Sam Bass was born in Indiana, it was his native home;
A few minutes after he whispered, "the world is bobbing around me," Sam Bass died in a shack in Round Rock, Texas. It was 3:58 P.M., Sunday, July 21, 1878 - his twenty-seventh birthday. Not long after the gravediggers had patted down the small mound, Sam began to live in song and legend. Old cowmen insisted that the ballad sung about him by the night guards soothed most of the herds of longhorns moving north to the Kansas cowtowns; Charlie Siringo, the cowboy-detective, called Sam "the hero of more Texas cowboys than any other bad man."
Folklore pictures Sam as a smiling, reckless young lad who remained true to his friends to the last, shared his stolen gold with the poor, was a gallant with the ladies, loved children and horses, and was lured to his death by a Judas in his ranks - in brief, the classic western Robin Hood.
Not long after his death cowboys were reading paperback biographies of Sam and singing about him around their campfires or as they slowly rode on the fringes of the uneasy herds, calming them as thunder rumbled in the distance or wolves ran a prey to its death.
Behind the myth and folklore was an illiterate, likable cowboy and teamster who drifted into the "robbing business," as he called it, as an easy method of getting money without working too hard. He was a charismatic leader who won the admiration of young cowboys, ranchers, and farmers for his daring robberies of the hated railroads. He was no Robin Hood; Sam spent his money freely but only on whiskey, elaborate gifts to his friends, dance-hall girls, and horses. He was only a fair shot but the rangers and posses weren't much better. Volley after volley was fired in the "war" on Sam, but casualties on both sides were few.
It was primitive law enforcement that allowed Sam to operate as long as he did; the holdups of the Deadwood stage are an excellent example. Sam and his gang held up the stage with such regularity that they became known to the drivers, who would call out to their passengers, "The boys are here again."
The gang easily outrode or outwitted the posses of miners who halfheartedly chased them. It wasn't until they killed a popular driver that the mining camp rose up in anger. Then Sam ordered his men to forget about the poorly paying stage - they once got a handful of peaches as loot-and concentrate on the Union Pacific and the Texas railroads. It was then that the legend of Sam Bass was born.
Sam was not a native Texan, but was born July 21, 1851, on a farm near the town of Mitchell, Indiana. His mother, Jane, died in 1861; his father, Daniel, followed her three years later. Sam, his two brothers, and four sisters were raised by their maternal uncle, David L. Sheeks.
The story of Sam's early years is the familiar one of a frontier farm boy who detested school but loved fine horses, hunting, and cards. It wasn't until he reached Denton, Texas, that he learned to write his name. His tutor was Charles Brim, a young schoolboy; Sam was twenty-three.
In Denton he worked as a teamster for Sheriff W. F. Egan, who would become his fiercest adversary. Sam's biographer, Denton County Court Judge Thomas E. Hogg, recalled Sam as about five feet eight inches in height, slender, with dark hair and hazel eyes.
Egan, known to the townspeople of Denton as "Dad Egan," was not a strict employer, but Sam soon tired of hauling firewood and provisions for ranchers, or being hired out to cut grain or build fences. He never hid his dream of getting some "easy money." Like Jesse James, he loved racehorses, and when the opportunity came to buy a chestnut-sorrel mare from a neighboring farmer, Sam went to Armstrong B. Egan, the sheriff's younger brother, with an offer to become a partner in a horse he predicted would be the champion of the Denton County tracks.
Sam had seen and admired the two-year-old mare he had heard came from the strain of Steel Dust, a famous Kentucky thoroughbred in the decade before the Civil War. He named the mare jenny and began training her on the Denton dirt track just outside the town. Sheriff Egan, however, frowned on his brother's becoming a part of the racing and gambling crowd. He insisted that Armstrong sell his share in Jenny and even advanced Sam the money to buy out his brother.
Sam quit his freighting job to become the full-time owner of a one-man racing stable. His jockey was a reed-thin black named Charley Tucker, who had worn the silks of a prominent racing family. Jenny's fame spread; with the black man up, she won race after race.
Sam's first experience with the law took place in 1874 when he raced his mare against a horse owned by Marcus Millner, a deputy constable for Parker County. Each wagered a horse corralled about a mile from Denton. Millner won the race but Sam refused to pay his bet, claiming that Millner had fouled his mare. When the deputy ignored Sam's protest and took the horse, Bass insisted that Denton's marshal, William Fry, arrest Millner as a horse thief.
Fry and Sam found Millner at a Parker County dance and forced him to give Sam back his horse. Millner sued in civil court but Sam, who knew that Millner had to travel fifty miles for every hearing, kept postponing the case until the deputy constable ran out of funds to pay his lawyers and dropped the suit. At the time Sam laboriously signed the court papers "Sam B Ass." Judge Hogg, Sam's biographer, explained, "Sam used a capital B and a capital A in Bass and separated them so far apart as to make the B appear as an initial."
Sam soon became an excellent judge not only of horseflesh but also of women and cards. He could be seen almost any night bucking the tiger in the frontier saloons or whirling a partner about in rough dance halls. Jenny had changed his personality; instead of the worn, dusty clothes he had worn as a teamster, he now dressed in suits made of the best cloth, rode in a carriage, and proudly showed a diamond stickpin; both the carriage and the stickpin were won in races.
He no longer slouched, head hung down with his battered hat pulled to eye level. He was cheerful, always happy, generous with his winnings, and an eternal optimist. "I got the world by the tail with a downward pull," he would cry as he raised a glass to the cheers of the crowded saloons.
One of his closest friends in Denton was Henry Underwood, son of a farmer and millowner in Jennings County, Indiana. Underwood, slightly older than Sam, had fought with Jennison's Jayhawkers in the Civil War. After killing a man in a Kansas gunfight he had fled to Texas, where he established a freighting business in Denton, hauling firewood and provisions from Denton to Dallas. He was described as about the same size as Sam, but "quick and nervous in his movements and while free from anger . . . quick tempered and daring to resent an affront. . . ."
In 1874 Sam and Underwood became embroiled with a group of blacks who had laughed because Sam had dropped a large watermelon when his horse suddenly reared. Denton's Deputy Sheriff Tom Gerren attempted to arrest Underwood, but he fled after a gunfight. A posse later found their camp and Sam and Underwood held them off with rifle fire before they rode out of the county - Sam to San Antonio to race his mare, and Underwood to continue rustling and committing small robberies. In San Antonio Sam met Joel Collins, a handsome and reckless young cowboy and temporary bartender who had made four cattle drives from Texas to the Kansas cowtowns from 1871 to 1874.
Collins discarded his bartender's apron to form a partnership with Sam. They devised this scheme: Collins would appear as Jenny's owner, while Sam, posing as a racetrack tout, would select a horse he knew Jenny could beat and advise the animal's owner that he knew the mare would fade before the finish. Collins would bet what money they had, then split the winnings with Sam. For over a year the pair traveled about the Texas frontier race-track circuit until the professional horsemen caught on to their scheme. Sam sadly sold Jenny and told Collins, "The jig is up in this country ... I don't believe we can do anything ..."
But Collins had another plan. He was well known in the area and had no difficulty in buying a herd of several hundred cattle by signing notes to be paid after the cattle were sold. Joined by Jack Davis, who Judge Hogg described as "another bird of like feather," the trio drove the herd north, first to Dodge City and then to Ogallala in the valley of the South Platte, where they sold it for eight thousand dollars.
Gold, not cattle, was all men talked about in the crowded saloons and dance halls. There was so much in the Black Hills all a man had to do was pick up the nuggets and fill a wheat sack. Deadwood was the principal camp where the latest lodes had been found.
The trio decided it was a chance of a lifetime; they split the money and headed for Deadwood in the fall of 1876. Snow and freezing rains made mining impossible, so they settled down in the roaring camp jammed with thousands of whores, pimps, gunmen, thieves, amateur miners, and professional gamblers.
Davis built an "elegant" house for a prostitute named Maud who had caught his eye, while Sam and Joel, after losing steadily at the poker tables, decided to use the remainder of their money to establish a freighting outfit, hauling between Deadwood and Cheyenne. On their first trip their expenses exceeded their profit by sixty dollars. "It's pretty hard to quit our old trade and go into a business that don't pay any better than this," Sam pointed out. Collins agreed and Sam decided they had better go into the "robbing business.
They gathered about them a gang: Tom Nixon, a Canadian; Bill Heffridge, a Pennsylvanian down on his luck; and Jim Berry, who had left his wife and four children in Missouri to hunt for gold. The Deadwood stage was to be their first target. They held up the stage four times, from July to August 1877, with seven peaches and less than $50 as their total loot - Sam complained to the passengers and drivers at the "cheapness of their trade." He agreed to try once more when Collins learned that a shipment of $150,000 in gold dust was to leave the mining camp.
The holdup was a failure. Ten miles from Deadwood they rose out of the brush, the usual kerchiefs masking their faces, and ordered the driver to "throw down the box." But guards inside the coach started shooting and John Slaughter, the driver, began whipping the team. Collins and Heffridge fired, and Slaughter was killed. Sam and the gang raced after the stage, careening down the narrow rocky trail, and a running gunfight took place. But after several miles they gave up and fled into the brush.
Deadwood, which had been curiously phlegmatic about the robberies, rose up in anger over the killing of the popular Slaughter. Posses were formed and miners' committees began investigating. Sam decided it was time to leave; in September 1877 he told his riders that the Union Pacific would be more profitable.
The gang's first train robbery was its most successful. At Big Springs, Nebraska, the loot was sixty thousand dollars in gleaming new twenty-dollar gold coins from the San Francisco mint. The passengers turned over an additional four hundred dollars in cash and several gold watches. After dividing their loot, the gang split up. Sam and Davis headed for Texas, Collins and Heffridge moved along the Republican River into Kansas, and Berry and Nixon rode into Missouri.
In late October 1877, after outwitting a patrol of cavalry, Sam and Davis entered Texas at the Red River Station, and on November 1 rode into Denton. Collins and Heffridge were not as lucky. They were also headed for Texas, but apparently stopped along the way. The Union Pacific "by some means known only to themselves" had learned that Collins was one of the robbers and had posted a large reward for his capture. Sheriff Bardsley of Ellis County, Kansas, a ten-man patrol of cavalrymen from Fort Hays, and a railroad detective trailed the gang to the Platte River crossing, then to the Republican. They made their camp at Buffalo Station, sixty miles west of Hays City, and started to search the wild empty land for the train robbers.
On October 26 Collins and Heffridge, carrying the gold coins in a pair of pants, the legs tied at both ends, rode up to the station. In a few minutes, after a brief gun battle, they were dead. The Kansas City Times gave an account of the shooting, based on interviews with Sheriff Bardsley and the cavalry officer.
Berry was killed a short time later in Anderson County, Missouri. Lawmen discovered that he had exchanged several thousand dollars in gold coins for currency and had "ordered an elegant suit of clothes" before leaving town. He refused to surrender to a posse and was killed. Nixon, who did not reveal his affluence, successfully made his way to Canada, where he vanished.
From Denton, Sam and Davis went on to Fort Worth, where they separated, Sam hiding out in Cooke County and Davis going to New Orleans. A short time later Sam reorganized his gang, recruiting Frank Jackson, known as "Blockey," who had been working as a tinsmith in Denton.
Sam continued to visit Denton at night and one old friend he saw was Jim Murphy, who looked wide-eyed at the pile of gold pieces Sam laughingly jiggled in his cupped hand. He told Murphy he was now "in funds" and had struck it rich in the Black Hills. After buying two horses from Murphy, Sam joined Henry Underwood and Jackson and the trio headed for San Antonio for what Bass later called "a general carousal."
Underwood returned to Denton to see his family on Christmas Eve of 1877, only to be arrested by a posse under Sheriff William C. Everheart of Grayson County, directly north of Denton, and Tooney Waits, a Pinkerton detective who had mistakenly identified Underwood as Tom Nixon.
Based on a warrant signed by Waits, the protesting Underwood was taken to Nebraska and jailed as Nixon, with the five-hundred-dollar reward paid to Sheriff Everheart. Although Underwood summoned citizens from Denton who positively identified him, the obvious power of the Pinkertons kept the Texan in prison for months. It was some time before he escaped to rejoin Bass and Jackson.
In Texas, Sam and Jackson twice held up the Fort Worth stage, their loot amounting to eighty-one dollars and three gold watches. In February 1878 Sam returned to train robbery; the Texas Central Express was selected as the next victim. An account in the Galveston News identified train No. 4 out of Denison as the one held up at Allen Station in Collin County, eight miles south of McKinney. On this raid Sam had two new recruits, Seaborn "Sebe" Barnes, a restless young Texan nicknamed "Nubbins Colt," or "Scab," and Tom Spotswood, rustler and killer. The train robbers cut loose the express car and threatened to burn it unless James Thomas, the Texas Express Company messenger, rolled back the door.
Thomas obeyed Sam's order but fired at the first robber to enter the car. A gun battle took place, but both sides were miserable shots and no one was wounded. Thomas finally surrendered and the gang looted the car, leaving with what Sam later estimated was $1,280. Spotswood returned home to McKinney, in the eastern section of Denton County, while Bass, Jackson, and Barnes hid out in Cove Hollow, Cooke County.
In March the Denton Monitor reported the arrest of Spotswood by George Drennan, "the gallant deputy sheriff of Denton County." Drennan brought the Texas Express messenger to Denton, where he identified Spotswood, who was put in the county jail to await the grand jury action. Sam was disgusted after reading the Monitor's account. "Any man who robs a train in fifteen minutes of his home and then returns home and trys to play old solid, ought to be captured," he told his riders.
Cove Hollow, in the southwestern section of Cooke County and extending into Wise, was a formidable hideout. The six-mile-long deep ravine was filled with oak, and walnut trees, and a junglelike tangle of vines and shrubs. The only inhabitants of the wet limestone caves were rattlesnakes and copperheads. At high noon the sun barely penetrated the thick roof of trees, and for the occasional visitor it was like moving across the bottom of a motionless sea. The hollow was only forty-three miles from Denton, which could be easily visited at night. Other advantages were the nearby Murphy ranch run by Bob Murphy, and Jim, Bob's brother and Sam's old friend, who lived in a cabin on the edge of the hollow. Bass knew that both would alert him if strangers appeared.
That same year the trio held up the Houston & Texas Central train at Hutchins. An eyewitness left a vivid account of what happened at the lonely station. For the first time suspicion now pointed to Sam Bass as the leader of the train robbers. With the consent of United States Commissioner Alexander Robinson, Denton County Sheriff Egan hired William Miner as an undercover agent. Miner first sought out Scott Mayes, who owned a livery stable and hotel in Denton. One of the attractions of Mayes's "one-horse saloon" was the ten-pin alley, where the local sports gathered to lay wagers. Egan believed that Mayes selected potential robbery victims for the gang.
Official Texas was also moving against the Bass gang. Captain Junius (June) Peak had been summoned to Austin and ordered by the governor to form a special task force of manhunters to capture or kill Sam and his riders, while United States District Attorney Andrew J. Evans and United States Marshal Stilwell R. Russell had set up headquarters in Tyler with a special grand jury to begin investigating the train robberies and how the gang was obtaining horses and supplies from friends in Denton County.
Peak, City Recorder of Dallas, was a popular choice to head this frontier command. He had been one of General John Hunt Morgan's troopers when that brash Confederate cavalryman had tried to invade Ohio, only to end up in the Ohio Penitentiary. But Peak had escaped and made his way through the Union lines to reenlist in Forrest's command. He was twice wounded at Chickamauga.
After the war he served as deputy sheriff of Dallas, then served for four years as city marshal. He was a well-known buffalo hunter and in 1872 had been selected by a group of cattlemen to end rustling in Billy the Kid's country in New Mexico.
In April 1878, he and Major John B. Jones, the Ranger commander, organized a group of thirty rangers with an enlistment for a month. While Peak and Jones were training their new rangers, Miner, Sheriff Egan's "spy," was spending most of his time in Mayes's "one-horse saloon." Another deputy, W. R. Wetsel, persuaded Sheriff Egan that he knew Sam from his freighting days and could probably get him to "come in" and answer the suspicion that he was the leader of the train-robbing gang.
An incredible scene took place when Wetsel rode into Sam's camp. Bass, Barnes, and Jackson were sleeping, but the deputy woke them up and suggested a game of cards. The sleepy outlaws agreed and they played "Schneck's Favorite" all day. They continued until dark, then rode into Bolivar where they "kept 'schnecking' the greasy old cards" until dawn.
Wetsel tried to get them to talk about the robberies but Sam and his boys ignored the questions. The following day Jim Murphy brought the stirring news that Henry Underwood had escaped from the Nebraska prison and was back in Denton with another outlaw he had recruited, Arkansas Johnson.
When Underwood appeared with Johnson, Wetsel reached into his boot and took out a warrant for Underwood's arrest for rustling. While the gang listened impassively, he read the formal charge and demanded that Underwood post a bond to insure his appearance in Denton's circuit court!
Bass and the others argued with the deputy, Sam at one point taking Underwood aside and advising him of his rights. After conferring with his leader, Underwood returned and told Wetsel he "would not fill it out now but would in a week or so." Wetsel reluctantly agreed and left the camp.
The days dragged on in the dim, green world of Cove Hollow. Frank Jackson, chaffing at the inactivity, told Sam he had decided outlawry left a great deal to be desired and he was going to rejoin his family and return to farming. Bass lectured him severely on the dangers of the outside world. "Hold on," he said, "that won't do now. They'll hang you. You can't get protection elsewhere than with me. See, Arkansas and Underwood are with us now - we'll have a livelier time and better trade. We know Henry - he's O.K., but we must try Arkansas and see if he is a thoroughbred. Henry says he is all right, but I want to know if he has any business in him."
Sam then revealed that he planned to hold up the Texas & Pacific railroad at Eagle Ford. But Jackson still insisted that he wanted to pass on this one, and Underwood told Sam he had to spend some time with his family. Sebe Barnes had returned home, so Bass selected Arkansas Johnson, "to see if he is a thoroughbred," and two local recruits who have never been identified. Jackson, Underwood, and Barnes, he said, "would be conspicuous in Denton at the time of the robbery to ward off any suspicions that they were in on the robberies."
Just before midnight, April 6, 1878, Sam, Arkansas Johnson, and the two other riders held up the westbound Texas & Pacific train at the tiny Eagle Ford station. They marched the station agent, engineer, and fireman back to the depot, where they were held under guard while Sam broke down the heavy wooden door of the express car with a log. No shots were fired, and after scooping up about fifty dollars in gold eagles the gang rode off. The morning after the robbery, a Dallas posse led by Sam Finley, the wellknown express company detective, and Ranger Commander June Peak picked up the trail of the gang.
Another casual encounter between the manhunters and the outlaws took place when they found Underwood and Frank Jackson asleep in the woods. As Underwood later told the story, no shots were fired as Peak and his men crept up on them, seized their rifles and six-shooters, then demanded their names. "Jones," the imperturbable Jackson replied. "Well, we don't want you," one of the leaders said. They returned the rifles and revolvers to the outlaws and "asked that they not shoot at them as they rode off." Underwood and Jackson graciously gave their promise.
A few days later Sheriff Egan's deputy, Tom Gerren, volunteered to find Sam's camp. Egan warned him that Sam would probably kill him, but when Gerren insisted, he reluctantly gave his permission. Gerren, who knew Sam, found the outlaw's camp on the outskirts of Denton. He rode in, dismounted, and shook hands with the most wanted man in Texas. They talked "reservedly" until Gerren turned and found himself staring into the barrel of a Winchester held by a man sitting near a tree. He didn't know Arkansas and asked Sam: "Who is that fellow, Sam?" Bass grinned. "Oh, he's a fellow that stays around here." Gerren, as he later reported, "took my leave."
A week later Sam told the gang they were going to rob the Texas & Pacific railroad again, this time at the Mesquite station. Recruits were flocking into Sam's camp; to the regulars he added Sam Pipes, Albert Herndon, William Collins, and William Scott, with "nine other citizens of Denton County" held in reserve. All were young farm boys "chaffing for adventure." They had heard wild tales of the golden eagles Sam supposedly had taken from the express cars, and they winked and laughed when Sam insisted that the loot had been disappointingly small and "the business is dangerous."
Billy Collins was sent into Mesquite "to see how the land lay." For most of the afternoon he loafed about the sleepy little prairie town, twelve miles east of Dallas. Only the measured sound of the blacksmith's hammer broke the stillness. Even the town's one saloon was quiet, with only a few horses hitched outside. But young Collins did notice one thing: on a sidetrack near the station was a special train housing prisoners working on construction gangs for the railroad. Armed guards could be seen.
When he reported this, Sam only shrugged and pointed out that the few guards would never turn their backs on their very tough charges because they knew they would be killed in a mass escape. Just about midnight, the gang clambered aboard the westbound train at Sam's command: "On to her, boys!" As usual, an eyewitness to the robbery hurried to the offices of the Denton Monitor to give his account of what one victim called a "hilarious" robbery.
For instance when the peanut vendor on the train appeared with a pistol, one of the robbers cried out: "We don't want any peanuts-get back!" This indicated to Mr. Lacy that the robbers were not strangers to the employees of the train. He says the peanut boy, the messenger and the conductor displayed a great deal of pluck.
Conductor (Julius) Alvord emptied his pistol and during the time was recipient of a running spit-spat denunciation from the train robbers who were firing at him. Said one robber: "You are a brave dog but you are my meat." The conductor made no reply but appeared to be in good humor as were the robbers.
The messenger saved fifteen hundred dollars by putting it in his boots. He held out to the last minute, and the passengers thought he would be hung by the robbers, on account of having killed one with his shotgun. Mr. Lacy said the whole affair was conducted by the train robbers in a quiet manner. The chief of the gang gave his orders in a low tone and they were executed with promptness and dispatch. At times there was gusty laughter from among them from remarks made by the employees. The robbery, Mr. Lacy said, was conducted and ended with a hilarity more peculiar to a dancing party than a robbery ...
Despite the "hilarity," for the first time there were injuries among Sam's riders: Sebe Barnes had been wounded four times, three shots in the leg and one in the thigh; Sam had been hit by a "timtit vest pocket revolver" - the ball, stopped by his coat, freakishly traveled down his arm to fall out in his hand; one of his men died of wounds. Sam's epitaph for the victim, as repeated by Jim Murphy, was: "I'm sorry for it, he was a fine looking young man but I warned them all it was a dangerous business, that they had better stay at home but they all wanted to learn the game of making money easy as times were getting hard and crops short, and [they] persisted in going."
Mesquite was Sam's last train robbery; after that he was on the run. For the first time Sheriff "Dad" Egan was issued a United States warrant for the arrest of Bass, Underwood, Barnes, and Jackson for train robbery. Denton County was virtually crisscrossed by posses under Egan and Sheriff Everheart of Grayson County, and Rangers under captains Lee Hall and Peak.
On Sunday morning, April 29, Jim Murphy in his shack on the outskirts of Cove Hollow warned Sam that Sheriff Everheart's posse and a company of Rangers were approaching. Sam roused his men. The combined posses galloped across the prairie to line up on one edge of the deep ravine, facing the outlaws on the opposite bluff. Five hundred yards separated them. Sam, in front of his men, yelled: "Stand up and fight like men," and fired at Everheart.
Both sides opened up with rifles and six-shooters; gunfire echoed across the empty land while a thick pall of gunpowder clung to the trees and brush of the hollow. Ranger Sergeant Parrot waited patiently until he caught Sam in his sights. He fired two shots in rapid succession; one tore the cartridge belt from the outlaw leader's waist, the other shattered the stock of his Winchester. Sam then decided on a valorous retreat. "They hit me at last, boys," he shouted. "Let's get away from here.
A few days later it was Royal Wetsel, Sheriff Egan's "spy," who found the gang "camped by Hard Carter's house." He fired a signal to alert the other members of the posse, bravely dismounted, and calmly exchanged shots with Sam and the gang as they pounded past. Both sides missed.
The "war" continued for days, Egan's posse conducting a running fight with the outlaws. When word was passed from ranch to farm that "Dad Egan's treed Sam," riders galloped from Dallas, Denton, and other towns to be in on the kill. But Bass knew the land as well as he did the back of his own hand. Outlaws and possemen fought across the prairie, in hollows, thick cross timbers on the banks of streams, and finally into a dense swamp where the sheriff wearily told his men the trail was lost.
They returned to Denton, where Egan conferred with Peak, who had just returned from a futile search of the heavily wooded area along Hickory Creek, between Lewisville and Denton. As Judge Hogg, Sam's biographer, depicted the town, Denton was an armed camp. Every man within fifty miles who owned a shotgun and a horse was in town, boasting how he would capture or kill the outlaw leader whose fame was spreading across the West.
In the morning Egan and Peak had agreed on a plan: the Rangers would guard Dallas Road, several miles below Denton, while the sheriff would divide his men into several groups, each to search a section of the county. The area was now filled with volunteers and the inevitable happened: one man shot off his toe, another arrested a passing farmer for Sam Bass, and cattle were killed.
While the posses were chasing Sam, United States marshals were arresting anyone suspected of aiding the gang. Pipes and Herndon were jailed, and Henderson Murphy and his son Jim were picked up in the roundup and charged with harboring fugitives. It was a time of official hysteria; indictments were "ground out wholesale against people, many of whom had as little to do with Sam Bass as the judge or district attorney ..."
Denton was terrorized by federal marshals dragging men and women from their stores, beds, and homes to be sent to the federal jail at Tyler. Many were held for exorbitant bail and remained imprisoned for a long time until the charges were dismissed.
Sympathy turned to Sam, with the embittered ranchers, farmers, and townspeople viewing the government agents and possemen from Dallas as dangerous interlopers. The witch-hunt finally died down, but Egan, Peak, and Sheriff Everheart of Grayson County doggedly kept on Sam's faint trail.
On May 7 Bass and his men left their swamp hideout to ride to Big Caddo Creek, where Frank Jackson had relatives, to get provisions and fresh horses. A "suspicious woman from the neighborhood" alerted Stephens County Sheriff Barry Meadows, who blundered into the outlaws' camp. A fight took place with many bullets fired, but the marksmanship on both sides was so poor that there were no casualties.
Meadows sent a telegram to Denton, and Captain Peak and his rangers hurried to the scene. A gun battle on horseback took place from Sunday to the following Tuesday, with Sam leading his men across ravines, rivers, creeks, and up and down hills. The frustrated Captain Peak told Sheriff Meadows that he would capture or kill Bass "if he lost half his men in the attempt." But Sam, still cheerful and defiant, stopped off at a general store to leave word with the owner that they were ready to face Peak and his rangers "in a desperate fight and he did not propose to be bull-dozed any longer ..."
Shortly after the gang rode off they came upon four farmers, all armed with shotguns. They told Sam that they were after the great Sam Bass and intended to "share one fourth of the glory and one fourth of the reward money." It was too much for Sam. He slapped the manhunters on the back, declared that they, too, were searching for the great Sam Bass, and proposed a partnership. The quartet agreed and Sam and his grinning riders returned to the general store, where Sam, at gunpoint, forced the four to drink enough whiskey "that the four heroes were so drunk they were ready to go to bed on the ground and cover [themselves] with a plank."
Sam, who loved good horseflesh, brooded over the loss of his mounts to Egan's and Judge Hogg's posses. When he learned that the animals were in Work's livery in Denton, he boldly raided the town and recaptured both horses. "Damn 'em, we'll show 'em they can't steal anything from us that we can't get back!" Underwood shouted as they galloped down the main street. As they passed Sheriff Egan's home, Sam saw the lawman's eight-year-old son walking toward the barn. When he had worked for Egan, young John had been his favorite. "Hello, Little Pard," he shouted and waved as they passed.
When a courier arrived with the news Mrs. Egan refused to awaken her husband, who had only just returned after days of chasing the outlaws. But when a posse rode up she finally roused the sheriff, who wearily put on his boots, saddled his horse, and again led the angry townspeople after Sam.
A posse under Deputy Sheriff Clay Withers first clashed with the gang. When Sam forced the fight, the posse finally retreated with one man wounded. A few hours later Egan and his men joined Withers, and the chase continued. For most of the day it was hounds and hare. The manhunters now numbered more than forty; outlaws and possemen swayed in their saddles as the relentless running fight went on "with the temperature at 95 degrees in the shade," as Judge Hogg recalled.
But the chase was beginning to show on Sam. At Davenport Mills he rushed into a general store where the clerk was waiting on two lady customers. When Sam called out for provisions, the clerk snapped: "Just a moment, sir, I must attend to these ladies." "Goddammit!" the usually gallant Sam shouted. "I'm in a hurry and I want you to wait on me. I'm Sam Bass!" "Excuse me, ladies," the clerk said and hurriedly gave Sam his provisions. The hunt continued for days with the posses always in sight of the outlaws, who stole horses from ranches or forced riders to turn over their reins. On June 12 Captain Peak discovered the saddle-weary gang camped on Salt Creek in southwestern Wise County. This time Peak led his men in a wild, galloping charge. Volleys were exchanged and Arkansas Johnson fell. The rest of the gang, now on foot except for Underwood, who had reached the horses to make his escape, were forced into a clump of trees and tangled brush. Here the battle reached an impasse; for some reason Peak did not order an advance on the hideout. The furious possemen retreated, leaving Sam and his men to escape once again.
While the posses were chasing Sam, Jim Murphy's father was arrested and confined in the Tyler prison as an accessory. Many of Denton's leading citizens protested that the senior Murphy was a "man of honor and integrity," but Captain Peak and Sheriff Egan pointed out that someone in that law-abiding and honorable family had been harboring the gang and warning them when the posses neared Sam's hideout in Cove Hollow.
Jim brooded about his father's confinement and blamed not himself but Sam for his family's disgrace. He later told Judge Hogg that he had known Sam, Underwood, and Jackson for years, and while he had given them food and shelter he had never taken part in a train or stage robbery.
Captain Peak then ordered the arrest of Jim, who was confined in Sherman. When he was transferred to Tyler by Deputy U. S. Marshal Walter Johnson, he offered to lead Sam and his men into an ambush if all charges were dropped against him and his father. Johnson brought the proposal to Major Jones, the Ranger commander who had questioned Sam. Satisfied that Murphy was sincere, he arranged with United States District Attorney Andrew J. Evans of the Western District of Texas to have Jim and his father released on a "straw bond." Evans signed a secret consent agreement protecting Jim's bail bondsman and dismissing all charges pending against the Murphys if Jim would assist the government law enforcement agencies in securing the arrest of the gang.
Only Sheriff Everheart of Grayson County had been informed that Jim was now playing the role of a traitor; curiously, the aggressive and honorable Sheriff Egan, who had chased, fought, and trailed Sam for months was not told of the arrangement by the federal lawmen.
While the trap was being planned for their capture or death, Sam and Frank Jackson came out of the brush and rode into Dallas, where they bought guns, ammunition, provisions, and fresh horses. On June 15, 1878, they returned to their favorite hideout, Cove Hollow. As they rode in, they met Murphy in his cabin on the outskirts of the Hollow. As Murphy described the reunion, "Sam and Frank shook hands and took on over me terribly." "Well, old fellow, how do you like to play checkers with your nose?" Sam asked, referring to Murphy's recent stay in jail. "Not at all," Murphy replied. "That's hell, ain't it, Jim?" Sam said sympathetically. "Well, old fellow, you have better come and go with me and you won't have to play checkers with your nose. We have lots of fun and plenty of money in camp." "Well, I had thought of going with you boys," Murphy said, "but I have about given it out and thought I would go back and stand my trial and come clear." "Yes, Jim," Sam answered, "that's very nice, but you won't have a show with the United States, with the prejudice there is against you. There is no showing for you boys because they think you are friends of mine, and I tell you the best thing you can do, is to go with me and make some money, and we will send the money to pay off your bond as soon as we make a strike."
Jim made a great show of considering the proposition, then said: "Well, Sam, if you will wait until I thresh my wheat tomorrow, maybe I'll go." "All right," said Sam, "if you will go, we will wait. We need you in our business." And to prove his affluence he gave Murphy a twenty-dollar gold eagle and asked him to cash it in town. The wheat was threshed and Jim Murphy rode off with Bass and Barnes, who told him they were on a tour looking to make another "strike," preferably a bank.
In late 1878, Murphy gave judge Hogg a long statement detailing his movements with the gang and how he set up the ambush at Round Rock. It is the most accurate version of the outlaw leader's last days. The simple, day-to-day account has a marvelous sense of the tension, frustrations, and near-misses that any informer suffers in his final act of betrayal. There was no remorse, no compassion, in Murphy's deadly game of self-survival.
He told Hogg that it was an aimless tour. Sam, still the cheerful, happy-go-lucky leader, took his men in and out of the small towns, passing fields and farmers for whom he had worked as a hired hand and insisting that his men practice their "shoot." "You had better practice," he warned Jackson and Murphy, "for I tell you, if old Dad [Sheriff Egan] gets after us you will have to shoot - for we mean business now."
He pointed to a log three or four hundred yards away and told Murphy: "Watch me hit that piece. If that was old Judge Hogg [who would write his biography] how easy could I bust his leather! I would make him wish he had never saddled old Coley [one of Sam's horses taken by the posse] - the blamed old rascal. He ain't able to buy him a good horse, so he must step around and pick up my boys' horses. I took my gun down off of him once but I will never do that any more."
Egan seemed on his mind; as he rode he told the men that they had to be alert for Egan and his possemen "and that blasted Clay Withers - is some hell too as you go along but all we got to do is to kill a few horses, then retreat and they'll kind o' go slow and won't crowd us much more." Like Egan, Withers, a deputy sheriff of Elizabethtown, in Denton County, was constantly trailing Sam.
There was one poignant moment. When two small boys walked into the outlaws' camp, Sam told them: "Well, boys, I am looking for a sheep ranch, and if these old grangers will let me alone, I will move in here, be a neighbor to you and go to raising sheep."
Murphy told Judge Hogg: "That tickled the boys and they went away, laughing. Then Sam said as we rode off: 'What would I give to be in their places! I would give all the gold I ever saw, and more too if I had it. But it's too late now to think of that ... it all goes in a lifetime ... I will make some old banker pay for my troubles because money will sweeten anything." On the road and over the campfires, Sam and Barnes described for Murphy the details of the various robberies they had committed and the gun battles which had taken place.
In Dallas County they stopped at a country store, where Sam, the most wanted man on the southwestern frontier, bought a bag of candy which he shared with a farm boy. While the boy munched the candy, he boasted to the loungers how he intended to hunt down Sam Bass, collect the mounting rewards, and live a life of luxury. Sam solemnly wished him luck.
Along the road they were joined by two new friends of Sam, who openly accused Murphy of being a traitor and urged Sam to "kill him right now." The frightened Murphy turned to Jackson. "Did you hear that, Frank?" Jackson nodded. "Yes, Jim hell is up! Just be easy. I won't let them hurt you."
Despite the security measures the United States District Attorney's office in Tyler had taken, news of Murphy's role as a traitor had leaked out. Before they left, the two strangers, never identified, warned Sam that he was riding to his death. Only Jackson defended Jim. One time Murphy awoke to find Bass and Barnes, six-shooters cocked, "ready to blow out my brains," but again Jackson, this time at gunpoint, warned his leader that he would have to face him in a gunfight if he harmed Murphy.
Sam hesitated. For a long moment in the fresh dawn they faced each other with drawn guns while the man who was planning to betray them cowered in his blanket, begged for his life, and swore to his friendship and loyalty. Finally, reluctantly, Sam and Barnes holstered their guns, the glowering Barnes warning Murphy that he would watch his every step, "because the word has come down to us that one of Murphy's boys is ready to betray us and I don't trust you any more."
Evidently Murphy persuaded Sam and Barnes, the "Nubbins Colt," that he was eager and ready to rob the strongest bank or the most heavily guarded train. Like traitors from the beginning of time, he finally groveled, protested, and lied their suspicions away.
As the days passed, Sam lost some of his charisma; he tried to recruit new riders but the young cowboys and farmers shook their heads. Once, while riding to Rockwall, they stopped dead in the road; directly in front of them was a gallows. As Murphy later learned, it had been built only a few weeks before for the execution of an outlaw who cheated the law by committing suicide in his cell. The three horsemen silently studied the stark gibbet outlined against the lowering evening sky. Sam dismounted, told the others to make camp, then slowly walked up to the gallows. He returned, "looking very serious." "Boys, that makes me feel bad," he told Barnes and Murphy. "That is the first one of them things I ever saw, and I hope it will be the last." They ate a hasty supper and despite the darkness rode off, leaving behind the gallows splashed with the light of the rising moon, its ugly rope swaying in the evening breeze.
But the next morning Sam had regained his cheerfulness. He urged them to saddle up and ride into the frontier town of Kauffman "to look over the pickings." But the tiny settlement didn't have a bank, so the gang rode on. Sam, an extrovert, attracted a strange collection of casual friends along the way: the ferryman who insisted on letting them in on his secret plans to capture the great Sam Bass; the farmer who invited them to celebrate July 4th by eating watermelons and listening to his philosophy that all railroads were robbing the poor and he didn't care how many trains Sam Bass robbed as long as he "let the citizens alone"; the lonely, talkative schoolteacher who stuck so close to them that they had to take the wrong pike to get rid of him; the farm boy who gave them peaches and amused Sam with his wild boasting of how he was going to trap the wily Sam Bass.
Murphy, still wary of the quick-tempered Barnes, realized that he had to get word to Sheriff Everheart or Major Jones. He tried several times to send a note or telegram but failed. In Ennis, Sam sent Murphy and Barnes into town to "look at the bank." The building looked too formidable, so Sam reluctantly called off his strike. In Waco, Bass treated Murphy and Jackson to a shave, haircut, dinner, and fresh horses. "Jim, this is putting on a heap of style for highwaymen, ain't it?" Jackson observed as they walked down the town's main street. While waiting to change a bill in the Waco Savings Bank, Jackson nudged Murphy; on the counters were piles of greenbacks and gold eagles. "If we mean business, this is the place to commence, Jim," Jackson whispered.
Sam, impressed by Jackson's excited report, went back into Waco for a personal inspection. He returned and announced that he was ready "to hit the bank." The frightened Murphy demurred; escape routes had to be planned, provisions gathered, and the best horseflesh bought. Jackson waved away his suggestions. "Jim," he said, "we're going to take that [bank] as easy as to take a drink of water. We will scare those town folks so bad they won't know what is up until we have the money and be gone."
Murphy kept pointing out the dangers of hitting a large town unprepared. They argued for hours over the campfire until Bass announced that he would give his decision in the morning. After breakfast he grudgingly announced that he agreed with Murphy, but then he startled the traitor by telling him that he was giving him the honor of selecting the bank they would next hit.
Thinking fast, Murphy, who knew the layout of Round Rock, announced that he selected the Williamson County Bank, one of the largest in the territory. They bought provisions and beer, with Sam announcing they had spent their last golden eagle. "I'll get some more in a few days," he predicted. "Let it gush! It all goes in a lifetime."
Barnes stole a horse that afternoon and spent most of the evening bragging how they would make Sheriff Everheart, Clay Withers, or Dad Egan and their posses run after they took the bank. But Sam soberly warned him that while he could stand off the Denton lawmen "with a wooden gun," they might face stiffer opposition in Round Rock.
They stopped off at Belton, a small town where Murphy managed to write a few frantic lines to Sheriff Everheart and Deputy Marshal Johnson, "telling them for God's sakes to come at once to Round Rock." At Georgetown he sent another note, this time to Major Jones. Finally they reached the outskirts of Round Rock. Bass went into town alone and soon returned. "Jim," he said, "you were right about coming to this place. We can take that bank too easy to talk about." A short time later, Sam Bass led Jackson, Barnes, and Murphy into town. Judge Hogg interviewed Jim Murphy, Major Jones, and the seriously wounded Deputy Sheriff Maurice Moore shortly after Sam's last raid.
The news of the capture of Sam Bass flew across the frontier. Major Jones sent a telegram to Attorney General William Steele and a speaker at the State Democratic Convention in Austin interrupted politics to announce that the famous outlaw was in custody. Sam by now was a legend, and the delegates refused to believe the news. The Attorney General telegraphed Jones to confirm the arrest by telegram and, if possible, to bring Bass in irons to Austin.
While the delegates rose to cheer the news, Sam was dying in a small shack near the Hart House in Round Rock. After he had examined the outlaw leader, Dr. Cochran solemnly shook his head; Sam didn't have much time, he told Major Jones.
Bass continued to hold on as the curious poured into the town by train, wagon, and on horseback. Crowds swarmed to the shack hoping to catch a glimpse of Sam. The correspondent of the Galveston News, then the leading newspaper in the state, was permitted to interview Sam. He admitted that he was Sam Bass and said he had intended to "make a raise on the bank here and then go to Mexico." He also told the reporter, "I'm shot to pieces and there's no use to deny it." While Sam clung to life, Deputy Sheriff Grimes and Sebe Barnes were buried - Grimes given an elaborate funeral and Barnes unceremoniously put into a cheap pine box and buried in a corner of the Round Rock graveyard. Although Sam refused to make a formal deathbed confession, Major Jones kept a copybook at the outlaw's bedside with orders to his men to take down everything Bass said. Judge Hogg copied "verbatim" Sam's last words from that book.
The Last Words of Sam Bass
Joel Collins, Bill Heffrige, Tom Nixon, Jack Davis, Jim Berry and me were in the Union Pacific robbery. Tom Nixon is in Canada; haven't seen him since that robbery. Jack Davis was in New Orleans from the time of the Union Pacific robbery till he went to Denton to get me to go in with him and buy hides. This was the last of April, 1878.
Grimes asked me if I had a pistol. Said I had, and then all three of us drew and shot him. If I killed him he was the first man I ever killed. Am 25 years old, and have two brothers, John and Linton; have four sisters. They all live at Mitchel, Ind. Have not seen Henry Underwood since the Salt Creek fight. Saw the two Collinses at old man Collins, since I left Denton. Have been in the robbing business a long time. Had done much of that kind of business before the U. P. robbery last fall.
First time I saw Billy Scott was at Bob Murphy's; last time was at Green Hills. Saw him at William Collins', but do not know the date; do not pay any attention to dates. Never saw him but those three times. I will not tell who was in the Eagle Ford robbery besides myself and Jackson, because it is against my profession. Think I will go to hell, anyhow, and believe a man should die with what he knows in him.
I do not know. They were with us about six months. Henry was with me in the Salt Creek fight, four or five weeks ago. Arkansaw Johnson was killed in that fight. Do not know whether Underwood was wounded in the Salt Creek fight or not. Sebe Barnes, Frank Jackson and Charley Carter were there. We were all set afoot in that fight, but stole horses enough to remount ourselves in three hours, or as soon as dark came, after which we went back to Denton, where we stayed till we came to Round Rock.
Q - Where is Jackson now? A - I do not know.
Speaking of Bass' caution in not compromising himself or his friends, Maj. Jones, who had him in charge, says: "I tried every conceivable plan to obtain some information from him, but to no purpose. About noon on Sunday, he began to suffer greatly and sent for me to know if I could not give him some relief. I did everything I could for him. Thinking this an excellent opportunity, I said to him, "Bass, you have done much wrong in this world, you now have an opportunity to do some good before you die by giving some information which will lead to the vindication of that justice which you have so often defied and the law which you have constantly violated." He replied, "No, I won't tell." "Why won't you," said I. "Because it is agin my profession to blow on my pals. If a man knows anything he ought to die with it in him." He positively refused to converse on religion, and in reply to some remark made, he said, "I am going to hell anyhow." I made a particular effort to obtain some information from him in regard to William Collins. I asked him if he was ever at Collin's house? He said no. I then put the question in a different form, saying, "Where did you first see Will Scott?" He replied at Bob Murphy's. I then said, "You saw him at Green Hill's, too, didn't you?" He replied yes. These answers were not of any consequence, but I then said, "When did you see him at William Collins." He said, "I don't remember, as I never paid attention to dates, being always on the scout, I only saw him these three times." This answer was important, as it fixed the fact that Bass was at Collin's house. But this was the only statement of any importance which he made. All his other statements were of facts well-known or concerning individuals beyond the reach of future justice."
Bass clung to the hope of life to the last extremity. While suffering the most excruciating anguish from his wounds he hugged the delusion of recovery. At last when his physician told him that death was fast approaching, and that he would soon be gone to eternity he said "Let me go!" Then closing his eyes for a few moments, he opened them and exclaimed to his nurse, as if startled, "The world is bobbing around me!" These were the last words of Sam Bass.
Sam's grave was unmarked for a year. Then, in the summer of 1879, his sister came from Indiana and erected a tombstone. Sebe Barnes's grave, in the same cemetery, had a small sandstone marker with this tribute: "He was the right bower to Sam Bass." Souvenir hunters chipped away at both markers until they vanished. In the late 1920s S. E. Loving, a local monument maker, placed a simple concrete slab over both graves.
After Sam's death reward-hungry sheriffs and deputies continued to hunt down members of the gang. Henry Collins, Joel's nineteen-year-old brother, who had briefly ridden with Bass, was killed by a sheriff shortly after the Round Rock battle.
Billy Collins, who had jumped bail in Tyler after being indicted as an accessory to Sam in the Mesquite train robbery, died from his wounds after killing Deputy Sheriff William H. Anderson of Dallas, who had tenaciously trailed him to the tiny farming town of Pembina, Dakota Territory, near the Manitoba border.
Underwood never again appeared after the Salt Creek battle with June Peak's rangers. Legend claimed that he later rode with Jesse James, which is not true. Frank Jackson, who stayed with Sam until there was no more hope, briefly appeared in Denton County after the Round Rock shooting, then vanished. Charlie Siringo claimed that Jackson was an honest rancher in Montana, and other frontiersmen placed him in various sections of the West working as a cattleman or a peace officer.
The naive young farm boys Sam Pipes and Albert G. Herndon, Sam's raw recruits who wanted to learn "the robbing business" and ended up in prison instead, were pardoned by President Grover Cleveland after volunteering to work as nurses in a plague ship quarantined in New York harbor. Tom Nixon, who helped Sam hold up the Union Pacific at Big Springs, Nebraska, safely made his way to Canada and vanished with his share of the golden eagle loot; Jack Davis, another member of the gang, fled to South America.
Like all informers and traitors, Jim Murphy suffered the worst. Less than a week after Sam was buried, United States Attorney Evans kept his word and dismissed the indictment against Jim and his father. Murphy returned to Denton, but life was never the same. Scarcely a day went by that he didn't receive a threat or word passed from some kindly law officer that a wild young cowboy eager to make a reputation as a gunfighter was on his way to Denton to kill him.
One letter he wrote to Major Jones shows how the gang crumbled after Sam's death. He told the Ranger commander that stalwart Frank Jackson was eager to set up a trap for Underwood and the other remaining fugitive members of the gang in return for dismissal of all charges against him. It was the only thing Murphy could do for Jackson, who undoubtedly had saved his life on that aimless tour of the Texas towns when Sam was looking to make another "raise."
Jackson vanished and Murphy stayed on in Denton, frightened and alone, scorned by his fellow townsmen. At one time there were so many threats against his life that he lived in the county jail. Then, a year after the Round Rock battle, Murphy accidentally swallowed atrophine, a poisonous crystalline alkaloid he had been using for an eye disease. After a day of agony and convulsions, the man who had "sold out Sam and Barnes and left their friends to mourn" finally answered Gabriel's horn to get a "scorching," as the ballad said ...
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