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The Poet Bandit

November 3, 2014 | by

Charles_Bowles_aka_Black_Bart

Black Bart, the outlaw poet.

November 3, 1883, marked the beginning of the end for Charles Earl Bowles, aka C. E. Bolton, aka Black Bart the Poet, aka the very picture of delinquent suavity. Bowles was a legendary nineteenth-century stagecoach robber known for the poetry he left at the scenes of his heists. Over the course of nearly a decade, he pulled off some two-dozen robberies hither and yon, concentrating on Wells Fargo stages throughout Oregon and Northern California. He made off with thousands of dollars a year plus the many intangibles that come with being a criminal mastermind, and he never once fired his gun or rode a horse.

Many fragments of his poetry survive, but apparently only two verses can claim Bowles as their author with full certainty. (Understandably, the guy had a lot of copycats.) Both of these merit close exegesis. The first was found at the scene of an August 1877 stagecoach holdup:

I’ve labored long and hard for bread,
For honor, and for riches,
But on my corns too long you’ve tread,
You fine-haired sons of bitches.

And the second verse, found at the site of Bowles’s July 25, 1878, holdup:

Here I lay me down to sleep
To wait the coming morrow,
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat,
And everlasting sorrow.
Let come what will, I’ll try it on,
My condition can’t be worse;
And if there’s money in that box
‘Tis munny in my purse.

Bowles had a pretty good reputation, as far as highwaymen go. People referred to him as a gentleman bandit, a man of sophistication. A police report described him: “A person of great endurance. Exhibited genuine wit under most trying circumstances, and was extremely proper and polite in behavior. Eschews profanity.”

Of course, that report wouldn’t exist had Black Bart not run into trouble that fateful November 3, when he held up a stage in Calaveras County, en route to Milton from Sonora. The exact location, I shit you not, was Funk Hill, just southeast of Copperopolis.

Alas, all did not go well on Funk Hill. At the ferry crossing where the stickup went down, Black Bart took heavy fire from two Wells Fargo fellas named (I’m still not making this up) Reason McConnell and Jimmy Rolleri. One of the bullets hit him in the hand; he used a kerchief to stop the bleeding, but he left it at the scene. Rookie mistake, Bart! Wells Fargo detectives traced it, with considerable effort, to a laundry in San Francisco, where they learned that Bowles lived in a boarding house nearby. He was toast: six years in San Quentin Prison.

Being a gentleman, though, Bowles was out in four—his sentence was commuted for good behavior. As the story goes, he was mobbed with reporters upon his release, and they asked him, as reporters are wont to do, if he planned on resuming his career as a criminal. Quoth Wikipedia:

“No, gentlemen,” he replied, smiling. “I’m through with crime.” Another reporter asked if he would write more poetry. Bowles laughed and said, “Now, didn’t you hear me say that I am through with crime?”

13 COMMENTS

8 Comments

  1. Gene Fowler | November 4, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Hey Dan, This is great. I’m the guy who stopped by the TX Book Fest table, talked about Ambrose Bierce and band with roosters. Black Bart the Poet good distraction for the depressing elections we’re having today…p.s. I’m neither the Gene Fowler (1890-1960) who wrote Jimmy Durante’s biography nor the GF Bay Area poet who spent time in San Quentin for armed robbery. http://www.cowboysindians.com/Cowboys-Indians/October-2014/Days-Nights-At-The-Psychic-Opera/

  2. Chuck Bennett | November 5, 2014 at 5:31 am

    “I shit you not.”

    Really?

  3. Standards and Review | November 5, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    Seriously: “I shit you not…” This is the Paris Review, not the New York Post.

  4. HX | November 6, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    I would agree that the statement, “I shit you not,” was a bit jarring. It seemed especially out of place given that the previous paragraph ends with the statement that Black Bart “eschew[ed] profanity.” On the whole, however, this was an extremely pleasurable read. Thank you for sharing.

  5. ArtsBeatLA | November 6, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    Wow – back in the day, you could track a person via that person’s handkerchief right back to where it was laundered… I wonder if any Pinkerton’s PI men were involved in that piece of sleuth work?

    Great story! Thanks!

  6. Karl Loeffler | April 29, 2015 at 7:03 am

    Yeah, I agree with Chuck and Standards and Review… had to check the masthead after I read that line, make sure I was really reading The Paris Review. And it’s not a question of vulgarity, it’s a question of elegance.

  7. Scott mcclanahan | April 30, 2015 at 8:02 am

    This is a great article.

  8. Васек М51 | August 6, 2016 at 3:45 am

    There are rumors that Wells Fargo had paid off the aging bandit and sent him away to keep him from robbing their stages, though Wells Fargo denied this.

5 Pingbacks

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  2. […] In the 1800s, Charles Earl Bowles, known as Black Bart the Poet, robbed trains and killed it with a mean ab-ab quatrain. Read his fascinating and lewd poetry here. […]

  3. […] Stein looks back at the dark days of her creative-writing workshop and Black Bart the Outlaw Poet strikes again. (“I’ve labored long and hard for bread,/ For honor, and for riches,/ But on my corns too long […]

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