Black Bart, The Gentleman Bandit

A Black Bart stick up spot. | Frank Titus Collection

To reach the California gold country located in the western Sierra foothills, stagecoach robber Black Bart traveled by ferry and steamer from his residence in the financial district of San Francisco to Sacramento up the San Joaquin River.

Sometimes he boarded a train to distant depots in the Central Valley. From the dock or railhead, he would hike up to 50 miles into the mining districts scouting out a location for a robbery. He knew the countryside well from gold prospecting forays in the early 1850s. To keep a low profile and avoid well-traveled roads after a heist, he sometimes walked more than 200 miles back to San Francisco. Long marches during a stint serving as a first lieutenant with the Union Army in the American Civil War had conditioned the cunning thief for epic jaunts of endurance.

In December 1875, Wells Fargo revealed that it had been robbed 34 times that year with financial losses totaling $87,000. That did not include thefts suffered by passengers, private shipments of gold and stolen mail.

Black Bart’s new criminal enterprise proved lucrative, but he planned his stick-ups carefully, executing only three heists over the next two years including one outside Quincy, a mining camp in Plumas County. To instill fear in his victims, he procured a shotgun that he could break down and easily conceal. A courteous bandit, Black Bart did not steal women’s jewelry and avoided gun play.

Boles pulled off at least 28 hold-ups. His reign of terror lasted the better part of a decade because no one could identify the mysterious lone bandit who dared to waylay Wells Fargo stages by himself.

Some people sympathized with Black Bart. California was in the grip of a severe economic depression in the 1870s. The powerful Bank of California collapsed in August 1875, taking with it many financial institutions and businesses. Thousands of unemployed men were on public relief in San Francisco alone. Crime replaced industry. The decade became known as the “Era of Good Stealing.”

Enriched by his new side hustle in San Francisco, Black Bart, whose real name was Charles E. Boles, quietly transitioned from an aging prospector into a seemingly respectable businessman and prosperous mining investor. When on the trail he dressed appropriately for the rigors of the road, but in the city, he wore wool coats, silk ties and stickpins. He sported a diamond ring and gold-handled walking cane, as well. Boles, a quiet man, did not imbibe alcohol, smoke or patronize saloons or brothels. 

In his fourth robbery, Boles left a short poem in the empty security chest. He signed the note “Black Bart, The PO8.” Wells Fargo detectives said that the cursive handwriting proved the “Black Bart” bandit had extensive experience in clerical work and declared that they would find the cocky criminal soon.

Despite an $800 reward and well-organized search by law enforcement, Black Bart continued to steal with impunity. He seemed to be everywhere. Black Bart had a unique ability to travel extraordinary distances in impossibly short periods of time. Wells Fargo detectives could not keep up with his widely scattered robberies.

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To calm jittery passengers, Wells Fargo published a statement about the criminal’s modus operandi: “He has never manifested any viciousness and there is reason to believe he is averse to taking human life. He is polite to all passengers, and especially to ladies. He comes and goes from the scene of the robbery on foot; seems to be a thorough mountaineer and a good walker.”

By 1883 Black Bart had become a folk hero in California but his luck was about to change.

The morning of Nov. 3, 1883, dawned clear and cold. Reason McConnell, driver for the Nevada Stage Company was hauling nearly $5,000 in gold dust and coin. His only passenger was 19-year-old Jimmy Rolleri, who was keeping McConnell company on the ride over Funk Hill, near the Stanislaus River.

The horse-drawn carriage slowed as it climbed the ridge and Jimmy jumped off. Toting his Henry rifle Jimmy was hoping to shoot a rabbit or a deer if he was lucky. The horses slowly plodded up the grade until, just before the crest, Black Bart appeared from the bushes. The villain ordered McConnell to throw down the express box, but the chest was bolted to the floor. While Bart took an axe to the lock, Jimmy quietly approached. When the road agent backed out of the coach holding a heavy sack of gold and bundle of mail, the teenager was ready for him. The crook dove into the underbrush and ran for his life. Jimmy took a shot, but the fleet-footed bandit disappeared into the thicket still carrying a bag of gold.

Funk Hill was where Black Bart committed his first robbery and, ironically, his last. The elusive outlaw may have escaped but this time he left incriminating evidence behind, specifically a handkerchief with a San Francisco laundry mark on it.

Exhaustive detective work eventually led the police to Boles. In Nov. 1883, Boles pled guilty to the last robbery and returned the loot. He was convicted but sentenced to only six years in San Quentin Prison in return for his cooperation and good behavior.

Boles served about four years in San Quentin before being released on Jan. 21, 1888. He was 54 years old. He disappeared after that until 1900 when Wells Fargo’s chief of detectives James Hume heard that the reformed miscreant had died while hunting game in the High Sierra.

Boles pulled off at least 28 hold-ups. His reign of terror lasted the better part of a decade because no one could identify the mysterious lone bandit who dared to waylay Wells Fargo stages by himself.

Black Bart may be gone but his legend endures.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at Check out his blog at or read more at