Even as he issued an order on May 25, 1865 for all county sheriffs to protect state and Confederate property, Gov. Pendleton Murrah feared there was no stopping looting in the post-Civil War chaos.
When news of Robert E. Lee’s surrender reached eastern Texas by word of mouth in late April 1865, soldiers started to desert in droves. Gen. Magruder, the Galveston commander, reported on the 29th that scores of demoralized troops were disappearing every night.
The evacuation of the island on May 21 set off an unruly stampede as the last traces of military discipline evaporated. Hundreds of soldiers, most carrying weapons, streamed inland in an ugly mood.
The mayor of Houston made frantic preparations to pacify the uninvited guests but found that his free feast only whetted their appetite. A mixed mob of former fighters and opportunistic civilians picked the Confederate arsenal and clothing warehouse clean. When latecomers from the Galveston garrison threatened to torch the town unless they received a share, local looters gave up their ill-gotten gains.
The public generally sympathized with the ex-soldiers and accepted the argument they were entitled to the leftovers of the defunct Confederacy. Who was more deserving? The men who risked their lives in service to the South or the Yankees that would soon subject Texas to armed occupation?
The reaction of Fayette County was typical. A duly elected committee collected government — both state and Confederate — goods of every description and distributed the items to homecoming veterans on the basis of their individual and family needs.
However, this peaceful process gradually deteriorated into blood-stained anarchy as criminal elements took advantage of the chaotic conditions. Highwaymen ruled the lawless countryside, especially between San Antonio and the Rio Grande where one stage was reportedly held up every five miles.
Private businesses, which had been scrupulously spared by the soldiers, were robbed in broad daylight with alarming frequency. Even the state penitentiary at Huntsville came under attack from an outlaw legion that sought to free incarcerated comrades and to strip the prison bare.
The most tempting target in the entire state was, of course, the treasury in Austin rumored to contain $300,000 in gold and U.S. currency. Although under constant guard during the war, not a single sentry was on duty at the depository on the night of Jun. 11, 1865.
An authentic first-person account of the sensational events of that evening did not surface until 1929, when J.W. Trimble finally granted an interview to a persistent newspaperman. Sixty-four years had not dimmed in the slightest his vivid memory of the attempted robbery of the treasury.
Trimble recalled being awakened by “a loud noise that sounded as if an army of blacksmiths might be hammering on steel.” He jumped in his clothes, strapped on his six-shooter and ran into the street where a crowd had already gathered.
“There’s a bunch over there robbing the state treasury!” Capt. G. R. “Tom” Freeman told the throng. “If 20 of you fellows will follow me, we’ll go over and stop it!”
The necessary number of volunteers, including 18 year old Trimble, bravely stepped forward. With Freeman in the lead, they fought their way past the bandit lookouts posted at the entrance to the treasury building and crept up the stairs to the vault room on the second floor.
Three dozen or more robbers were hard at work opening the enormous safes with chisels and sledgehammers. So engrossed were they in their nefarious labors that the vigilantes caught them completely by surprise.
That was when, according to Trimble, all hell broke loose. “A lively battle followed with bullets aplenty whizzing, but it didn’t last long. It looked like the robbers were bent on escaping rather than fighting. They disappeared at every available opening in the room. Although our company of volunteers put on a spirited chase, the robbers, excepting the wounded one, got away.”
The panic-stricken safecrackers left a fortune behind in their wake. The treasury grounds as well as every escape route out of the capital were strewn with gold coins. Most must have been returned by honest townspeople because the total loss was assessed at a modest $1,700.
After doctors informed the wounded outlaw of his imminent demise, his captors pressed him for the names of his accomplices. But he died without identifying his partners in crime saying only with a scornful smile, “You’d be surprised if you knew who they really are.”