After 16 years at the Sacramento Union and 22 years at the Stockton Record, journalist George Hoeper is now retired. He can write about whatever strikes his fancy.
In this case, Hoeper, who has had an interest in California history since his Auburn boyhood, has chosen to write about one of the state's most infamous bandits, Black Bart.
The title, "Black Bart, Boulevardier Bandit: The Saga of California's Most Mysterious Stagecoach Robber and the Men Who Sought to Capture Him." (Word Dancer Press, 1995, $9.95) says it all. But what was it about Black Bart that captured Hoeper's interest?
"A great deal has been written about (the man whose real name was) Charles Boles. Most of it in bits and pieces...much of it from erroneous stories and folk tales. So I thought I'd pull it all together in a single book, which is quite factual."
Boles is believed responsible for 28 stagecoach robberies between 1875 and his arrest in 1883. When he wasn't robbing stagecoaches, he was a popular man-about-town living the high life in San Francisco. "Black Bart was a colorful character who never fired a shot, never hurt anyone, and never robbed a passenger," said Hoeper in a phone interview from his home in San Andreas, Calaveras County. "He was quiet, well-spoken and well-respected by those who knew him in his other life. He was not like the common thugs of today. I thought the story had some value."
"He had essentially no profession," said Hoeper. "He was a gold miner as a young man, and he might have taught school for a while."
Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Boles and his brother traveled to California to see if they could strike it rich in the Gold Rush. His brother died in California, and Boles returned to the Midwest where he settled down and got married. When war came, he enlisted in the Union Army and served honorably for three years. After the war, he returned to his wife and made a living as a farmer. Some time in 1867 he left his wife and two daughters and headed west again to seek his fortune. Although he wrote to his wife from time to time and sent her small amounts of money, he never returned.
Instead, he plagued Wells Fargo & Co. by robbing stagecoaches and writing bad poetry. He operated on foot, carrying an unload shotgun. After stopping the stagecoach and politely asking the driver to throw down the strong box, Boles would take whatever money he could find and disappear in the countryside. He robbed stages in the Mother Lode and was active in Mendocino and Shata counties, among others, but not in Yolo County.
Having been wounded in the Civil War, he was probably not eager to be shot again and chose as his targets stagecoaches that did not carry an extra guard. Therefore, says Hoeper, he never made a really big haul, since the stages that carried a lot of gold always had an extra man riding shotgun. But sometimes he'd get enough loot, gold or money from letters, and he'd return to the good life in San Francisco.
His luck ran out in 1883 when he fled a botched robbery attempt, leaving behind his satchel containing personal items including a laundry-marked handkerchief. Tenacious lawmen traced Boles to his San Francisco neighborhood where he was arrested. Boles served four years in San Quentin, working in the prison pharmacy.
Upon his release, despite an exchange of letters and flowery declarations, he made no effort to return to his wife in Missouri. It looked to some, particularly journalists of the day, that Black Bart returned to a life of crime. "He was 56 when he was released from prison," said Hoeper. "He had no way to make a living. He probably felt California was too populated so he went to Nevada where there were still plenty of stagecoaches."
Hoeper thinks Boles was probably shot and killed in a Nevada hold-up, where lawmen, not knowing or caring who he was, summarily buried his body.
"It's an enigma, of course it is," said Hoeper, "but that's what I think happened."
Hoeper said he loved researching his book, much of which was done by reading newspapers of the day on file at the state library. "There was always so much of interest to read in newspapers of the 1870s and 1880s. That was the trouble, I'd get sidetracked," he said.
"Black Bart" can be ordered through local bookstores or by phoning 1-800-497-4909.