Sam Bass Of Round Rock, Texas

(The Infamous Outlaw)

This is one of only a few known photographs of Sam Bass, who is standing at left, was taken in Dallas when he was helping to drive a cattle herd to Kansas in the summer of 1876. Standing next to him is John E. Gardner. Seated are Joe! Gollins (right), who would become Bass' partner in crime up north, and Joel's brother Joe Collins.

view A. W. Grimes, Deputy Sheriff
who was killed by the Sam Bass gang

Sam Bass (1851-1878 ).

Sam Bass, "the outlaw," was born on a farm near Mitchell, Indiana, on July 21, 1851. A son of Daniel and Elizabeth Jane (Sheeks) Bass. He was orphaned before he was thirteen and spent five years at the home of an uncle. He ran away in 1869 and worked most of a year in a sawmill at Rosedale, Mississippi. Bass left Rosedale on horseback for the cattle country in the late summer of 1870 and arrived in Denton, Texas, in early fall. For the winter, he worked on Bob Carruth's ranch southwest of town. But, finding cowboy life not up to his boyhood dreams, he went back to Demon and handled horses in the stables of the Lacy House, a hotel. Later he worked for Sheriff William F. Egan, caring for livestock, cutting firewood, building fences, and spending much of his time as a freighter between Denton and the railroad towns of Dallas and Sherman.

Before long, Bass became interested in horse racing, and in 1874, after acquiring a fleet mount that became known as the Denton Mare, he left Egan's employ to exploit this horse. He won most of his races in North Texas and later took his mare to the San Antonio area. When his racing played out in 1876, he and Joel Collins gathered a small herd of longhorn cattle to take up the trail for their several owners. When the drovers reached Dodge City, they decided to trail the cattle farther north, where prices were higher. After selling the herd and paying the hands, they had $8,000 in their pockets. But instead of returning to "Texas, where they owed for the cattle, they squandered the money in gambling in Ogallala, Nebraska, and in the Black Hills town of Deadwood, South Dakota, which was then enjoying a boom in gold mining.

In 1877 Bass and Collins tried freighting, without success, then recruited several hard characters to rob stagecoaches.

On stolen horses, they held up seven coaches without recouping their fortunes. Next, in search of bigger loot, a band of six, led by Collins and including Bass. Rode south to Big Springs, Nebraska, where, in the evening of September 18, they held up an eastbound Union Pacific passenger train. They took $60,000 in newly minted twenty-dollar gold pieces from the express car and $1,300 plus four gold watches from the passengers. After dividing the loot, the bandits decided to go in pairs in different directions. Within a few weeks, Collins and two others were killed while resisting arrest. But Bass, disguised as a farmer, made it back to Texas, where he formed a new outlaw band.

He and his brigands held up two stagecoaches and, in the spring of 1878, robbed four trains within twenty-five miles of Dallas. They did not get much money, but the robberies aroused citizens. The bandits were the object of a spirited chase across North Texas by posses and a special company of Texas Rangers headed by Junius Peak. Bass eluded his pursuers until one of his party, Jim Murphy, turned informer. As Bass's band rode south intending to rob a small bank in Round Rock, Murphy wrote to Maj. John B. Jones, commander of the Frontier Battalion of "Texas Rangers. In Round Rock, on July 19, Bass and his men became engaged in a gun battle, in which he was wounded. The next morning he was found lying helpless in a pasture north of town and was brought back to Round Rock. He died there on July 21, his twenty-seventh birthday. He was buried in Round Rock and soon became the subject of cowboy song and story.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Wayne Gard, Sam Bass (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1936).

Sam Bass

Sam Bass Died
Historical narrative by Deolece M. Parmelee for the Hoblitzelle Data Center of the Texas Historical Foundation

Curiosity seekers and folklorists the world over tend to identify Round Rock, Texas, with one and only one event: that was the place where Sam Bass died. Not that Bass was a regular inhabitant of Round Rock. In life, he spent less than a week there, yet his short visit put the town on world atlases.

Westerners idealized him as a Robin Hood who stole gold from the wealthy railroads and gave largesse to the poor. In an era when courtly John Wesley Hardin put multiple notches on his gun, contending that he killed only the evil who deserved execution, Sam Bass killed no man, unless possibly a deputy sheriff in his last fight. Bass had no notches on his gun but rather joked about "cashing" his pistol -- i. e., using it to get money. [1]

His humane disposition inspired balladeers: "A kinder-hearted fellow you seldom ever see." Cowboys cherished the ballad and claimed it quieted their cattle when they sang to the herds. Genuine folk music, the monotonous song gave a sympathetic thumb­nail biography of the outlaw. Since he died young, there were none too many facts to tell.

Sam Bass left his native Indiana as a hard-working, semi­literate teenage orphan, intent on becoming a Texas cowboy.

En route, he worked at a Rosedale, Mississippi, sawmill. On reaching Denton, Texas, he applied for farm work and then had a job at a livery stable in 1870. He began to follow local races, acquired a taste for betting and gambling, and finally bought Jenny, "the Denton Mare," who made him some good purses by winning races. He quit the livery stable in 1874 to follow racing full-time, then got into trouble while trying to collect some of his winnings. Finally, he became a cowboy and went up-trail with a herd to Kansas and then to South Dakota. He and his partner embezzled money, tried to recoup their fortune in the mining boom at Deadwood, lost again, and then began robbing stagecoaches to recover their capital. The early robberies were not lucrative, but they gathered recruits and struck riches when they held up a Union Pacific train at Big Spring, Nebraska, taking $60,000.00 in gold pieces plus other valuables. Bass was not yet the gang leader but was pleased to receive about $9,000.00 as his share of the loot. The gang dispersed, and some of the men ran afoul of the officers who went on manhunts for the Union Pacific bandits. The robbery had involved United States mail, and this made it a very serious federal offense. [2]

With a new partner, Bass returned to Texas with his money, lay low, and resolved never again to do ordinary, honest work. Adventuring and robberies were too much fun.

The sudden wealth of Bass astounded his old friends, but he disarmed their curiosity -- or tried to do so -- by stating he had struck it rich in the goldfield. Yet he had become inured to any thrills to be gained by risks on horse-races, card games, or gold strikes. He liked the drama of a gang robbery. In Nebraska, he had been a member of the Joel Collins gang, but in Texas, he planned to be in command of his own gang. [3]

Some of his old friends asked him about the Big Spring robbery, halfway suspecting he knew the facts from inside experience.

He invited such friends to throw in with him and make easy money of their own. Bass and his men lived in thick underbrush or remote hideouts along the creeks and other streams of Denton and adjacent counties, never far from open prairies where they could travel rapidly if the need arose. They tended to visit lonely farmhouses, where on occasion Sam Bass would give a widow a twenty-dollar gold piece when he bought a dozen eggs. Instead of listening to protests over the widow's inability to give him change, he would promise to return someday and get more eggs. Or he and his men would eat a meal and pay with a twenty-dollar gold piece for food that ordinarily would have cost a dollar or two at most. He began to perceive that the common people regarded him as a princely fellow, for they told him so as he went about scattering his money with generosity. [4]

At times Bess would claim he was a rancher coming home from a lucrative cattle drive. At other times he seems to have left his wealth unexplained because he observed that strangers were sympathetic. Sam Bass, they said, not knowing they were address­ing him, was punishing the railroads, and they approved of this. Railroads and their rates were not regulated in those days, and many country people hated them with a passion because of freight rates, which were seen as unfair to the little businessman or farmer while favoring large corporations.

The Sam Bass seen by the public in 1878 was five feet and eight inches high, weighed some 140 pounds, had a sallow complex­ion, sharp, dark eyes, and was sometimes suspected of having Indian blood because of his appearance. He was well regarded among country people. [5]

After a few months he found himself running low on money.

Four train robberies in North Texas gave him sport but little money. Just four months and three days after the Union Pacific haul of $60,000.00 in Nebraska, Bass opened his Texas season on Washington's Birthday at Allen Station, just south of Dallas. Here the proceeds of the robbery of a Texas Central baggage and the express car came to only $1,280.00 -- a trifling sum when divided among four bandits. The bandits were to learn from newspaper accounts that they missed or overlooked two parcels of gold. [6]

Less than a month later, on March 18, the gang made the Texas Central Railroad their target in a robbery at Hutchins. Here, with only three men, Sam Bass took $497.00 -- again a grave disappointment. [7]

The gang moved its operations to the Texas & Pacific line in the hope of improving its hauls. Yet, a robbery at Eagle Ford on April 4 yielded only fifty-two dollars because the express company and the mail clerk had taken precautions to hide most of their valuables. Bass gave himself and his men only ten minutes to make the holdup, so he had too little time to search thoroughly. [8]

A fourth robbery, again on the T. & P., at Mesquite on 10 April, saw the bandits miss $1,500.00 hidden in the ashes of the express carts heater while the loot taken was $150.00 plus some trifling sums extorted from passengers. [9]

In the T. & P. robberies, some of the bandits sustained slight wounds they were later identifiable. [10]

Law officers were now relentlessly dogging the heels of the robbers.

After several members of his family were jailed on charges of harboring gang members, James Murphy, a comrade, and friend of earlier days, agreed to betray Sam Bass in exchange for the freeing of his elderly father. Bass soon suspected Jim Murphy of treachery, but Frank Jackson persuaded their leader that Murphy was loyal. Even though he listened to Jackson, Bass vowed to thrust Jim Murphy into the forefront of the next robbery, to try his loyalty. [11]

With Murphy and two other accomplices, Bass left the Dallas and Denton areas for Central Texas, looking for a likely bank to rob. They discovered that some townships tough bankers and very secure banks, while other towns had banks not worth robbing because of the small capital on hand. Trying to betray Sam Bass in a set­ting favorable to Texas Ranger intervention, Jim Murphy urged the gang to try the railroad or bank at Round Rock, near the

Texas capital in Austin. Sam Bass had gone through Round Rock on his way to San Antonio in earlier years and agreed to look for a target there. En route, he began spending the last of his funds from the Nebraska robbery when he threw down the last twenty-dollar gold piece as he ordered a drink in a Waco saloon. [12]

On July 18, 1878, Sam Bass, Jim Murphy, Seaborn Barnes, and Frank Jackson arrived in Round Rock, where the railroad had been instrumental in creating a new town, having routed its tracks a short distance from the original town, so that the business district moved over to be near the rails. The bank was situated in New Round Rock, next door to a thriving mercantile business operated by a man named Kopperl or Koppel. The bandits visited the new town to see the layout of the bank but decided to rest themselves and their horses so as to be in good condition for the stressful work of robbing the bank. They made camp in the countryside adjacent to the original town, but on July 19 moved to a site adjoining the Old Round Rock Cemetery. Bass hired a young woman to cook appetizing meals, and the four bandits enjoyed good living for the space of one day, at least. [13]

To make assurance doubly sure, the outlaws went into the new town on Friday afternoon, July 19, and made some trifling pur­chases in order to justify a visit to Kopperl's mercantile store, next door to the bank.

Local law officers, watchful after the alert given by Jim Murphy, followed Bass, Barnes, and Jackson into the store.

The deputy sheriff stepped up and inquired if they were wearing guns -­bulges under their clothes had led to suspicions. Bass resented the question and began shooting. Deputy Sheriff Grimes was shot to death in the first fusillade. Morris More of Austin, a special deputy, was shot through the lungs. The only initial damage to the outlaws was the loss of two fingers by Sam Bass, making it difficult for the leader to use his gun thereafter. Except for that injury, the gangsters were unscathed and came out of Kopperl's store with ideas of escaping. [14]

They were not counting on the intervention of Texas Rangers.

The state commander, Major John B. Jones, and three of his Rangers were standing by, however. Rangers Chris Connor, George Harrell, and Dick Ware emerged at once from nearby shops, their guns blazing. Before the bandits could reach their horses, Seaborn Barnes fell lifeless with a shot through the head.- Sam Bass, shot through the body, was mortally wounded. Frank Jackson had to help his leader to the hitching rack and put him on his horse, for he could not help himself. [15]

Once Bass had mounted, Jackson got on his own horse, supported his leader by riding close and keeping an arm around his body, and galloping the horses out of town. Jackson lost no time making the run to a dense thicket. Here he put Bass on the ground, tore up shirts to staunch his wounds, and tried to make the leader comfortable as possible. [16]

Jim Murphy, who had lagged behind his fellows and was watching from a vantage point in Old Round Rock, heard the shooting and saw Bass and Jackson ride out of town. Only his loyalty to his father allowed him to quell the pangs of his conscience over the betrayal of Bass, for whom he still held strong affection because of past associations. [17]

The ground was stony and dry, and apparently the bandits left no discernible tracks for the Texas Rangers and local posse.

The shootout had occurred so suddenly and unexpectedly and had distressed the townspeople so keenly because of the killing and maiming of officers that the pursuit did not begin at once. The Rangers were hampered for a time by having to catch and saddle their horses. By the time they took up the pursuit, all seem to have been quiet in the thicket where Jackson and Bass had taken refuge. At least the Rangers did not investigate that thicket immediately and finally called off the hunt until the next day. [18]

Bass made Frank Jackson leave him as soon as Jackson had staunched the wounds. He told Jackson that he knew he would die, but he wanted Jackson to escape. Jackson did as he was commanded, tying his leader's horse within reach, so that Bass might still escape if he began to feel better that night. [19]

The next day Bass was famished for water and crawled to a farmhouse, only to find he could not draw from the well and had frightened the farm woman so badly that she ran away. Railroad construction hands ignored him, then took fright at his bloody appearance, but finally, an old man handed out a cup of water. When one of the local search teams on Saturday afternoon finally found Bass under a tree, he called out weakly: "Don't shoot... I am Sam Bass. [20]

The searchers took Bass into town in a hack and obtained a cot for him from the Richard C. Hart family, operators of the Round Rock hotel. Dr. C. P. Cochran attended the bandit, trying to alleviate his sufferings, but told him that he could not hope to recover. At first, Bass believed this was a ruse, to frighten him into deathbed disclosures, but he finally came to accept the inevitable. [21]

On the death bed, Bass did confess that he had planned to rob the bank in Round Rock on Saturday, July 20, if he and his men had not been stopped the day before by the shootings.

The law officers asked for the names of accomplices in this and past crimes.

He refused to name accomplices unless he knew they were now dead or out of the United States. "It is not my profession," he said, "to tell what I know. It would hurt too many men." On the Round Rock venture, his gang had consisted of only four men: "Three who meant business and one drag. [22]

Major Jones of the Texas Rangers persisted in questioning, but Bass resisted: "It is again my profession to blow on my pals." Nevertheless, Jones stationed men with notebooks in the room, to take down any chance disclosures.

Crowds thronged into Round Rock to see Sam Bass. A reporter from the Galveston News, then the foremost newspaper in the state, arrived to interview him. Bass admitted that he had kept up with the newspaper publicity about his gang through the Galveston News. He told his own age, named his brothers and sisters back in Mitchell, Indiana, and talked rather freely about old comrades who were known to be deceased or out of the country -- but not about men who might still be free and in danger of capture. He would not name the man who had rescued him Friday, but Jim Murphy supplied that name. Frank Jackson, however, was never captured. Murphy, who lived in constant fear of reprisals from surviving gang members, was to commit suicide eleven months later. [23]

An item in the Williamson County Sun described Bass as ex­claiming repeatedly during his last hours: "God have mercy on me." The reporter found this commendable: "He implored divine help. Few men would have done otherwise." [24]

On July 21, 1878, Sam Bass reached his twenty-seventh birth­day and died in the afternoon of that day. He was buried in a grave next to that of his accomplice Seaborn Barnes. The inscription on Barnes' gravestone was to read: "Right Bower to Sam Bass. "'Even in death, Bass gave luster to his associates!

On the day of the burial, the woman who had cooked two or three meals for the gang saw a stranger on horseback visit the grave and throw a clod of dirt upon it as a token of respect. The community supposed that this visitor was Frank Jackson, who had lingered in hiding in order to know the final chapter. [25]

Sam Bass had a sister who had worked hard for an education and had bettered her lot in life.

Sally Bass Hornbuck came to Texas to visit the grave and had a stone erected in commemora­tion of her brother. Underneath the name and statistics of birth and death dates, she had a sentiment incised in a 19th-century manner: "A brave man reposes in death here. Why was he not true?" 26

By chipping away the stone to obtain keepsakes, souvenir hunters demolished the original gravestone and also destroyed a later one erected in commemoration of Sam Bass. Yet, the Round Rock community pays constant tribute to the memory of the Robin Hood of Texas by giving his name to landmarks.

Singularly enough, the fatal shooting occurred exactly ten months to the day after the Union Pacific robbery, which sealed the career plans of Sam Bass. (These plans had originated earlier, with the acquisition of cravings for excitement in racing and gambling, but the Union Pacific gold confirmed them.) Fateful months! In the 19th century, with its less-advanced communication systems, this was a short time for the materialization of a legend -‑ but materialize it did. Had Bass attached a popular enterprise rather than the despised railroads, he might never have been con­sidered a Robin Hood. He was to say ruefully on his death bed that he "thought we had a soft thing, but it turned out rather serious!"

By many standards, he was no hero. Yet the public sympathy aroused by his warm-hearted sharing of his Union Pacific gold and his refraining from killing enemies did cause him to figure as a folk hero of sorts.

The site of his death has often been sought by Texas visitors.

Two or more pistols have been treasured by collectors, with each labeled "the gun that gave Sam Bass his fatal shot." A coroner's jury decided that Ranger George Harrell made the fateful shot, but thousands have contended that it was Ranger Dick Ware who shot Bass fatally in the line of duty. [27]

The 19th century honored Sam Bass for lifting riches from the coffers of the dastardly (as they saw it) railroads and sharing gold with the common people. Wherever trail herds bedded down or milled about during the days of cattle drives, the cowboys sang of Sam Bass: "A kinder hearted fellow you seldom ever see." [28]

In youth, Sam Bass had undoubtedly been kind-hearted, for many attestations have confirmed this. At last, he still had the gallantry to send away the one gangster who might have comforted him by staying with him. He wanted to give Frank Jackson another chance. As with all men, there was good in Sam Bass.

To satisfy public curiosity and state the case for his fame, the State of Texas may well place a commemorative marker for the Robin Hood of Texas at the site of his death.