Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sam Bass -- Outlaw Killer & Train Robber

As with many figures of the American Old West, the outlaw Sam Bass has become sort of a legend. As with many others, he's captured the public's imagination to some extent.

Before television, back in 1936, the "Death Valley Days" drama on radio portrayed the last days of Sam Bass before his death in Round Rock, Texas, as an adventure.

In the 1949 Western, in "Calamity Jane and Sam Bass", Sam Bass is portrayed by actor Howard Duff. 

In 1954, Sam Bass was portrayed by Don Haggerty in an episode of the syndicated western television series "Stories of the Century." It didn't matter that Don Haggerty was 40 years old when he played the young 27 year old Bass. Hollywood gets it wrong more then they get it right. Even in the very popular TV series "Maverick," Sam Bass was portrayed as a older man.

In a completely fictional 1951 film called "The Texas Rangers," Sam Bass was supposedly the leader of a gang made up of other famous outlaws like the Sundance Kid, Butch Cassidy, Dave Rudabaugh, and none other than the notorious John Wesley Hardin.

The real story!

Sam Bass was born on a farm near Mitchell, Indiana, on July 21st, 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 as a laborer in Rosedale, Mississippi. He left Rosedale on horseback for a cattle country in the late summer of 1870. He arrived with them 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 Denton and handled horses as a stock tender in the stables of a hotel known as the Lacy House.

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. Then in 1874, after buying a racehorse that became known as the "Denton Mare," he left the employment of Sheriff Egan to race his horse. Supposedly he won most of his races in North Texas, and later took his mare to the San Antonio area.

Just about the time that his horse racing started to play out in 1876, he met and befriended a bartender named Joel Collins. It's said that the two were hired to gather and take a small herd of longhorn cattle to take up the trail for a small group of cattlemen. When they reached Dodge City, they decided to trail the cattle farther north where prices were higher. The cattle's owners must have had a lot of trust in Bass and Collins. A trust that was soon to be broken.

After selling the herd and paying the few hands that they picked up to help move the cattle, they had $8,000 which belonged to the people who owned the cattle. But instead of returning to Texas and giving the money to its rightful owners, it's said they actually squandered the money in gambling in Ogallala, Nebraska, and then in the Black Hills boomtown of Deadwood, South Dakota, which was then enjoying a gold mining bonanza.

So now the two, and in fact the men they hired to move the herd, are officially cattle rustlers. But in 1877, Bass and Collins tried freighting as teamsters. Soon though, without success they then recruited several hard characters looking for an easy way to make money and robbed stagecoaches. Their gang consisted of Sam Bass, Joel Collins, Tom Nixon, Bill Potts, Jim Berry, Jack Davis, and Robert "Little Reddy" McKimie.

Supposedly McKimie was kicked out of the gang after their first robbery, in which he shot and supposedly killed the driver. It's said that they held up the Deadwood stage seven times. The story goes that they used stolen horses to hold up seven stagecoaches without much of a pay off. Supposedly their robberies didn't yield them much at all.

So it was then that they decided to try their hand at train robberies. In search of a big score, more loot, the gang led by Bass and Collins rode south to Big Springs, Nebraska. It was there on the evening of September 18th, 1877, that they they held up an eastbound Union Pacific passenger train. That robbery was the score they were looking for as they were able to take $60,000 in newly minted twenty-dollar gold pieces from the express car, plus $1,300 and four gold watches from the passengers aboard the train. It is said to be the largest single robbery of the Union Pacific to this day.

After dividing the loot, figuring that they were now very wanted by the railroad who didn't take too kindly to bandits robbing their trains, the gang decided to split up into pairs and head out in different directions. Barry and Nixon went to Missouri where Berry was later killed. Nixon fled to Canada and was never heard from again. Collins and Potts were shot to death in an ambush while resisting arrest at Buffalo Station, Kansas. Davis fled to New Orleans. As for Bass, he disguised himself as a farmer and made his way back to Texas.

Why he would head back to Texas since he and Collins made off with the money they owned those ranchers is beyond me, but we do know that he arrived back in Texas on November 1st, 1877. Once there, Bass set about organizing another outlaw gang.

By early 1878, his gang including Seaborn Barnes, Frank "Blockey" Jackson, and Tom Spotswood. Barnes is said to have became Bass' chief lieutenant, his second in charge. Soon after getting together, the Bass gang held up a train in Allen, Texas, on February 22, 1878. Spotswood later was captured and identified.

It's said that by the spring of 1878, the gang robbed four trains within twenty-five miles of Dallas. Those robberies angered local citizens and the Bass Gang is said to have become sort of public enemies number one. Because of that, they were chased across North Texas by posses. Also after Sam Bass and his gang were U.S. Marshal Stillwell Russell, Sheriff Bill Everheart's posse from Grayson County, and Sheriff Eagan's posse from Denton County. There was even a special company of Texas Rangers headed by Captain Junius Peak that was tasked with going after the Bass Gang. Captain Peak was summoned to Austin by the Governor who tasked him with the singular assignment of capturing or killing Bass and every member of his gang.
By then, besides having Seaborn Barnes and Frank Jackson, the Sam Bass Gang had grown to include Sam Pipes, Albert Heindon, William Collins, William Scott, Hank Underwood, "Arkansas" Johnson, and six or seven others. They hit the Texas & Pacific train in Mesquite, Texas, on April 10th, 1878. And as luck would have it, all they got was $152 off of the passengers because they completely missed a hidden shipment of $30,000 in gold.

This robbery was different for the gang because this was the first time any of the gang had been hurt. Fact is during that robbery, it's said that Seaborn Barnes had been wounded and one of the gang members was shot dead.

Posses were after them all over the place. They battled each other across the county. At Salt Creek, another gang member was killed by Peak's rangers.

Bass himself was always somehow able to elude his pursuers. That is until one of his gang members, a new member by the name of Jim Murphy, wanted to save his own skin and turned informant. Jim Murphy actually cut a deal to save himself and his father in exchange for leading the lawmen to the gang. Jim Murphy wrote to Major John B. Jones, who was the commander of the Frontier Battalion of Texas Rangers, telling him of their plan to rob the Williamson County Bank in Round Rock, Texas.

On July 19th, 1878, the Bass Gang robbed the Fort Worth-to-Cleburne train. After they left, Bass and his gang rode into Round Rock. It's said they hitched their horses in the alley north of Georgetown Avenue at the corner of Lampasas. They then walked up the street to Kopperal's General Store, located at the southeast corner of Mays and Georgetown Avenue.

What they didn't know was that close behind them was the Texas Ranger Division. While Bass was heading to Kopperal's General Store, Ranger Sergeant Richard Ware crossed the street from Highsmith's Livery Stable to the barber shop. At the same time that this took place, the outlaws were also spotted by Travis County Deputy Sheriff Morris Moore and Williamson County Deputy Sheriff A.W. Grimes.

While a number of people are under the impression that Tombstone, Arizona, was the first and only town to have gun control laws, the town of Round Rock actually had a no carry within city limits ordinance in 1878, years before Tombstone put their's into effect in 1881. Fact is that was the case in many towns throughout the Old West contrary to popular belief.

The reason that I bring this up is because Deputy Grimes later stated that he saw one of the outlaws wearing a pistol which was a violation of the Round Rock city ordinance of not wearing firearms within city limits. It was his violation of a city ordinance that tipped the lawmen off that the outlaws were there. It was his being spotted carrying a gun that got the whole shootout rolling.

Deputy Grimes is said to have walked up to the outlaw who he noticed was carrying a gun while the bandits were purchasing tobacco in Kopperal's General Store. Grimes reportedly placed a hand on one of their shoulder's and asked, "Do you have a pistol?"

One story says that Grimes put his hand on Seaborn Barnes who panicked when asked if he were armed. That story says that Barnes turned around shot both Grimes and Moore before fighting their way through Texas Rangers and local residents to get out of town. The only problem with that story is that witnesses state that Moore waited outside while Grimes went in to attend what was thought a simple infraction of a city ordinance.

That's why the story in which Sam Bass turning to confront Deputy Grimes is more believable to me. He is reported to have said to have answered Grimes, "Yes, I'll let you have it!" He then shot Grimes in cold blood.

It was at that time that Jackson and Barnes also opened fire on Grimes who was said to have died almost instantly after being shot by Bass. Later, six bullets were found in Grimes dead body.

Deputy Moore, who had been waiting outside the door of Kopperal's Store, immediately responded to the shots fired and entered the store. He opened fire on the three outlaws supposedly hitting Bass in the hand. But soon afterwards, Moore was shot in the chest.

The shooting got the attention of Ranger Sergeant Richard Ware. Believe it or not, it's said Ware who was getting a shave at the time. So he ran to the street, with his face still lathered, and for a while he single-handedly fought the outlaws and they were now trying to get to their horses and flee the scene.

The firing had also attracted the attention of Major Jones, who was at the International and Great Northern Telegraph Office at the time of the initial shooting. Meeting up with Ranger Ware, Major Jones joined the fight and returned fire at the fleeing gang. And if you think the citizens just stood around and watched, it's said that Rangers Ware and Jones were joined in the fight by a one-armed man by the name of Stubbs who had picked up Deputy Grime's gun and opened fire on the outlaws.

By this time, the outlaws made their way back to the alley and were attempting to mount their horses. That's when, along with Ware and Jones, Ranger George Harrell and a local citizen by the name of Conner shot at the gang with their rifles as well.

Some sources say that Bass was shot and killed by Ranger George Harrell and Ranger Sergeant Richard Ware. Some say it was Ranger Harrell who actually fired the shot that killed Bass. There is a story that says that noted con-artist Soapy Smith was there and witnessed Ranger Ware shoot Bass. Smith is said to have told Ware, "I think you got him."

At the same time, Seaborn Barnes fell dead after he was shot in the head by Ranger Ware. As for Jackson, he got away.

The Texas Rangers reported that Ranger Sergeant Richard Ware was the one who fired the fatal shot that actually killed the outlaw Sam Bass. And while the Texas Rangers may have officially listed Ware as being the Ranger who stopped Bass, Sergeant Ware gave that credit to Ranger George Harrell at the official inquest.

Another account? Yes, and it's pure Hollywood!

Yes, there is another account of this that states that after Barnes was killed, both Bass and Jackson were able to mount their horses and had begun to ride off when Bass was hit by a bullet to the back. Supposedly Bass clasped onto his saddle horn but was unable to stay on his horse and fell to the ground.

It was at then that Jackson supposedly held off the Texas Rangers and citizens with just one pistol as he helped Bass back onto his horse. They then rode off with Jackson steadying Bass. Bass and Jackson then supposedly rode through town and to their camp near the Round Rock Cemetery.

The account gets even more far fetched as some have said that Bass was being held in the saddle by Jackson -- while Jackson reloaded his pistols and held the reins in his hands. Then, supposedly, as they turned up Georgetown Road which present day Chisholm Trail Road, they passed a Mrs. Tisdale's place. They then turned down a lane and headed towards the woods.

Supposedly, it was at this point that Bass said that he was in too much pain to continue. Bass insisted that Jackson leave him there and try to save himself -- but Jackson did not want to leave his friend until he was eventually convinced to do so.

Supposedly Bass gave Jackson all of the money, his guns, his ammunition, and yes, Bass supposedly gave Jackson his horse which was supposedly better than Jackson's stolen horse. Remember, the whole gang did in fact ride stolen horses.

The far fetched tale goes on to say how Frank Jackson left his horse with Bass - and Jackson is said to have hid his saddle in the brush nearby for some unknown reason. Then after a long tearful farewell Frank Jackson rode off.

However, the tale goes on to say that Jackson did not abandon his friend but instead camped nearby him to watch over him. Supposedly no great effort was made by the Texas Rangers to pursue the fleeing bandits due to the fear that Bass was supported by "an army of outlaws" who would ambush any posse.

Of course the truth is nothing of the sort.

For one thing, the whole idea of Frank Jackson holding off the entire town with only a 6 shooter is crazy on the face of it. Another thing is that in actuality the Sam Bass Gang was composed of only four individuals by the time they arrived in Round Rock.

Jim Murphy deserted the gang before hand. And once there, Seaborn Barnes was shot dead. Frank Jackson made dust getting out of town to never be seen or heard from again.

Bass was so shot up that he is said to have fallen off his horse which was found nearby as he laid dying in a pasture all night. It's true. While Bass did stay in the saddle after being shot by Harrell and Ware, that didn't last long.

Fact is, the next morning, two railroad workers, who were there constructing a line of the Georgetown Railroad at the time, spotted a man lying helpless in a pasture. The railroad workers went up to check and found the dying outlaw delirious, out of his head, and in pain.

Sam Bass was put in the back of a small wagon and they brought him back to Round Rock where the law was happy to see him in the condition he was in. In fact, when Major Jones learned of Bass being found, he supposedly wired the Texas Attorney General in Austin of the news.

Once in Round Rock, the dying Bass was placed in a small shack located on the lot at the intersection of present day Round Rock Avenue, Main Street and Mays. Major Jones questioned Bass but was unable to get any useful information about the other members of his gang. Frankly, Bass was too out of his head by then to make any sense.

Some writers have noted some sort of nonsense they call a Code of Ethics between the Bass gang. But honestly, from what I've known of criminal types, I seriously doubt that such a code existed. That's especially true if it meant selling another member out to save their own neck from the hangman's noose.

Some have said that Bass supposedly confessed at the end saying, "If I killed him [in reference to Deputy Grimes], he is the first man I ever killed." I find it interesting that he would say "If I killed him" since he and the others shot Grimes to pieces before he could even pull his own gun from his holster. But really, since it was reported that Bass was mostly incoherent and delirious the whole time, I don't think he said much of anything that made sense.

On Sunday, July 21st, 1878, Sam Bass was dead. It happened to be his 27th birthday.

I don't go in for the glorification of killers, murderers, and the like. I think Sam Bass made a conscious decision to rob and kill. I don't see him as being anything but a scumbag outlaw who took what he wanted by force. We should all remember that the year 1878 was no different than today when it comes to people. Sure their ideas of life and work were different, but all in all men and women worked hard making their way in the world. The overwhelming majority, like today, were honestly Godly folks on the right side of the law.

Sam Bass is no different than other badmen who decided to steal what they wanted instead of working for it. There are many out there who think that they are entitled to break the law in pursuit of wealth, no matter how their lawless self-centered attitude effects others.

And effect others, it did! Especially back then!

In the 1870s, when Sam Bass was robbing stages and trains, people absolutely depended on what he ultimately stole from them. The payroll that he made off with was not insured as it is today. Instead it meant that someone waiting for their pay to support themselves and feed their family would not be paid on time or at all.

We today sometimes forget the strain and pain that outlaws placed on the people in the regions that they operated. The banks they robed were owned locally, and in most cases contained the life savings of most of the families in that area. And there's another thing, up until the 1930s, there was no such thing as banks being insured by the Federal Government. There was no such thing as FDIC insurance. That means that if banks were robbed, people suffered because that money was gone.

It was just that way. That is the reason that so many townsfolk were so eager to take up arms and defend their bank and town back then. It was their's to defend.
So honestly, making criminals sound like Robin Hood, as in the case of Sam Bass and Jessie James is nothing but just spinning the truth to sell lies.

Usually criminals in the Old West got exactly what they deserved.

A rope or a bullet, it didn't much matter. And to add insult to injury, some were so bad, as in the case of Jessie James, that they were actually put in the ground face down. Some say it was so they could see where they were going!

In the case of Sam Bass, it's unknown if they did indeed bury him face down so he could find his way to Hell. It is a fact that he was buried in the local Round Rock Cemetery, along side Seaborn Barnes. Their funeral "procession" consisted of two mules pulling a wagon with Sam Bass and Seaborn Barnes both in plain pine boxes that could hardly be called beautifully ornate coffins. The people there in attendance were only the two men there to dig their graves.
The truth behind the legend is that Sam Bass and two others became engaged in a gun battle after killing Deputy Grimes. As Bass attempted to flee, he was shot once by Ranger George Harrell (some say Harold) and then was hit again by a round fired by Texas Ranger Sergeant Richard Ware.

The next morning Bass was found lying helpless in a pasture north of town by a group of railroad workers, who summoned the authorities. He was brought back to Round Rock, where he was taken into custody. There delirious and in massive pain, he died an outlaw's death.

Ironic as it is, he died there on July 21th, 1878, the day of his twenty-seventh birthday. He was buried in Round Rock, and soon became the subject of legend, song, and story. Immediately, folks started spinning tales about the supposed gold that he surely must have buried.

And yes, it wasn't long after his death, that he was romanticizing as a supposed "Robin Hood of the West." Just as there is no plausible reason for anyone to claim that Jessie James was misunderstood or a "Robin Hood of the West," there is no good reason to believe that songs and story romanticizing Sam Bass as a "Robin Hood of the West" are true either.

As time has passed, it seems that the sum of money which he stole has grown in some cases to enormous proportions. And today, his grave is marked with a replacement headstone, the original having suffered at the hands of souvenir collectors over the years. What remains of the original stone is on display at the Round Rock Public Library.

Sam Bass was a thief and murderous outlaw. He died in a killing spree. And believe it or not, there are those who want to paint the killer of Deputies Grimes and Moore as some sort of a hero in the Old West. When in truth, he was nothing of the sort.

Tom Correa



  2. Im a direct relative of sam bass. I have a mirror that has been passed down through the family with a large dent in the side of it; was told to me by my father that it was used to nail sams coffin shut. Havent been able to find any definitive information on that; but that is the story that has been told in our family.

  3. Sam bass was my 5th great uncle and im trying to see if there is anyone else that is related to him so if you are related to sam bass email me at

    1. my Grandfather's mother or sister is the aunt of Sam Bass. she is the one that raised him as her own when he was an orphan. he is my cousin.

  4. There are two photographs Of George Harold one on his horse and the other (The other known photo shows Herold in a 1916 El Paso Police image) this one I can not find.

    Jerrel Crider


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