Gentleman Bandit: The true story of Black Bart, the Wild West’s most notorious stagecoach robber

In the late 1700s, when rumors of a smartly dressed man who ambushed stagecoaches and left poems at the scene hit the newspapers, the perpetrator, Charles “Black Bart” Boles, became an instant cultural sensation. Against the dusty, rugged backdrop of the Old West, Black Bart’s gentlemanly image still lingers in pop culture today, arguably for his ability to transport us back in time to an overly romanticized version of American history when the western expansion Excitement and riches awaited everyone on a little adventure.

In many ways Black Bart And the Old West in which he lived were both characters of fiction.

However, behind the veil of popular lore, what can be verified about the life of the real Charles Boles is actually far more interesting. Once a lieutenant for the Union during the Civil War, Boles’ descent into stagecoach robbery as a means to get rich quick can be read as a reference to the turbulent economic and social changes of the time. America was now entering an era of rugged individualism, in which the formalities of earlier eras were being neglected, and Boles led the charge.

Historian John Boessenecker is certainly not the first to draw historian’s attention to Black Bart, who has amassed a wealth of scholars over the past century since his prolific crime spree. What is fascinating about Boessenecker’s specific project, however, is the way he juxtaposes all of these other texts to identify exaggeration or misinformation. In doing so, Boessenecker notes that the most interesting thing about Black Bart is actually the way we talk about Black Bart.

“Most stage robbers were hard-nosed, uncouth thugs who stole the Wells Fargo box, the mail, and anything valuable the driver and his passengers were carrying. This mysterious bandit was unique given his polite and genteel demeanor and the fact that he never robbed anyone on stage. Despite Hume’s tireless detective work, it would take many years and a total of twenty-nine stagecoach robberies before he finally discovered the true identity of the lone bandit. At this point, Black Bart would be the most notorious – and prolific – stage robber in American history.”

— John Boessenecker, author of Mr. Bandit

The crime scene poems thing is probably a bit fabricated, in Boessenecker’s opinion, fueled by an overly zealous rumor mill willing to paint a portrait of Boles as an artist rather than a criminal. Nevertheless, there are some immensely pressing questions that Boessenecker thinks about a lot:

Was it true that Wells Fargo paid him a salary to stay away from their stagecoaches after his days in San Quentin Jail, which was reported in several San Francisco newspapers at the time? Was he really as nonviolent as he always claimed to be? And, most heartbreakingly, why did he spend so many years on the run, writing letters to his wife and children promising them he was on his way home, only to never keep his word?

The very real fact that nobody really knows exactly what happened to Black Bart after he was released from San Quentin certainly did nothing to defuse the air mystery surrounding his life. While Boessenecker covers all likely outcomes, even he has to admit that we’ll likely never know the truth of where he ended up.

Still, small moments of glimpsing the real Charles Boles beneath the legend into which he was spun are nuggets of historically crucial gold.

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