Sam Bass and His Train Robber Gang

 

Posse

The army officer mounted his men and pursued Collins and Heffridge. When he overtook the two men he told them their descriptions tallied with those of some train robbers that he was scouting for, and declared they would have to go back to the station and be identified. Collins laughed at the idea and declared that he and his companion were cattlemen returning to their homes in Texas. They reluctantly turned and started back with the soldiers. After riding a few hundred yards the two robbers held a whispered conversation. Suddenly the two pulled their pistols and attempted to stand off the lieutenant and his troop. The outlaws were promptly shot and killed. On examining their packs the soldiers found tied up in the legs of a pair of overalls $20,000 in gold. Not a dollar of the stolen money had been used and there was no doubt about the identity of the men.

Not long after they had divided up in Nebraska, Jim Berry appeared at his home in Mexico, Missouri. At once he deposited quite a lot of money in the local bank and exchanged $3,000 in gold for currency, explaining his possession of the gold by saying he had sold a mine in the Black Hills. In three or four days the sheriff of the county learned of Berry’s deposits and called at the bank to see the new depositor’s gold. His suspicion became a certainty when he found that had deposited $20 gold pieces.

Tom Nixon Reward

Tom Nixon Reward

That night the sheriff with a posse rounded up at Berry’s house, but the suspect was not there. The home was well provisioned and the posse found many articles of newly purchased clothing. Just after daylight, while searching the place the sheriff heard a horse whinny in some timber nearby. Upon investigating, he suddenly came upon Jim Berry sitting on a pallet. Berry discovered the officer at about the same time and attempted to escape by running. He was fired upon, one bullet striking him in the knee and badly shattering it. He was taken to his home and given the best of medical attention, but gangrene set in and he died in a few days. Most of his $10,000 was recovered. Tom Nixon evidently quit Berry somewhere en route, for he made good his escape with his ill-gotten gain and was never apprehended.

Sam Bass and Jack Davis, after the separation in Nebraska, sold their ponies, bought a light spring wagon and a pair of workhorses. They placed their gold pieces in the bottom of the wagon, threw their bedding and clothes over it, and in this disguise traveled through Kansas and Indian Territory to Denton County, Texas. During their trip through the territory, Bass afterward said he camped within 100 yards of a detachment of cavalry. After supper, he and Davis visited the soldiers’ camp and chatted with them until bedtime. The soldiers said they were on the lookout for some train robbers that had held up the Union Pacific in Nebraska, never dreaming for a moment that they were conversing with two of them. The men also mentioned that two of the robbers had been reported killed in Kansas.

This rumor put Bass and Davis on their guard, and on reaching Denton County, Texas they hid in the Elm Bottoms until Bass could interview some of his friends. Upon meeting them he learned that the names and descriptions of every one of the Union Pacific train robbers were in the possession of the law officers; that Collins, Heffridge, and Berry had been killed; and that every sheriff in North Texas was on the watch for Davis and himself. Davis at once begged Bass to go with him to South America, but Bass refused, so Davis bade Sam goodbye and set out alone. He was never captured. On his deathbed, Bass declared he had once received a letter from Jack Davis written from New Orleans, Louisiana asking Bass to come there and go into the business of buying hides.

Bass had left Denton County early in the spring an honest, sincere and clean young man. By falling with evil associates he had become within a few months one of the most daring outlaws and train robbers of his time. Before he had committed any crime in the state the officers of North Texas made repeated efforts to capture him for the big reward offered by the Union Pacific and the express company but, owing to the nature of the country around Denton and the friends Bass had as long as his gold lasted, met with no success.

Bass’ money soon attracted several desperate and daring men to him. Henry Underwood, Arkansas Johnson, Jim Murphy, Frank Jackson, Pipes Herndon, and William Collins, — the last one, a cousin of Joel Collins — and two or three others joined him in the Elm Bottoms. Naturally, Bass was selected as leader of the gang. It was not long before the outlaw chief planned and executed his first train robbery in Texas: that at Eagle Ford, a small station on the Texas Pacific Railroad, a few miles out of Dallas. In quick succession, the bandits held up two or three other trains, the last, at Mesquite Station, ten or twelve miles east of Dallas. From this robbery, they secured about $3,000. They met with opposition here, for the conductor, though armed with only a small pistol, fought the robbers and slightly wounded one of them.

The whole state was now aroused by the repeated train hold-ups. General John B. Jones hurried to Dallas and Denton to look over the situation and arranged to organize a company of Texas Rangers at Dallas. Captain June Peak, a very able officer, was given the command. No matter how brave a company of recruits, it takes time and training to get results from them, and when this raw company was thrown into the field against Bass and his gang the bandit leader played with it as a child plays with toys. Counting the thirty Rangers and the different sheriffs’ parties, there were probably 100 men in pursuit of the Bass Gang. Sam played hide-and-seek with them all and, it is said, never ranged any farther west than Stephens County or farther north than Wise County. He was generally in Dallas, Denton or Tarrant Counties. He would frequently visit Fort Worth or Dallas at night, ride up with his men to some outside saloon, get drinks all around and then vamoose.

Seaborn Barnes

Seaborn Barnes

Finally, in a fight at Salt Creek in Wise County, Captain June Peak and his Texas Rangers killed Arkansas Johnson, Bass’ most trusted lieutenant. Either just before or soon after this battle, the Rangers captured Pipes Herndon and Jim Murphy and drove Bass and his two remaining companions out of North Texas. At that time the state had on the frontier of Texas, six companies of veteran Rangers. They were finely mounted, highly equipped, and were the best-mounted police in the world. Anyone of those highly trained commands could have broken up the Sam Bass Gang in half the time it took a command of new men.

After the fight on Salt Creek only Sam Bass, Seaborn Barnes, and Frank Jackson were left of the once formidable gang. These men had gained nothing from their four train robberies in North Texas and were so hard pressed by the officers of the law on all sides that Bass reluctantly decided to leave the country and try to make his way to Mexico. Through some pretended friends of Bass, General Jones learned of the contemplated move. He, with Captain Peak and other officers, approached Jim Murphy, one of Bass’ gang captured about the time of the Salt Creek fight, who was awaiting trial by the Federal authorities for train robbery, and promised they would secure his release if he would betray his friend.

Murphy hesitated and said his former chief had been kind to his family, had given them money and provisions, and that it would be ungrateful to betray his friend. The general declared he understood Murphy’s position fully, but Bass was an outlaw, a pest to the country, who was preparing to leave the state and so could no longer help him. General Jones warned Murphy that the evidence against him was overwhelming and was certain to send him to the Federal prison — probably for life — and exhorted him to remember his wife and his children. Murphy finally yielded and agreed to betray Bass and his gang at the first opportunity.

According to the plan agreed upon Murphy was to give bond and when the Federal court convened at Tyler, Texas, a few weeks later he was not to show up. It would then be published all over the country that Murphy had skipped bond and rejoined Bass. This was carried out to the letter. Murphy joined Bass in the Elm Bottoms of Denton County and agreed to rob a train or bank and get out of the country. Some of Bass’ friends, suspicious of Murphy’s bondsmen, wrote Sam that Murphy was playing a double game and advised him to kill the traitor at once.  Bass immediately confronted Murphy with these reports and reminded him how freely he had handed out his gold to Murphy’s family. Bass declared he had never advised or solicited Jim to join him, and said it was a low down, mean and ungrateful trick to betray him. He told Murphy plainly if he had anything to say to say it quickly. Barnes agreed with his chief and urged Murphy’s death.

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