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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

The Life and Times of Big Bill Babb

by Clay Coppedge
The two young bankers probably didn't think the failure of their private banking firm would be a matter of life and death. But there they were, sequestered in a Waco hotel room with Big Bill Babb and a few of his men. Babb was making the two young bankers an offer they couldn't refuse.

Babb had invited the young men to visit him in his room. He closed the door behind them, locked it and dropped the key in his pocket. Then he pulled out a pistol and cocked it with his thumb. This was how Big Bill Babb's cleared his throat.

An old friend of Babb's, J.B. Cranfill, recorded the one way conversation that followed.

"Gentlemen," Babb said. "I have deposited $6,000 of my money in your bank. Your bank has failed. I have been advised by you that you can not pay as much as one cent on the dollar. That is a mistake. You are going to pay me one hundred cents on the dollar. I will allow you the chance of paying me every cent of my deposit or dying right here and now in this room. Which will you choose?"

Babb elaborated by "suggesting" that one of the men leave the room and come back within 30 minutes with the money. If he didn't, the man who stayed in the room would be killed and the other one would be hunted down to meet the same sorry fate.

The story has a happy ending. The man who left the room came back before the half-hour was up and - surprise, surprise - he had with him all $6,000 of Babb's money.

This happened in the early days of Coryell County, when Central Texas ranches functioned a lot like the feudal system in England in the Middle Ages. Ranches were kingdoms, each with its own ruler and an army of knights to enforce the ruler's will. Crockett King, William Oglesby and Big Bill Babb were the kings of Coryell County.

Of the three, Babb was the one who emerges from history as larger-than-life.

The Babb family, looking for something better from a base of zero, had migrated to America from England in the 1600s. landing in New England. Over the years, various Babbs made their way, together and individually, from New England southward, always the explorers, always the pioneers.

William M. "Big Bill" Babb was born in Cape Giradeau, Missouri sometime in the 1830s; family records differ on the exact day and year.

His family moved to Texas in the 1850s and Big Bill married Sallie Shipmann in 1855. By 1860, Babb and his bride, along with a passel of other Babbs, were living in Coryell and Hamilton Counties.

Make no mistake about it. This was wilderness, the frontier, the kind of place that had always suited the Babb family just fine. No doctors. No hospitals. Few schools. Little law to speak of. The occasional Comanche raiding party enlivened the scene.

When the Civil War began, Babb joined the Confederate Army. Some family documents show that he might have spent time in a Union POW camp.

The war had a powerful impact on Babb, but probably not as big an impact as events that took place in Coryell County while he was away. As the tide of war slowly but inevitably turned against the South, bandits and scallywaygs abounded. Babb returned from war to find that his family had been cheated and abused, often at the hands of people he had trusted to protect them while he was gone.

"Local people say that the mistreatment of his family during the war caused Bill Babb to turn outlaw," Michael Barr of Gatesville wrote in an unpublished manuscript. "Without a doubt the hatred and bitterness he felt for his neighbors was a turning point in his life. His already menacing personality took a turn for the worse. He gained a fearsome reputation."The reputation was bolstered in the 15 years following the Civil War, when open range often meant open warfare. Gunplay was frequent. By his own deathbed admission, Babb killed 23 men.

People in Coryell County, out of a sense of self-preservation, generally let Babb go his own way. They didn't want to end up in the same condition as those 23 men; they didn't even want to be in the uncomfortable position of those Waco bankers. But as Coryell County took on a semblance of cultivation, the times began to turn against Babb.

In 1878, he was arrested by Deputy Marshall John Stull for the murder of J.T. Vaughan, a former business partner of Babb's. After the charge was dropped for lack of evidence, John Stull and his brother, Hi, were murdered in separate incidents, along with Dr. Rufus Smith, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when John Stull was killed.

Even in frontier Coryell County, the killing of a federal peace officer raised eyebrows. It also made news all over the state.

Arresting Babb was no easy task, but sheriff Ben Friend managed to pull it off. When the grand jury convened to determine whether or not to indict Babb for the Stull murder, Babb strolled into the grand jury room and made a little speech.

He began by pointing out that it was time for the bloodshed to cease, but that an indictment would certainly perpetuate it.

"You know us and we know you," Babb told the grand jurors. "You know that we are dead game, that we are good shots and that we are quick to avenge a wrong. All of this we should greatly desire to avoid. If you will listen to me and heed my plea, none of this bloodshed will occur."

Babb told the grand jury that if they wouldn't indict him, he and his men would leave Coryell County. After some discussion, the grand jury agreed. However, Babb decided he liked Coryell County just fine. He decided to stick around.

A few years previously Babb might have pulled this off. Not this time. Some 400 men gathered to discuss the situation. Their decision was unanimous: Babb had to go.

Four of the 400 were sent to deliver the news to Babb. He was told that if he didn't leave, several hundred men would ride onto his ranch and kill him and everybody else on the land too. Babb knew a bluff when he heard one, and this was no bluff. Babb left for West Texas 10 days later, and eventu-ally migrated north to New Mexico.

In 1911, against all odds, Big Bill Babb died of natural causes at the ranch of a friend in Concho County.


Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" >
July 18, 2006 column
 
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