again to his wife from San Francisco, saying that he was demoralized by being kept under constant surveillance by Wells Fargo and needed to get away. In February 1888, he left his boarding house and did not return. Hume tracked him to The Palace Hotel in Vasalia. The owner confirmed that a man answering his description had checked into the hotel on 28th February 1888 and then vanished, leaving a bag of belongings, including clothes bearing the laundry mark ‘FX07.’

On 14th November 1888, a stagecoach was robbed by a masked man who left a poem. Upon comparing the handwriting, Hume declared this the act of a copycat. John’s new book discusses the various other claims of sightings of Black Bart that were made following his disappearance. John is able to discount all bar one and concedes that it is possible that Charles fled to the American southwest or Mexico, and lived out his days as a cattleman, but cautions that this is far from proven.

Early Life

Charles E Boles was born in 1829, in Norfolk, England. He was the 7th of 9 children born to John and Maria Bowles. The family left England, in 1830, and settled near Alexandria, Jefferson County, New York where John bought a farm (to be demonstrated in part 2).

In 1849, Charles, or Charley as he was known, and his cousin David went west to join the California gold rush, prospecting in the north fork of the American River, near Sacramento. They did not do well and returned home briefly in 1852, before returning again, this time with Charley’s brother, Robert. Both David and Robert died shortly after they arrived, but Charley remained for a further 2 years before he gave up and came home where he married Mary Elizabeth Johnson.

By 1860, Charley and Mary were living in Decatur, Illinois with their 4 children. In 1863, Charley enlisted in 116th Illinois Regiment and fought bravely in the Civil War and was made 1st Sergeant within a year. He fought in a number of important battles and was badly wounded in the abdomen at a battle at Vicksburg and was lucky to survive. He was mustered out in 1865 and returned home.

However, he couldn’t settle to farming and in 1867, he went prospecting again, in Idaho and then Montana, where he bought a small mine. Men connected to the Wells Fargo Company pressured him to sell his mine and when he refused, they cut off his water supply, forcing him to abandon it. He wrote a letter to his wife complaining about the incident and declared that he would ‘take steps’. In August 1871, Mary received a letter from Charley indicating that he had made money and was returning home, but when she heard no more from him, she assumed he had died. When Charley’s father died a year later, he left a bequest to his daughter-in-law Mary, the wife of his “deceased son Charles.” It was not until his arrest in 1883 that the family discovered he was still alive and had been living the life of an outlaw for the last 8 years.


Charles E. Boles