Laura Lavelle: Black Bart’s adventures in Nevada County |

Laura Lavelle: Black Bart’s adventures in Nevada County

An 1881 Bridgeport robbery of a Wells Fargo stagecoach traveling from North San Juan to Smartsville has been attributed to the infamous Black Bart, a bandit and poet credited with 28 California and Oregon robberies and two post-crime scene poems.

Black Bart, or Charles E. Bowles, was well-educated and a veteran of the Civil War.

An Englishman by birth, Black Bart became known as “the gentleman bandit.” He never killed or wounded anyone during the mild-mannered crimes he reportedly committed. He was known for his polite speech and lack of profanity.

Ironically, his refinement would lead to his arrest. The laundry mark printed on a fine linen handkerchief left behind at the scene of a Sonora stagecoach robbery gave detectives a clue to his identity. After he was arrested and convicted, he was sentenced to six years at San Quentin Prison for his crimes.

In early sales literature for property at Lake of the Pines, the stagecoach robber’s name, Black Bart, was included in the advertising. Apparently, Western Lake Properties Inc. put forth the notion that with the price of a lot at LOP came this nugget of Gold Country criminal history.

Black Bart was perhaps one of the most gentlemanly criminals to practice his nefarious art in Nevada County, but not the most heinous.

Two really bad guys lived in the Lake of the Pines area, known at that time as Higgins Corner. Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins were two murderers executed in 1955 at San Quentin. They were part of a gang of Nevada County criminals who operated in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Santo lived on a small ranch on Duggans Road and was hired to pour beer at the Higgins Corner store, a roadhouse at Highway 49 and Combie Road.

The roadhouse became a center for Santo’s criminal operations. He and his associates would shake down the local gold miners by stealing the gold ore the miners had carried home in their lunchboxes from the Empire Mine in Grass Valley. The mine operated until 1956.

This practice of taking bits of ore from the gold mines was known as high-grading.

Eventually, Santo used his cache of gold to buy the Higgins Corner store and it became the headquarters for his illicit operations.

It wasn’t until the 1951 murder investigation of a Nevada City gold miner, Edmund Hansen, that Santo and Perkins became the objects of a statewide search.

Some of this information is contained in the Lake of the Pines book by Jan Townsend, “History, Legend and Lore,” published by Townsend in 2000.

The book also states that former Nevada County Sheriff, Wayne Brown, attributed five murders to Santo, Perkins, and other members of the gang.

The most famous murder committed by Santo and Perkins happened after the two left Nevada County. Joined by Barbara Graham, a prostitute, and two other men, gang members killed a crippled Burbank widow in a botched home robbery.

Graham, Santo, and Perkins would all be executed at San Quentin in June 1955.

A 1958 movie starring Susan Hayward, “I Want to Live!,” was loosely based on the execution of Barbara Graham.

Laura Lavelle’s column is for southern Nevada County residents to share thoughts and information. Contact her at or leave a message at (530) 477-4230.

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