In our modern world of computerized tracking and delivery services via truck and plane, few expressmen have ever contended with the likes of Rattlesnake Dick or Black Bart. But Wells Fargo expressmen in California in the late 1800s did. And despite rashes of holdups by the likes of Dick and Bart, the Wells Fargo company maintained a sterling record of covering its losses so that no customers ever forfeited a dime to such desperados.
Eastern expressmen Henry Wells and William G. Fargo organized the Wells Fargo Company in 1852, seeking to link their East Coast operations of American Express (yes, that AmEx) with the California gold fields. Rattlesnake Dick cashed in on $80,000 from the company’s first stagecoach robbery in 1855. Black Bart began making his small mark on Wells Fargo history a few years later with a robbery in 1875.
(An excellent source for Wells Fargo history, stagecoaches and expressmen in general, and the careers of such bad guys as Bart and Dick is the volume in the Time-Life Books “The Old West Series” entitled “The Expressmen.”)
Dick’s bravado involved a coach that was part of a mule train. He got his nickname because he launched his criminal career and formed his gang in the California mining camp of Rattlesnake Bar. His career was short and uneventful, coming to an end in a shootout near Auburn, California, in 1859. But Bart added quite a colorful page to the outlaw history of the Old West. He appeared in the middle of a road at the crest of a hill in front of a Wells Fargo stagecoach in the High Sierra in July 1875. He was holding a shotgun pointed squarely at the driver.
The robber was dressed in a long white-linen duster covering his clothes and wearing a flour sack with eye holes over his head. In a loud, deep voice, he shouted up at the driver, “Please throw down the box.” The driver obliged and the robber who became known as Black Bart broke open the box with an ax and began stuffing bags of gold coins into the pockets of the duster. One of the women passengers on the coach became frightened and threw her purse down to the robber. He politely picked up the purse and returned it to her, with a short speech: “Madam, I do not wish your money. In that respect, I honor only the good office of Wells Fargo.”
Bart’s total take for his 7-8 year holdup spree never approached the $80,000 Rattlesnake Dick got away with in that first Wells Fargo robbery — but he certainly wounded the company’s public image and pride; he began leaving scraps of paper with short poetry on them taunting Wells Fargo. He fired the public’s imagination and bought his special place in Western outlaw folklore with this note, left at the scene of his third stagecoach robbery:
“I’ve labored long and hard for bread
for honor and for riches
But on my corns too long you’ve tred
You fine haired S**s of Bit***s”
Folk hero or not, the man known as Black Bart, unfailingly polite to stagecoach drivers and passengers throughout his career, eventually slipped up. Running away from one foiled robbery attempt, he dropped a bag that had some personal possessions in it. After a diligent search of laundries in and out of San Francisco, Wells Fargo detectives tracked a handkerchief laundry mark to a prosperous mining man named Charles E. Bolton. Bolton turned out to be a restless wanderer named Charles E. Boles who had fled a wife and family in the Middle West to seek his fortune in California.
Because he had never used the shotgun or done anything violent during his robberies, and because he returned most of the gold he had stolen, Boles was cut a deal. He pleaded guilty to one count of armed robbery and served a 6-year term in San Quentin prison.
Unwilling to accept such a disappointing end to such a dashing career, the public refused to believe that Boles was the “real” Black Bart. Though Boles served his time and disappeared from Western history after leaving San Quentin, public rumors and enthusiasm continued to attribute daring robberies in California to Black Bart for several years.