The Last Years of Black Bart

All Charles E. Bolton (aka Black Bart) wanted was to disappear. He was the most famous stagecoach robber in California but he had served his time in prison. Now he didn’t want to be pestered by reporters or pointed out by every passer-by or queried about possible hidden treasure. He wanted to get away from it all.

Where did he go?

Authors Robert E. Jernigan and Wiley Joiner believe that Black Bart spent his remaining years in a town he would have been familiar with: Marysville, California.

But wouldn’t someone have recognized him?

His mustache was his most distinguishing feature. Remove that, or replace it with a different sort of mustache and a beard, and the man would look very different. Perhaps add spectacles. Bart was getting older and might need them anyway.

In a letter to his wife he expressed the wish to get away from it all, but he had no plans to return to her in Missouri. She never saw him again. He was last seen in Visalia. According to Jernigan and Joiner he then turned north until he found a comfortable spot in Marysville.

Their evidence is scant, but appealing nonetheless.

  1. He called himself Charles Wells. This combines the first name he always used (except for his “Black Bart” nom de guerre) with a jab at his nemesis, Wells, Fargo & Co.
  2. Charles Wells worked as a pharmacist at Kirk’s Drugstore in downtown Marysville. (I am not sure how they know this.) Charles Bolton had trained as a pharmacist in prison.
  3. He had a reputation for being a kindly and courteous old gentleman, as did Black Bart.
  4. He revealed his identity to only one man, Charles McCoy, whose father Hank McCoy had been the Yuba County sheriff. When Charles Wells died in 1914, McCoy informed the owners of the Woodleaf Hotel, because that hotel had been a favorite stopping place for Bart. The family was surprised to learn that Mr. Bolton, their gentlemanly guest of yesteryear, was both Black Bart and Charles Wells. Helen Falck, daughter of the hotel owners recalled this in a 1986 interview.
The Woodleaf Hotel ca. 1895. Courtesy CSUChico, Meriam Library, Special Collections.

Not much to go on. The identity of Charles Wells as the former Charles E. Bolton rests entirely on this one interview by the authors with Helen Falck Dunning. Without her testimony there would be nothing to connect those names. Still, it’s a plausible account and one that I find attractive.

Here is the obituary for Charles Wells, from the Marysville Appeal, 18 November 1914.

Note that it only refers to him as a “resident of Yuba County.” No occupation, nothing about being a pharmacist.

It does paint him as a recluse, which fits with Bolton’s personality. He lived in a cabin close to the Marysville-Browns Valley Road, which today would be ten miles outside of Marysville on Highway 20.

The most intriguing part of the article is where it says that he had $24,000 hidden on the property, money he received when he “disposed of property at Sacramento.” Was that really the source of his fortune, or was it money he had saved from his stage-robbing days?

How did they even know about the money? He must have told someone, but he refused to divulge its location. Confident that he would recover, he said, “I will soon be all right and then we will get the money.”

Charles Wells is buried in the Marysville Pioneer Cemetery. In spite of the ravages that time, flooding, and vandalism have taken on the cemetery, the authors of Black Bart: The Search Is Over have identified a resting place for Black Bart.

Someday I hope to take a tour of the Marysville Pioneer Cemetery and when I do, I’ll be sure to look for the grave of the man known as Black Bart.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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