Texas Outlaw Sam Bass in Denton

Posted: August 22, 2011 in Denton Ghost Stories, Denton History

This is one of the few known photographs of Sam Bass (standing at left), taken in Dallas during a cattle drive to Kansas in the summer of 1876. Standing next to him is John E. Gardner, seated are Joel Collins (right) and his brother Joe, who would become Bass’ partners in crime for the famous train heist.

Sam Bass is one of the more notorious outlaws from in and around DFW, and his story is intimately tied to Denton’s history.  As an Old West legend, the accounts of the life of “Texas’ Beloved Bandit” or “Robin Hood on a Fast Horse” (documented for cowboy firesides in “The Ballad of Sam Bass”) are as varied as the number of folks telling the tale, but few disagree that his story begins in Denton County around 1870. Young orphan Sam handled horses in the stables of the Lacy House Hotel on the Denton Square and later worked for Denton County Sheriff William F. ‘Uncle Bill’ Egan caring for livestock, cutting firewood, building fences, and spending time as a freighter between Denton County and the railroad towns of Dallas and Sherman. Bass soon became enamored with horse racing and, after acquiring a fleet filly that became known across Texas as “The Denton Mare” in 1874, he turned his attention to professional racing and gambling after an ultimatum from Egan (who would later hunt the outlaw). Competing his speedy mare around the territories, the charming rogue quickly fell in with thieving scoundrels headed north after squandering earnings and in 1877 he and the Collins brothers along with three others held up an eastbound Union Pacific passenger train in Big Springs, Nebraska. The gang stole a jaw-dropping sum of $60,000 in newly minted twenty-dollar gold pieces (still to this day the largest single robbery of the Union Pacific Railroad) and $1,300 plus four gold watches from the passengers. After dividing the loot, the bandits decided to go in pairs in different directions so Sam made his way back to Denton County disguised as an itinerant farmer.

The fate of Sam’s impressive cut of the heist has fueled treasure-hunter legends about hidden gold in “Sam Bass’ Cave” for years, since by 1878 his Sam Bass Gang quickly resumed a crime wave of robbing stagecoaches and trains within twenty-five miles of Dallas while hiding out in the thickets of the rural Denton County area. One account has the bandits’ horses confiscated to Denton after Sheriff Egan spooked their camp, only to be reclaimed at sunrise by a mounted Sam awakening Egan by playfully exclaiming to his former employer: “Wake up, Bill! I hear there’s thieving scallywags roaming these parts!” Within mere months, the Sam Bass Gang were soon wanted outlaws who led the Texas Rangers and railway-hired Pinkerton Men on a spirited chase across North Texas.  Before Sam met his legendary end in Round Rock, Texas on his twenty-seventh birthday later that year, however, there was a very notable encounter with his pursuers on the Denton Square that will be included on the tour (along with accounts of Sam Bass’ ghost continuing to haunt Denton County in search of his hidden gold and to torment the lingering spirit of his ‘JudasJim Murphy)! The legend was immortalized in the cowboy Ballad of Sam Bass, making him a Texas hero. Stay tuned!

North side of Denton Square, 1880s… and the empty northeast corner plot of the old Lacy House Hotel and on the west side the burned-out Parlour Saloon of the Murphy’s.

  1. Doc Comics says:

    Among some of the Denton rogues that Sam Bass fell in with during his horse-racing days was Henry Underwood, who was charged with arson in the 1875 burning of the first Denton County courthouse. According to one history, “The Murphy Family in Denton County, Texas” by D.B. Dail:

    “Law enforcement’s suspicions of arson in the burning of the courthouse and saloon were heightened when a second mysterious fire occurred within days after the first conflagration. In the aftermath of the first fire, the few records that survived in the burned courthouse were transferred to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (present-day St. Andrew Presbyterian Church), located on the corner of West Oak and Bolivar Streets. Yet within a few weeks of that move, a fire broke out in the church, completely destroying it and the few remaining county records contained in it. This time, suspicion found a focus: Sam Bass’s ne’er-do-well friend, Henry Underwood. Underwood was eventually indicted for arson and jailed for approximately six months. But Denton County District Attorney Emory Smith later dismissed the charge against Underwood on grounds of insufficient evidence.”

  2. st says:

    As a bonus, there are legends of Sam Bass encountering other infamous figures. During one of Sam’s stagecoach robberies while up north, a runaway carriage pulled by spooked horses was rescued by none other than Pony Express rider Calamity Jane (a connection no doubt influencing the 1949 movie). There is also an account of a tense encounter while gambling in Dallas between a young Sam Bass and Frank James, brother to legendary Wild West outlaw Jesse James!

  3. st says:

    Listen to this incredible rendition of the old cowboy “Ballad of Sam Bass”!!!

  4. […] Source: https://dentonhaunts.wordpress.com/2011/08/22/texas-outlaw-sam-bass-in-denton/ […]

  5. […] discovered in our archival research and interviews, these new-fangled stories will showcase the colorful personalities, vanished locales, and high-adventure history that forged the unique character of Denton County! […]

  6. […] Last Saturday’s Denton County Heritage Festival was a wonderful event on the lovely Denton Square, commemorating our town’s 1861-1877 post-Civil War years with period reenactments, historical sketches, and stories by costumed forefathers (and foremothers). The “Texas Troubles” leading to our role the Civil War and its aftermath were indeed a “pivotal era” for our Denton township, only 3 years old when war broke out in 1860. Our prior articles on the “1860 Prairie Match Mystery” and “Texas Outlaw Sam Bass in Denton” sets the stage for this modest defense of the “frienemy” betrayer of Sam Bass, Denton’s native son ‘Judas’ Jim Murphy. […]

  7. […] Denton Haunts & Ghost Stories […]

  8. […] Denton Haunts & Ghost Stories […]

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