While John Dillinger might be considered Indiana’s most notorious gangster, and the Reno gang of Seymour credited with having invented the train robbery, a different Hoosier miscreant may have left the largest footprint on American folklore.
Before astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom put Mitchell on the map, the small town’s best-known native son was undoubtedly Sam Bass. A book collector claims to have counted 200 titles referring to the legendary outlaw, and Sam’s wax effigy was installed in Madame Tussaud’s London gallery.
What most people know of the man and his origins comes from a classic cowboy song. “Sam Bass was born in Indiana, it was his native home” begins “The Ballad of Sam Bass,” a song attributed to John Denton of Gainesville, Texas. As the song spread across the West, through the Ozarks and in the western Appalachians in the late 1800s, the myth of Sam Bass all but eclipsed the facts of the man’s brief life.
Sam Bass was born in Indiana, in 1851 to be precise, two miles northwest of Mitchell on a 175-acre farm in an area known as Yocky. One of ten children, he was never formally schooled, and orphaned by age thirteen.
Disgruntled about the way his father’s assets were distributed, and pressed into hard labor by a custodial uncle, Bass set off for greener pastures. From Denton County, Texas to Deadwood, South Dakota, Bass tried his hand as a teamster and a farmhand, racing horses, freighting and managing a mine before quitting the straight and narrow. When stagecoach robbery proved unprofitable, he started holding up trains.
Along with five partners, Bass made his most formidable score in 1877 in Big Springs, Nebraska, ambushing a Union Pacific train heading out of San Francisco full of freshly minted gold coins and making off with 60,000 dollars’ worth.
Depending upon who’s telling the story, Bass either gave the gold coins away like a latter-day Robin Hood, or buried them in Lawrence County on one of his surreptitious homecomings.
Back to robbing trains after the Union Pacific heist, the Bass gang came into the sights of the Texas Rangers, desperate to restore law and order in post-Reconstruction Texas. Double-crossed by one-time associate Jim Murphy, Sam Bass came to an untimely end on his 27th birthday in a massive shoot-out in Round Rock, Texas.
He is remembered there during the town’s Frontier Days Celebration, and figures alternately in the state’s history as or “Robin Hood on a Fast Horse” or “Texas’ Beloved Bandit”.