Bad Day at Round Rock

Sam Bass Gang vs. Texas Rangers 
Sam Bass Gang vs. Texas Rangers 

July 19, 1878

Sam Bass has a bold plan.

He and his outlaw band will case the bank in Round Rock, Texas, one more time and then strike tomorrow, a Saturday, when the farmers make their weekly deposits.

 

The air is hot and muggy as three of the gang, including Bass, rein up in an alley behind the bank, tie off and walk around to Georgetown Avenue for one more look around. A fourth outlaw, Jim Murphy, has stopped at a store on his way into town, supposedly to quiz locals about the presence of lawmen. (He is actually an informant and has warned the Texas Rangers of the gang’s plans.)

It’s about 4 p.m. as Bass, Seaborn Barnes and Frank Jackson walk west along the north sidewalk, making mental notes as they survey the town. Two of the men carry saddlebags. Hoping to avoid suspicion, they cross the street and approach Koppel’s store to buy tobacco.

Two local lawmen, Ahijah “Caige” Grimes and Maurice Moore, spot what they believe to be concealed weapons on the Bass boys and start following the trio. (Although officials have received advance warning from Murphy, it is unclear whether these lawmen suspect the trio of being members of the Bass Gang.)

After entering Koppel’s, Bass and company step to the counter and engage the clerk. Seconds later, Deputy Grimes walks in and puts his hand on Bass (feeling for the weapon), asking at the same time if he is armed. The outlaw actually says “Yes,” and the three bandits spin and fire as one. Hit five times, Grimes staggers to the door, calling out, “Boys, don’t!”

Standing in the doorway, Deputy Moore takes a bullet in the chest and jerks his pistol, firing into the smoke. As the shooting continues, he staggers backwards out of the hornet’s nest.

Bass grimaces in pain as he and his men scramble for the street. Moore has shot off Bass’s middle and ring fingers.

Texas Ranger Dick Ware is in the barbershop when he hears the shooting. He runs into the street to join the fight, ducks behind a hitching post and fires at the fleeing outlaws as they cross Georgetown. The outlaws fire back, hitting the hitching post and sending splinters flying.

At Highsmith’s livery stable, owner Albert Highsmith and Rangers George Herold and Chris Connor run through the stalls to head off the outlaws as they come down the alley.

Barnes, Jackson and the wounded Bass enter the alley and make a beeline for their horses. A saloon keeper fires at the fleeing bandits from his rear doorway, and the outlaws slow their advance, warily eyeballing every window and door.

When the gang approaches the rear of the stable, Highsmith and the Rangers open fire (although Highsmith’s rifle jams), just as Ranger Ware and two others enter the alley behind the outlaws. Now Bass and company are in a crossfire, but in spite of the zinging bullets, Barnes, Jackson and Bass reach their horses.

Concealed in the back of the stable, Ranger Herold steps out and points his Winchester at Bass, ordering him to surrender. A mere 15 feet away, Bass clicks his empty pistol (in his good hand) at Herold and tries to mount his horse. Herold cuts loose with his rifle, and Bass is hit near the spine, the bullet exiting through his cartridge belt and disintegrating. “Oh, Lord!” cries Bass, as he sags and crashes against the stable fence.

From the west end of the alley, Ranger Ware peeks out and draws a bead on Barnes, who is on his horse. Ware fires; the bullet hits Barnes just behind the left ear, exiting his right eye. Barnes topples from his horse, dead.

Hit twice and in pain, Bass retrieves Barnes’s saddlebag and remounts with Jackson’s help. The two then spur their steeds and gallop north out of town. Incredibly, Jackson escapes without a scratch.

Even more absurd, the Rangers can’t find enough good horses for a decent posse. (They’re standing in a stable, but for some reason, only “one plug” is on the premises.) One Ranger does commandeer Barnes’s horse. After feebly pursuing Bass and Jackson, however, the makeshift posse gives up and returns to town.

Shortly thereafter, Murphy shows up and identifies Barnes. (Barnes was shot in the legs in a previous shoot-out, and Murphy correctly identifies the scars.) The townspeople suspect Murphy of being one of the robbers, but he confesses his informant role, and the Rangers protect him from harm.

Aftermath: Odds & Ends

Too weak to ride, Sam Bass was found the next day under a tree about three miles north of town. He was loaded into a wagon and brought back to Round Rock, where doctors pronounced his wounds as fatal. A stenographer was brought in to write down any confession, but while the young outlaw admitted his involvement in the Union Pacific robbery, he was mum about any of his recent Texas crimes, saying, “It is agin my profession to blow on my pals.” He also informed the Ranger commander, “If I killed Grimes it was the first man I ever killed.” At 3:55 p.m., Sunday, July 21, Bass uttered his now famous last words: “Let me go … the world is bobbing around.” It was his 27th birthday.

***

Deputy Ahijah “Caige” Grimes’s widow was given a Bass Gang outlaw’s horse and $250 from the railroad. Deputy Maurice Moore survived his chest wound, only to die in another gunfight in 1887.

***

The Texas Rangers continued to search high and low for Frank Jackson, but he escaped justice. Some say he lived out his days on a cattle ranch in New Mexico.

***

Jim Murphy had infiltrated the Sam Bass Gang to get his father and brother cleared for their alleged involvement in aiding and abetting the gang. Forever labeled a rat, Murphy committed suicide in June 1879, according to popular legend. Bass biographer Rick Miller claims that Murphy “inadvertently swallowed” a wash containing “toxic belladonna.” Miller concludes, “there is no evidence, as was claimed, that he committed suicide out of remorse or fear.”

***

Recommended: Sam Bass & Gang by Rick Miller, published by State House Press.

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