History of a Bad Man With Good Manners – The American Spectator

Gentleman Bandit: The True Story of Black Bart, the Old West’s Most Infamous Stagecoach Robber
By John Boessenecker
(Hanover Square Press, 376 pages, $32.99)

Stagecoach holdups were a staple of those Western movies of the fifties that I so enjoyed as a youngster. These robberies were also a part of the real history of the thinly policed West of the late 19th century. Many of the desperadoes who pulled these jobs off became well known nationally through the efforts of the journalism of the day that was more florid than accurate. As is too often the case now, no one much in the trade then wished to contaminate a really good story with too much truth.

One of the most written and talked about of these highwaymen was Charles E. Boles, call sign Black Bart. He chose this sobriquet for himself, though it had nothing to do with his complexion. More literate than most banditos, he took the name from a character in an early science fiction short story that he’d read and liked. Boles was also known as the gentleman bandit. To make it clear up front he was no gentleman, though he used the proceeds of his crimes to live like one. The gentleman tag came from the fact that Black Bart never stole from stage passengers, never used abusive language with either passengers or stage drivers, and while not plying his dangerous vocation lived in San Francisco where he posed as a successful mine owner and investor. While not away from town pulling stickups, Boles dressed well, ate well, and rubbed elbows with San Francisco’s business and social elites, most of whom were shocked when they learned that their respected friend was in fact not only a criminal, but a notorious one.

Like other hero-villain outlaws of the Old West, Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy just to name two, Black Bart has been the subject of books, fiction and otherwise; movies, even comic books. Most of these are economical with the truth, though the truth itself is dramatic enough. Comes now historian John Boessenecker with a well-researched, detailed, and entertaining account of Bart’s life and criminal career, the efforts of Wells Fargo detectives and several sheriffs who pursued and, after eight frustrating years of being bested by the bandit, finally arrested him. Gentleman Bandit also chronicles the yellow journalism of the time that grossly exaggerated Bart’s real and imagined exploits, devoting endless column inches to even the most lurid rumors about Bart. Especially the most lurid.

Boles’ trial netted him a sentence of six years in San Quentin. He was released after four years thanks to his good behavior in prison. He could always behave himself when it was in his interest to do so. Many thought this was very light treatment for a man who had committed 29 stage coach robberies and relieved Wells Fargo of a good deal of cash. He stole even more from individuals who had sent money through the mail that Wells Fargo stages carried. So even though he never stole from passengers, he still took from innocents through looting their mail, though he always insisted that he didn’t. This guy was no Robin Hood. He stole for himself alone.

A short time after being released from San Quentin and swearing that he was through with crime, Boles hit the road again and returned to the only vocation that ever gave him what he wanted. He robbed at least three more stages before disappearing in 1888 to, well, no one really knows to where. This opened the door for Bad Bart sightings, much in the same manner of Butch Cassidy sightings, which enjoyed a very long shelf life. Wild Bad Bart yarns became a cottage industry.

The interest in bad Bart is not hard to understand. He was hardly an off-the-rack bandit. He didn’t drink, use tobacco, swear, gamble, or frequent brothels, making him an outlier as an outlaw. He was brighter than your average crook and always worked alone, never in a gang. And he was clearly brighter and more competent at his dark trade than most, successfully eluding capture and leading a fascinating double life for years. He simply begged for mythologizing.

Boles, before his Black Bart phase, was clearly a man who could have succeeded in life without turning to crime. He was intelligent, fairly well educated by the standards of his day, well mannered, usually well-liked by those with whom he associated, and possessed no destructive personal habits. In 1862, a 33-year-old Boles enlisted as a private in the Union Army. He suffered the endless privations of the infantryman in a poorly supplied army and saw lots of bloody combat at many of the Civil War’s important battles, including Vicksburg and Sherman’s destructive march through Georgia to the sea. He was wounded in battle twice and showed enough leadership to be promoted to first sergeant of his company and then was awarded a battlefield commission as a lieutenant. He had the qualities that would have stood him well in many of the vocations then open to someone of his background.

But Boles’ flaws appeared to have been an impatience and a desire for the big score and the easy life that panning in the California gold rush and farming in multiple states before and after the war did not produce. So in his forties he turned to crime, deserting a wife and three children to pursue his new vocation. Crime brought him what his sociopathic personality craved, at least for a few years.

Charles E. Boles/Black Bart led a life that many for more than a century have found fascinating. But it was hardly an admirable life. The bandit-with-a-heart-of-gold label some have tried to assign him does not fit. A polite thief is still a thief. The cost to others of keeping Boles/Bart living the life to which he wished to become accustomed was very high indeed. He was a bad man, whose only claim to our attention is that he did his bad in a far more interesting way than the general ruck of villain. Boessenecker tells his story well and along the way gives readers a look at the Old West, late 19th century San Francisco, and the journalism of the day that featured even more malpractice than we currently endure. I found it well worth the reading time.

Gentleman Bandit is Boessenecker’s 11th book on the Old West.

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