All the Wiser: Hide and seek – Outlaws trod the trails of Wise County

By Joy Burgess-Carrico | Published Saturday, February 23, 2019
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Amanda Harrington Kennedy asked via Facebook: “Isn’t there an area in Wise County that was a hideout for famous outlaws?”

Wise County does figure into some outlaw tales.

Joy Burgess-Carrico

There are basically two time periods where we historically designate some of our criminals as “outlaws.” There are the outlaws of the Wild West, who did their deeds in the years following the Civil War and the Prohibition and Depression Era outlaws, who operated in the 1920s and ’30s. Both were economically trying times with a lot of public discontent, creating an atmosphere where outlaw antics could easily be romanticized. For example, here is a description of the James brothers from The Galveston Daily News, April 3, 1874: “They have imparted a dignity and romance to their profession which it had long since lost, and have lifted it above the degrading depths of petty thievery.”


Frank James

It seems fitting to start with these most famous outlaws. There’s an historical marker on US 380 between Decatur and Denton that marks an old campsite of Jesse and Frank James. According to the marker, they used this camp, among others, to hide stolen horses. Locals who knew of the campsites often befriended the outlaws or minded their own business out of fear of retribution.

A 1956 Messenger article tells a different tale. According to some local boys named Renshaw, the James brothers and other members of the future James/Younger gang, were lying low on the Renshaw place during the last year of the Civil War.

Before becoming outlaws, the James brothers were part of a group of Missourian pro-Confederate guerrillas. They attacked pro-Union civilians and Union forces. Their acts of violence during this time apparently matched whatever mayhem they managed as “outlaws.”

My guess is that, having wintered there the last year of the Civil War, the James brothers kept the place as a hideout for their later lawlessness.

Jesse James

After Jesse James was killed (or faked his own death, depending on who you believe) in 1882, Frank James surrendered and faced charges, from which he was acquitted. He lived in North Texas on and off, doing various jobs, including shoe salesman. There is no evidence that he ever again set foot in Wise County. He died in 1915.


Sam Bass

Sam Bass led a gang of outlaws and committed robberies around Texas from 1877-1878. Although Bass was killed at 27, his short career as an outlaw earned him great acclaim. He had a reputation for boldly defying the authorities, even entering their campsite and chatting them up while they were on a manhunt for him and his men.

In 1878, the Bass gang had a shootout with Texas Rangers at Salt Creek, which runs from Boonesville to Boyd. During that shootout, one of his gang members, Arkansas Jones, was killed and others captured. Bass and his surviving members fled North Texas. A Messenger article tells a tale of his going through Aurora. They stopped at the local saloon and purchased ammunition from the hardware store. Bass is reported to have said, “My name is Sam Bass. We just had a battle with the Rangers at Salt Creek. If they come by you tell them that we’re ready for ’em.” Bass met his demise not long after that in Round Rock. He had been double-crossed by a member of his gang.


Tom Pickett

Tom Pickett was born and raised in Wise County. He committed some juvenile shenanigans here, but left Wise County fairly young and wreaked havoc elsewhere. He was both a lawman and an outlaw, serving as chief of the merchant’s police in Las Vegas, N.M., a Texas Ranger, a U.S. Marshal and as a member of Billy the Kid’s gang. There is conflicting information about Tom Pickett and I could find no mention of him at all in the Messenger, but that may be simply because he was done outlawing by the time the Messenger came around.

Pickett is known mostly as a minor member of the Kid gang. A citizen of Las Vegas, N.M. said of him in 1880, “Pickett is as bad as any of the gang; the only difference between him and the rest is that he hasn’t the brains of the others. He is as mean as he knows how to be.”


Bonnie and Clyde

Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde was present in Wise County around 1930, at a fishing camp near the Lake Bridgeport dam, which was under construction. The teller of the tale, Eugene Hembree, claimed that a man, known to him as Mr. Murphy, became very angry when Hembree refused to drink with the group of men Mr. Murphy was a part of. The camp operator smoothed things over by explaining that Hembree was a Frenchman and liked good wines. Hembree quickly made his exit. Later he realized the man was Clyde Barrow when he saw a picture of Barrow. He stated that had he known it was Barrow at the time, he would not have refused. Hembree did not see Bonnie Parker, but he knew there was a woman in a nearby tent.

Also, in their final run from a double-murder of two law enforcement officers in Grapevine in January 1934 to their deaths in May, the Messenger reported that they were believed to be in hiding in Wise County. The search for them concentrated in Decatur, Bridgeport and Alvord. There presence here was never confirmed or denied.

They were killed in Bienville Parish, La., by a posse of Texas and Louisiana law enforcement. There was controversy over whether the officers gave the couple a chance to surrender, but since Bonnie and Clyde were wanted for killing two cops in cold blood, I can’t say I blame them much for shooting first and asking questions never.


George Kelly Barnes

George Kelly Barnes, AKA “Machine Gun” Kelly, is probably the outlaw with the biggest footprint in Wise County. Kelly was a bootlegger, an armed robber and a failed kidnapper. His association with Wise County started when he married his second wife, Kathryn Thorne, whose mother was married to Robert “Boss” Shannon of Paradise.

Thorne was a criminal of some note in her own right. She was involved in bootlegging, theft and prostitution, and she is said to have given Kelly his first Tommy gun. His proficient use of the machine gun – he could write his name in lead – earned him his nickname.

He, his wife and another outlaw decided to kidnap Charles F. Urshel, an Oklahoma oilman. They kidnapped him from his home, took him to a hideout and demanded a ransom of $200,000. They got their ransom and let Urschel go.

Kelly seems to have been a terrible kidnapper. In his first attempted abduction, he let the person go because the victim convinced him that his wife wouldn’t be able to come up with the ransom demand, and if Kelly would let him go, he promised to pay. Kelly let him go, and the victim ignored all subsequent demands for the money.

With Urschel, Kelly didn’t seem to have accounted for a man’s ability to provide information about the place where he was held. Although blindfolded, Urschel was able to give enough description of his ordeal that the FBI figured out that he had been held in two homes near Paradise.

The FBI descended on Paradise and arrested the Shannons and various others involved in the kidnapping. The elder Shannons each received life sentences. The Kellys remained at large for a few months until apprehended in Memphis, Tenn., where Kelly surrendered, saying “Don’t shoot, G-men, don’t shoot.” This was reportedly the first use of that term. Kelly later stated that the “G” stood for government.

Kelly spent the rest of his life in federal prison. He died in 1954 in Levenworth. The only person willing to claim his body was his father-in-law, Robert Shannon.

He buried Kelly in Cottondale Cemetery. More than 300 Wise County citizens attended the graveside service, although I doubt it was to pay their respects to Kelly. Soon after the burial, rumors were running high that Shannon needed money to pay for the burial, but the Messenger reported that Shannon did not need, nor want, money, and any funds sent to him would be returned.

Shannon always claimed that he and his family had been forced to guard Urschel, and many Wise County residents agreed. More than 200 signed the petition for his pardon, which was granted by FDR in 1944. Shannon died soon after Kelly in 1956, his wife and stepdaughter were still in jail.

Joy Burgess-Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist. Email her at jcarrico@wcmessenger.com with your questions.

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