July 26, 1875 wasn’t a great day for John Shine. The man who would later become a US Marshal and a California state senator, at the time, worked as a stagecoach driver for Wells Fargo. That day, only a few miles outside of Calaveras County, he encountered a man standing in his path. He wore a flour sack over his head and he held a shotgun leveled at Shine’s chest.
In a commanding voice, the flour sack asked politely for Shine to throw down the locked strong box, and happily reminded his accomplices hiding behind the boulders with nothing but their deadly shotgun barrels showing, to shoot the driver should he refuse to comply. Shine didn’t need to be asked twice. He threw down the box.
The gentlemanly outlaw allowed the stagecoach to move on down the trail. Only later, when Shine returned to the scene, did he realize that the flour sack’s accomplices were nothing more than well positioned sticks.
This was most likely the first stagecoach robbery committed by the outlaw who would come to be known as Black Bart. Named (by himself) after a dime novel villain, Black Bart would go on to pull close to twenty-five robberies of Wells Fargo stagecoaches, netting himself a total of around $18,000. The sum was a small drop in the big bucket of about $415,000 Wells Fargo lost to stagecoach robberies over a fifteen year period.
But Black Bart set himself apart. He always worked by himself, never rode a horse, and refused to behave in an ungentlemanly manner. Not once did he fire a shot or steal so much as a dime from a passenger.
And on at least two occasions, he even wrote poetry:
To wait the coming morrow,
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat
And everlasting sorrow
Yet come what will, I’ll try it once,
My conditions can’t be worse
But if there’s money in that box,
It’s munny in my purse.
And there was this one:
I’ve labored long and hard for bread,
For honor and for riches
But on my corns too long you’ve tread,
You fine-haired sons-of…
Well, you get the idea.
The robber signed both poems as “Black Bart, the P o 8.” Get it? Because he’s a po-eight! I assume that’s the idea anyway. He was also pretty great with a license plate. And that, it turns out is a good thing because in November of 1883, Black Bart’s reign of crime came to an end.
During what became his final robbery, Black Bart took fire and a bullet grazed his hand. He managed to escape, stemming the bleeding with a handkerchief that bore a laundry mark. Then, somewhere along the way, he dropped the handkerchief.
Because Wells Fargo detectives are evidently well versed in every crime drama ever, they conducted an extensive search and traced the handkerchief to a laundry in San Francisco where they learned that it belonged to Charles Bowles, a mild-mannered, gray-haired gentleman who lived a quiet, but elegant life in a boarding house nearby. Mr. Bowles was sentenced to six years in prison for his string of robberies.
The moral of the story, obviously, is that the only way to make money writing poetry is to also rob a stagecoach, and even then, only if you don’t get caught. And that, my friends, is why you should stick to writing novels. It just so happens it’s National Novel Writing Month. So you better get started. These days, a good stagecoach robbery is a hard thing to pull off.