This California State Park is the best preserved ghost town in the state–perhaps the best in the country. Twenty miners and other opportunist folk settled the town after Waterman S. Body discovered gold there in 1859. Body perished in a snowstorm the following year, but the prospectors forged ahead, establishing a mill in 1861. The town grew till it boasted sixty-five saloons, including brothels, gambling halls and opium dens, preoccupying a population of over 10,000 by 1879. According to local papers, townsfolk would say in the morning, “Have a man for breakfast?” meaning, Did anyone get killed last night?The town’s most famous saying, however, was coined by a girl when her family was moving there from San Francisco. She wrote in her diary, “Goodbye God, I’m going to Bodie.”
I struck upon this little book at the local library, and though the writing isn’t the greatest, I had fun reading the twelve profiles therein.
First up was the highwayman Tom Bell.
In March of 1856, a Wells Fargo wagon was transporting $21,000 in gold dust from a northern mining camp to a bank in the Bay Area. Tom Bell and his gang managed to hold up the stage as it passed through the Trinity Mountains, pulling off the largest armed robbery of the Gold Rush.
As fall set in, the highwayman took it even further, attempting to rob a stage between Comptonville and Marysville carrying $100,000 in gold dust. The most united posse effort in early California history formed to bring Bell in. The bandit relished this, penning a letter to Marysville Police Captain William King that read:
My dear Captian King…don’t think for a monent that your vigilance causes me any uneasiness, or that I seek for an armistice. No, far from it, for I have unfurled my banner to the breeze, and my motto is, ‘Catch me if you can!’
Tom Bell was finally caught in early October, 1856. Set to hang within hours of his capture, Bell used his little time left to compose two letters. He brought them with him to the sycamore tree where the noose awaited him. There, he announced, “If you let me now…before I go, I’d like to read aloud the letter I wrote to my mother.”
I am about to make my exit to another country. I take this opportunity to write you a few lines. Probably you may never hear from me again. If not, I hope we may meet where parting is no prodigal career in this country. I have always recollected your fond admonitions, and if I had lived up to them I would not have been in my present position; but, dear mother, though my fate has been a cruel one, yet I have no one to blame but myself.
Give my respects to all my old and youthful friends. Tell them to beware of bad associations, and never to enter into any gambling saloons, for that has been my ruin. (Bell made his first robbery after losing all his money in a gambling streak.) If my old grandmother is living, remember me to her. With these remarks, I bid you farewell forever.
Your only boy,
Tom Bell did not read the other letter he’d brought, but rather handed them over to a deputy to be mailed. At that–atop his mount with his neck in the noose–his hands were tied behind him, he nodded to the judge, and his horse was whipped out from under him.
But the other letter, too, received an audience, when the San Francisco Alta newspaper printed it along with the one to Bell’s mother. This other message turned out to be to the outlaw’s lover, Mrs. Elizabeth Hood, owner of the Western Exchange Hotel.
Hood, along with two other Gold Country proprietors, had been key to Bell’s success, harboring him from the law and informing him of wealthy patrons and big deliveries passing through, in exchange for a cut of the loot.
Bell was fond of Hood’s three daughters, particularly the eldest, Sarah. The girl was fourteen when Bell was executed, and there were rumors he was romantically involved with her. There’s no way of telling by Bell’s letter:
Mrs. Hood, my dear and only friend now in this country:
As I am not allowed the liberty of seeing you, I have been given the privilege of writing you a few lines, as I have but a few moments[s] to live. I am at a great loss for something to say. I have been most fully betrayed. Bill has told things that never took place. (Upon his capture, Bill Gristy, Bell’s righthand man, led the judge’s posse to the ringleader’s hideout where he was finally taken in.) I am accused of every robbery that has been committed for the past twelve months, which is entirely false. I have never committed but three highway robberies in my life; but still I am to blame and my fate is sealed. I am to die like a dog, and there is but one thing that grieves me, and that is the condition of you and your family. Probably I have been the instrumentality of your misfortunes.
I would like to give you some advice but I fear you may think me presumptusous. What I would say is this: That you had better send the girls to San Francisco to the Sisters of Charity. There they will be educated and taken care of. Tell all the girls farewell! Tell them to be good girls and to be very careful to whom they pledge themselves for life.
All the money I have is ten dollars, which I have given to Mr. Chism for Sarah. I must come to a close, for the hounds are thirsting for my blood. Good-bye forever.
Another outlaw who targeted Wells Fargo stages was Black Bart. Though gold dust was his main interest, he was not above stealing mail, as letters headed for mining camps often contained cash from the prospectors’ families back home.
Black Bart was not so communicative with his wife and two daughters in Iowa. In 1867, he started chasing gold and silver in boomtowns across the west. In 1871, he wrote home to say he was on his way to California. When no more letters arrived in 1872, his wife assumed he was dead.
Imagine her surprise when he started writing her again ten years later! Fifty-four years old in 1882, the man she new as Charles Earl Boles had found himself in San Quentin Prison for twenty-eight robberies and avoiding trial. He wrote:
Oh my dear family, how little you know of the terrible ordeal I have passed through, and how few of what the world calls good men are worth the giant powder it would take to blow them into eternity. Thousands in every day life that would be called good, nice men, are until the circumstances change them and give them a chance to show their real character.
After serving out his term, Black Bart remained in San Francisco where he wrote his last letter home:
Oh, my constant loving Mary and my children, I did hope and had good reason for hoping to be able to come to you and end all this terrible uncertainty, but it seems it will end only in my life. Although I am free and in fair health, I am most miserable. My dear family, I wish you would give me up forever and be happy, for I feel I shall be a burden to you as I live no matter where I am. My loving family, I would willing [sic.] sacrifice my life to enjoy your loving company for a single week as I once was. I fear you blame me for not coming, but Heaven knows it is an utter impossibility.
Richard Barter, meanwhile, was on the snail mail receiving end.
Rattlesnake Dick Barter was a young robber of all sorts who terrorized the northeast section of California. The law caught him many times, but he always escaped. The saying was, “No jail could hold Barter.”
In 1856, Rattlesnake Dick was nabbed while stealing mules to bring to the men he’d organized to rob a Wells Fargo carriage transferring over $80,000 worth of gold. The bandit managed to break out of jail once again, but the heist was ruined. Without mules to carry the stolen gold, the holdup gang resorted to burying that which they couldn’t load on their horses. The treasure has never been found.
But Rattlesnake Dick was. In 1859, a posse with orders to bring him in dead or alive got a tip that he and his gang were a mile outside of Auburn. The encounter of course turned into a gun battle. Though shot in the chest, the outlaw managed to ride away. The next morning, a stage driver found his body.
In the slain 26 year-old’s coat pocket was a letter from his sister, pleading him to reform. Dated March 14, 1859, it read:
Rattlesnake Dick Barter, 1856
The lone highwayman Dick Fellows put pen to paper when he was sent to San Quentin prison for the second time.
In Kern County in December 1875, Fellows held up a Wells Fargo stage carrying $240,000 in gold to Los Angeles. When he was finally caught and sentenced in June 1876, a crowd of over seven hundred people looked on as he entered the San Quentin gates. Many claimed to have played a part in the great effort to capture him, whether as posse members or informants.
They are a crowd of nincompoops…They even had the bad taste to divert from their legitimate calling of sheepherders in order to add to the distress of an unfortunate fellow-being who was only endeavoring to flee the country.
As they crowded around, each discussing his relative importance in effecting my capture, I could not help thinking (save the profane comparison) that unless shepherds had woefully degenerated since Oriental times, the infant Jesus himself would have met short shrift at their hands, if Herod had had the foresight to offer a suitable reward.