Thursday, June 28, 2012

OLD WEST: 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 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 Denton 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.

Just about the time his racing played out in 1876, he met a bartender named Joel Collins. Together they 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. The cattle's owners must have had a lot of trust in Bass and Collins. A trust soon to be broken.

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, but without success they then recruited several hard characters looking for an easy way to make money and robbed stagecoaches. The 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 killed the driver. They held up the Deadwood stage seven times, but none of them yielded much. So they decided to try their hand at train robbery.

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 18th, 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. It is said to be the largest single robbery of the Union Pacific to this day.

After dividing the loot, the bandits decided to go in pairs 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.

Sam Bass, disguised as a farmer, made it back to Texas on November 1, 1877. Once there, Bass organized another gang there including Frank "Blockey" Jackson, Seaborn Barnes, and others.

Sam and Jackson and Tom Spotswood held up a train at Allen, Texas, on February 22, 1878. Spotswood later was captured and identified.

Bass again found a few men and held up two stagecoaches. By the spring of 1878 they robbed four trains within twenty-five miles of Dallas.

The robberies aroused citizens, but the bandits were the object of a chase across North Texas by posses and a special company of Texas Rangers headed by Junius Peak.

Captain Junius Peak was summoned to Austin by the Governor who assigned Peak to capture or kill Bass and his gang. He was a good choice since he was a civil war veteran. He was also a law officer and part of the group that ended rustling in New Mexico.

Also after Sam Bass was U.S. Marshal Stillwell Russell, Sheriff Bill Everheart's posse from Grayson County, and Sheriff Eagan's posse from Denton County.

When Sam got ready to hold up the Texas and Pacific Railroad the second time, gang members were plentiful. Sam Pipes, Albert Heindon, William Collins, and William Scott and nine others joined the gang.

Sam Bass, with Seab Barnes, Hank Underwood, "Arkansas" Johnson, Frank Jackson, and others held up a Texas & Pacific train in Mesquite, Texas, on April 10th, 1878.

All they took was $152. They completely missed a hidden shipment of $30,000. During that robbery, Barnes had four gunshot wounds and one of the gang died. This was the first time any of the gang had been hurt. The last train robbery for Sam Bass was the Mesquite train robbery.

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 eluded his pursuers until one of his gang, Jim Murphy, turned informer.

Jim Murphy cut a deal to save him and his father, in exchange for leading the law to the gang. As Bass and his men rode south intending to rob the Williamson County Bank in Round Rock, Jim Murphy wrote to Major John B. Jones, commander of the Frontier Battalion of Texas Rangers, telling him of their plan.

In Round Rock, on Friday, July 19th of 1878, Sam Bass and his gang were scouting the area before the robbery.

Bass, Barnes, and Jackson went into New Town to case the bank one final time. Murphy had stayed behind in Old Town in the hopes of getting in contact with Major Jones.

The bandits 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.

At the same time, Ranger Ware crossed the street from Highsmith's Livery Stable to the barber shop.

As the bandits crossed over to Kopperal's store, they were also observed by Morris Moore, a Travis County deputy sheriff, and Deputy Sheriff Grimes of Williamson County.

Grimes indicated that he believed that one of the strangers was wearing a pistol, which was a violation of the Round Rock city ordinance of not wearing firearms within city limits. And yes, that was the case in many towns throughout the Old West contrary to popular belief.

Grimes walked up to the bandits who were purchasing tobacco in the store, Grimes placed a hand on one of the bandit's shoulder's and asked Bass, "Do you have a pistol?"

Bass is said to have answered "Yes, I'll let you have it," and shot Grimes in cold blood.

Jackson and Barnes also opened fire on Grimes, killing him instantly. Grimes never even had the opportunity to draw his gun. Six bullet holes were found in his dead body .

Moore, who had been waiting outside the door of Kopperal's Store, entered and opened fire on the bandits, shooting Bass through the hand. He was then shot in the chest, the bullet piercing his lung, and was forced to discontinue the chase.

The shooting had attracted the attention of Ranger Ware, who was receiving a shave at the time. He ran to the street, his face still lathered, and for a time, single-handedly fought the fleeing bandits.

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.

Ware and Jones were also joined in the fight for a time by a one-armed man named Stubbs, who had picked up Grime's gun and opened fire on the bandits.

By this time, the bandits had made their way back to the alley and were attempting to mount their horses.

Ranger Harold and a local citizen named Conner shot at the gang with rifles. It was at this point that Ranger Harold believes that he inflicted the mortal wound on Bass.

At the same moment simultaneously, Seaborn Barnes fell dead with a bullet wound to the head.

The Texas Rangers reported that Dick Ware was the one who fired the final shot into Sam Bass.

At the official inquest, Ware replied that he did not believe that he had shot Bass - but Harold claimed that he did - which was recorded in the official record.

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 this point that Jackson supposedly held off the Rangers and citizens with just one pistol as he helped Bass back onto his horse, and they rode off with Jackson steadying Bass.

Bass and Jackson then supposedly rode through Old Town 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 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 to on the face of it.

Another thing is that in actuality the Sam Bass Gang was composed of only four individuals before arriving in Round Rock.

Once there, Seaborn Barnes was shot dead, Jim Murphy deserted the gang, and 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.

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 two men went up to check and found the dying outlaw delirious, out of his head, and in pain. 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.

When Major Jones learned of Bass being found, supposedly he wired the Texas Attorney General in Austin.

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.

Some have made note of some sort of none sense 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 - especially if it meant selling another member out to saving 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, 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 bad men 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.  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 having FDIC insurance. That means that if banks were robbed, people suffered.

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 face him 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 nicely made 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 Herold 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, 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. As time has passed, it seems that the sum of money he stole has grown in some cases to enormous proportions.

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.

Of course, typical of legends of the Old West, when Sam Bass died on July 21st 1878, that being his twenty-seventh birthday, he immediately became the subject of legend, song, and story. Soon after his death, songs and story romanticizing another "Robin Hood of the West" began to appear.

Just as there is no plausible reason for anyone to claim that Jessie James was misunderstood and was in reality 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.

Sam Bass was a murderous outlaw. He died in a killing spree. And believe it or not, there are those who want to paint the killer Sam Bass as some sort of a hero in the Old West - when the truth is nothing of the sort.

Story by 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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