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Two Cheers for Sam Bass

At this exact point last year in the middle of spring break week, I flew home on a packed Spirit flight from seeing my daughter in Southern California. The pandemic was becoming more threatening by each news cycle with word of the cancellation of the Houston Rodeo and of basketball’s March Madness and that Tom Hanks had tested positive for the virus while making an Elvis film in Australia. I haven’t flown since and our car trips have been limited to some short getaways to Galveston, little more than an hour distant. I’m sure that most of you have been just as frustratingly homebound over the same period.

This week we ventured just a bit further to Round Rock, about twenty miles north of Austin on I-35. Next month, I’m teaching a novel about Sam Bass, Texas’s most famous outlaw of the 19th century, and wanted to get some pictures for my online students of some key sites associated with the shoot out in which he was killed in that town in 1878. Sam Bass is the best example of what British historian Eric Hobsbawm termed a social bandit or outlaw hero in his book Primitive Rebels. Hobsbawm argues that these figures share common characteristics, no matter the time period or country in which they appear. While they commit crimes, they are supported by the common people of their region, as their victims are not random, but are elite institutions such as—in the case of post-Civil War Texas—banks and trains. In true Robin Hood fashion, they rob from the rich and give to the poor, or as my old comrade Paul Rowe of the Houston DSOC used to say, “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” Good badmen tend to arise during times of crisis or instability such as Texas experienced just after Reconstruction. And it makes sense that American examples such as Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and John Dillinger proliferated during the Great Depression. It is almost impossible for the police to catch them since their local admirers among the common folk provide shelter and refuse to cooperate with the authorities. For this reason, they almost invariably fall due to betrayal as only a Judas within can tell law enforcers where to find them. Once ambushed and gunned down, the social bandit lives on in the minds of the people as he represents hope of a better social order during a time of economic suffering or official oppression.

Hobsbawm doesn’t write about Sam Bass but it turns out that the Texas outlaw pretty well fits his model. Sam made his biggest score in 1877 when he robbed a train in Nebraska and escaped with ten thousand dollars in gold coins. He showed his outlaw genius in temporarily joining the posse that was pursuing him during his flight back to his home base in Denton, Texas. By all accounts, Sam was well-liked and generous. His free spending habits on his home turf stimulated the local economy and benefitted small businesses. Subsequent train robberies in the Dallas area were cheered by farmers who viewed railroads as financial swindlers funded by hated Yankee capital. The same depredations rattled local business leaders who saw Sam’s well-publicized hold ups as a disincentive to outside (i.e. Northern) investors. This made Sam’s capture a top priority for local sheriffs, the Texas Rangers, and hired guns such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

Sam’s undoing came with his decision to leave his home turf and target the bank in Round Rock, a growing town with its location on the Chisholm Trail and the arrival of the International and Great Northern Railroad in 1876. Sam was unaware that a turncoat gang member had informed the Texas Ranger commander of the plan and that the local law authorities and townspeople were armed and waiting. This Monday, we visited the corner business on Main Street where the shooting started, now a night club called Sugar Daddy’s that had a lengthy dress and behavior code posted on its door. Sam shot and killed a local deputy at that spot, an act consistent with social bandit conduct as it was in self-defense. He and his two gang mates then retreated—under fire the whole way--toward their horses tied in an alley around the corner on the other side of Main Street. We took a photo of that passage (see picture below) where Seab Barnes was killed with a shot to the head and Sam was badly wounded. Sam was soon captured just outside of town. He lingered two days until his death on July 27, 1878, his 27th birthday. In one final insult, the Round Rock authorities buried Sam Bass and Seab Barnes in the Black section of the town cemetery, an act of sheer contempt given the endemic racism in the Texas of that era. When we visited the gravesite this Monday, it was decorated with a blue bandanna, a pack of playing cards, some yellow plastic flowers, and a bottle of Shiner Bock. Some chickens cheerfully clucked on the other side of a fence just a couple of feet away (see photo below). The street outside the graveyard is now Sam Bass Road.

Are there any political lessons to carry away from Sam Bass’s short and tragic life? On the most basic level, the phenomenon of outlaw heroes reminds us that most ordinary folk desire basic equality and justice. They are offended by the greed and arrogance of financial elites--whether the bankers or railroad executives of the Gilded Age or the corporate buccaneers, hedge fund heads, or rail estate hipsters of the present—and love to see them get their comeuppance. In the absence of a bold agenda for political change, social bandits such as Sam Bass (or California’s Joaquin Murietta or Brazil’s Virgulino Lampião) naturally arise to fulfill this longing for a better world. That’s why Hobsbawm termed such figures primitive rebels as these bandits operated in the absence of a more sophisticated and specific program for radical change. In the modern day, social democracy constitutes such a coherent program for the good society. There’s no need to rob the banks when we can put the laws and regulations in place to make them serve the public in the needed way and break them up or even take them over if they continually refuse to do so.

As we returned home from Round Rock, I was reminded of Woody Guthrie’s observation about various kinds of men, some of whom “rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen.” It reminded me that the most dangerous criminals are not the Sam Bass types, but the sort currently meeting in Austin in the Republican-controlled legislature who are scheming to suppress the Black and Hispanic vote and otherwise ensure that their sorry lot stay in the saddle. Given a choice, I prefer outlaws on fast horses to the contemporary sort with custom suits and smart phones. Two cheers for the Sam Bass gang!

Steve Davis

March 17, 2021

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