Failed Poet Tries His Hand at Gunslinging: BLACK BART

Historical Essay

by Dr. Weirde


Black Bart Portrait

Bush Street near Montgomery marked the end of the line for one of San Francisco's all-time worst, best-paid poets. Most contemporary San Francisco poets have a tough time surviving in America's most expensive city: They strip, sell drugs, feign madness to get SSI "funny money," write sensational tour guides, or, if they have no pride whatsoever, work day jobs to support their poetry habits. This pecuniary problem of poets is not new. Between 1877 and 1883, one of the City's lesser versifiers hit upon a novel scheme to support and publicize his literary endeavors: Under the nom de plume of Black Bart, he set about robbing stagecoaches. His first robbery, on August 3, 1877, netted him a Wells Fargo box. In exchange, he offered the following verse:

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.

The poem was signed "Black Bart, the PO 8." Bart's next offering read:

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 my box,

'Tis money in my purse.

This truly hideous poem was ahead of its time in one respect: It utilized a literary technique later popularized by Mallarme: weird typography. As in dadaist exquisite corpse poems, each line was written in a different hand. Still, the authorities somehow figured out that a single, lousy poet was behind both operations.

After six years, twenty-seven robberies and a whole lot of bad poetry, Black Bart was finally netted on Bush Street by private detective Harry Morse, who had tracked him after a handkerchief dropped at a crime scene was traced by its laundry mark. He served only four-and-a-half years. Bart lucked out; the above poem alone should have cost him twice that. Black Bart left one more (possibly apocryphal) poem as his unofficial epitaph:

I rob the rich to feed the poor,

Which hardly is a sin;

A widow ne'er knocked at my door

But what I let her in.

So blame me not for what I've done,

I don't deserve your curses,

And if for any cause I'm hung,

Let it be for my verses!

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