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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Black Bart? Jesse James? Who hid $10 million worth of gold?

Updated 11:40 pm, Friday, February 28, 2014
Black Bart
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Maybe it was stagecoach bandit Black Bart. Or Jesse James and his secret gang of post-Civil War Confederates. Or the clerk who ripped off the U.S. Mint in San Francisco in 1901.

Or maybe it was just some guy working in the mountains who poked away his cash in cans because he didn't trust banks.

The theories about how $10 million worth of 19th century gold coins came to be buried in a couple's Sierra Nevada backyard have proliferated like mushrooms since the pair revealed their find Tuesday. And the guesses about this whodunit don't focus just on famous outlaws.

Scores of people have contacted The Chronicle and the couple's coin dealer to say some long-lost relative or close pal stashed his or her money underground long ago, this must be it, and now they want their cut. That is guesswork at its essence, because the couple insist on anonymity and will say nothing about where they found the 1,427 gold coins stuffed into eight rusty cans, beyond that it's in the Gold Country.

"The response has been unbelievable. We've been contacted by individuals and media from literally all over the world, China to London, nonstop since the coins were revealed," said Don Kagin of Tiburon, a coin dealer who is shepherding the Saddle Ridge Hoard to sale on Amazon and through private channels. The find - believed to be the biggest cache of buried gold coins ever found in the U.S. - is named after the slope on the couple's property where the coins were found.

"The whole idea of buried treasure, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, has just captured everyone's imagination," Kagin said. "They can't stop speculating about it."

Robbery unlikely

The coins are dated from 1847 to 1894, and most of them are what are called Double Eagles, or $20 gold pieces, minted in San Francisco. About a third apparently were never circulated, and more than a dozen were judged by a rare-coin evaluator to be among the finest-preserved examples of their kind.

That's the kind of stash any self-respecting outlaw would have loved to get his mitts on. But local historians find theft theories unlikely.

"Black Bart? Nope. Train robbery? Nope. No go on stagecoach robberies in general, either," said Robert Chandler, retired senior researcher for Wells Fargo and an authority on Western history. "It is, of course, hard to say definitively. But that's how it looks."

Silver, not gold

About 300 stagecoaches and 20 trains were robbed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Northern California, according to John Boessenecker, a Western historian and author of "Badge and Buckshot: Lawlessness in Old California." But no rail heists match up well for the Saddle Ridge Hoard, and the stage robberies were either too small or involved more silver than gold, he said.

"It's definitely not bandit loot," Boessenecker said. "Robbers would get the stages when they were coming down the mountains, not up, and they not only mostly had a lot of silver, they only were good for $1,000 or so. Gold was too heavy then to take much more in something like a stagecoach.

"If it was a train robbery, this stash wouldn't make sense, because the coins that were found have a 50-or-so-year span, and most train money would be fresh coins being sent from the San Francisco mint."

Was it Black Bart?

Black Bart - real name Charles Earl Bowles - was the most famous and prolific stagecoach robber of that era, having held up 28 stages in Northern California from 1875 to 1883. However, the most he ever got away with was $5,000 in mixed silver and gold, and the rest of his holdups yielded just a few hundred bucks apiece - which he spent, Chandler said.

Bart was nabbed by Wells Fargo investigators as he strolled along San Francisco's Montgomery Street, did five years in San Quentin, then disappeared forever after his release in 1888, Chandler said.

"Nothing about Black Bart matches up for those coins," he said. "He is just a colorful character, which is why people bring him up."