Black Bart (outlaw) : biography
Charles Earl Bowles (b. 1829; d.after 1888), better known as Black Bart, was an English-born American Old West outlaw noted for his poetic messages left after two of his robberies. Also known as Charles Bolton, C.E. Bolton and Black Bart the Poet, he was a gentleman bandit, and one of the most notorious stagecoach robbers to operate in and around Northern California and southern Oregon during the 1870s and 1880s.
Black Bart had a reputation for style and sophistication.
Charles Bowles was born in Norfolk, England, to John and Maria Bowles. He was one of 10 siblings, seven boys and three girls.Frederick Nolan, The Wild West: History, Myth & the Making of America (London: Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2003), p. 133. When he was two years old, his parents emigrated to Jefferson County, New York, where his father, John Bowles, purchased a farm four miles north of Plessis Village, toward Alexandria Bay.
Bowles, like many of his contemporaries, read "dime novel"–style serial adventure stories which appeared in local newspapers. In the early 1870s, the Sacramento Union ran a story called The Case of Summerfield by Caxton (a pseudonym of William Henry Rhodes). In the story, the villain dressed in black and had long unruly black hair, a large black beard, and wild grey eyes. The villain robbed Wells Fargo stagecoaches and brought great fear into those who were unlucky enough to cross him. The character's name was Black Bart.
Bowles may have read the Sacramento Union story. He told a Wells Fargo detective that the name popped into his head when he was writing the first poem and he used it.
Bowles left only two authenticated verses. The first was at the scene of the August 3, 1877, holdup on a stage traveling from Point Arena to Duncan's Mills:
The second verse was left at the site of his July 25, 1878, holdup of a stage traveling from Quincy to Oroville. It read:
Adult life prior to criminal career
California Gold Rush
In late 1849, Bowles (his friends called him Charley) and two of his brothers, David and James, took part in the California Gold Rush. They began mining in the North Fork of the American River in California.
Bowles mined for only a year before returning home in 1852. Soon he made the trip again to the California gold fields, with his brother David and with another brother, Robert. Both David and Robert were taken ill and died in California soon after their arrival. Bowles continued mining for two more years before leaving.
In 1854, in Illinois, Bowles (who, for some reason, had changed the spelling of his last name from "Bolles" to "Bowles") married Mary Elizabeth Johnson. They had four children. By 1860, the couple had made their home in Decatur, Illinois.
The Civil War began in April, 1861. Bowles enlisted in Decatur as a private in Company B, 116th Illinois Regiment, on August 13, 1862. He proved to be a good soldier, rising to the rank of first sergeant within a year. He took part in numerous battles and campaigns, including Vicksburg, where he was seriously wounded, and Sherman's March to the Sea. On June 7, 1865, he was discharged in Washington, D.C., and returned home to Illinois. He had received brevet commissions as both second lieutenant and first lieutenant.
After the long years of war, a quiet life of farming held little appeal to Bowles, and he yearned for adventure. By 1867, he was prospecting again in Idaho and Montana. Little is known of him during this time, but in an August 1871 he sent a letter to his wife, he mentioned an unpleasant incident with some Wells, Fargo & Company employees and vowed to pay them back. He then stopped writing, and after a time his wife assumed he was dead.
In popular culture
- In A Christmas Story (1983) there is a dream scene where Ralphie shoots Black Bart and his marauders with his air rifle.
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