Monthly Archives: November 2016

stagecoach-aOf the men who headed west to strike it rich during the California Gold Rush, and other gold finds in history, relatively few ever found real success in the ventures. Many ended up becoming farmers or heading back east, but a few chose a different path. It always seems that when some people feel like they were gypped in something, they look for a way to even the score, as it were. That was how Charles Boles felt, after abandoning his family for the gold fields of California. When his dream of striking it rich didn’t materialize, he turned to a life of crime, but like most criminals, he left a clue that would eventually send him to prison for his crimes.

In the mid-1850s, much of the output of gold from California was transported by stagecoach and Wells Fargo wagons. Their routes often took them through isolated areas, when few lawmen were, making them prime locations for a robbery. And the outlaws in the area were quick to take advantage of those lonely stretches of roads. This type of robbery was so popular, in fact, that the company lost more than $415,000 in gold to outlaw robbers. In today’s market, that would have been worth over $12,000,000, making the loss a big motivator for the company to stop these robberies.charles_bowles_aka_black_bart

It was during this time that Charles Boles made his entry into a life of crime, using the name of Black Bart. It is believed that Black Bart’s first stagecoach robbery took place in July of 1875. He was wearing a flour sack over his head, with holes cut in it for his eyes, and a fancy gentleman’s black derby hat. I’m sure that was quite a sight to see. He intercepted a stagecoach near the California mining city of Copperopolis. Guards spotted gun barrels sticking out of nearby bushes, they handed over their strong box to Boles. He cracked open the box with an axe and escaped on foot with the gold, leaving his “gang” of camouflaged gunmen behind. When the guards returned to pick up the box, they discovered that the “rifle barrels” were just sticks tied to branches. I’m sure they were very frustrated at that point, but the deception had worked, and the money was gone.

After the success of his first robbery, Black Bart decided that he had found his niche. He proceeded to make a series of stagecoach robberies, becoming notorious. One thing to his credit was that he never shot anyone nor robbed a single stage passenger. His daring style gained him a degree of fame…that and the occasional short poems he left behind, signed by “Black Bart, the Po-8.” Wells Fargo, was not amused, however. The company set it’s private police force the to the task of capturing the bandit, dead or alive.

wells-fargo-boxAfter several years of searching and tracking down clues, Wells Fargo detectives finally located Boles. On this day, November 3, 1883, the authorities almost catch Black Bart, but he managed to get away. His one mistake was that he dropped an incriminating clue that eventually sent him to prison. Black Bart was arrested and tried. He plead guilty and received a sentence of six years in San Quentin prison. He served just over four years and then was transferred to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, after receiving a pardon. In all, Black Bart had only stolen $18,000 during the eight years of his criminal career, which in today’s market would have been $529,143.

molly-maguiresDuring the Great Potato Famine of September 1845 in Ireland, the leaves on potato plants suddenly turned black and curled, then rotted, seemingly the result of a fog that had rolled across the fields of Ireland. In reality, the cause was an airborne fungus named Phytophthora Infestans. It was originally transported in the holds of ships traveling from North America to England. The resulting loss of the potato crops, put the people of Ireland in dire straits. Many people decided that it was time to immigrate to America. In fact, more than a million people immigrated to America and most settled in the coal regions of Pennsylvania. Many of the Irish Catholics immigrants were routinely met with discrimination based on both their religion and heritage. They often encountered help wanted signs with disclaimers that read, “Irish need not apply.” These days, that practice would have met with harsh retaliation due to anti-discrimination laws.

I know that a number of my ancestors came from Ireland, and I would not be surprised to find that a number of my ancestors were among those immigrants that came to America to find a better life. The unfortunate thing was that the few people who would hire them, and the few places that would rent to them, were corrupt people. The immigrants finally accepted the most physically demanding and dangerous mining jobs, just to have work. The men and their families were forced to live in overcrowded housing, buy from shops, and visit doctors all “owned” by the company. In many cases, workers wound up owing their employers at the end of molly_coffinnoticeeach month. The Irish immigrants were in a very tough situation, but they had been there before, and they were not going to continue to be victimized.

The abuse triggered a period of violence in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, between 1861 and 1875. The violence which included assaults, arsons, and murders were blamed on a secret society of Irish immigrants known as the Molly Maguires. The group originally emerged in northern Ireland in the 1840s, as a branch of the long line of rural secret societies including the Whiteboys and Ribbonmen, who responded to miserable working conditions and evictions by tenant landlords with bloody vengeance. When the Civil War broke out, the Irish immigrants were drafted to serve, and they rebelled by sending out “coffin notices” threatening death, because they perceived the war to be a “rich man’s war,” and they wanted no part of it. The notes were alleged to have been written by the Molly Maguires, because they didn’t want to lose their jobs to scabs. Threats were actually carried out 24 times when foremen and supervisors were assassinated.

In 1873, the president of the Reading Railroad, Franklin Gowen hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to infiltrate and destroy the Molly Maguires, because their union activities were impeding that railroad’s ability to increase profits. The detective, James McParlan, used the alias, James McKenna to infiltrate the group. Oddly, he was an Irishman himself, but I guess money was more important to him. Franklin Gowen served as the chief molly-maguires-hangingprosecutor, even though his railroad holdings made his participation a conflict of interest. Based almost entirely on McParlan’s testimony, 20 men were sentenced to death—10 of whom were executed on June 21, 1877, also known as Black Thursday. The men declared their innocence right up to the end. Although the existence of the Molly Maguires as an organized band of outlaws in America is under debate to this day, most historians now agree that the trials and executions were an outrageous perversion of the criminal justice system. In 1979, more than 100 years following his hanging, John Kehoe, who was the supposed “king” of the Molly Maguires, was granted a full pardon by the state of Pennsylvania.

Mom aCornealius SpencerAs I contemplated today’s story, I thought about one of my biggest fans…my mom, Collene Spencer, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I was researching a part of our family tree, after a conversation with a co-worker, Carrie Beauchamp, who had the opportunity, while living back east to visit one of the Vanderbilt mansions. I knew that my 2nd great uncle was named Cornealius Vanderbilt Spencer, but I didn’t know if there was any real connection, or rather maybe his mother just wished there had been a connection. So, I set out to look. I was pretty sure I had seen the Vanderbilt name somewhere else in my tree. My research brought me to Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married Charles Richard Spencer Churchill, who is my 15th cousin once removed.

I knew that I was related to Winston Spencer Churchill, who is also my 15th cousin once removed, and I knew how his name had been changed from what should have been Spencer, when his 4th great grandfather, Charles Spencer married one Anne Churchill, in a merger that was mutually beneficial to both families, and changed the name to Spencer-Churchill. Through the years some of that branch of the family went on to stay vanderbilt-mansion-new-yorkSpencer-Churchill, eventually dropping the hyphen, making the Spencer name appear to be a middle name. Others dropped the Churchill name, going back to Spencer, and still others dropped the Spencer name, deciding to stick with Churchill. Nevertheless, they are all my cousins at some level. In my search, I found where Consuelo Vanderbilt was indeed my 15th cousin once removed, and so my 2nd great grandparents, Allen and Lydia Spencer did have the actual connection to the Vanderbilt name, and were justified in naming their son Cornealius Vanderbilt Spencer. And since there was an actual Cornealius Vanderbilt, who built the Vanderbilt mansion in New York City, I guess the first name was after an ancestor too.

As I thought about that connection, my mind instinctively thought of how much my biggest fan…my mom would have loved that story. Of course, when those thoughts of my parents, and my desire to tell them something surface, my mind, in its ability to fool itself, thinks that I really can’t wait to tell my parents what I have found, or to have my mom read this story. She would have been so excited to hear that new information. It wasn’t that she ever wanted to be snobby, or even that she would have cared about being related to the Vanderbilt consuelo-vanderbilt-churchillcharles-spencer-churchillfamily, but rather that she would have found the information very interesting, and in fact, as amazing as I did, because it really is a small world, when you think about it. I’m sure there are many other famous, rich, or even infamous people that our family is related to, because there are so many branches that split off of the originals, that it’s bound to connect us to someone famous at some point. I just always find it rather surprising every time it happens, and I think my mom did too. I wish I could have told her about it…but then I suppose she already knows.