He looks like a pretty dapper fellow in the old photos, but Sam Bass was an outlaw … pure and simple. Yes, there are many stories about him, calling him “The Robin Hood of Texas,” because it is said that he was swift to share the spoils of his crimes with folks who were down on their luck. There is also a ballad (or two) about Sam. Many towns lay claim to him, but Sam Bass has a special connection to Denton … it’s really where he got started in crime! In fact, rumor has it that his ghost — and the ghost of his childhood friend/nemesis — still hang around the downtown square (but that’s a story for another time).
[Update: I had a folktale in my head about Sam Bass, and had to share it on the Ghosts of Denton blog.]
Sam arrived in the town of Denton in the early fall of 1870. He was just a young fellow, only nineteen at the time, who had been orphaned at an early age. He ran away from his uncle’s home in Indiana to seek his fortune as a cowboy. By the time he came prancing into Denton, he had discovered that the hard life of a ranch hand didn’t quite suit him (besides, there were Indian raids in the outlying areas — and he thought he would be safer in town).
He found work in the stables at The Lacy House Hotel (which is where The Texas Building now stands on the northeast corner of the square). Can you imagine a building like the one above on a courthouse square? Occasionally the future outlaw even worked for the sheriff, W. F. (“Dad”) Egan, splitting firewood, building fences, and hauling freight. It was the last “legitimate” job he would have, because his fortune changed!
Sam acquired a sorrel mare named Jenny (who went down in history as “The Denton Mare”). She could race like the wind! That mare became the love of his life. His jockey raced that horse all over North Texas, and usually won. But, Dad Egan wasn’t terribly fond of of horse racing, thinking it a bad influence on young minds. He basically told Sam to stop racing and get rid of the horse saying something to the effect of, “It’s my way or the highway.” Sam Bass and Dad Egan parted company.
For awhile, Sam Bass still walked the streets of Denton (shown below is what Sam would have seen on the west side of the square in 1876). He gambled, drank whiskey, flirted with the ladies … and fell in with bad company.
Before long, he hooked up with a shady fellow by the name of Joel Collins. Next thing you know, Sam was running with the Collins gang, robbing stagecoaches and banks. Then they graduated to robbing trains! In September of 1877, the gang robbed a Union Pacific Train in Big Springs Nebraska, netting $60,000 of newly minted gold coins, four gold pocket watches, and about $1,000 from the passengers. It is said to be the biggest train robbery ever for the Union Pacific. That crew split up after dividing the money.
Sam Bass made it back to Texas and “hid in plain sight” in Denton County and Cooke County. There were a lot of folks in this area who would help him (because of that “Robin Hood” reputation), but there were people who wanted him caught, too. He formed his own gang back in Texas and by 1878, Sam Bass was a hot topic of the legislature in Austin. They called him, “The General” because he outmaneuvered over 200 men searching for him through Denton and Copper Canyon.
His childhood friend, Jim Murphy (shown on the left in the picture above) was one of the people who helped him hide. For that, Jim and his father, a prominent local businessman, were arrested by authorities and taken to Tyler to jail. Jim’s descendants adamantly insist that he was never an outlaw. After his arrest, Jim Murphy played, “Let’s Make A Deal.” He agreed to infiltrate the Sam Bass gang and inform on them in return for their release. His father was released, and word was sent out that Jim had “escaped.” With that as his cover, he joined the Sam Bass gang.
When the gang went to Round Rock (just north of Austin) to rob a bank in July of 1878, Jim Murphy alerted authorities. As Jim stayed behind, the rest of the gang went to scout the area and were ambushed. Sam Bass was fatally wounded and died two days after, on July 21, 1878 — his 27th birthday. He is buried at Round Rock.
Jim Murphy came back to Denton, where he was considered a traitor (and called “Judas Jim”). He died a horrible death from poisoning the next year.
Neither Sam Bass nor Jim Murphy “rest in peace.” Both are said to haunt our square! Come with me on a ghost tour, and I’ll tell you the tales of the hauntings.
Understand that I have abbreviated the story of Sam Bass, but this isn’t history class. You can read legends and folktales about him and his adventures as a “Robin Hood” in the book Tales of Old-Time Texas by J. Frank Dobie. Or if you want the full story as it was told in the day, you can visit The Portal to Texas History to read The Life and Adventures of Sam Bass, written in 1878.