Texas's 150-Year-Old Cold Case
One hundred fifty years ago this week, the city of Austin, and a large portion of Texas, was effectively lawless. As news of the Confederacy’s loss of the Civil War hit Texas in the spring of 1865, many state and municipal officials abandoned their posts out of fear they’d be prosecuted by the Union. One of these officials was Pendleton Murrah, the state’s governor, who fled to Mexico and died in August of that year.
With that in mind, a fortuitous band of former Rebels decided to ride on the state’s capital, perpetrate the largest raid in Texas’s history and ride off to Mexico with all the gold in the state’s coffers.
It should be clarified, the state wasn’t altogether lawless. Local militias had gathered to keep peace in some cities. In Austin, former Confederate Capt. George R. Freeman organized a militia to successfully quell a riot in May of 1865. A month later, on June 11, Freeman received a tip that a band of robbers were planning to sack the treasury, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
By the time Freeman had gathered his men that night, around 50 robbers had broken into the abandoned treasury and had already begun tipping over safes and hacking away at them with pickaxes in search for the gold reserves, known as specie. They didn't have the skills to crack the locks themselves, according to Mike Cox of True West Magazine.
Hearing the noise, Freeman’s posse descended on the building and a firefight ensued. Freeman was shot in the arm while they charged. The majority of the robbers fled, heading west towards Mount Bonnell. However, the militia had trapped a single member of the band in the treasury. After a brief firefight, the man, Alex Campbell, surrendered after he’d been mortally wounded.
Though accounts differ as to whether Campbell confessed or not, it was eventually discovered he'd been a member of a gang led by Capt. John Rapp, a Missourian who’d finally been discharged just days before the raid. Rapp's lieutenant, Ben Thompson was a notorious gambler and gunman who would later become Austin’s chief of police in 1880, after a mercenary tour fighting for the French in Mexico after the heist and, later, a stint at the Texas State Penitentiary.
All told, the robbers made off with $17,000 worth of the state's gold reserves, which topped $27,000, and also intended to steal $25,000 in treasury warrants, the reimbursements given to those who served in the Civil War, but dropped them while fleeing. Save Campbell, the men responsible were never caught.
In 1909, a year before Freeman's death, the Texas House voted on a bill to give Freeman and the surviving defenders of the treasury a reward. Though it was initially reported favorably, the measure was ultimately voted down.
Adjusted for inflation, the amount of gold stolen totals around $3.2 million.