The Capture of Black Bart: Gentleman Bandit of the Old West

The Capture of Black Bart: Gentleman Bandit of the Old West

by Norman H. Finkelstein


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Black Bart was not the Old West’s only stagecoach robber, but he was the most famous. To many people, he was a folk hero: a robber who didn’t threaten or harm passengers. He was a bandit with a sense of humor who wrote poetry. In robbing at least 28 Wells Fargo stagecoaches across Northern California between 1875 and 1883, he never fired a shot or injured anyone. His gun, it turned out, was never loaded.

Newspaper stories about the poet robber’s exploits and about Jim Hume, the unyielding chief detective of Wells Fargo, became popular reading throughout the West. Black Bart seemed to enjoy the chase. During one robbery the driver told him, “They’ll catch you one of these days.” Bart answered, “Perhaps, but in the meantime, give my regards to J. B. Hume, will you?” For eight years, each new robbery—and each new story—made Hume even more determined to track him down.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613739952
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/06/2018
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 1,218,958
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 10 - 18 Years

About the Author

Norman H. Finkelstein is the author of over 20 young adult books on historical subjects. A retired public school librarian, he is the winner of two National Jewish Book Awards and the Golden Kite Honor Book Award for Nonfiction.

Read an Excerpt



I don't want your money, only the express box and mail.


Before automobiles, telephones, and airplanes, stagecoaches linked the isolated mining towns of the Old West. While passengers bounced and swayed inside drafty, dusty coaches, valuables were stowed under the driver's seat in a sturdy green wooden box of Wells, Fargo & Company. The box was encircled by an iron strap and secured with a heavy padlock. The box weighed 25 pounds when empty. People called it the "treasure box" for all the wealth it contained.

Robbers set their sights on those distinctive green boxes. Many thieves were chased off, wounded, or even killed by drivers or guards. Those who escaped were relentlessly tracked down by James B. Hume, Wells Fargo's chief detective, a fearless but fair former sheriff. His job was to chase down anyone foolish enough to rob a Wells Fargo stagecoach. He always lived up to the company's motto — "Wells Fargo never forgets." Jim Hume was very busy. In 1875 alone, Wells Fargo stagecoaches were stopped 34 times by robbers, with a total of $87,000 (worth nearly $2 million today) stolen.

On July 26, 1875, driver John Shine slowly guided his stagecoach up Funk Hill, a steep mountain road near Copperopolis, California. He knew this part of the trip from Sonora to Milton, California, was especially hard on the horses. Without warning, a ghostlike figure jumped out from behind a large boulder in front of the huffing horses and blocked the stagecoach's path. Shine brought the horses to a quick stop. The figure crouched low, using the horses as a shield. Menacingly, he aimed a double-barreled shotgun at the driver.

Shine stared at the strange-looking figure before him. The bandit wore a long white duster (a type of lightweight coat), and his shoes were wrapped in rags. Only his eyes were visible through two holes cut out of the flour sack that covered his face. Comically, a dark derby, or bowler, hat sat on his head, placed at a jaunty angle.

"Please throw down the box," the robber politely ordered in a booming voice. As Shine reached beneath his seat to struggle with the heavy box at his feet, the bandit turned slightly and shouted toward the boulders above, "If he makes a move, give him a volley, boys." Shine glanced upward and caught sight of gun barrels aimed at the stagecoach from behind the boulders. Unarmed and concerned with the safety of the passengers aboard, the driver had no choice. Down went the green Wells Fargo express box and a canvas United States Mail sack.

Inside the coach, one of the passengers drew his gun and prepared to shoot at the masked robber. Another warned him to put the gun away. "Do you want to get us all killed?" he asked. When one frightened passenger threw her purse out the stagecoach window, the robber picked it up and handed it back. "No, Ma'am," he graciously said. "I don't want your money, only the express box and mail." Then he yelled toward the driver, "That will be about all, boys. Hurry along now and good luck to you." As the stagecoach moved forward, Shine observed the robber on the ground working to open the express box with a hatchet.

Almost at once, the robber was surprised by a second stagecoach lumbering up the hill. With the hatchet in one hand he raised the shotgun toward driver Donald McLean, who brought the stage to a stop. "Please throw down the box," the robber shouted. But this coach did not carry an express box, so the masked robber allowed it to go on its way as he continued to hack away at the box on the ground.

Shine drove the stage a short distance uphill and stopped. McLean's coach arrived within minutes. Looking around to make sure the robber was not nearby, Shine dropped to the ground. Slowly and carefully, he inched his way on foot back down the road to retrieve the empty express box. As he neared the site of the holdup he looked up. The gun barrels were still there and pointing directly at him. Shine held his breath, expecting bullets to fly. When nothing happened, he moved forward step-by-step and made a startling discovery. There were no hidden bandits. The "guns" were just sticks made to look like gun barrels. Shine picked up the now empty box and mail sack, returned to his stagecoach, and rushed on to Copperopolis to seek help.

The local Wells Fargo agent telegraphed Sheriff Benjamin Thorn of Calaveras County and Wells Fargo detective James B. Hume, who eventually arrived with a posse, a group of armed men organized by the sheriff. There were no tracks to follow and only one clue. Hume noticed that the mail sack was slashed open in an unusual way, forming an upside-down letter T. There wasn't much money taken from the now empty express box, but that didn't matter to Hume, who posted this notice when he returned to town:

REWARD! Wells, Fargo & Co.'s express box containing $160 in gold notes, was robbed this morning. ... $250 and one-fourth of any money recovered, will be paid for the arrest and conviction of the robber.

No trace of the robber was found. This was Jim Hume's first contact with him. It would not be the last.



Wells Fargo has come! Wells Fargo has come!


Gold! In 1848, newspapers headlined the discovery of gold in California. Stories of people "picking gold out of the earth" captivated readers. From big cities and small villages all over the world, thousands of adventurers set out from their small farms and shops for California. A popular melody of the time, "Oh, Susanna," expressed the excitement:

I soon shall be in 'Frisco,
And then I'll look all around,
And when I see the gold lumps there I'll pick 'em off the ground:
I'll scrape the mountains clean, my boys,
I'll drain the rivers dry.
A pocket-full of rocks bring home, —
So brothers, don't you cry.
Oh, California!
That's the land for me.
I'm bound for San Francisco,
With my wash-bowl on my knee.

Reaching California was not easy. Some prospectors traveled west across the prairie and desert, fighting danger, hunger, and thirst. Others took long ship voyages around South America. Some got off ships on Panama's Atlantic coast and trudged through insect-infested rain forests to reach the Pacific, where they boarded other ships for San Francisco. Each came with a personal dream of fame and fortune. Crew members even abandoned their ships to join them. Despite the fervor and optimism, few struck it rich.

Before the gold rush, California had a population of less than 160,000, nearly all Native Americans. Following the massive influx of settlers, the nonnative population grew from less than 1,000 to more than 100,000 two years later. The United States acquired the California Territory from Mexico in 1848 after the Mexican-American War. Because of the newly discovered gold and exploding population, California was quickly admitted into the Union, becoming the 31st state in 1850.

Once arriving in San Francisco, the adventurers found adobe houses and canvas tent villages along with dance halls and barrooms, and swindlers and shopkeepers sold food and tools at raised prices. Newcomers soon noticed the absence of women and children. One new arrival described his temporary sleeping arrangements on bales of hay shared with "two real judges, five ex-governors, three lawyers, and as many doctors, streaked with blacksmiths, tinkers and tailors."

After providing themselves with necessary supplies, they made their way to the mining camps that sprang up along streams and riverbeds of the gold regions, mainly along the Sacramento River and in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It took luck rather than skill to find gold. An observer described the process: "The miner stoops down by the stream, choosing a place where there is the least current, and dipping a quantity of water into the pan with the dirt, stirs it about." After much careful stirring and the addition of more water, the amount of gravel and dirt decreased, leaving behind the heavier gold particles. It required lots of hard work to collect varying amounts of gold. The miners were resourceful. As the gold became harder to find, they developed more sophisticated methods. When gold seemed to dry up in one location, miners moved to another.

Gold miners worked in remote areas. They feared leaving their diggings — the piece of land where they worked — since others could rush in while they were gone to claim their plots. They could not just leave their accumulated gold dust and nuggets lying around. They needed a trusted and secure way to transport their gold down the mountains and to the cities below.

There were several express services that delivered mail and packages throughout the eastern United States. The largest was the American Express Company, founded in 1850 by the merger of three smaller express firms owned by Henry Wells, William G. Fargo, and John Warren Butterfield. With news of the California gold rush, Wells and Fargo wanted to expand American Express's business to California. When the company's board of directors vetoed their idea, both men formed their own separate company and "launched in 1852 an industry that began the development of the Great West."

Wells, Fargo & Company began express operations in California to ship packages, purchase and sell gold, and transport passengers. They opened offices throughout the gold mining areas and offered a variety of services. They installed secure safes in their offices and charged miners for taking care of their gold dust. Armed messengers to the remotest gold camps provided reliable service that miners trusted. A Wells Fargo receipt for gold was a solid guarantee that the company would pay for a lost or stolen shipment. An 1857 Wells Fargo newspaper advertisement stated, "Freight, Parcels, Money and Letters, forwarded and delivered with dispatch, and at reasonable rates. ... Personal attention of the Messenger is given to all matter entrusted to our charge."

Miners were cut off from their families and loved ones. Letters were the only means of keeping in touch, and mail service was irregular. In June 1851, there were only 34 US post offices throughout California, few in the gold diggings. Wells Fargo filled the gap by delivering mail to nearly every town and mining camp. The miners tended to move often, in search of better diggings, and the post office had no way of following them. But Wells Fargo agents did. One newspaper reported, "It seems that private enterprise is ahead of Uncle Sam."

People trusted Wells Fargo, and it gained a reputation of honesty. The company taught its agents, "The most polite and gentlemanly treatment of all customers, however insignificant their business, is insisted upon. Proper respect must be shown to all — let them be men, women or children, rich or poor, white or black, and it must not be forgotten that the company is dependent on these same people for its business."

The arrival of a Wells Fargo stagecoach or wagon in town created a sense of expectation. Was there a friend or relative on board? Was there a package to be delivered? Composer Meredith Willson described that excitement in his song "The Wells Fargo Wagon" in his popular musical play The Music Man:

O-ho the Wells Fargo Wagon is a-comin'
down the street,
Oh please let it be for me!
O-ho the Wells Fargo Wagon is a-comin'
down the street,
I wish, I wish I knew what it could be!

From its earliest days, Wells Fargo's coaches competed with other express companies in the West, creating a network of scheduled routes carrying people, packages, gold, money, and mail. By 1866, "Wells Fargo combined all the major western stage lines ... and rolled over 3,000 miles of territory, from California to Nebraska, and from Colorado into the mining regions of Montana and Idaho." The company set up a series of relay stations, or "stages," along their routes to exchange fresh horses and provide meals for passengers. That word — stage — soon gave the stagecoach its shortened name. Those stations, usually not more than a small adobe hut and a corral, were usually arranged every 10 to 12 miles. Passengers had a few moments to stretch their legs while the horses were changed. Larger stations for longer journeys were located about 50 miles apart; passengers could receive meals and overnight lodging.

The coaches were built by the Abbot-Downing Company of Concord, New Hampshire. The usual configuration included three inside bench seats for nine passengers. Additional passengers sat outside on top. Most coaches were shipped by sea from Concord to California, a journey of over 19,000 miles around Cape Horn in South America. The Concord coach was specially constructed to overcome the rough terrain of the West. It weighed over 2,200 pounds and was built to last. Instead of the usual steel springs, it swung on a thorough brace, "a stout leather strap attached to C-springs front and rear, on which the body of the vehicle" was suspended.

The coaches were not only durable but also were sights to behold. Drawn by six horses, the brightly colored coaches, usually red or green, had doors decorated with scenic artwork. Prominently displayed above the door on each side was the name wells, fargo & co. One writer described the arrival of a Wells Fargo coach in a mining camp: "If there is a prettier street picture of animation than a red Concord coach with six spirited horses in harness and a good reinsman on the box, we have not seen it."

Though a Wells Fargo stagecoach in motion was a striking sight indeed, what went on inside the coach was a different matter. Passengers endured many discomforts and were often "crowded together as the needs of the hour and the size of the passengers demanded, to sit elbow to elbow, side by side to the journey's end." They were jolted by rocks and ruts on the ground, while dust and rain easily passed through the poorly curtained open windows. "Passengers, dozing in corners or curled up on the middle seat, would fall in a heap at a sudden lurch, untangle themselves, and doze off again."

Those seeking gold without having to wield a pick and shovel soon realized that under the stagecoach driver's seat was the Wells Fargo treasure box. The sturdy boxes were made of pine, oak, and iron and when loaded with gold bullion, cash, and legal papers could weigh between 100 and 150 pounds. Why work hard when all you had to do to get rich was rob a stagecoach? Soon, stagecoach robberies became common experiences for drivers and passengers. Wells Fargo responded by hiring armed messengers to "ride shotgun" next to the driver. They were "the kind of men you can depend on if you get into a fix." The work was dangerous. Before becoming a famous writer, Bret Harte worked as a Wells Fargo messenger sometimes known as an expressman. He explained, "Stage robbers were plentiful. My predecessor in the position had been shot through the arm, and my successor was killed." As the number of stagecoach routes increased, many trips went without shotgun messengers.

Stage robberies were so common, one newspaper said they "were hardly worth noticing." Wells Fargo disagreed. In a 14-year period, between 1870 and 1884, Wells Fargo recorded 313 stage robberies. Four drivers, two shotgun messengers, and four passengers were killed. The total loss for these robberies was $415,000. The company paid out that amount to the people who had entrusted robbed valuables to its care.

To show just how seriously the company took these holdups, it spent over $500,000 to track down and prosecute the robbers. Stage robbing was not a secure profession. Five of the robbers were killed during holdup attempts, another 14 were hanged by citizens, and 240 were convicted in the courts and sentenced to prison.

The robbers, sometimes referred to as highwaymen or road agents, differed in style. Some left the passengers alone and focused only on Wells Fargo's treasure box. Others showed no compassion for travelers. On July 10, 1864, two armed highwaymen stopped the stage bound for San Jose, California. While one ordered the driver to throw down the box, the other aimed his pistol at the passengers and demanded, "Come out with your money, men." When one passenger turned over what he claimed was all he had — $2.50 — the bandit replied, "You have no business to travel on this road without more money." Yet, when the driver requested that the robbers return any letters they found in the box, the robbers readily agreed. The driver then shared a drink of whiskey from his flask with them before the robbers allowed the stage to proceed. Not all robberies ended so peacefully.

When a Wells Fargo stagecoach was robbed in June 1866 on a lonely road in Nevada County, California, a sheriff's posse quickly formed to track down the robbers. One lawman, Stephen Venard, soon encountered the robbers and the treasure box, containing $8,000 in gold dust. Killing all three robbers with four shots from his Henry rifle, he returned to Nevada City with the gold and his story. Wells Fargo presented him with a new gold-engraved Henry rifle and offered him a reward of $3,000, which he promptly shared with other members of the posse.


Excerpted from "The Capture of Black Bart"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Norman H. Finkelstein.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 A Ghost Appears,
2 Wells Fargo Connects the West,
3 James B. Hume, Lawman,
4 A Legend Grows,
5 Closing In,
6 The Capture,
7 Who Was Black Bart?,
List of Robberies Attributed to Black Bart,
Image Credits,

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