Like an episode of the TV show “Cold Case,” a Calaveras County legend has received a jolt of energy as a new tale of the last days of freedom for stagecoach robber Black Bart came to light this week in a newly published manuscript.
“The Man Who Shot Black Bart,” the autobiography of Reason E. McConnell, provides what some are calling the only first-person account of the day Black Bart was shot near Copperopolis as he tried to rob a Wells Fargo Co. stage.
Wm. “Bill” Renwick, 89, who proudly announces he’s “a sixth-generation Stocktonian,” found his great-grandfather’s manuscript as he was poring over a box full of family records several years ago. The box was in the care of his aunt, Carolyn Ray Hammond, Renwick’s mother’s younger sister.
“She was the family historian,” Renwick said Tuesday inside the old Calaveras County courthouse.
After his aunt’s death, Renwick said he told family members he would like to get the box full of papers if no one else wanted it.
“The kids didn’t know what to do with it,” Renwick said.
He eventually began sorting through the box: “Among this ‘stuff’ was this manuscript written in the first person so I have to presume he (McConnell) typed it – or dictated it to a typist,” Renwick says in a welcome message in the book he published.
The book includes McConnell’s account of several stagecoach robberies, the last of which was the hold-up that brought Black Bart’s storied life as a bandit to an end. That telling has history buffs scratching their heads.
Setting the stage
McConnell’s tale begins as his family is making the journey west in the late 1860s. Stories of battling Indians are included, as well as the tale of an encounter with “Grizzly Dan” – a purported cattle rustler and all around bad guy who had lost an eye in a fight with a bear in Oregon.
In 1866, McConnell, his mother and two sisters arrived in Stockton, and in May of 1870 he was hired by the Sinson Stage Co. as a driver between Milton and, as he spells it, “Mokalamee Hill.” (At that time, the railroad ended in Milton and several stage lines serviced townships in Calaveras, Amador and Tuolumne counties from the town.)
McConnell recounts his January 1872 run-in with another stagecoach bandit, named “Wm. Brooks,” who escaped from him with about $3,000.
In March of the same year, McConnell was robbed “… in the same place and in about the same manner” but this time the bandit was apprehended. McConnell tells of receiving a gold watch for his assistance in capturing the man.
“Wells Fargo & Co. gave the men who captured him as described, $500 and they gave me a gold watch and chain, which I still carry, and it is a fine timekeeper, and this is my birthday, the 23rd of August, 1912,” McConnell’s story says.
He then tells of a robbery on Dec. 28, 1878, committed between Milton and Angels Camp at 7 a.m. McConnell says he tricked the robber on this occasion and gave him only some worthless papers and bills, then “I arrived at Milton with the treasure and delivered it to Wells Fargo & Co’s messenger.” The robber was not caught, but McConnell believes it was his first encounter with Black Bart.
In June of 1883, McConnell writes that Wells Fargo sent out a description of Black Bart, “… who had robbed about 20 stages, baffled all the sheriffs … and was still worrying the company’s officials.” At this time, company President J.J. Valentine hired Harry N. Morse to help Wells Fargo agents J. B. Hume and John Thacker apprehend Black Bart.
McConnell’s account of his next-to-last encounter with Black Bart follows, and the legend of who really shot the bandit comes into question.
As the legend goes prior to the discovery of McConnell’s manuscript, “Jimmy Rolleri came out of the (Reynolds Ferry Hotel on the Stanislaus River), run by his mother Olivia, and gave Mac (as McConnell was known) a bundle of mail,” according to blackbart.com, a Web site operated by World Wide Web Foundry, LLC. “He thought that the storm the previous night would have driven deer down from the high country and he wanted to ride along with Mac to do some deer hunting.”
The site says McConnell and Rolleri were halfway up Funk Hill (near Copperopolis) when Rolleri asked to be let off to hunt.
According to a Nov. 10, 1883, report in the Calaveras Weekly Citizen newspaper, a masked highwayman ordered the stage driver to throw down the treasure box about five miles from Copper, when “An Italian boy by the name of Rolleri who was hunting deer … came up about the time the robber had secured the treasure from the iron box. McConnell took the rifle and fired two shots at the robber without apparent effect. The boy then took the gun and fired two more shots, but the highwayman kept running.”
As the story continues, Rolleri had hit Black Bart with one shot, but he couldn’t be located and McConnell and Rolleri drove to Copperopolis to report the robbery.
In early “C.S.I” excitement, items were found several hundred yards from the scene, including a handkerchief with a laundry mark that proved to be the bandit’s undoing.
McConnell’s account of the shooting differs quite a bit. He says Rolleri, age 17, “…got on to ride with me up to the mountains (to hunt deer) … He took his rifle and was sure he could get one, but got some rabbits instead.”
As McConnell neared the top of the hill, he says his team of horses stopped and threw their ears forward, “…there I could see a man’s legs wrapped in gunnysacks, as I drove up he came out with a double barrel shot gun and a white sack over his head, with two holes cut in it for eyes, and a slouch hat on.”
McConnell had trouble managing his team, and the robber ordered him to unhitch the horses and take them to the rear of the coach.
The telling goes into much detail about McConnell moving the horses and the conversation he and Black Bart had about securing the stagecoach on the hill. The bandit threatened McConnell several times before the strongbox was removed from the coach. As the robber hammered on the box to get it open, McConnell writes he saw Rolleri and some deer that were frightened by the pounding. The driver waved his hat at the boy and Rolleri came toward the scene.
McConnell says he met Rolleri and reached for the gun as the hammering ceased.
“As the robber came out of the stage he had his gun under one arm and the bag of gold under the other,” McConnell wrote. “I took careful aim, pulled the trigger and the gun snapped. I tried again and it fired, and I could see from where the bullet struck, I either shot a hole through his clothes or the sack of coin under his arm.”
McConnell says he shot four times, but the robber ran away.
Who gets the glory?
The telltale laundry mark eventually lead authorities to Charles Boles, who had used the name Charles Bolton when he visited Calaveras County. McConnell’s tale describes how authorities investigated the crime and caught the hooligan. It also includes one more encounter with Black Bart, after the villain agreed to take agents to where he had buried the loot from the hijacking.
“On Thursday morning Nov. 15, as I drove up the grade where Black Bart had held me up, a few days before, I was thinking to myself that Black Bart would not be there this morning,” McConnell wrote. “But as I came to the very spot, Black Bart was there alright, he was sitting in a carriage with Mr. Thorn, Morse and Capt. Stone (from the San Francisco Police Dept.).”
After joking with Morse about throwing down the box, McConnell writes, “I said, ‘None of you will get the box this morning. Black Bart said, I have gotten one too many.’
Historians today wonder why McConnell’s tale wasn’t told back when the shooting occurred. Rolleri was given a fancy Winchester rifle from Wells Fargo and McConnell received a $105 share of the $500 reward the company offered for Black Bart’s capture.
San Andreas resident Glenn Wasson, who has portrayed Black Bart at community gatherings since about 1985, said the story in which Rolleri shoots the bandit is the accepted version. “I’m inclined to agree with that.”
While Wasson wonders why McConnell would wait so many years before putting the story to paper, he’s thrilled that another story has come down the trail.
“Controversy is good,” he said. “The fact that we disagree is fine, it generates interest. I don’t necessarily buy the new version, but I welcome it.”
“I question why he didn’t say something then,” Calaveras County historian Cate Culver said of McConnell’s story. “You’d think that if a boy was getting all the credit,” he would have wanted to claim his due.
“I take it with a grain of salt, said Sal Manna, founder of the Society for the Preservation of West Calaveras History, who met Renwick and first read McConnell’s story. “It’s the real deal. It creates some controversy.”
The jury decides
Guests at a Calaveras County Historical Society dinner set for 6 p.m., Thursday, May 24, will have the chance to decide which version of the “Who shot Black Bart?” story they believe. Manna believes it will be an exciting evening.
“This is historic,” Manna enthused. “The recently uncovered manuscript is the only eyewitness account of the robbery actually written by one of the participants.”
He has prepared a script in which Wasson will portray Black Bart, and District Attorney Jeff Tuttle and other notables will play other characters from the story. Renwick will read from the actual text of his great-grandfather’s exciting tale.
“This is better than anything Louis Lamour wrote,” said Eunice Renwick, Bill’s wife, of McConnell’s autobiography.
“Are the Rolleri’s going to put out a contract on me?” Bill wondered with a hearty laugh.
“We’re going to have some fun and poll the audience to determine who they believe really shot Black Bart,” Manna said.
As for Renwick, his mind is made up.
“This is the truth,” he said, pointing to the brittle, original manuscript.
Tickets for the May 24 dinner are $20, available by calling 754-1058. Tours of the courthouse and jail cell where Black Bart was housed before his trial will also be offered. The trial will be conducted in the courthouse and the dinner is at the Metropolitan, down Main Street.
Copies of Renwick’s book containing McConnell’s story are available for $20, and may be ordered by mailing to Wm. Renwick, 9011 E. Eight Mile Road, Stockton, CA 96212.
Contact Mike Taylor at email@example.com.