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Captain Frank Hamer
Hamer in 1922
Francis Augustus Hamer
March 17, 1884
|Died||July 10, 1955 (aged 71)|
Francis Augustus Hamer (March 17, 1884 – July 10, 1955) was a Texas Ranger, known in popular culture for his involvement in tracking down and killing the criminal duo Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in 1934. Hamer acquired legendary status in the Southwest as the archetypal Texas Ranger. He is an inductee to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame.
Frank Hamer was born in Fairview, Wilson County, Texas, where his father operated a blacksmith shop. He was one of five brothers, four of whom became Texas Rangers. His family moved to the Welch ranch in San Saba County, where he grew up. Hamer later spent time in Oxford, Llano County (now a ghost town), which formed the basis of his joke about being the only "Oxford-educated Ranger." In his youth, Hamer worked in his father's shop, and as an older teenager worked as a wrangler on a local ranch. He began his career in law enforcement in 1905 while working on the Carr Ranch in West Texas when he captured a horse thief. The local sheriff was so impressed that he recommended that Hamer join the Rangers.
Like the cowboys of earlier generations, Hamer was at home on the open Texas prairie and understood the signs and patterns of nature. He interpreted men in terms of animal characteristics: "The criminal is a coyote, always taking a look over his shoulder; a cornered political schemer is a 'crawfish about three days from water'; a [man moving carefully] reminds him of a sandhill crane walking up a river-bed." He savored the challenges of investigating and solving crimes. Describing his method in tracking Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, Hamer said that he learned their statistics, but "this was not enough. An officer must know the habits of the outlaw, how he thinks and how he will act in different situations. When I began to understand Clyde Barrow's mind, I felt that I was making progress."
Hamer refused substantial money on principle to tell his life story; I'm Frank Hamer is a posthumous biography by Texas historians H. Gordon Frost and John Holmes Jenkins and was assembled thirteen years after Hamer's death from his notes and personal recollections to his family and associates. In the book, Hamer was quoted as saying corrupt politicians did not sit well with him, and he had little patience for those who broke the law. This attitude had tended to cause problems for him with local political establishments during his career. After a place was cleaned up, he would change jobs on a fairly regular basis.
Hamer was a Ranger off and on throughout his life, resigning often to take other jobs. He first joined Captain John H. Rogers's Company C in Alpine, Texas on April 21, 1906, and began patrolling the border with Mexico. In 1908 he resigned from the Rangers to become the City Marshal of Navasota, Texas. Navasota was a lawless boom town, wracked by violence: "shootouts on the main street were so frequent that in two years at least a hundred men died." Though he was only 24, Hamer moved in and created law and order. He served as marshal until 1911, when he started working as a special investigator in Houston, during which time he was seconded to the Sheriff's Office of Harris County. In 1914 he was hired as a deputy sheriff in Kimble County, assigned as the department's livestock theft investgator.
Hamer rejoined the Rangers in 1915 and again was assigned to patrol the South Texas border around Brownsville. Because of the constant unrest in Mexico, the Rangers dealt most seriously with arms smugglers, but also more ordinary bootleggers and bandits who plagued the border. Leaving the Rangers again, he became a range detective for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, a position that allowed him to be commissioned as a Special Ranger. During this period, Hamer was, on October 1, 1917 wounded in Sweetwater by Gus McMean, who was shot and killed. Following this, Hamer left the Cattlemen's Association to accept a position as a federal agent in the Prohibition Unit, where he served for about one year. Though Hamer's service as a prohibition agent was brief, it was nevertheless eventful. Stationed primarily in El Paso, the scene of countless gunfights during the Prohibition-era, Hamer participated in numerous raids and shootouts. In one particularly notable incident in March 1921, Hamer was involved in a gun battle with smugglers that resulted in the death of Prohibition Agent Ernest W. Walker. Returning to state service in 1921, Hamer transferred to Austin, where he served as Senior Ranger Captain.
In the 1920s, Hamer became known for bringing order to oil boom towns such as Mexia and Borger. Records from that time indicate that there were complaints about some of Hamer's methods, but the same sources said the area was so lawless extreme measures may have been needed. In I'm Frank Hamer, Hamer was quoted candidly discussing the restrictions that upstanding citizens would seek to put on a lawman, not understanding that they were in effect asking him to fight with one hand tied behind his back.
Beginning in 1922 Hamer, as senior captain of the Texas Rangers, led the fight in Texas against the Ku Klux Klan. During his long career he saved fifteen African Americans from lynch mobs. The story of his battles to protect blacks in Texas was unknown until the 2016 publication of John Boessenecker's biography of Hamer. In 1930 Hamer and a handful of Rangers protected a black rape suspect from a mob of 6,000 in Sherman, Texas. He personally shot and wounded two of the mob's leaders and forced the lynchers to flee the courthouse. However, the mob set fire to the courthouse and the prisoner died in the raging inferno. Hamer thus became the first and only Texas Ranger to lose a prisoner to a lynch mob.
In 1928 Hamer put a halt to a murder for hire ring, and his extraordinary means of accomplishing this made him nationally famous. The Texas Bankers' Association had begun offering rewards of $5,000 "for dead bank robbers — not one cent for live ones." Hamer determined that men were setting up deadbeats and two-bit outlaws to be killed by complicit police officers; the officers would collect the rewards and pay the men their finder's fees. But his investigation hit a stone wall: the police refused him support and the Bankers' Association's position was that "any man that could be induced to participate in a bank robbery ought to be killed." Spurred by urgency to thwart the next set of killings as well as personally infuriated, Hamer wrote and signed a detailed exposé of the racket, which he termed "the bankers' murder machine," then went to the press room of the State Capitol and handed out copies. A firestorm of public outrage led to indictments.
Hamer retired in 1932 after almost 27 years with the Rangers. He left one week before Miriam "Ma" Ferguson "and her husband" recaptured the governor's office. At least forty Rangers resigned rather than serve again under Ma, who in her first term as governor of Texas had proven herself brazenly corrupt; indeed, one of the triumphant Ma's first acts of her second term was to fire all the remaining Rangers and replace them with her own appointees. A year later Hamer flatly summarized his reason: "When they elected a woman governor, I quit." The commander of the Texas Rangers allowed him to retain a Special Ranger commission even after his official retirement as an active Senior Ranger Captain. The special commission is listed in the state archives in Austin.
In the early 1930s, Bonnie and Clyde's crime spree had generated vast media coverage that embarrassed law enforcement and government officials across half a dozen states. Perhaps the last straw, at least for Texas officials, came on January 16, 1934, when Barrow, Parker and associate Jimmy Mullens raided Eastham prison farm, freeing Raymond Hamilton, Henry Methvin, Hilton Bybee (substituted for Clyde's friend Ralph Fults) and Joe Palmer. Hamilton's brother Floyd wrote that Henry Methvin was not part of the original "invited" group but fled with them during the general confusion. Though the hand he drew disappointed Barrow — he had particularly wanted to free Fults and another prisoner, Aubrey Skelley — the raid was the retaliation against the prison system that historian John Neal Phillips says was the driving force behind everything Clyde Barrow did: to pay back the Department of Corrections for abuse he had received there. The Texas Department of Corrections received national negative publicity over the jailbreak, which delighted Barrow, who thought he finally had his revenge.
During the breakout two guards were shot and wounded by the escapees, guard Major Crowson fatally. Legend has it that as Crowson lay dying, Texas Department of Corrections chief Lee Simmons promised him that every person involved in the breakout would be hunted down and killed. In reality, just before Crowson died in the hospital on January 27, Simmons took his formal statement and assured Crowson he would send his killer, Joe Palmer, to the electric chair. He then turned his attention to restoring the reputation of the Texas prison system.
On the go-ahead from Governor Ferguson, Simmons persuaded Hamer to accept an assignment to hunt down the Barrow Gang. Upon accepting the assignment, Hamer was (according to his own account) commissioned as an officer of the Texas Highway Patrol, then seconded to the prison system as a special investigator charged with apprehending Barrow and his colleagues. Hamer, though he had accepted the assignment, balked at the compensation — just $180 a month, less than half his current pay. Simmons reiterated that Hamer would collect his fair share of the reward money, then sweetened the deal by authorizing Hamer to take whatever he wanted from among the Barrow Gang's possessions when he caught them. As they were taking leave of each other, Simmons said he wouldn't presume to tell Hamer how to do his job, but his suggestion for getting Barrow and Parker would be to "Put 'em on the spot, know you're right — and shoot everybody in sight."
Hamer set to the task. A smart and meticulous investigator, he examined the pattern of Barrow's movements, discovering he essentially made a wide circle through the lower Midwest, skirting state borders wherever he could, to take advantage of "state line" dictums (i.e., that officers from one state could not pursue suspects across state lines). The circle had as its anchor points Dallas, Joplin, Missouri and northwest Louisiana, with wider arcs outward for bank robberies. It was a busy couple of months for hunter and quarry: banks in Lancaster, Texas; Poteau, Oklahoma; and Rembrandt, Knierim, Stuart and Everly, Iowa all fell victim to Barrow, Parker and Henry Methvin, one of the Eastham escapees who was now Clyde's protégé. Hamer was always following close behind.
The push-pins on Hamer's mental tracking map weren't limited to bank robberies, but also to murders. The killing of two Texas Highway Patrol officers at Grapevine, Texas on Easter Sunday (April 1, 1934) inflamed public sentiment against Barrow and Parker, even though it was Barrow and Methvin who were the two shooters.
An eyewitness account given massive newspaper coverage stated that a drunken Bonnie had emptied her gun into the prone body of Patrolman Murphy at Grapevine, laughing as she fired at the way his "head bounced like a rubber ball" on the road. Although it was all untrue — the eyewitness was ultimately discredited — it was not before waves of bad publicity in all four Dallas papers had established her reputation as a whiskey-belting, bloodthirsty she-devil. The attitudes of government and law enforcement officials were informed by the lurid newspaper stories and the furor they created. Governor Ferguson placed a $500 bounty on Bonnie's head for her perceived role in the murder of Patrolman Murphy. Even Hamer, who had learned a great deal about the real Barrow and Parker in the preceding months, later told reporters, "I would have gotten sick [seeing her perforated body in the car], but when I thought about her crimes, I didn’t. I hated to shoot a woman — but I remembered the way in which Bonnie had taken part in the murder of nine peace officers. I remembered how she kicked the body of the highway patrolman at Grapevine and fired a bullet into his body as he lay on the ground."
Popular perception turned even further against the fugitives when just five days later Barrow and Methvin killed sixty-year-old single father Constable Calvin Campbell near Commerce, Oklahoma. They kidnapped Commerce Chief of Police Percy Boyd, drove him across the border into Kansas, and when they released him, he had what he needed: their names to top the Campbell murder warrants, which were issued against Barrow, Parker and John Doe (Methvin) later that week.
Nevertheless, Hamer knew that Clyde did not intend to be taken alive, and the Barrow Gang's history made it practical to assume that Bonnie would not voluntarily part from him.
In mid-March Henry Methvin's family contacted Bienville Parish Sheriff Henderson Jordan about their son, his legal troubles and his involvement with Barrow. Though Hamer was a lone wolf by nature, after much complicated politicking and negotiation he formed an inter-jurisdictional posse and an ambush plan began to come together. First to join him were Sheriff Jordan and his deputy Prentiss Oakley, an excellent marksman. Hamer brought in fellow former Ranger Maney Gault, who had resigned from the Ranger force when "Ma" Ferguson was elected and now worked for the Texas Highway Patrol. Hamer requested that Dallas County Sheriff Smoot Schmid commit his deputy Bob Alcorn full time to the case; Schmid sent Alcorn and another Dallas County deputy, Ted Hinton. The two deputies and Schmid had tried to ambush Bonnie and Clyde once before, in late November 1933, near Sowers, Texas. After examining Barrow's abandoned V-8 Ford at Sowers and seeing that the barrage from his Thompson submachine gun hadn't penetrated its body, Hinton requested a BAR.
At 9:15 a.m. on May 23, 1934, after 102 days of shadowing, hunter and hunted finally met on a desolate rural road near Gibsland, Louisiana. Barrow stopped his car at the ambush spot and the posse's 150-round fusillade was so thunderous that people for miles around thought a logging crew had used dynamite to fell a particularly huge tree. Accounts of the last instants before the gunfire vary widely: Sheriff Jordan said he was calling out to Barrow to halt as the shooting started; Deputy Alcorn said that Captain Hamer was calling out; Deputy Hinton wrote that Alcorn called out. The only agreement between all six was that Deputy Oakley, perhaps nervously jumping the gun, stood and fired the opening burst from his Remington Model 8, and that his bullet into Barrow's left temple killed the outlaw instantly. The posse then fired off another hundred-plus rounds, any number of which would have been fatal to Parker and also to Barrow.
Hamer used a customized .35 Remington Model 8 semiautomatic rifle with a special-order 15-round magazine that Hamer had ordered from Petmeckey's Sporting Goods store in Austin, Texas. He was shipped serial number 10045, and this was just one of at least two Model 8's used in the ambush. The rifle was modified to accept a "police only" 20-round magazine obtained through the Peace Officers Equipment Company in St. Joseph, Missouri.
Although state, local and other sources had pledged monies to the Barrow reward fund that brought the pre-ambush total to some $26,000, most reneged on their pledges and when checks were finally cut for the posse members, a six-way split was all of $200.23.
During the 1930s Hamer applied his skills in keeping the civil peace on behalf of various oil companies and shippers, generally as a strike breaker. The first of these engagements was for the city of Houston, during the 1935 Gulf Coast longshoremen's strike, where Hamer headed "a special force of twenty ex-Rangers and sheriffs to prevent sabotage and looting." Hamer was also active the following year during the 1936 Gulf Coast maritime workers' strike.
At the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, he and 49 other retired Texas Rangers offered their services to King George VI, to help protect the United Kingdom in case of Nazi invasion. A son, Billy, joined the U.S. Marine Corps and died during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
In 1948 he was called again to Ranger duty to play a small role in a notorious episode in an election acknowledged to have been one of the most corrupt in Texas history. Hamer was hired by Governor Coke Stevenson, whose name by now was synonymous with old-school Texan conservative integrity, to accompany him to the Texas State Bank in Alice, the county seat of Jim Wells County in South Texas. Stevenson wanted to examine the tally sheets for ballot box 13, which held ballots for his opponent, then-Representative Lyndon Johnson, he knew were fraudulent, and not in a way that favored him. Outside the bank stood two glowering groups of armed men. Hamer got out of the car. He approached the first group and said, "Git." They did. To the second group blocking the doors of the bank he said, "Fall back." They did. In the end, Johnson won the election, even though the Johnson campaign stuffed the ballot box with over 300 nonexistent voters. This is clearly stated in "Texas Ranger" by John Boessenecker.
Frank Hamer retired in 1949 and lived in Austin until his death.
In 1953, Frank Hamer suffered a heat stroke and though he lived two more years, never regained his health. He was buried near his son in Memorial Park Cemetery in Austin. In his life he was wounded 17 times and left for dead four times. He is credited with having killed between 53 and almost 70 people.
In "The Barrow Gang," an episode of the TV version of Gang Busters, Jim Davis plays Texas Ranger Captain "Bob Stewart," a thinly fictionalized depiction of Hamer who is personally assigned to run down Bonnie and Clyde by Governor "Ma" Ferguson. This episode was later incorporated into the theatrical release Guns Don't Argue, along with two other episodes of the series.
In the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, Hamer appears under his own name, and is portrayed by Denver Pyle. He is depicted as incompetent, and the Barrow gang in the movie easily captures, teases, and humiliates him, after he foolishly creeps up on them. In consequence, their ambush at the end of the film appears to be his personal, petty revenge. After the film's release, Mrs. Frank Hamer, formerly Gladys Johnson Sims, originally from Snyder, Texas, and Frank Hamer, Jr., sued Warner Bros.-Seven Arts for defamation of character and in 1971 received an undisclosed out-of-court settlement.
Gener Shelton's novel, Manhunter - The Life and Times of Frank Hamer, attempts to depict the lawman's whole career, but concentrates primarily on his pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde.