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Back in Black: Who was the Real Black Bart

Remember the dream sequence in A Christmas Story when Ralphie has visions of saving his family from Black Bart? It’s a nod to the kind of 1940′s-era characters that would have pervaded young Ralphie’s imagination.

But in reality, Black Bart wasn’t just some fictional desperado.  In actual fact, the character originated in an 1870s dime novel that was loosely based on a true story. The writer called his main character Bartholomew Graham who took the name of “Black Bart” because he wore black clothes, had black long curly hair and a dense black beard. And Black Bart had real-life inspiration.

Charles Bowles was born in England around 1830 and immigrated to New York a few years later with his family.  Shortly after entering adulthood, young Charles Bowles had his name changed to Charles Boles and, in 1849, he set off for California with a cousin to find gold. Like countless others, they failed to strike it rich and returned home a few years later.  But, undaunted, Charley Boles set out to find gold again with his cousin and his brother. Once again they failed, and both his brother cousin both perished after falling ill.

Eventually, Charley returned again, fell in love, and was married. Later, he spent some time in the Union Army and then went west to Montana where he set up a mining site that was dependent on water. His claim attracted the attention of some men from Wells Fargo who wanted to buy his claim.  When Boles refused, they cut off the supply of water and Charley was forced to abandon the mine. In a letter to his wife he wrote, “I am going to take steps.” She wasn’t quite sure what that meant.

But it wasn’t long until a series of daring robberies began, in which Wells Fargo stage coaches were hijacked and robbed of their money and valuables.  The robberies began in 1875 and each time a poem was left behind, hinting that the perpetrator would strike again. They were signed “Black Bart”.

Throughout the late 1870s and early 1880s, Bart robbed Wells Fargo stage coaches many times.  He wore a flour sack on his head and never fired a shot, though on a few occasions, shots were fired at him. There was never any mayhem or extreme violence.

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