The name of Sam Bass lives on in Texas folklore as a beloved railroad Robinhood bandit betrayed in his darkest hours by his good boo pard, but such Wild West pulp fiction is betrayed by a haunted history of two Texas youths entangled in the post-Civil War Reconstruction chaos of poverty, desperation, and lawlessness. These ghosts of Denton remind us of a dark past when our outlaws became heroes.
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 “frenemy” betrayer of Sam Bass, Denton’s own native son ‘Judas’ Jim Murphy.
Jim was the third of 9 children born to Henderson and Ruth Murphy, who moved to Denton County in 1851 to establish a General Store in 1852 then the Murphy Hotel in 1855, the first in the area, a split-rail two-story cabin near the log courthouse of the prior county seat of New Alton. In what would become quite a spectacle of the day, The Murphys used a team of mules to move their two-story B&B on rolling logs to its new location, over six miles away along rugged dirt paths, while a very pregnant Mrs. Murphy knitted in her rocking chair on the jostling porch. A few days later, their fifth son John was the first Anglo child born in Denton, and the Murphy Transcontinental Hotel was soon a thriving pioneer community center that offered magnificent meals, tidy accommodations, and rye whiskey for neighbors and travelers alike. The wealthy businessman Henderson served three terms as County Treasurer and at least one term as City Alderman as he also acquired vast ranch land and numerous properties around the Denton Square, interests that his teen sons Bob and Jim helped tend.
Other Dentonites were less fortunate. The effects of the Civil War was devastating, Denton County having lost many men while other weary veterans returned in 1865 to desolate fields and untended farms amidst impoverishing economic depression and drought. Indian raiders of livestock, horse rustlers, and stagecoach bushwackers were persistent threats as Denton County slowly recovered under Union Reconstruction occupation. When the 19-year-old Indiana orphan Sam Bass arrived in Denton in 1870, working as a hand at the Lacy House Hotel and as freighter for Sherriff ‘Dad’ Egan, the affable lad quickly became friends with the Murphy boys as well as Henry Underwood and Frank Jackson, locals who were close in age. The Texas Cattle Boom would help make the Murphy family one of the richest in Denton County and, as sons Bob and Jim oversaw large open-range ranches while starting families, the charismatic Sam Bass turned to horseracing and gambling with his legendary “Denton Mare” by 1874, then eventually into banditry infamy by 1877 with a $60,000 UP Train heist. Trouble is, once Pinkerton Detectives and Texas Rangers pursued Sam into Denton offering a $1,000 dead-or-alive bounty, the Murphys were soon swept up into the “Bass War” scandal as sleepy Denton became a “terrorized armed camp” of lawmen, bounty hunters, and spies.
While many chroniclers of Sam Bass unfairly characterize Jim as an active member of the rotating Sam Bass Gang, there’s little doubt that he often gave the group of childhood friends safe harbor, supplies, and lookout warnings that helped the outlaws evade their murderous pursuers in the Cross Timbers thickets. By then, however, Jim Murphy was happily married to Mary ‘Molly’ Paine with two twin daughters and a promising future soon in jeopardy. Besides Sam, cowpoke Frank Jackson, horse rustler Henry Underwood (accused of burning down the first Denton courthouse in 1875), and tinsmith thug Sebe Barns were close if rough-n-tumble acquaintances who some locals saw as ‘Robinhood’ Rebels giving heck to the Reconstruction Union League and their cozy Railroad Tycoon profiteers. Though Sam was a hero to dirt-poor common folk, the moneyed elite were anxious to make an example of such lawlessness. Embarrassed Rangers and government officials ruthlessly retaliated by arresting several Denton associates of Bass, including Jim and Bob along with their innocent father Henderson in May 1878, in a unscrupulous dragnet intended to legally intimidate unwilling local cooperation. Dragged in chains and shame to await trial in Tyler for aiding wanted train robbers, even as on-the-run Sam’s shootouts desperately escalated, Jim famously cut a Devil’s bargain with Capt. June Peak and Ranger Major J.B. Jones to deliver Sam to capture in exchange for the legal exonerations of himself and his father. Despite assurances Sam would be taken alive if possible and his family freed, Jim had little idea that fate had other plans for both of them.
What finally transpired is the well-known subject of disgraceful infamy for ‘Judas’ Jim Murphy in “The Cowboy Ballad of Sam Bass” and countless books. Jim joined Sam’s gang under considerable suspicion from Sebe Barnes, set on killing the suspected informer had not Jim’s bud Frank Jackson bravely faced him down at gunpoint. Deciding to head into Mexico with money from banks robbed along the way, the remaining Sam, Sebe, Frank, and Jim ambled into Round Rock TX to case the bank. Jim’s hasty wire had assembled Texas Rangers to apprehend the robbers but Deputy Alijah Grimes inadvertently sparked a premature gunfight trying to confiscate their sixguns as they were buying tobacco and supplies at the General Store. Hell suddenly broke loose in the streets with a hurricane of hot lead.
When the gunsmoke settled, Deputy Grimes and Sebe were dead as Frank fled with a mortally-injured Sam while Jim could only look on. Sam Bass died days later on his 27th birthday without giving up any secrets on his pals, so Jim returned to his family in Denton a free man. Jim managed Denton’s Parlour Saloon and attempted to rejoin polite society, but he was now an outcast. The elite rejected him as a Bass cohort, while the admirers of Sam resented his betrayal and would-be gunslingers targeted Jim as a means to fame or revenge. After spending many a fearful night in the jailhouse for his own protection, Jim Murphy gruesomely died of atropine poisoning in early June 1879 while receiving treatment from Doc McMath for an eye ailment. Family believed it an accident, but some whispered it was murder and still others thought suicide, even after Jim was secretly buried in a still-unknown grave. Regardless, the shameful end to a sordid saga led the Murphys to retire northward of the town they’d done so much to establish.
I met Murphy’s descendents at Saturday’s Heritage Festival, who were generously kind but also quite protective of how their kin were caricatured in worshipful Sam Bass mythmaking. I’ve long thought that the stories of these two childhood “frenemies” were a fascinating snapshot for coming-of-age in those anarchic Post-War times that made, broke, and changed the fortunes of so many Dentonites. I think we should finally extend some sympathy and pity for ‘Judas’ Jim Murphy, since both he and Sam seem less like figures of a simplistic Western pulp melodrama than they are epic characters within a sweeping Greek Tragedy. In this tragic tale of two very different Texans from back in the day, their youthful choices in chaotic times made it nigh impossible to change or escape their capriciously intermingled fates.
It strikes me that Sheriff ‘Dad’ Egan had done his level best to bring Sam in alive for a trial, and the mischievously merry Sam had until the very end gone out of his way to avoid killing, usually choosing to run or instead shooting and scattering horses to spook off pursuers. Sam once insisted he had “never robbed a man in the world, but as for railroads, they owed him living and he intended to get it out of them.” Many a farmer and rancher being gauged by the greedy railroad monopolies surely shared that sentiment. As for Jim’s part, he was valiantly risking his own life secretly undercover, facing shootists and murderous bounty hunters alike in a forced gambit to keep his brother and father out of prison. There are numerous sources indicating Jim agreed only on the promise that Sam wouldn’t be killed, a promise that couldn’t be kept. Once back in Denton as a pariah, Jim wrote letters trying to bargain amnesty for his friend Frank Jackson (who’d saved his life several times) to no avail. Frank Jackson disappeared, leaving only rumor and speculation to his fate. In a post-war society of only haves or have-nots and their enforcers, where fortunes rapidly changed, the Robin Hood myth surrounding Sam perhaps says far more about the political and economic climate of Reconstruction Texas than it does about the notoriously generous bandit himself. Sam was generally well-liked if not admired by the common folk, of that there is little doubt, but the ostracized Jim Murphy also reveals a “polite society” of monied Cattle Kingdom gentry that was even more unforgiving than the dirt-poor commoners who resented Jim’s betrayal of their folk hero.
Some stories say that Sam and Jim, united in death as they were in life, still yet haunt the downtown Denton Square and backwoods hideouts where treasure hunters have long sought rumored hidden troves of Sam Bass’ stolen gold. The badman and his betrayer are forever immortalized together, passing from history into legend.