July 21, 2009

Soapy Smith and Sam Bass

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Sam Bass gang
(l to r: Jim Murphy, Sam Bass, Seaborn Barnes)

On this date, July 21, 1878 Texas outlaw, Sam Bass was shot dead. It was his 27th birthday.

In their own written words Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith and his cousin, Edwin Bo Smith, were talking with Texas Ranger Dick Ware just before the shooting of Sam Bass. According to Edwin, Ranger Ware lived in Georgia "within a mile of the Smith plantation." When the shooting started the two boys followed Ware outside and witnessed him shoot the bullet that killed Sam Bass. Jefferson wrote about the incident in a small notebook soon after. Edwin wrote about it twice, in later years claiming it to be the reason he did not follow his cousin into his own life of crime.

[The photograph is incorrect as being that of Sam Bass. Please see October 3, 2013 for the correction]

A train and bank robber, Sam Bass was born in Indiana in 1851. In 1875 at age 24 Bass joined several men known as the "Black Hills Bandits" and helped rob seven stage coaches.

On September 18, 1877 the gang branched out to robbing trains, the first being at Big Spring station. The bandits forced the station- master to signal the coming express train to halt and then boarded. Finding only $450 in the "way safe," they brutally beat the express messenger with a pistol in an attempt to force him to open the "through safe", which had a time lock preventing it from being opened until the train reached its destination. Finding some wooden boxes, the bandits broke them open revealing $60,000 worth of freshly minted $20 gold pieces headed from the San Francisco Mint to an Eastern bank.

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International and Great Northern depot
Round Rock, Texas 1876

The bandits divided the gold coins six ways and then in pairs split up, each pair heading in a different direction. Joel Collins and his partner were shot and killed a week later. Another pair, composed of James Berry and Nixon, was split up and Berry was captured; Nixon, it is assumed, escaped with his share to Canada. The third pair, Sam and Jack Davis, rode south in a one horse buggy-- their share of the haul stowed under the seat.
At some point on their trip back to Texas, Sam and Jack Davis were joined by a company of soldiers and detectives who were searching for the train robbers. Sam and Jack Davis convinced these men that they too were searching for the bandits in the hopes of receiving a large reward. After four days, Sam and Jack Davis split from the other men and rode back to Denton (Centennial Commission). Once in Denton, Sam explained his new found wealth from a strike he had made prospecting in the Black Hills. His money and good spirits attracted many people, some of whom would later become a part of the "Sam Bass Gang" when he took to robbing trains in Texas.
It is assumed that Sam would have reached Denton by late autumn; yet, by February of 1878, Bass had begun to rob trains again. Why? How could he have spent $10,000 in less than four months? Many people have believed that there was no way that he could have spent the money; so they have speculated that Bass hid his gold. Stories abound of individuals searching for the Bass gold. One story places the hidden gold in a cave in East Mountain at Mineral Wells. Another legend speculates that Bass held on to his gold until he headed to Round Rock to rob the bank, hiding the gold in a cave west of Prairie Dell near Big Blue Spring for safekeeping during the robbery. If anyone ever found the Bass Gold they never reported it. Since it is hard to imagine that Sam could have used up all of his gold before he started train robbing again, it lends credence to the story that Sam robbed for sport more than for profit.
Whatever the reason, the "Sam Bass Gang" stood up the Texas Central train at Allen Station on February 22, 1878. This holdup netted the gang $1,300 and on March 18th they again held up the Texas Central, this time at Hutchins. The Texas and Pacific Railroad was hit on April 4th at Eagle Ford and again on the 10th at Mesquite. Only the first robbery resulted in any significant payoff for the gang and the style of these robberies was highly amateurish; prompting some observers to speculate that the robbers were either extremely nervous or drunk at the time of the holdups due to the fact that during two of the holdups the gang missed large stashes of money that had been hurriedly hidden by the express messengers

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Round Rock, Texas

During the four months of the "Bass War", the gang became the stuff of legend; they led the Rangers on long chases with narrow escapes. The gang, relying on Sam's thorough knowledge of the back trails and thickets learned during his days as a teamster, would suddenly surface in an area only to disappear at the first sign of trouble. The gang's success in avoiding capture can be ascribed to both the difficulties of the terrain and ineptness of their pursuers. In a desperate attempt to flush the gang out, the Rangers conducted a sweep of all residents suspected of harboring the bandits. This resulted in the arrests of both Jim Murphy and his father Henderson. Jim was taken to Tyler to face charges of robbing the U.S. mails. Seeking immunity, and with an interest in collecting the reward money, Jim agreed to rejoin the Bass Gang and betray Sam to the Rangers. Thus, the stage was set for the eventual Ranger triumph over the gang in Round Rock.
The first clash of the "Bass War" occurred on April 29 at Cove Hollow. The Rangers, under the direction of Captain Lee Hall, were able to take the gang by surprise while they were resting at Jim Murphy's house. Fleeing the Rangers, Bass was struck twice, once in his cartridge belt and another in the stock of his rifle, without injury. As Sam left the scene he was said to have uttered, "Hell, boys, they've hit me at last. Let's get out of here." Undaunted, Sam was soon flashing his stolen gold pieces around and living it up in the North Texas towns. In June, a posse challenged the gang to a gunfight in which Arkansas Johnson was killed and Henry Underwood rode off never to return to the gang (Centennial Commission). Now, with Jim Murphy looking to betray the gang to the Rangers, the gang decided to head to calmer areas in the southern part of the state.
At some point on their way to Round Rock, Jim Murphy was able to slip away from the gang and send off a letter to Major Jones of the Texas Rangers indicating that the gang was proceeding to Round Rock with the intention of robbing the bank. Major Jones was surprised to hear that the gang was moving so far south; he immediately directed Rangers Dick Ware, Chris Conner and George Harold to proceed to Round Rock and be on the lookout for any members of the Bass Gang. He then rode to Round Rock with deputy sheriff Morris Moore of Travis County.
Sam, Frank Jackson, Seaborn Barnes and Jim "Judas" Murphy arrived in Round Rock Sunday night July 14. Monday they went into the town to case the bank and get a shave. Sam and Seaborn were for stealing some fresh horses and hitting the bank as soon as possible. Murphy, stalling for time, suggested that stealing horses would only raise suspicions and that they should rest their horses and then rob the bank on Saturday. After discussion, the gang decded that the robbery would occur at 3:30 P.M. on Saturday July 20.

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Round Rock, Texas
On Friday the 19th, Sam, Frank and Seaborn 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. He later recalled that he passed the bandits at this point without realizing who they were. 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 (he had not yet realized that they were the Bass Gang) was wearing a pistol, which was supposedly against the law in Round Rock. Another account mentioned that Grimes was concerned because he thought that Sam was wearing two pistols, which was one more than the law permitted in Round Rock.

Whatever the reason, Grimes decided to investigate the strangers' intentions. Walking up to the bandits who were purchasing tobacco in the store, Grimes asked Sam, "Do you have a pistol?" to which Sam is said to have answered "yes" or "I'll let you have it." But more important than what he said was that he, Frank and Seaborn 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.

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Round Rock, Texas
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, Jones fired what was considered to be his only shot as a Texas Ranger at the fleeing gang; the bandits returned the fire, missing Jones but lodging a bullet in the stone wall behind him. 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. Simultaneously, Seaborn Barnes fell dead with a bullet wound to the head.
Who actually shot Sam Bass was never completely decided. The doctors who examined Sam noted that the bullet had hit a cartridge in his belt and then split in two, part entering his back and passing out near his groin, the other part lodging in his body. This statement caused the Rangers to assume that Dick Ware was the one who had administered the fatal blow. Further supporting this theory is the account from Bass himself who indicated that he had been shot before he reached the horses, not in the alley where Harold claims to have shot him, and that the man that shot him had lather on his face. At the official inquest, Ware replied that he did not believe that he had shot Bass and Harold claimed that he did; thus, this is how it went into the official record. However, Ware is credited with killing Seaborn Barnes. Part of the confusion over who actually shot Bass stems from the fear of the Rangers and Round Rock citizens. Such was the fame of Bass that it was believed that the person who shot hm would be subsequently killed by one of Bass's supporters; thus, individuals were not anxious to be known as the person responsible for killing him.
At the point of Seaborn's death and Sam's wounding, many witnesses attributed a great deal of gallantry to the young (only twenty years old) Frank Jackson. With Seaborn dead in front of him and his leader Bass injured, it is said that Frank coolly held the Rangers at bay with his gun as he helped Sam to his horse. Together they made their escape from the firing citizens and Rangers. Another account of this event states that after Seaborn was killed, both Sam and Frank were able to mount their horses and had begun to ride off when Sam was hit by the bullet. Sam clasped onto his saddle horn but was unable to stay on his horse and fell to the ground. It was at this point that Frank held the charging Rangers and citizens at bay with his gun as he helped Sam back onto his horse, and they rode off with Frank steadying Sam.

he information on Sam Bass comes from: The City of Round Rock: Sam Bass


  1. Great post Jeff, I have always liked Sam Bass.
    How odd that Soapy would have seen the shooting, proves once again that it's a small,small world!

  2. jeff-I have lived in Balch Springs Texas, south of Mesquite Texas. There is a street called Bell Starr west of where the bank robbers (Bass Gang) jump on and got away Bell mother back at that lived at the end of that road and was a supposed hide out for the gang after the snider bank robbery in downtown Mesquite. The bank still stand ands next to the rail road track and the name is cut in stone near it's roof line. the Starr family have a plot in the old Pleasant Grove cemetery, in what is now Pleasent Grove.

  3. Thank you for the additional interesting information!

  4. I played the part of Sam Bass for many years in the reenactments at Round Rock Frontier Days! Always enjoyed learning of the old history of the area!
    Thanks for sharing this!!

    1. Hi, David. It is a pleasure to meet "Sam Bass" I just finished Sam Bass and Gang by Rick Miller. Previous to this book, I only knew of the last shootout in which Bass was killed, mainly because Soapy witnessed it. However, I found it very interesting how many stages and trains the gang robbed in their short career. Bass is one of those old west characters who should be more well-known, like Soapy should be, but they have not reached their fame peak yet.

      I hope to visit Round Rock one day, as my family stayed there about five years. How I would love to find my g-g-grandmothers (Soapy's mother's) grave there. Thanks for writing!


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