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True grit on Dallas outlaws
By Tom Peeler |

ACCORDING TO most accounts, outlaws Jim Reed and Belle Starr were married in a bend of the East Fork of the Trinity River on a Sunday morning in July 1867, while desperado John King Fisher held their horses. But the truth is, Reed and Starr were wed on November 1,1866, in Collin County by the Rev. S.M. Wilkins. Fisher, who was 12 years old at the time, was nowhere near the event.

Most of the stories about Belle Starr’s days in Dallas are pure fiction. Their origin can be traced back to an 1889 account produced by Richard K. Fox, publisher of the Police Gazgtte, in which Belle was described as the “female Jesse James.” The Fox publication quotes liberally from Belle’s journal, which also was a figment of the writer’s imagination. But oddly enough, local historians have written little about the other legendary outlaws who at one time or another called Dallas their home.

First, let’s set Belle’s record straight. Myra Maybelle Shirley was born in Missouri in 1848. Myra-the name Belle went by here-moved with her family to the Scyene community (which is now part of Southeast Dallas) in 1864. The Dallas County tax records show that Myra’s father, John Shirley, bought 48 acres of land.

Jim Reed had been in trouble with the law in Missouri, and he didn’t fare any better in Dallas. After a short stay in Scyene and in Bosque County, he lit out for California, taking Myra with him. The pair returned to Texas in 1871, where Reed continued his reckless ways. In February 1874, Reed ran off to San Antonio with Rosanna McCom-mas, the granddaughter of Amon McCom-mas, an early pillar of the Christian Church in Dallas. (McCommas Avenue is named for Amon McCommas and his family.) On April 7,1874, Reed and his gang robbed the San Antonio-Austin stagecoach. Four months later, Reed was killed in Paris, Texas, by a deputy sheriff from Collin County.

At the time of Reed’s death, Myra was almost unknown in the Dallas area. An account of Reed’s death in the Dallas Commercial on August 10, 1874, reported that soon after the Civil War, Reed had married a “Miss Shirley, a highly educated and accomplished lady,” but that “her influence was not sufficient to check Reed’s vicious-ness.”

The Dallas Public Library (in the Texas/Dallas history collection) has the Dallas County felony criminal docket records for the 1870s, which show that Myra Reed had only two recorded run-ins with the law. In case #2873, she was indicted by the grand jury of Dallas County for arson in April 1875. Three days later, her mother put up $2,000 bail; a year later, Myra was found not guilty by a Dallas County jury.

On August 12, 1875, while Myra was out on bail, she and Mike McCommas were indicted by a grand jury in case #2965 for theft of a gelding. According to Frederick Barde, a respected turn-of-the-century Oklahoma journalist, Myra and Mike lived in common-law marriage.

Most Dallas historians have continued the legend that Myra managed to get out of jail this time by eloping with a deputy sheriff. Actually, Mike and Myra were acquitted in June 1876, when the county attorney advised the court that he couldn’t get anyone to testify against them.

The last account of Myra Reed in Dallas was a letter written in August 1876 to the Reed family in Missouri. A Dallas County real estate transaction recorded on January 18, 1877, shows “Myra M. Reed” as a resident of Jasper County, Missouri.

Myra’s little brother, Shug Shirley, raised a lot more hell around here than his famous sister, but he never captured the attention of the Police Gazette. Shug was indicted for the theft of a mule (with Dave McCommas, who was probably Mike’s brother) as well as being indicted twice for carrying a pistol and twice for assault to murder.

Another famous Belle Starr legend was that Cole Younger-the “Little John” of the Jesse James gang, the “Robin Hood of the West’-fathered Belle’s daughter, Pearl. It is true that the Younger and Shirley families were neighbors at Scyene. The 1870 census of Dallas County lists the Younger brothers -Robert, James, J.H. (John) and Thomas (Thomas Cole)-along with their mother, Bersha, and their little sister, Betty.

In Cole Younger’s autobiography (written after his release from prison), he says that his brother Jim was a deputy sheriff of Dallas County and that Jim and Bob sang in the church choir here. The records of the sheriff’s department don’t go back that far, but the story may be true. Most of the Dallas County deputies, like Jim, had fought for the Confederacy in Missouri and had been expelled from the state after the war. But Cole said that the story about his illegitimate daughter Pearl, however, was a bunch of hogwash.

Cole Younger raised cattle at Scyene and pretty well minded his own business around here, but his brother, John, was a different story. John Younger was a belligerent, hotheaded young punk. One night in a Dallas saloon, John was showing off for his drinking buddies and shot a pipe out of the mouth of a local drunk named Jim Russell. The next day, Russell swore out a warrant for Younger’s arrest.

According to the January 21,1871, edition of the Dallas Herald, Deputy Sheriff Charles H. Nichols, who had been a Confederate lieutenant colonel in Missouri, rode out to Scyene to arrest Younger. Younger agreed to submit peacefully but asked for permission to go over to the cafe to have breakfast before embarking on the journey to the Dallas jail. Nichols agreed, not bothering to disarm the accused felon. Younger finished breakfast, then fatally shot Nichols.

John Younger fled the county after the murder of Nichols, and a short time later, Cole left for Missouri with a herd of cattle. The last record of the Younger brothers in Dallas was an indictment by the Dallas County grand jury of James Younger for robbery during the spring of 1873.

At about the time that the last of the Younger brothers was fleeing the city, John Henry (“Doc”) Holliday was establishing a dental practice here. The 1873 edition of the Dallas city directory lists Dr. J.H. Holliday in partnership with Dr. John H. Seegar at 611 Elm, between Market and Austin streets. (Seegar’s wife, Martha, was one of the 11 charter members of the First Baptist Church, established here in 1868.) Twenty-two-year-old Holliday had left Georgia on the advice of his physician, seeking a climate more favorable to his condition of consumption.

Dallas in the 1870s was wild and wide-open, with gambling and prostitution rampant. Mollie Cross, who was listed in the city directory as an operator of a “boarding-house for ladies” at 964 Commerce, was indicted more than 100 times for running a “disorderly house.” (Prostitution was too harsh a term to be exposed in the public records.) Local gamblers such as Tom Whit-taker had similar records for running games of faro, keno and three-card monte. Soon, the ailing Holliday abandoned his dental practice in favor of the seamier side of Dallas life.

On May 12, 1874, Holliday was indicted for betting at a keno bank. A few days later, he posted a $100 cash bond. On January 2, 1875, the Dallas Weekly Herald carried an account of a pistol duel between Holliday and a bartender named Austin. On January 18,1875, Holliday was indicted by the Dallas County grand jury for assault to murder.

Apparently, Holliday made light of the assault to murder charge because he didn’t jump and run. He was still around town on April 13, 1875, when he pled guilty to the gambling charge and paid a $10 fine. That’s the last record of Holliday in Dallas.

The outlaw who caused the most commotion around Dallas was Sam Bass. Bass was born in Indiana, and he moved to Texas in 1869 with good intentions. He worked for wages for several years, mostly around Den-ton, but then he fell in with a young Dallas County ruffian named Joel Collins. Joel was the son of Albert Collins, a respected farmer who lived northeast of town in the area now known as Lake Highlands. Like Amon McCommas, the Collins family were early members of the Christian Church here.

In 1877, the Joel Collins gang, which included Sam Bass, robbed the Union Pacific train at Big Springs, Nebraska, taking $60,000 in gold coins. Collins was killed shortly after the robbery, and Bass returned to Texas.

Amazed at the Nebraska haul, Bass rounded up some of his friends in Denton County and went into the train-robbing business. On February 22, 1878, the gang robbed the Houston and Texas Central in Allen, just north of Dallas. Less than a month later, they hit the H&TC again, this time in Hutchins, just to the south. The Dallas papers were full of wild rumors about the robberies, but no one knew who was pulling them.

On April 4, 1878, the gang hit the Texas and Pacific at the Eagle Ford station, six miles west of Dallas. By this time, the names of Sam Bass and his Denton County cronies were being mentioned as possible suspects, but the law officers in Denton County didn’t believe that the local boys would do anything like that.

Bass found that robbing the H&TC and the T&P wasn’t quite as lucrative as hitting the big lines like the Union Pacific. The three Texas robberies had netted the gang just over $1,800-barely enough to meet expenses. Bass decided to beef up the gang and make a really big hit. Two Dallas youths, Albert Herndon and Sam Pipes, were added to the gang. Herndon was the son of Mary McCommas Herndon, who, like Rosanna McCommas (the girl who ran off with Myra Reed’s outlaw husband), was one of Amon McCommas’ grandchildren.

Mesquite, a town to the east of Dallas, was selected as the site of the gang’s next target. Bass dispatched Herndon from the gang’s hide-out in the White Rock Creek bottom into Dallas to make sure that the T&P wasn’t putting on extra guards. After receiving a favorable report from Hemdon, Bass and his gang hit the T&P at Mesquite on April 10, 1878, less than a week after the Eagle Ford holdup. The raid netted the seven gang members $21.40 apiece.

Dallas was in a state of panic. Bass had hit to the north, south, west and east, as if to tantalize the would-be metropolis. Shotgun squads were set up in the local banks, and the people of the town fully expected Bass and his gang to come storming down Main Street at any moment.

The Texas Express Co. called in William Pinkerton and his troupe of Chicago detectives, who established their base of operations at the LeGrand Hotel in Dallas. Gov. Richard Hubbard called on Junius Peak, a former town marshal of Dallas, to head a special company of Texas Rangers to go after Bass. (Junius Street in Dallas is named for the ex-marshal; Peak Street, for Junius’ father.) Peak declined at first, since several of the boys suspected of being in the Bass gang (namely, Albert Herndon and two brothers of the late Joel Collins: Henry and Billy) were members of the Christian Church, which Peak faithfully attended. But Peak gave in to the call of duty and went after the Bass gang.

On the morning of April 22, 1878, Peak and 20 armed Rangers surrounded Albert Collins’ house. A few minutes later, Sam Pipes and Albert Herndon surrendered without a fight and were taken to the Dallas County jail. Peak then flushed Bass and the other gang members out of their hiding place, and the gang headed south. On July 21, 1878, Bass was killed by another band of peace officers at Round Rock, Texas.

For some reason, as Bass was dying, he told the lawmen that Henry Collins was among those who had ridden with him. Although Collins had never participated in any of the robberies, he became a wanted man and had to run for it. On August 27, 1878, Henry Collins was shot by a posse south of Sherman and died a few days later.

Henry’s brother, Billy, was arrested as a suspect in the robberies but jumped bail. William Anderson, a deputy U.S. marshal in Dallas, trailed Billy Collins all the way to the settlement of Pembina, in the Dakota Territory, just across the border from Manitoba, Canada. In November 1878, Anderson confronted Collins in Pembina, and the two killed each other.

In the 1870s, everybody claimed to have seen Jesse James at least once. If James had actually been in as many precincts as he was “seen” in, he could have been elected president, just by voting for himself. Dallas County was no exception. He was “reliably reported” to have been living at Fanners Branch and at Scyene (a good 25 miles apart) at the same time.

The most intriguing of the Jesse James stories was printed by a New York newspaper reporter after an interview with Zerelda James, Jesse’s widow. According to the story, Zerelda said that she and her husband visited Jesse’s sister in Sherman in May 1874, just after their marriage. They then moved to Dallas, where they lived for about four months, until the money from the train robbery in Gads Hill, Missouri, ran out.

In 1882, a few months after Jesse was killed by Bob Ford, his brother Frank James surrendered to Missouri authorities. He was tried for murder in Missouri and acquitted, then tried for robbery in Alabama, with the same result. Frank drifted around for a while after being released, and in the late 1880s, he moved to Dallas.

The Dallas Historical Society has a letter from the late Sam Mitten that that says that James worked as a clerk in the dry-goods store operated by Sam’s father. Sam remembered Frank James as being tall and gangly, with a thin, yellowish mustache; steady, penetrating eyes; and little to say. Morrison and Fburmy’s General Directory of the City of Dallas lists Frank James as a resident during 1888 and 1889, residing at 713 Live Oak and employed by the A. and E. Mittenthal Company. As far as is known, Frank James never caused any trouble here.

Myra Maybelle Reed, who had married a Cherokee Indian named Sam Starr, was ambushed and killed by an unknown assailant in 1889 in the Indian Territory. Before the publication of the mythical account of her life by Richard K. Fox, she was unknown outside the immediate vicinity of her residence.

John Younger was killed by Pinkerton detectives in Missouri in 1874, three years after his escape from Dallas. The other three Younger brothers-Bob, James and Cole-were captured in the aborted effort to rob the bank at Northfield, Minnesota, with the James boys in 1876. Bob died in prison, but Cole and James were ultimately pardoned.

Doc Holliday drifted around the West after leaving Dallas, and after he gained fame in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, he moved to Colorado, where he died of consumption at the age of 36.

Albert Herndon and Sam Pipes, the Dallas boys in the Bass gang, were sentenced to the federal penitentiary. According to Wayne Gard, a Dallas resident who wrote a biography of Sam Bass nearly 50 years ago, Pipes and Herndon were pardoned by President Grover Cleveland after volunteering for nursing service aboard a plague ship quarantined in New York Harbor.

In the fall of 1878, before the grass hadgrown over Sam Bass’ grave, W.L. Hall,publisher of the Dallas Commercial, produced a paperback book called the Life andAdventures of Sam Bass, the NotoriousUnion Pacific and Texas Train Robber.Another legend was born.

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