On the trail of the legendary Charles Boles left an indelible mark on Calaveras County
BY JEFF BENZIGER
On a forgotten hillside of a foothill cattle ranch overlooking the New Melones Reservoir sits a large boulder approximately 25 feet from what was once a well-traveled stage road.
Speckled with lichen growing on its grey surface, the rock doesn’t look different from the other rocks scattered across the hillsides of Calaveras County.
But it is.
An engraved metal plaque spells out how this rock was twice used as cover by one of the most notorious outlaws in the annals of the Old West as he committed two stage coach robberies eight years apart.
On July 26, 1875, 5-foot-8 Charles Boles (AKA Charles Bolton and Black Bart) hunkered down behind the boulder as he lay in wait for the stage leaving Sonora for Milton. Getting to this spot was no easy task for the 46-year-old who preferred walking over horse riding. Boles likely leaned his posterior against the eastern slope of the boulder which now bears a plaque engraved: “HERE ON FUNK HILL, ABOVE REYNOLDS FERRY ON JULY 6, 1875 AND NOV. 3, 1883, NOTORIOUS STAGE COACH BANDIT BLACK BART (CHARLES E. BOLES) COMMITTED HIS FIRST AND LAST OF 28 STAGE ROBBERIES, IN WHICH HE LOOTED THE WELLS FARGO EXPRESS BOX.”
The first date is wrong, but the error is of little consequence given how the rock is on private property and few ever see it.
Boles calculated that robbing the Sonora-Milton stage on Funk Hill would be easy pickins given how the nearest law enforcement office was hours away. A one-man operation, Boles cleverly placed long poles, or sticks, in the craggy outcropping of rock above him to simulate armed accomplices.
Armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, Black Bart stepped out from behind this rock and entered history. Today his name is immortalized all over Calaveras County, especially in San Andreas where Boles was housed in the county jail in 1883 after a string of 28 stage coach robberies. The town boasts the Black Bart Inn, the Black Bart Restaurant, and Black Bart Professional Offices.
“It’s our claim to fame,” said Dana Nichols, a docent at the Calaveras County Museum in San Andreas. “In Calaveras County, not much has happened here, which is sort of nice in many ways. He’s sort of a local folk hero because he was always polite. He never fired the shotgun. It maybe was never even loaded, maybe never even worked.”
The museum devotes ample space to Black Bart folklore. Visitors enter the Hall of Records, 30 Main Street, and are directed to the red-bricked courthouse in back which contains the jail cell that held Boles captive. On the second floor is the courtroom where on Nov. 17, 1883 Boles pled guilty to his final robbery. The museum also displays the gun toted by the Sheriff Benjamin Thorn (1829-1905) who helped bring Boles to justice.
Stage robberies were not uncommon in California after the Gold Rush. Wells Fargo transported gold and cash from the mines in strong boxes aboard coaches, which were vulnerable to surprise roadside robberies. Uncommon, however, was Black Bart’s gentle demeanor; he never once cursed and he twice left poetry that bemused law enforcement official more than offer clues.
Sonora-Milton stage driver John Shine would not be delivered poetry – only sheer fright as he neared the top of Funk Hill and was greeted by the spooky sight of a man wearing a duster coat, his head covered in a flour sack with two holes cut for eyes. In his hands was an intimidating double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun.
Shine immediately pulled on the reins to halt his horses.
“Please throw down the box!” the bandit yelled to Shine as the horses snorted as they caught their breath after the strain of the hill. No bandit had ever used the word “please” while transgressing the law in such a brazen manner.
“If he dares to shoot, give him a solid volley, boys,” Boles yelled behind him to his make-believe accomplices. The clever illusion fooled Shine but Boles’ shotgun ushered forth thoughts of undertakers and women mourning in black for anyone who put up resistance.
The eight women and children and two men inside the coach were warned not to do anything stupid. One woman tossed her purse out the window. Incredulously, the bandit bowed before her and handed it back, allegedly apologetically saying, “Madam, I do not wish your money. In that respect, I honor only the good office of Wells Fargo.”
Not eager to meet his maker, Shine heaved the heavy box to the hard ground.
According to accounts, a young miner inside the coach jerked a pistol but passenger John Olive grabbed his wrist and forced the barrel to the floor, whispering, “Put that damned thing away. Do you want to get us all killed?”
With the box out of the coach, the bandit signaled for the stage to go on its way. Shine drove on, only looking back to see Black Bart whacking the wooden box with a hatchet.
Coming up the hill, behind Shine’s coach, was one driven by Donald McLean of Sonora. He stopped the coach in his track when he saw Black Bart working on the box.
The bandit tried robbing McLean, only he wasn’t carrying a Wells Fargo box, so Boles sent him along. Boles emptied the box of its contents – said to have a value of $348 – and disappeared.
McLean caught up with Shine. Together the men bravely walked back down the road to investigate. That’s when they realized that the “rifles” protruding from the rocks were actually sticks.
The incident on Funk Hill was the beginning of a string of 28 robberies committed throughout 10 counties in northern California and once in Oregon.
The press and public were captivated by Black Bart who was born in Norfolk, England in 1829. His parents migrated to the U.S., settling in Plessis Village, New York when he was two. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, “Charley” and brothers, David and James, descended on the American River near Sacramento in search of riches. They failed to strike it rich and returned home three years later. Boles decided to give it a second shot, bringing David and brother Robert with him. After both brothers died, Charles was on his own but returned home two years later where in 1853 to marry Mary Elizabeth Johnson. He fathered four children but wasn’t around much to raise them. The Boles family was living in Decatur, Illinois, when the Civil War broke out. Ever one to chase the action, Charles abandoned his family and enlisted in the Army on Aug. 13, 1862. He was twice wounded in battle.
Boles returned to his wife and children in 1865 but the wanderlust for the gold fields called. This time he struck out for Idaho and Montana. When he staked a claim to operate a gold sluice, some agents of Wells Fargo pressured him to sell his land and, when he refused, they cut off his water. The incident left him bitter against the bank. In an August 1871 letter to his wife, Charles noted that he would exact revenge. And he did – by stealing tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gold over an eight-year period.
Second Funk Hill robbery
Black Bart returned to Funk Hill to commit his last robbery on Nov. 3, 1883. This time Boles robbed an empty stage that started in Sonora and made its way to the Reynolds Ferry and Hotel on the Stanislaus River (the location is underwater not far from Tuttletown Recreation Area.) Prior to heading up Funk Hill, 19-year-old Jimmy Rolleri asked stage driver Reason McConnell if he could hitch a ride halfway up the hill to hunt for deer before linking up with the empty stage on the other side of the hill at the top. The stage rolled up the hill and dropped the armed Rolleri before the ascent.
McConnell’s horses stopped in their tracks when a masked bandit appeared, much the same way in 1875.
Black Bart ordered that the box be thrown down but McConnell explained that it was bolted to the floor. Boles ordered McConnell off the stage to unhitch the horses. McConnell balked, saying the brakes were in poor shape and the coach would roll once disconnected. “It won’t roll down the hill if you put rocks behind the wheel,” Boles told McConnell. The driver asked the robber to do it, so Boles grabbed large rocks and positioned them.
After the rig was disconnected, Boles told McConnell to leave, threatening, “If you don’t want to get shot, don’t come back or even look back in this direction for at least one hour.”
McConnell hoofed it up the hill some 200 hundred yards with his horses as he heard the bandit furiously attacking the box. The work took about a half hour. Meanwhile, McConnell spotted Rolleri approaching and waved him over. What happened next is in dispute but one of the two (or both) took shots at Boles and he was wounded in the hand as he ran into the brush. Boles escaped out of sight and stuffed $4,000 worth of purloined melted gold and his shotgun into a hollow tree.
Boles immediately headed for Sacramento and Reno before returning home to the Webb House at 37 Second Street in San Francisco on Nov. 10.
In his hasty departure, Boles left ample evidence that led authorities to him. He left a black derby, a travel-worn leather valise containing a pair of field glasses, a belt, a razor, three soiled linen shirt cuffs, two paper sacks containing crackers and sugar, and two empty flour sacks. The key evidence was a handkerchief bearing an ink launderer’s mark of “F.X.O.7.” They traced it back to the Ferguson & Biggs California Laundry on Bush Street in San Francisco. Wells Fargo detective James B. Hume arrested Boles and transported him via steamer up the Delta to Stockton, then overland to San Andreas to stand trial.
After six hours of interrogation by Sheriff Thorn, Boles admitted to his last Funk Hill robbery. He believed taking Thorn to the hidden gold would earn him a lighter sentence. On Nov. 17, 1883, in the same San Andreas courtroom that visitors may visit, the legendary Black Bart was sentenced by Judge C.V. Gottschalk to six years in San Quentin. Boles’ gentlemanly ways continued behind bars and his good behavior resulted in his release two years shy.
On Jan. 21, 1888 Boles was released from San Quentin. He had aged considerably; his eyesight was poor and he couldn’t hear out of one ear. Boles assured reporters that his life of crime was over and retreated to San Francisco where Wells Fargo detectives monitored his every move.
Boles grew irritated at the constant surveillance at the Nevada Hotel, at 132 Sixth Street. He wrote Mary –living in Hannibal, Mo. – saying he was “completely demoralized” and felt like “getting entirely out of the reach of everybody for a few months and see what effect that will have.”
Despite Mary’s longing for Charles to come home, he offered nothing but apologies for not being able to do so without an explanation.
Boles took off in February 1888. He was reportedly spotted in Modesto, in Merced and Madera. His last known unconfirmed whereabouts was the Palace Hotel in Visalia.
Nine months later, Mary Boles told a reporter: “I believe he is engaged in mining in some secluded spot in the mountains, though of course I do not know. He may be dead. God only knows.”
Besides the rock, there is little artifact remaining from the career of Black Bart. Rolleri’s rifle, which injured Bart, was destroyed in a 1938 fire that swept through his mother’s Calaveras Hotel in Angels Camp.
Where the bones of Black Bart lie, nobody knows. Indeed, we probably never will.