The Life and
Times of Big Bill Babb
by Clay Coppedge
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
"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
Of the three, Babb was the one who emerges from history as larger-than-life.
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
"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
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
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
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