Join Date: November 2, 1998
The highwayman. Read it Here!
The Case of the Plodding Highwayman or The Po8 of Crime
By KEN and PAT KRAFT
“All right,” said the hollow voice from inside the flour sack. “You may drive on.”
The driver didn’t waste time. On this particular day—the third of August, 1877—he was alone on the stagecoach; not even a passenger was with him. Glancing down at the tall figure by the roadside holding the old-fashioned shotgun, he released the big hand brake on the Wells Fargo coach and slapped the reins over the six-horse team. He risked one look back (the man with the gun raised his left hand in a genial farewell) and then he was oft, hell for leather, bound for Duncan’s Mills to tell everybody about the most original damned bandit he’d ever run into in Sonoma County, California—or anywhere else.
Instead of a neat mask or a bandana to hide his face, this peculiar road agent was wearing one of the most awkward getups in the history of banditry: over his head—and over his derby hat as well—was a Hour sack with eye holes cut out of it; and a clinging linen duster flapped about his ankles like a Mother Hubbard. True, his shotgun looked businesslike (though there was something odd there, too, that would come to light in time), and his hollow voice, which seemed to be issuing from the deeps of an abandoned mine, had a strange, disquieting effect. He said very little. He was alone, so far as the driver knew, and on foot. Lone highwaymen were not unheard of, but even lone ones usually found a horse an indispensable professional asset.
If the driver could have seen what was happening next at the scene of the holdup as he pounded south over the curving road through the hills of the Russian River country, he would have had a still better story. The road agent whipped off his duster and his mask—revealing, beneath the dapper derby, a pair of sharp blue eyes, a waterfall mustache, and a jaunty imperial. At once he snatched up an axe and chopped open the green express box the driver had thrown to the ground. The take was disappointing: Sgoo in coin, a check that was loo risky to cash, and some odds and ends of mail.
If the road agent was annoyed witli this so-so luck, he did not show it. From its hiding place in the roadside shrubbery he produced a travelling-man’s leather valise; into it he tucked his loot, his flour sack and duster, and his shotgun. The axe he abandoned. Then, pausing a few minutes before picking up the valise and marching off through the wooded, hilly countryside, this bandit did one more very odd and unbanditlike thing: he took a waybill from the plundered express box, wrote a message on it—probably chuckling to himself as he wrote—and left it behind.
Then, cocking the derby slightly to the left on his head, and drawing himself up to his lull five feet seven and a half inches, he strode oil through the open country toward Guerneville, a hard six hours’ hike eastward; there a man could hire a ride toward San Francisco, seventy-five miles away.
By the lime our gentleman bandit reached the big city, a report of his crime was on the desk of fames B. Hume, head of the Wells Fargo police. And among the most important evidence was the message on the waybill. Jim Hume, a level-eyed, poker-faced man who had once ridden shotgun on stages himself, looked carefully at the four lines of the highwayman’s message. They constituted, if you please, a poem, or anyway a verse:
I’ve labored long and hard for bread
for honor and for riches
But on my corns too long you’ve tried,
You fine haired Sons of Bitches.
This poetical work was not titled but it was signed, complete with a clue in the form of a kind of rebus in case anyone didn’t recognize a poet when he read one: “BLACK BART, the Po8.”
Jim Hume had never seen the name before, but the holdup man’s method of operation was familiar. A hunt for just such a criminal had already been quietly under way for two years, ft would last for six more. Over those eight years Black Bart, who was neither Bart nor black (he had lifted the name from a magazine story) racked up the amazing score of twenty-seven successful stage robberies out of twenty-eight tries- better than anyone before or since. He was always alone and on foot, never resorted to violence, and worked as methodically as a bookkeeper. He came to be old California’s most famous road agent in spite of the fact that he went into the business when the lush days of the mining camps and S100,000 shipments of bullion were only golden memories. Old Bart’s juiciest haul came to less than .15,000, and he didn’t get to keep that one, for it was bis last, and the one that finally tripped him. The sad fact is, gentlemanly Black Bart never did make a handsome living at his risky occupation. But he did manage to make a bit of history, and he has not been entirely forgotten: today in Menclocino County, California, one of the areas where he robbed stages, there is an annual carnival-like celebration known as Black Bart Days.
The “Po8” had waited until he was forty-five years old before deciding to collect by force what he felt the world owed him. Before that, he was plain Charley Boles, an easterner born in Jefferson County, New York, who had originally hustled out to California with the Gold Rush in 1850. He was twenty then, and though he hadn’t found much gold by the time he drifted back eastward four years later, he had learned his way around parts of some mountainous northern California counties—Butte, Shasta, Trinity, El Dorado. He had an excellent sense of direction—and a long, long memory for topographical detail.
He never did get back to New York State. Illinois attracted him, and he bought a farm near Decatur. By the time the Civil War came he was married and had three little daughters, but he joined the iioth Illinois Infantry Volunteers nonetheless and served three years as a sergeant. (A decade or so later, like many another veteran of that war, he promoted himself—to captain.)
At war’s end he was thirty-five, had sustained some minor wounds, and had no desire to return to the farm. He sold it, moved his family to Oregon, Illinois, and then decided to go to Montana. He went alone, and it was the last his dear Mary and the children ever saw of him. He did send them money for about two years, but then he stopped writing, and Mary became convinced that Indians had massacred him. (Much later, after his career as a road agent had ended and he was doing time, he wrote to her again, for a while. His letters were loving, but vague about plans to return home. He was a born drifter, and by then he seemed to know it.)
In 1875 he found himself in San Francisco. He may have come in that direction because he had a sister living in the vicinity. At any rate, 1875 was the critical year for Charley Boles. So far as we know, he had never stolen so much as a penny pencil, but now something pushed him a little too far. Perhaps he suddenly saw himself for what he was, a graying, middle-aged failure. He was bitter, or told himself he was, at the vested interests, and he seized upon the notion of squaring accounts by robbing some Wells Fargo stages. But he would be scrupulous about it, he promised himself: no robbing of passengers, no bloodshed; all he wanted was what the entrenched, moneyed interests had kept him from getting legitimately all his life.
His first stage robbery was in mountainous CaIaveras County, east-northeast of San Francisco, the very county that Mark Twain’s jumping-frog story made famous. He had decided on robbing the Sonora-toMilton stage, and he’d picked a curve in the road flanked with big rocks. Shortly his technique was going to change in some respects, but on this first plunge he seems to lune felt nervous about working without help, and he supplied the need in a way schoolboys know by heart: he cut six or eight gunbarrel-sized tree branches and wedged them between roadside rocks, pointing toward the place the stage would stop. And it actually worked, even though the driver was a veteran in the service.
“No use trying to do anything,” he advised his passengers. “Look at those guns.”
Down came the express box, and Boles chopped it open. What it yielded, Wells Fargo did not reveal—they were often close-mouthed about losses, not caring to entice incipient thieves with too many luscious facts—but it was enough to encourage Boles in his new career. This was July; he lay low for five whole months and then planned another job three days after Christmas, shifting to the countryside about fifty miles north of Sacramento.
Again he got enough to make it interesting, and after another five-month layoff he pulled his third job, also in northern California. After his first holdup he dropped the tree-branch guns, maybe because he had not removed them and the ruse had been discovered on the stage’s return trip. But the flour-sack mask and the duster were enough to stamp all the holdups as the work of one man, and so was his invariable fourword command to the stage driver: “Throw down the box.”
Vigilantibus et non dormientibus jura subveniunt. Molon Labe!