The kindly, quiet Mr. Martin: Was he really Black Bart?
Black Bart in Wells, Fargo Co. photo 1883
This story was published in The Union Newspaper Oct. 25, 2003.)
At inns along New England's back roads, you will find markers claiming that "George Washington Slept Here." In and around theaters and lecture halls throughout the rest of the country, there are frequent boasts that "Mark Twain Lectured Here." In Northern California, the status is that "Black Bart Held Up a Stagecoach at this Spot."
Stage drivers lived in fear of seeing Black Bart, the infamous hooded bandit in the road ahead, and of his command: "Throw down the box!" The whip always complied, that is, until Wells, Fargo & Co. began bolting the express box to the floor under the driver's feet. This slowed the bandit down only a few minutes; the contents and the U. S. Mail pouch continued to disappear along with the celebrated highwayman. He never fired his weapon.
Who was this Black Bart, whose name dominates late 19th-century Northern California history as its most celebrated criminal?
"Charles E. Bolton, alias C. E. Boles, alias Black Bart, the P.O. 8. (poet)," is the way he is listed in the Wells, Fargo & Co.'s Express Robbers Record publication. Also listed are his 27 known robberies, committed between July 26, 1875, and Nov. 3, 1883.
However, during the first four years of Bart's activity, it is claimed that while he was not robbing Wells, Fargo & Co. stages, he worked as "Mr. Martin," a mill hand at James H. Reader's sawmill near Shady Creek on the road to North San Juan. Reader milled mine timbers for tunnels and flume timbers for the Milton Co. operators of the giant hydraulic Malakoff Mine.
Here's the story. In February 1962, I photographed and took part in an interview of Frank Reader, 92, son of James and Almina Reader, at the Reader Ranch where Frank was born. Frank was 6 years old in 1876 when "Mr. Martin" first appeared on foot at the sawmill looking for work.
Frank Reader described Martin as "kindly, with a deep voice, well dressed and with a Victorian manner. He sure was polite, and dad gave him a job and let him use a cabin on the property. He was a very good worker." For four years, Martin would leave each spring and return in the fall. He would come to work, always on foot, and leave the same way.
While an employee, he kept to himself. On Saturday nights, the sawmill gang would ask him to join them for a "couple o' beers over to French Corral." Martin always refused, politely. Then he stopped coming. The Readers did not think his absence strange and put Martin out of mind.
Only years later did the truth of the kindly Mr. Martin's identity come out. One day in November 1883, Jim Reader got an excited message from his former sawmill bookkeeper, Beard Wooster, who was then working in San Francisco. Front-page stories in all the San Francisco newspapers headlined the capture near Sonora, Tuolumne County, of Black Bart.
Wooster couldn't resist joining the crowds descending on the City Prison to view the famous highwayman. Wooster saw not the notorious bandit, but the kindly Mr. Martin, whom he had paid as a sawmill worker so many times! Now bits of evidence or coincidence began to fall into place. There had been at least three stagecoach robberies within a 50-mile radius in the time periods before Martin's arrival or after his departure from the Reader Mill. Martin was known to be a "good walker" and was never known to have owned a horse.
Whatever the case, Martin, or Boles or Bolton or Black Bart, pleaded guilty to the Nov. 3, 1883 robbery and on Nov. 21 the same year was committed to California State Prison at San Quentin for the term of six years.
He was a model prisoner and was released early.
Now what may have been Bart's last hurrah took place on Ditch Hill on Nov. 8, 1888, when the Downieville to Nevada City stage was robbed of some $2,200 in gold. Wells, Fargo immediately investigated and claimed it had all the earmarks of a Black Bart job.
However, an account in the Nevada (City) Daily Transcript of the robbery describes the bandit as "a lone gunman ... wearing blue overalls and (a) red bandana ... (carrying) a single barrel smooth bore ... (with) a squeaky voice." Not the typical Black Bart caper.
Another twist to this seemingly final chapter takes place at the Reader Ranch not long after the robbery. One day, while Frank's younger sister Hattie was home alone, a man approached the front porch of the home. It was Mr. Martin, quiet, polite and soft-spoken as he had always been. Could he please visit the cabin where he once stayed? Yes, said Hattie. For some 45 minutes, Martin strolled in and around the cabin.
He returned to the ranch house as Hattie stood at the front door. Mr. Martin thanked her and slipped a bright silver dollar into her little hand. Was he there to recover hidden gold? We will never know. He walked slowly toward North San Juan and was never seen again.
Frank Reader died Sept. 9, 1969, aged 99. He saw history from the horse and buggy to man's walk on the moon and to Black Bart!
Another Black Bart - In the early 1960s, John Shoemaker, pictured above, operated a popular cafe and bar at Hills Flat in Grass Valley called Black Bart's. Shoemaker fancied himself a Black Bart look-alike. This picture was taken at his annual "Black Bart Appreciation Party."
Bob Wyckoff is a retired Nevada County newspaper editor/publisher and author of local history publications which are available at your favorite local bookstore. You may contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or PO Box 216, Nevada City CA 95959.