Monday, October 2, 2023

Some would lie, cheat, steal if it meant survival — including ‘Black Bart’



Here, take this.

It's yours. You've always wanted it, you've always known somehow that you were going to have it and now's the time. It's not like you've ever passed on a chance to seize what you want, so go ahead – just take it. But as in the new book, "Gentleman Bandit" by John Boessenecker, remember your manners.

On the morning of July 26, 1875, stage coach driver John Shine was stopped on a short route up a mountain by what he thought was a large band of desperadoes with rifles. One of them, a man dressed in white clothing, head masked, his boots wrapped in rags to conceal his footprints, demanded that Shine throw down the coach's lockboxes and mail bags – which Shine did, with great haste before he was told to "Drive on."

He didn't know it then, but he'd just become the first victim of Black Bart, America's "greatest stage robber."

Born Charles Boles in 1829 in England, "Black Bart," said Boessenecker, "was the grandson of an English bastard." Boles was a child when his large family emigrated to New York and landed on a series of regional farms, but "Charley" – who was under-educated but literate, kind, gentle, and polite to a fault – hated that life. As soon as he was old enough, he left to find his fame and fortune in California's Gold Rush.

Sadly, he was unsuccessful. For a time, he traveled back and forth across the U.S., gathering a wife, offspring, and experiences before joining up to fight for the Union in the Civil War. By war's end, said Boessenecker, Charley was used to living alone in the wild, forging for his own food and shelter and simply taking what he needed – which he did, from random farmhouses on his way back West. He left notes as a thank-you, bits of poetry, and "doggerel."

"Charley Boles had come to a fateful turning point in his life," Boessenecker said of those post-war years. "Over and over again, success had eluded him. Since nothing else had worked, now he would steal it."

In romanticizing the Old West, as we often do, it's easy to imagine a slower life and hard to remember that times were hard. "Gentleman Bandit" is a good – and thoroughly entertaining – reminder of any waved-away facts.

Was the Old West as lawless as it's been depicted over the last century-and-a-half? No doubt those were heady, seemingly limitless and successful days for Charley Boles and others like him, and author John Boessenecker clearly shows how a series of historical events created generations of outlaws in the mid-19th century. Boessenecker does this with stories of dash and bravado and by letting us get to know bit-players, such as the inexhaustible detective, James Hume, who was tasked with catching Boles.

Try not to laugh at Boles' now-delightful taunting...

This book arcs across the country and will appeal to Civil War buffs as well as to Old West fans.  If this sounds good, and you find a chance to read "Gentleman Bandit," take it.


Want more, Hoss?  Then look for "Follow Me to Hell: McNelly's Texas Rangers and the Rise of Frontier Justice" by Tom Clavin. (St. Martin's Press, $29.99). Being a book about the Law in Texas in the 1870s, it's the antithesis of an outlaw book – which absolutely makes it a very nice balance to the Boessenecker saga.

"Gentleman Bandit: The True Story of Black Bart, the Old West's Most Infamous Stagecoach Robber" by John Boessenecker

c.2023, Hanover Square Press. $32.99. 376 pages.


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