Police History: Was this Wild West cop the original Sherlock Holmes?

Hume was known to collect evidence and follow leads. He would dig buckshot out of the sides of stagecoaches for later comparison, sketch footwear impressions and even analyze handwriting


Years before Sir Arthur Conant Doyle created the iconic literary sleuth, James Hume was the Sherlock Holmes of the Wild West. In the 19th century, when western law enforcement’s main tool was direct pursuit and capture of the perpetrators, Hume was known to collect evidence and follow leads. He would dig buckshot out of the sides of stagecoaches for later comparison, sketch footwear impressions and even analyze handwriting. He had great success obtaining confessions using modern interrogation techniques.

Hume was a City Marshall in Placerville (Calif.) and then Under-Sheriff and Sheriff in California’s El Dorado County. It was in El Dorado that he helped to capture, kill, and scatter members of Ingram’s Rangers. They were Confederate Raiders who brought the war West by gunning down Deputy Joseph Staples after they had stolen a large gold shipment in the name of the Confederate States of America. 

Hume also successfully pursued and captured escapees as an investigator for the Nevada Bureau of Prisons. His most famous case, however, was his capture of “Black Bart.”

Black Bart
In 1875, a “gentleman bandit” committed his first of 28 stagecoach robberies dressed in a linen duster, black bowler hat, wearing a flour sack with holes cut in it, while armed with a shotgun. The suspect had a British accent was polite as he exclusively targeted Wells Fargo stages. He left this poem at the scene of his fourth robbery:

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

Another was left at his fifth robbery:

Here I lay me down to sleep
To wait the coming morrow
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat
And everlasting sorrow
Let come what will, I’ll try it on
My condition can’t be worse
And if there’s money in that box
‘Tis munny in my purse

The suspect became an instant legend after signing the poems Black Bart.

Wells Fargo hired James Hume as a Detective and assigned him to the case.

The Last Robbery
In 1883 Black Bart committed his last robbery on Funk Hill — located on the road between Copperopolis and Milton, about 100 miles east of San Francisco — which was also the scene of his first robbery. After stopping the stage, Bart ordered its driver to unhitch the team of horses and walk them out of sight around the hill. 

Hume — a pioneer in crime prevention — had advised Wells Fargo to bolt all strong boxes to the floor of the coaches to make them more difficult to steal. This was done in this case, significantly slowing Bart’s getaway.

As Black Bart finally managed to remove the strong box, Jimmy Rolleri — the 19 year old son of a local Ferry operator —happened upon the scene carrying a rifle. The stagecoach driver, Reason McConnell, commandeered the young man’s weapon and opened fire on the outlaw as Bart fled the scene. McConnell later wrote that he shot four times at the criminal and missed him the first two times, but thought he hit him the third time, and was certain he hit him the fourth time.

Black Bart ran a quarter mile from the scene and because of injury and exhaustion stopped to lighten his load. The bandit kept $500 in gold coins, but hid some gold amalgam in a rotten log. He dropped some bloody mail, a pair of glasses, and ditched his shotgun in a hollow tree. Most significantly, he left behind a bloody handkerchief.

A Dogged Pursuit
Hume was called to the scene. He examined all of the evidence and noted a unique laundry mark, “F.X.O.7.” on the handkerchief. Detective Hume, dressed in tweed and with his ever-present cigar between his teeth, went to San Francisco. There he made contact with 90 laundries before he arrived at Ferguson and Biggs on Bush Street. Laundry personnel here declared that the handkerchief belonged to a customer who lived in a modest Boarding House not far from the laundry. 

Hume located the man, who identified himself as T. Z. Spalding. In an eerie coincidence Hume discovered that the man claiming to be Spalding could have been Hume’s identical twin. 

Spalding initially denied being Black Bart, but Hume uncovered deception immediately, locating a bible, which had an inscription from the man’s wife identifying him as Charles Earl Boles (sometimes also spelled Bowles). 

Hume eventually elicited a confession from Boles. 

Charles E. Boles was born in England. During the American Civil War, Boles fought with the 116th Illinois infantry. He was wounded in the battle of Vicksburg and mustered out as a Lieutenant in 1865 after having been brevetted twice for bravery.

After the war, Boles left his family in search of gold in California. At some point he perceived an offense committed upon him by Wells Fargo, so he took to prospecting for gold the “easy” way — robbing the stages which carried it. Boles proudly described to Hume how he walked many miles to and from the scenes of his crimes making him invisible to a world accustomed to criminals on horseback.

Even though Boles admitted to other robberies, Wells Fargo only pursued a conviction on his last. He was convicted based on the evidence produced by Hume. Boles was sentenced to San Quentin for six years, but was released after four for good behavior. 

Boles disappeared.

On November 14, 1888 another Wells Fargo stage was robbed at gun point by a masked poet, who wrote:

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

Hume was called in and through use of one of his many groundbreaking skills he analyzed the handwriting and determined that the man who committed the robbery was “a copycat.”

Hume continued to utilize breakthrough investigative techniques that would not become universally popular for decades. After 40 years of relentless pursuit of criminals, Hume closed his final case in 1904. 

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