Can an outlaw mend his thieving ways? As Black Bart, the One-Armed Bandit, can attest, it ain’t easy. Once upon a time Bart’s hand-carved, hand-painted wooden figure enclosed a fully functioning slot machine. He robbed many hapless citizens of their hard-earned cash.
Then came the day when Black Bart had a (literal) change of heart. His desperado days ended the moment his slot-machine innards were altered to dispense souvenir coins. His steely-eyed, masked face still startles visitors, but they may rest assured that though he may look fierce, deep inside he’s an honest guy.
Black Bart arrested!
Andy James, co-owner of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, was shocked one morning in 1984 when several sober-faced police officers presented him with a warrant for Black Bart’s arrest. Black Bart had been a law-abiding varmint since he came to the store. But Andy pleaded Bart’s innocence in vain. The officers escorted the former bad man off the premises on orders from the state Gambling Commission. The real culprit was an antiquated law that insisted “once a gambling device, always a gambling device”…regardless of how well it had been “reformed.” The officers took into evidence the $50 in quarters stashed in Bart’s belly.
Authorities were not in lock-step about the seizure. A police report noted that Black Bart carried a pistol, but it was “of undetermined caliber.” Seattle police Captain James Deschane of the vice unit stated his opinion that Bart did not present “a clear and present danger to the fiber of society.”
It took more than one raid to bring down the James gang. They hired Bart the best lawyer in town, and within a month he was cleared of all charges. He resumed his customary place up front as a greeter, where he stands to this day.
The Ballad of Black Bart
Joe James (Andy’s father and owner of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop as well) was so moved by Black Bart’s saga that he penned this poem. It was published in The Seattle Times on Christmas Day, 1984.
This is the saga of Black Bart, the Bandit,
The one-armed man of the West.
He was brought to life with a carver’s knife
While a slot machine made up his chest.
He wore a black hat and fancy black boots,
As he stood there, bold and tall,
In Seattle’s Ye Olde Cuirosity Shop,
His back against the wall.
He was six-feet-five, and man, alive
He weighed nearly quarter of a ton.
His right arm was gone -- an innocent stump,
While his left hand fingered a gun.
He never complained, he just did his job,
And he never cheated a soul.
For a quarter he’d cough up a souvenir coin
With the three wheels in his chest on a roll.
Then they said he was breaking gambling laws,
That he was an illegal device;
So the Gambling Commission decided
Black Bart should be put on ice.
On an infamous day in October
They carted Black Bart away.
The stuffed him into a policeman’s van
While everyone watched in dismay.
His body was in a rigid position,
But his face showed no signs of fear.
The media and even the police all agreed
“It was the worst pinch of the year!”
His friends all rallied around him,
Public opinion was all on his side.
Editorials and articles were written:
“Black Bart was betrayed!” they cried.
Now the whole town’s mood became ugly.
They said idiots seem to prevail.
“Black Bart should be freed!” they shouted,
And offered to pay for his bail.
Eleven days went by in the meantime,
While red-faced officials conferred.
Then one morning the Commission relented,
And gave out the long-sought word.
Black Bart was innocent of all charges,
They would let him out of the hole.
But it was for more than just good behavior
That Black Bart had won his parole.
Now Black Bart is back in the curio shop,
He stands there again proud and tall.
You see he’s a rare breed in this country:
He proved you could beat City Hall.
Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004.