Friday, April 2, 2010

Poetry Outlaws: Black Bart, the P o 8

Two weeks ago, P&PC spent some time thinking about how the films The Contract and The Long Hot Summer cast poetry as a criminal activity. No sooner had we sent the piece off to the proofreading department than we remembered the case of the nigh-pacifist, gentleman outlaw poet Black Bart (real name Charles Bolles), a Civil War veteran who robbed stagecoaches in the 1870s, leaving his signature—"Black Bart, P o 8"—at the scene of the crime, twice accompanied by poems. According to the folks over at the Black Bart: California's Infamous Stage Robber site, the great P o 8 penned the following beauts:

I've labored long and hard for bread,
For honor and for riches,
But on my corns too long you've tread,
You fine-haired sons-of-bitches.


Here I lay me down to sleep
To wait the coming morrow,
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat
And everlasting sorrow.
Yet come what will, I'll try it once,
My conditions can't be worse,
And if there's money in that box
'Tis money in my purse.

Bart was eventually caught and sentenced to prison at San Quentin for over 25 robberies. Upon his release in 1888, after a little more than four years behind bars, Bart was asked if he planned a return to a life of crime, and he said he was through. Another reporter then asked if Bart was going to write any more poems. "Young man," Bart replied, "didn't you hear me say I would commit no more crimes?"

However, in November of 1888, what Wiki calls a "lone bandit" held up another Wells Fargo stagecoach and left behind the following poem:

So here I've stood while wind and rain
Have set the trees a-sobbin',
And risked my life for that damned box
That wasn't worth the robbin'.

Apparently, Wells Fargo detective James Hume, who had first collared Bart, was called in to investigate but, after comparing handwriting samples, he concluded the crime and the poem the work of a copycat criminal. There are no reports that a literary critic was consulted. As for Bart? He was never seen again.