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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Elusive Highwayman Black Bart

The masked highwayman who called himself Black Bart was so clever with disguises and occasional props that he successfully robbed 27 stagecoaches throughout northern California for eight years—seeming to vanish into thin air after each holdup.

At his first stage robbery in July 1875, he convinced the driver that an entire gang was surrounding the vehicle with shotguns, by artfully placing long sticks among roadside boulders. It was a trick he would repeat again and again.

The outlaw always wore a white flour-sack mask that completely covered his head and face, with small peepholes for his eyes. He always approached his marks on foot; if he had a getaway horse hidden, no one ever saw it, nor did anyone ever find horse tracks leading away from the robbery scenes. Witnesses were under the impression he was tall. They said his movements were agile, therefore he must be young. His voice was deep, and his diction sounded educated. Hair, skin tone, unique facial features? Hidden, and he wore gloves. Hard to tell because of the mask, but witnesses thought his eyes were probably blue.

Law enforcement was frustrated, and baffled. Tall, young, educated, blue-eyed—the description fit a significant portion of the male population. Over time, however, one more clue emerged: all of Black Bart’s targets were coaches that carried Wells, Fargo & Company’s gold shipments. Moreover, the premier express service had their own in-house detectives, headed by James B. Hume, formerly the El Dorado County sheriff and deputy warden at Nevada State Prison. Hume visited each scene and accumulated bits of meager information, but no tall, young stranger had been seen in the vicinity.

Then in 1878, after two robberies there, the Mendocino County sheriff hired expert Indians to track the outlaw. They lost his trail after 60 miles, but reported that the fugitive was a tireless walker through rugged country while living on crackers and sugar, and could not be more than five feet, eight inches tall. Further, the only reported stranger in the area was a traveling preacher who had stopped for a meal at the McCreary farmhouse. When questioned, Mrs. McCreary said her visitor was a kindly older gentleman, only two inches taller than she. His hair, mustache, and chin-beard were white, and his eyes were blue. He had a deep voice, conversed intelligently, and was missing his two front teeth. Two years went by, during which Black Bart executed seven more holdups. Hume’s investigation of an 1881 stage robbery near Redding produced a farmer who said that a stranger answering Mrs. McCreary’s exact description had stopped at his cabin for breakfast.

Adding this information to his analysis of holdup patterns, James Hume developed a new theory: the short old gentleman was indeed the phantom robber, obviously an experienced outdoorsman, but who probably lived in a big city—possibly San Francisco—and only robbed stages when he was short of money.

Still, it was only a theory. Black Bart’s spectacular luck held until November 1883, when a stage holdup in Calaveras County suddenly went wrong and forced him to flee abruptly, leaving behind a hidden sack of crackers and sugar—and a linen handkerchief with a laundry mark in one corner. Hume and his team laboriously traced the handkerchief to a laundry in San Francisco. Their customer was a Mr. C. E. Bolton, who lived nearby in rented rooms at the Webb House. After securing a search warrant, the detectives discovered all the evidence they needed to arrest the dapper, refined, fifty-five-year-old gentleman whose real name was Charles E. Bowles.

After hours of interrogation Bowles finally confessed, in the process revealing a few of his clever tactics to the astonished agents. Yes, he knew in advance which stages would be carrying gold, because he took care to “make friends” with stage company personnel beforehand. Yes, he had walked to and from each robbery site, wearing cloth booties to distort his footprints, and he wore a hat on top of his mask to make him appear taller. He had learned these deceptions, along with his rigorous physical stamina training, in the army during the Civil War.

Sentenced in 1883 to six years in San Quentin, Charles Bowles, aka Black Bart, was released in 1888 for good behavior … and then quietly vanished.

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