Archive for the ‘Denton History’ Category

Denton TX is full of history and mystery, and a storied past full of “School Spirit” beyond just UNT and TWU. The detective work of founding father Sheriff C.A. Williams on “The Prairie Match Mystery” maybe could’ve changed history in 1860, and Denton’s Christian Women Interracial Fellowship did make history as “Civil Rights Mavens of Integration” in the 60s and 70s. There’s also some local food history about “Denton’s 1950 Foodie Flashback” over at our We Denton Do It “Back In The Day” column!

Jim Murphy of Denton TX, childhood friend turned informant.

Jim Murphy of Denton TX, childhood friend turned informant.

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.


Denton-trolleySpring is in the air, which means another season of DENTON HAUNTS is almost here! Beginning on The Ides of March (15th), springtime tours of DENTON HAUNTS offer *MORE* history and hauntings as Doc and Shelly trot out brand new tales about “Denton County’s Secret Haunts” and  “Denton’s Pioneers, Outlaws, and Painted Ladies.” Sharing the almost-forgotten people and secret places 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! Some of these DENTON HAUNTS include true accounts of our fighting frontier men and women, Civil War intrigue and tragedy, Old West lawmen and outlaw rogues, the brothels of “soiled doves”, quirky traditions, famous citizens and visitors, Denton’s cinematic legacy from Benji to Rocky Horror, UFO sightings, top-secret locations, The Quakertown stories, and some surprising trivia as well as distant memories (like Denton’s interurban trolleys, pictured above). Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook to stay up-to-date on the tour schedule and special events since we will have more than a few surprises in store for our fans!

EDIT [March 15]: The Ides of March came with a few surprises, indeed, primarily the news that Ms. Shelly has decided to embark on her own ghost tour of Denton using our research. As this leaves us making many unanticipated adjustments, stay tuned to schedule updates and new tour information at our Facebook page. Meanwhile, please take a moment and consider voting for DENTON HAUNTS as “Best Kept Secret” in the DRC 2013 Best of Denton awards contest!!

The inaugural fall of DENTON HAUNTS is coming to a close with our tours Friday and Saturday at 7pm, so its your last chance to hear stories from Denton’s haunted history until spring! C’mon out and see us at 7pm on Friday November 11 and Saturday 12th, and bring your friends! Cost is $10, and the tour begins at the grave of John B. Denton. Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook or subscribe to our blog e-mail list to receive updates and new tour information for the Springtime 2012 DENTON HAUNTS Frontier Outlaw Tour!!

Meanwhile, thanks for all the support and shared stories that have made the Ghost Walk such a great success!

The Cowboy Ballad of Sam Bass

Posted: November 1, 2011 in Denton History

An atmospheric interpretation of the 1880s cowboy campfire tale, The Ballad of Sam Bass!

Performed by Justin Hawkins of TrebucheT
Acoustic set at The Garage on Halloween night
Denton, TX
October 31, 2011

From left: ‘Judas’ Jim Murphy, Sam Bass, and Seaborn Barnes.


Several famous Dentonians merit special attention because their ghosts continue to influence the community they loved so much. The wandering ghost of Nurse Betty from the old Homer Flow Memorial Hospital has not been deterred by the student housing on Scripture Hill that replaced the free community clinic, where her spirit after death still ministers those in need. Nurse Betty has been sighted tending to the victims of car accidents near Fry Street and spooking away stalkers of women near the UNT campus. Likewise patrolling Denton streets is the benevolent Blind Sheriff Hodges and his boxer Candy, and Emily Fowler is still found in the library that bears her name well after her 1971 death! There are also also tales of more malevolent predators from Denton’s past, such as the Manson Family’s Charles “Tex” Watson, the still-unsolved mystery of the murdered Flower Girl, the horrifying trail of Texas serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, and the Texarkana Phantom‘s possible TWU victims.

Although far less well-known today as the Old Alton Bridge’s “GoatMan,” Denton has it’s own ghoul haunting the West Denton bridges of Bonnie Brae known as the “PigMan”. The earliest recorded accounts of the PigMan are from the Rockin’ 50s, an era of hot rods and leather-jacket Greasers memorialized in Happy Days or American Graffiti, when young high school flames would return from the secluded make-out spots in West Denton’s farming country with terrified stories of a grunting, rock-throwing, grotesquely deformed Pig Man. Denton’s newspaper relayed a warning from police to teens and their parents to avoid these spots after numerous reports of vandalism to parked cars and parking couples, but word-of-mouth stories circulated about the malevolently grotesque PigMan that terrified young lovers and unwary travelers who ventured into these rural regions known as “Hog Valley.” Teens breathlessly told of a grunting figure who scurried in the shadows of the creekbed and pelted parked cars with stones, and others told of a man-like creature with glowing red eyes who traveled the roadside with an aggressive pack of grunting wild hogs. The most obvious explanations are that these are pranks played on skittish classmates, or imaginative stories used by clever parents themselves to deter the amorous activities of teens freed by automobiles to find remote spots for discrete experimentation. The stories themselves, however, are revealing for other reasons.

Two versions exist about the origins for the PigMan of Bonnie Brae bridge, one rather traditional and the other far more ominous.  The first origin tells of a drifter who was attacked by wild boar as he attempted a shortcut across a farmer’s land. Similar to Werewolf folklore, the bites of cursed or rabid boar then transformed the hapless wanderer into a mad half-man, half-pig creature doomed to roam the creekbeds of Hog Valley, ravenously searching for easy prey like unsuspecting paramours parking on the rural roads outside of town.

The second version instead relates an incident tied to local legends of the “Cowboy Mafia” underworld.  In this more sinister account, the remote areas of Hog Valley may have concealed sites of illegal drug activities guarded by patrols of motorcycle gangs employed by the infamous Rex Cauble‘s “Cowboy Mafia” of the 60s and 70s. During unknown circumstances that interviewees are reluctant to clarify, a leather-jacketed greaser is said to have been brutally beaten by a biker gang after having his nose cut off and a ‘Glasgow grin’ carved into his face (like the Joker)… a gangland sign that someone has been ‘nosy’ and talking or ‘squealing’ to police. Horribly disfigured and unable to function in polite society, this “PigMan” was forced to roam the rural countryside foraging for food, sometimes raiding hog slop or taking shelter in barns, sheds, and under bridges in anonymity except for an occasional frightening encounter. A far more tragic figure than the more fantastic version, this PigMan story is also clearly a cautionary tale for Dentonites who might cross paths with the very real and infamously ruthless Cowboy Mafia of North Texas. Like other variations of this urban legend, PigMan embodies and literalizes actual community anxieties or dangers. More chilling details from oral testimonies will be revealed during the DENTON HAUNTS GHOST TOUR!

Clyde Barrow’s life of crime officially started in Denton.

The Barrow brothers had amassed a certain ‘reputation’ in North Texas as small-time thieves, so they were often pursued by police and Denton was one of their favorite hideaway haunts. On November 29 of 1929, with some moonshine under their belts, the barely-20 Clyde with his brother Buck Barrow and a third man named Sydney burglarized the Motor Mark Garage just off the Denton Square. Unable to open the safe, they loaded it into their stolen car and proceeded erratically through town until a curious squadcar sparked a high-speed chase. Clyde tried to take a corner too fast and slammed into a light pole, where the force of the crash threw everyone out of the car. Police set up a dragnet to catch the fleeing thieves, and Buck was captured when wounded in a shootout and subsequently sent to prison in Eastham for a five-year term. Only the slippery Clyde eluded police by hiding under a vacant house and hitchhiking back to Dallas.

In January of 1930, Clyde Barrow’s life changed when he called on a sick friend in Dallas where he met a Marco’s Cafe waitress named Bonnie Parker. Bonnie became aware of Clyde’s past when the “laws” rousted him from her bed a month later and took him back to Denton about the Motor Mark Garage heist. When prosecutors could not make the charges stick, police transferred him to Waco where fingerprints linked him to several burglaries and car thefts. He was convicted and sentenced to two years on each count. In March 1930, using a gun smuggled to him by Bonnie Parker (who walked into the Waco jail with a gun strapped to her thigh), Clyde escaped with two others from the McClellan County jail and his career as an outlaw began in earnest.

The story of Bonnie and Clyde is then a series of barely successful robberies, usually accompanied by unnecessary and ruthless violence. In fact, the mostly small-time outlaws never robbed anything but greasy spoons, gas stations and a handful of rural banks. They largest take for any of their forays barely crested the $1,500 mark.

Bonnie and Clyde used the secluded areas north of Grapevine’s Denton Creek and Denton County for sometimes hiding out or meeting friends and family between crime sprees, and several members of their gang through the years hailed from Denton. Clyde Barrow’s Gang aborted their plan to rob two banks on the Denton Square on April 11 of 1932 after spotting two Texas Rangers staking out the area on a tip. (Ironically, ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly robbed his first bank in Denton later that same year.) The wily lovers eluded capture until a friend named Henry Methvin cooperated with police to set up a trap. Texas Ranger Frank Hamer and a posse set up a roadblock in rural Louisiana on May 23, 1934. The posse awaited the arrival of Parker and Barrow’s car then ambushed the outlaws with a hail of gunfire. 187 bullets were pumped into Bonnie and Clyde, who died with guns in their hands but never had a chance to fire a shot. In all, Bonnie and Clyde had committed 200 robberies in twenty states and killed at least thirteen people, including nine law enforcement officers, during their reign of terror.

Clyde was buried in a West Dallas cemetery on May 25 next to his brother Buck. Thousands of onlookers were present, some snatching the flowers from his grave. Bonnie’s mother refused to have Bonnie buried next to Clyde and so she was buried on May 27 at the West Dallas Fishtrap Cemetery. Numerous bridges around North Texas were named after the duo, presumed to help their escapes. On October of 1967 the world premiere of “Bonnie and Clyde,” starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, was held in Denton’s Campus Theatre since much of it had been filmed in and around Denton and rural North Texas. Some say the ghost of Clyde Barrow has been spotted in Denton’s old City Hall jail, his doomed spirit sentenced to an eternity between the violence-tainted haunts he terrorized in life.


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.

No actual photographs or illustrations exist of John B. Denton. This artist’s representation first appears in _Border Wars of Texas_, James T. DeShields, Herald Publishing, Tioga, page 357, 1912.

Denton County and its county seat, the city of Denton, were named for John B. Denton, a Methodist circuit preacher and frontier lawyer who was killed in an Indian battle at Village Creek in 1841. Few verified accounts of John B. Denton exist, and even those are often highly romanticized. All agree that he was an eloquent speaker and beloved community leader who left an indelible mark on North Texas.

As more settlers migrated to the frontier, the Republic of Texas relied primarily on volunteer militias to patrol the populated areas spread out across open range. In 1839, Denton answered the call and was commissioned captain of a company in Brig. Gen. Edward H. Tarrant’s Fourth Brigade, Texas Militia. In 1840, Denton lost a bid for Texas Congress but he was made famous in his campaign, beloved by children, respected by elders, and admired by acquaintances. In April 1841 the Ripley family south of his Clarksville homestead was attacked and killed by a horse-rustling party of Indians, so the volunteer Texas militia was tasked with finding the raiders. Denton rallied his Texas Rangers.

By May, Tarrant’s 4th Brigade of Texas rangers led by company commander Capt. James Bourland left Fannin County to find the Indian villages and recover the livestock. Capt. Denton served as an aide to Gen. Tarrant, commanding a detachment of scouts with Henry Stout. On May 24, 1841, the men located a group of Cherokee and Caddo Indian villages along Keechi Village Creek (not far from present-day boundaries between Arlington and Ft. Worth). The scouts reconnoitered the first two villages with little effort, but were met with gunfire at the third. Denton and Stout had split into separate units to scout out the area, each surveying a different route. When their paths converged, Stout stopped but the fiery-tempered Denton charged ahead to boldly engage the encampment.  A fire-fight ensued, wounding Stout but killing Captain Denton almost immediately.  The unit quickly withdrew with the injured Stout but a group later returned to recover Denton’s body. Learning that the Keechi villages contained over a thousand men, now alerted to their presence, Tarrant called the retreat. The fleeing brigade buried Denton’s body under a tree beside the creek as they hastily crossed into what would become Denton County, later so named in honor of the fallen hero.

Yet the story of John B. Denton does not end with the Battle of Village Creek. When a grave was discovered by some boys along Oliver Creek in Denton County in 1856, Denton County rancher John Chisum (who would become a legendary cattleman and one namesake of the famed “Chisholm Trail“) recalled the stories of Denton’s death and burial told to him by his father Clabe, also a member of Denton’s Texas militia company. Chisum investigated with some survivors of the raid, who identified the bones by the blanket they were wrapped in, an old broken arm, and some gold teeth. Chisum took the remains back to his home and kept it in a box hoping a family member would claim it but meanwhile buried Denton’s bones in a corner of the yard near his house. When Chisum sold his property to J.M. Waide years later, he left a written account authenticating the grave with his friend J. W. Gober.

By 1900, the Old Settler’s Association of Denton County wanted to bury John B. Denton in the town that proudly bears his name. They placed an advertisement in the paper which John Gober answered, producing the letter written by Chisum authenticating the remains. The body of Captain Denton was exhumed once again and buried during a large ceremony on the southeast corner of the Denton County Courthouse lawn on November 21, 1901. Over the years, there have been numerous accounts of a rifle-brandishing shadowy figure with a cowboy hat and pioneer-era garb wandering about the Square or peering down from the upper floors of the courthouse. Does the restless spirit of John B. Denton still wander the streets of his namesake community, doomed to forever roam between his three graves?

Burial of John B. Denton, Photograph, November 21, 1901; Denton Public Library, Denton, Texas.