Not-So-Happy Birthdays for Sam Bass and Belle Starr — Part One

Wanted posters back in the days of the Old West could get downright personal.  In addition to being branded a “notorious badman,” it appears Sam Bass was also labeled “a poor dresser” and would not be a likely candidate for Project Runway. In a letter to H.P. Lovecraft, ca. January 1931, Howard gives HPL a taste of an old campfire song called “The Ballad of Sam Bass.” 

“Sam Bass was born in Indiana, that was his native home,
And at the age of seventeen, young Sam began to roam,
He first came out to Texas, a drover for to be,

And a kinder hearted fellow, you seldom ever see.
Sam used deal in race stock, one called the Denton Mare;
He matched her in scrub races and took her to the Fair.
Sam used to coin the money, and he spent it just as free,
He always drank good whiskey, where-ever he might be.”

Sam’s exploits shook the country, but he fell at Round Rock, outnumbered and surrounded by a vengeful posse, and already his fame has faded.

Here, in a letter to H.P. Lovecraft, August 9, 1932, Howard relates the tale of another dangerous outlaw, Belle Starr (known as “The Bandit Queen”):

And Belle Starr, the most famous woman-desperado of all the West — what sagas could be sung of her! Many the times she came into my aunt’s millinery shop in the old Indian Territory, to purchase expensive and exclusive types of apparel fresh from the states. A handsome, quiet speaking, refined woman, my aunt said — she was of aristocratic blood, and natural refinement, for all she’d kill a man as quick as a rattler striking. It’s a curious coincidence that two of the Southwest’s most famous outlaws — Sam Bass and Belle Starr — were killed on their birthdays. Sometimes I feel as if the shotgun blast from the brush that mowed down Belle Starr, forecast the doom of the wild, mad, glorious, gory old days of the frontier. She was more than the wicked woman pious people call her — more than merely a feminine outlaw — she was the very symbol of a free, wild, fierce race. Will Rogers, in jest, spoke of erecting a monument to Belle Starr. Oklahoma could do worse. Whatever she was or was not, she symbolized a colorful and virile phase of American evolution.

Sam Bass came into this world on July 21, 1851 near Mitchell, Indiana. At the age of 18 he struck out on his own, and found his way to Denton County, Texas. There he was employed as a farmhand and teamster by Sheriff W.F. “Dad” Eagan. But Bass quickly tired of working for someone else and become owner of a one-man racing stable as a side job. He acquired a fleet filly that became known as the “Denton Mare” and entered the horse in numerous races in North Texas and won most them. This fast racehorse earned Sam enough money for him to quit his job with Sheriff Eagan (who would later become one of his pursuers) and retire to become a gentleman of leisure, living a life of horseracing, gambling and saloon patronizing.

From Denton, Sam moved to San Antonio, continuing the high life and eventually formed a partnership with Joel Collins, a bartender. The two drove a herd of cattle north for several cattlemen, where they sold them — most likely in Kansas. They were supposed to return to Texas after the sale to pay the cattlemen their share. Instead the pair took all the money ($8,000) and headed to Deadwood, South Dakota. Once there, they gambled away most of it and with what little was left, Bass and Collins set up a freighting business, but wound up going broke. So they did what a lot of restless men did in those days — they turned outlaw, forming a small gang, which consisted of themselves, Tom Nixon, Bill Potts, Jim Berry, Jack Davis, and Robert “Little Reddy” McKimie.

The gang started out robbing stagecoaches near Deadwood, but this endeavor brought them far less money than they expected. The group was further soured on the stage robberies after McKimie killed a driver, which led to his expulsion from the gang. Looking for a big score, the outlaws turned to the more lucrative business of train robbery. The gang set their sights on a Union Pacific passenger train in Big Springs, Nebraska. The outlaws, led by Bass, robbed the train of what was then a fortune — $60,000 in newly minted twenty-dollar gold pieces, and took $1,300, along with four gold watches from the passengers.

After splitting the loot into shares, the bandits decided to split up and head in different directions Bass made his way back to Denton and his old stomping grounds, disguised as an itinerant farmer. Bass quickly assembled a new gang began a crime spree of robbing stagecoaches and trains, including one from the Texas and Pacific Railroad outside Dallas. In between holdups, Bass hid in the heavily wooded area of rural Denton County, aided by locals who considered him a “Robin Hood” of sorts. Some wondered about what happened to Bass’ impressive cut of the Big Springs train heist since he jumped back into a life of crime without taking a break. This fueled treasure-hunter legends about hidden gold in the “Sam Bass Cave” for years. In between robberies, The Lacy House Hotel on the Denton Square was a favorite,  frequent and safe rest stop for Bass. Like the rural residents of Denton, the hotel owners were known to harbor and aid their beloved outlaw hero during what came to be known as “The Bass Wars.”

As Bass readied a plan to hold up the Texas and Pacific Railroad for a second time near Mesquite, his gang was quite sizable — Sam Pipes, Albert Heindon, William Collins, William Scott and nine others joined the gang. But this second robbery took its toll on the gang — this was the first time any of the outlaws had been shot. Barnes took four bullets and another man died. The heat was on and Mesquite was Bass’s last train robbery. Posses were all over Northeast Texas searching for the outlaw gang. Texas Ranger Junius Peak and his Company B of the Frontier Battalion were also on the hunt for Bass and his boys. With the aid of local posses (one of them led by Bass’ former employer, Sheriff Eagan), he and his men harassed Bass for over four months, driving him from North Texas towards Round Rock and his fate. During this running battle, another gang member was felled by one of Peak’s Rangers at Salt Creek.

While spending all their time eluding the law, Bass and his men had little time to commit any crimes and soon found themselves out of money in July of 1878. Bass and three other gang members, Jim Murphy, Frank Jackson (Bass’ best friend) and Seaborn Barnes, traveled to Round Rock, scheming to line their pockets with the proceeds from a bank robbery. However, unbeknownst to Bass, he had a “Judas” in his midst. Gang member Murphy betrayed him to the Texas Rangers for a reward. When the gang arrived in Round Rock, Major John B. Jones and his company of Rangers were waiting.

The Bass gang arrived at Round Rock the night of July 14, which was a Sunday. The group made camp near the Round Rock Cemetery on the outskirts of town. The next morning they went into Round Rock to case the bank and get a shave. Bass and Barnes were eager to steal some fresh horses and rob the bank as quickly as possible. The “Judas” Murphy suggested that stealing horses would only cause suspicion and that it would be better to rest their horses and then hold-up the bank on Saturday. Murphy wanted to buy more time for the law to gather in the town. So the gang agreed to put the robbery off until Saturday July 20th.

It was a hot, dusty Friday afternoon on July 19th when Bass, Jackson and Barnes went into downtown to case the bank one more time before Saturday’s planned robbery, while Murphy lagged behind, hoping to get in contact with Major Jones. The three outlaws hitched their horses in an alley near the middle of town. They then walked up the street to a general store to purchase supplies before visiting the bank in preparation for next day’s robbery.

Among the many lawmen in town on the lookout for the Bass gang were Morris Moore, a Travis County Deputy Sheriff, and Deputy Sheriff Grimes of Williamson County. The two were standing on a corner when they observed three hard looking men, watching them as they entered a general store. The two lawmen entered the store to get a closer look at the suspicious men. Grimes walked toward the trio while Moore stood watch by the door. Grimes foolishly confronted the outlaws alone, asking them if they were armed. Their response was quick and deadly – two of them pulled their pistols and shot Grimes six times before he could take a breath. The third man took a shot at Sheriff Moore, who returned fire, hitting Bass in the hand before being shot in the chest and forced to retreat as the outlaw trio exited the store.

The commotion got the attention of Ranger Dick Ware, who was in a nearby barber shop getting a shave at the time the shooting broke out. He ran to the street, his face covered with lather, and briefly single-handedly shot it out with the fleeing outlaws. The firing had also alerted Major Jones, who was at the International and Great Northern Telegraph Office at the time of the shooting started. He met up with Ranger Ware and fired what is believed to be the only shot he fired as a Texas Ranger at the fleeing gang; the bandits returned the fire, missing Jones. Ware and Jones were also joined in the fight for a time by a one-armed man named J.F. Tubbs, who had picked up Grimes’ pistol and opened fire on the fleeing robbers. By this time, the bandits had made their way back to the alley and were about to mount their horses. Ranger George Harold and a local citizen named Conner fired on the gang with rifles. It was during this exchange that Ranger Harold believes he inflicted the fatal wound on Bass.  At the same instant,  Barnes fell dead with a bullet to the head.

With a great deal of difficulty, the badly wounded Bass climbed into the saddle. Jackson was at his side as the two rode as fast as they could out of the town. Bass was so wobbly on in the saddle, Jackson had to hold him up with one hand while maneuvering his own horse through Round Rock. Major Jones grabbed the first horse he could find and he and a small posse of men took off after Bass and Jackson. But they did not make it more than two or three miles before the horse Major Jones was riding just gave out – it was an old horse, well past its prime. So the posse was forced to return to Round Rock, but Major Jones knew Bass was in bad shape and would not make it far. He and the other lawmen made plans to go out the next morning to capture the outlaw and his partner.

After leaving Round Rock, the desperate outlaws high-tailed it for their nearby camp, grabbed their belongings and took off up the Chisholm Trial and disappeared into the woods. Soon Bass had to stop – the pain he was in was unbearable and he could ride no further. He pleaded with his friend to leave him and save himself. Finally a tearful Jackson agreed to go. Bass gave him all his personal effects – his guns, ammunition, money and his horse, which was better and faster than Jackson’s steed. Ever faithful to his friend, Jackson did not go far, but camped nearby the mortally wounded Bass.

Bass, now alone, spent a long painful night pondering the hopeless of his situation. When the sun came up, he dragged himself to the side of a road where a black man leading a mule team found him. Bass offered to pay the farmer to hide him, but failed to convince him to do so. He managed to crawl to a nearby tree, which afforded him some shade from the rising Texas sun. By this time large groups of lawmen had spread out across the countryside searching for him. He was found by Sergeant Charles Nevill and eight other Texas Rangers. As they neared the tree, they heard Bass call out “Don’t shoot; I am unarmed and helpless; I am the man you are looking for; I am Sam Bass!”

Word soon reached Major Jones of Bass’ location and he and his company of Rangers, along with a doctor and an ambulance, left the town to retrieve the dying outlaw. Upon returning to Round Rock, Major Jones and the doctor made every effort to save Bass, but the situation was bleak. The fatal bullet had entered the small of his back, passed through his body and exited out near his groin. Throughout the intense questioning by numerous lawmen and his constant suffering, he remained stoic and true to the Outlaw Code. He never gave up his friends or their locations.

On  July 21, 1878, his 27th birthday, the doctor told Bass he was not going to last much longer. He reportedly replied, “let me go,” and a few minutes later opened his eyes and exclaimed, “This world is a bubble, trouble wherever you go.” He passed away soon afterward.

Bass and Barnes were buried next to each other in the Round Rock Cemetery. Their graves are located at the northwest corner of the cemetery, near the Slave Cemetery.

As for the other two gang members, like his Biblical counterpart, the “Judas” Murphy came to a bad end. Shortly after returning to Denton he killed himself with poison, though some speculate it was Jackson that killed him. As for Jackson, some believe that he became a prosperous rancher in West Texas or New Mexico. Another account has him incarerated in the Arizona State Prison, under the name of Downing. But no one knows for certain what became of the sole survivor of the gunfight in Round Rock.

Read Part Two