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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Kid Murray


by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Texas' least-known outlaw, newspapers dubbed him "Kid" Murray.

By 1903, the Old West lived mostly in the imagination of people who read dime novels or went to the new-fangled moving picture shows. Still, the sense of frontier endured in some areas, particularly the Panhandle.

Though only the bones of buffalo littered the plains and the blue-clad cavalry had ridden out of Fort Elliott in Wheeler County in 1892, that part of Texas remained lightly settled in the first decade of the 20th century. Crisscrossed with barbed wire, this vast grassland had far more cattle than people.

An outlaw named Murray found those conditions to his liking. With impunity, he stole horses and cattle from Panhandle ranchers. As angry owners and frustrated lawmen began combing the country for the talented rustler, he went on the lamb.

Eventually, a Wheeler County sheriff's deputy tracked him down, possibly in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). During the pursuit, Murray shot and wounded an officer, though a spare newspaper account printed downstate in Austin offers no details. Unlike that other "Kid," one William (Billy) Bonney, little is known about Kid Murray. But one thing stands out, even more than a century after the exploits that got his name in the newspapers: He was only 11 years old.

So who was "Kid" Murray? Obviously, he was a boy who grew up in a hurry -- a child "man" enough to ride a horse, herd cattle and handle a gun. He could have been an orphan, or an errant run away. Maybe even a loving couple's son. The imagination presents numerous possibilities. But the next several issues of the newspaper offer no follow up story, leaving the questions unanswered.

At only 11, the "Kid" probably got a second chance. Many a captured horse thief ended up dangling from a tree limb, but Texans were softer on their young. Most parents did not spare the proverbial rod when it came to disciplining their offspring, but few could abide the notion of putting a kid behind bars with older hard cases.

As early as the 1850s, state lawmakers had realized that children should not be treated the same as adult offenders. The Legislature passed a statute exempting anyone under 13 from criminal prosecution and approved a separate institution to house wayward children adjudicated for delinquent conduct. But the sectional friction that turned into the Civil War soon put matters of juvenile justice on the governmental back burner.

Some three decades went by before any further progress occurred in Texas. Finally, understanding that it did little good to send a youthful felon to the state prison in Huntsville, in 1887 the Legislature passed a law creating the first juvenile rehabilitation facility in the South. The House of Correction and Reformatory (later better known as the Gatesville School for Boys) opened in Coryell County in January 1889.

The "Kid" likely ended up in Gatesville, though records from that era are sketchy and no paperwork proving the disposition of his case has been located. It is known that as of Aug. 31, 1904, Texas had 3,975 felons in custody, more than 700 of them younger than 20, and some under 15.

Did the system succeed in straightening "Kid" Murray up or did he continue down a road that eventually led him to Huntsville or on a last walk to the gallows? With such a common surname, his trail has proven hard to find.

He would have been born in 1891 or 1892, meaning he easily could have lived well into the 20th century, possibly into the 1970s or 1980s. If he settled down, it was not in Wheeler County. On-line cemetery records contain no deceased person named Murray who would have matched his age.

Whoever he was, the "Kid" made history. As the short newspaper piece touching on his crime and apprehension concluded, "He is believed to be the most youthful criminal who has ever figured in the criminal history of Texas."

Mike Cox - August 10, 2006 column
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