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 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 betrayer of Sam Bass, Denton’s native son, ‘Judas’ Jim Murphy.
Murphy was the second of nine 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 county, 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 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 sons Bob and Jim helped tend.
The effects of the Civil War were devastating, Denton County lost many men. 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 and 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,” 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 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 1857), 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 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 sympathetic Denton locals, including Jim and his 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 outlaws, even as on-the-run Sam’s shootouts desperately escalated, Jim famously cut a Devil’s bargain with Capt. June Peak and Ranger Major 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 Judge Hogg’s book. 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 casing town. When the gunfire settled, Sebe was dead and Frank fled with a mortally-injured Sam as Jim looked on. Sam died a few days later on his 27th birthday without giving up any secrets on his pals, and Jim returned to his family in Denton. 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 him as a means to infamy. After spending many a night in the jailhouse for his own protection for almost a year, Jim Murphy gruesomely died of belladonna 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 tragic end to a sordid saga led the Murphys to retire northward of the town they’d done so much to establish.
We met Murphy’s descendents at Saturday’s Heritage Festival. They were generously kind but also quite understandably protective of how their kin were caricatured in worshipful Sam Bass mythmaking. We’ve long thought that the stories of these two childhood pals 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. We think that sympathy and pity for ‘Judas’ Jim Murphy should should be thrown his way. Considering that both he and Sam seem less like figures of a simplistic melodrama than 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.
Back in The Day is an ongoing WDDI contribution from Shaun Treat, an assistant professor in Communication Studies at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc Treat has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of the fine folks with the Denton County Historical Commission and local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past.