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Running with Bonnie and Clyde
The Ten Fast Years of Ralph Fults
By John Neal Phillips
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2002 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
May 23, 1934
"Hey, Fults," a voice called out, cutting through the random sounds of farm tools clicking against sun-parched earth. "They finally got them little punk friends of yours this morning." Fults, hoeing weeds in a furrow of green cotton plants, straightened his lean, six-foot frame and glanced first to the shotgun barrel pointed at his chest, then to the smiling face of the guard who gripped the weapon. In all directions uniformed men stood, guns ready.
"Bonnie and Clyde," the guard went on to say. "Shot their goddamned butts to pieces over in Louisiana, not more than two hours ago."
The guard seemed to savor the news. He stared at Fults through dark glasses, fingering the safety catch on his shotgun. Fifty yards away a horseman sat erect on his mount, a high-powered rifle resting on his leg. It looked like a setup.
Fults had seen it before—guards goading convicts into making stupid moves. It was nothing new, especially for Eastham, "the bloody 'ham," reputedly the toughest prison farm in Texas. But such things had little effect on Fults. He had lived with it for nearly ten years, from reform school to the penitentiary, through beatings, shootings, and knifings. He was numb to it, not the least bit surprised by anything he saw or heard in prison, including the information conveyed by the guard standing before him.
Fults had always known that death was the only way out for his friends Bonnie and Clyde. Everyone knew it, even Bonnie and Clyde—especially Bonnie and Clyde. Still, Fults could not help being moved. He had been through a lot with Clyde Barrow and had always held nothing but the greatest affection for Bonnie. Nevertheless, he was not about to give his shotgun-wielding friend the satisfaction of knowing his true feelings. There would be enough celebrating among the ranks of the Eastham guards without that. To every employee of the prison system, the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde settled a score.
A fellow guard, a man named Crowson, had been killed five months earlier during Clyde's infamous raid on Eastham. It did not seem to matter that Clyde was not the actual triggerman. Nor did it matter that the real killer, a sickly convict stricken with ulcers, asthma, and perhaps tuberculosis, was said to have been the frequent recipient of Crowson's brutal beatings—the result of not being able to keep up with the other prisoners in the fields. Indeed, Crowson had been earmarked for death long before Clyde Barrow arrived that winter morning.
Regardless, Clyde Barrow was the man with the name, a celebrity of sorts. His raid had embarrassed many Texas prison officials, particularly Col. Lee Simmons, the general manager who once swore to curb the high incidence of prison escapes. It was Simmons who implemented the fatal ambush in Louisiana.
"I want you to put Bonnie and Clyde on the spot and shoot everyone in sight," Simmons told Capt. Frank Hamer, a retired Texas Ranger hired to put an end to the Barrow gang. There would be no arrest, only action arranged for by Simmons and sanctioned by the governor of Texas, Miriam Ferguson.
Not that Clyde Barrow was about to submit to an arrest. He vowed never to be taken alive. Certainly, others had made similar statements only to recant their words at the last minute. However, after the deaths of nine lawmen and one civilian, it was apparent that Barrow would stand by his word.
Now Clyde was dead—and Bonnie too. Despite the headlines, Bonnie never smoked cigars and was not the promiscuous gun moll she was supposed to be. Her part in the raid consisted of waiting in the car and sounding the horn so that Clyde, James Mullens, and the escaping prisoners could find their way through the thick fog enveloping the area. In time others would die for their part in the terrible raid of January 16, 1934. Few people tangled with prison management and survived.
Had the guard standing before him only known of Fults's involvement in the raid, he would have killed him right there in that cotton field, no questions asked. But only a small group of people knew the truth about the raid, and most of them were either dead or facing execution. Those who remained were not inclined to talk. Fults looked away from the guard and went back to work.
That night Fults couldn't sleep. He just lay there in his bunk, eyes wide open, thinking of the card he had received from Barrow and Parker just two weeks before. Fults was still inside prison walls in Huntsville when it arrived. Signed "Joe and Mary," but unquestionably penned by Bonnie, the note hinted at the possibility of a future attempt to free Fults: "Thinking of You. Hope to see you soon. Hope we all live to see the flowers bloom." Fults destroyed the card and waited for the break that never came. On hearing of the ambush, he thought of that last line. Its significance would haunt him for the rest of his life.
The sounds of snoring men interrupted Fults's thoughts. A voice called out, "I'm getting up now, Captain." The guard motioned, and soon bare feet could be heard slapping across the pine floor boards, heading for the line of exposed toilets at the far end of the Camp 2 dormitory.
In an act of sheer desperation Clyde had killed his first man in front of the Camp 1 toilets, a mile to the north. Most of Clyde's violent acts stemmed from desperation. Prison had taught him the word's starkest meaning. His experiences at Eastham had changed him from a schoolboy to a rattlesnake right before Fults's eyes. But there was once a time when Clyde didn't have his back against the wall. Fults could still remember those times. Even after nearly four years he vividly recalled the day he first met Clyde Barrow. He could still see his face. He could almost hear his voice.CHAPTER 2
September 18, 1930
It was a hot, dusty Texas day. Even for September the heat was stifling. Perspiration beaded on Fults's brow and trickled down the sides of his face. His black and white striped denim uniform stuck to his skin like a moist towel. The prison van kicked up choking gusts of hot wind as it knifed its way through the humid air of east-central Texas, en route to "the walls," the main penitentiary unit at Huntsville.
Fults had not seen the inside of the Texas penitentiary since his escape from Eastham Prison Farm nearly six months earlier. During those months he had been lucky, drifting as far north as Illinois and as far west as California, without as much as a second glance from a policeman. But in Missouri his luck ran out. A St. Louis detective caught him burglarizing a large commercial business. Fults was arrested and found to be an escaped convict from Texas.
Escapees were not tolerated in Texas. To demonstrate this, prison officials there sent legendary transfer agent Bud Russell all the way to St. Louis to retrieve Fults. The nineteen-year-old convict could easily envision the type of reception that awaited him at Eastham, but he tried not to dwell on it. Instead, he sat in silence, smoking a cigarette and daydreaming. Around his neck a heavy chain and padlock pulled and pinched his skin each time the prison transport hit a bump in the road. The opposite end of the chain was attached to another chain suspended at eye level between the two rows of prisoners seated in the rear of the big truck.
Throughout much of the return journey to Texas Fults had ridden alone, his only companion the reflection of Bud Russell's eyes that glared at him from one or more of the strategically placed mirrors used to monitor the prisoners. Following all-night layovers in Dallas and Waco, however, on the sixteenth and seventeenth, respectively, additional prisoners joined Fults. On the morning of September 18 Russell drove away from the Waco jail, his truck filled to capacity.
Fults stared at the passing fields of dry Johnson grass, blurs of brown and gold. Sometimes abandoned farm houses stood in the fields, foreclosure notices posted on them. Other times groups of people could be seen camping along the roadside, their vehicles either broken down or out of gas, their dreams of California broken as well. Fults had seen many such things in the months since his escape.
In Kansas City he witnessed a vast community of homeless people, most of them farmers, living in wooden crates and cardboard boxes adjacent to the main railroad switching yard. The residents called their little city "Hoover Town," after the president. Many were malnourished. Some were desperate enough to trap rats and boil them. "Hoover hogs," they called them. Fults felt sorry for those people. He could not forget their faces. He took a puff from his cigarette and closed his eyes.
Suddenly a strange voice called through the din of road noises, "Say, ain't you been on that prison farm, the one they call Eastham?"
Unaware that the question had been directed to him, Fults failed to respond.
"Say, fella, haven't you been on Eastham before?"
Fults glanced from the roadside to a young man seated directly across from him—a late arrival from the Waco jail. His face was lean and smooth. Coal black hair and deep brown eyes contrasted sharply with otherwise delicate features. Dressed in a jacket and tie, he looked more like a schoolboy than a convict.
"Yeh," said Fults. "I've been on Eastham before."
"What's it like?" asked the young man.
"Well, it ain't no damned picnic," said Fults. "There's two things they'll just flat out kill you for—not working, and running. You run once, they'll just rough you up a little. You run again, they take you over some hill and put a slug in the back of your head. 'Attempted escape,' they call it. We call it 'spot killing'"
"Shoot, they can't do stuff like that," said the youth, grinning.
"Man, they've got the guns and they've got the law. They can do any damned thing they want to. There's a pretty good-sized graveyard over at Camp 1 just full of guys who thought otherwise," said Fults, studying the young man closely. He was probably not more than five feet, six inches tall and could not have weighed more than 125 pounds. Fults wondered how long he would last in prison.
"You got a name?" asked Fults.
"Yeh," said the young man. "I'm Clyde Barrow."
"My name's Ralph."
"What are you in for, Ralph?" asked Barrow.
"Burglary," Fults answered.
"Yeh, me too," said Barrow. "I've been in Huntsville, behind them walls. They've had a bench warrant on me. They kept running me here and there, charging me with every burglary and car heist in the state. This last one in Waco got thrown out of court. Hell, they all did. Now I'm hearing I'm supposed to get shipped out to Eastham. That's why I was asking you about it.
"I had an older brother in the joint. He got sent up for burglary too. I was thinking I'd get to see him, but he escaped—just walked out the front gate and drove off in some guard's car. Hell, I don't think those dumb-asses even know he's gone. You got family, Ralph?"
Fults hesitated. Throughout his adolescence, nearly a third of his life, he had probably spent less than two weeks at home.
"Yeh," Fults answered, "I guess so."CHAPTER 3
Ralph Fults was born in the tiny north Texas town of Anna on January 23, 1911. His parents, Audie and Sophie Fults, moved to Texas shortly after the turn of the century when Audie was offered a better paying job with the United States Postal Service. The family moved again, to nearby McKinney, when Audie was transferred by the Postal Service shortly after Ralph's birth.
McKinney, forty miles north of Dallas, was a quiet agricultural community of approximately 6,600 inhabitants.1 Early in this century, dusty little gravel streets meandered through rolling hills of oak and mesquite. Around the square, red-brick streets were lined with small shops. It was a typically quiet, rural Texas scene, to which the Fultses and their ever-expanding family adapted well, except for Ralph.
Of the eight children born to Audie and Sophie Fults, only Ralph developed a pattern of troublesome behavior. While his brother and six sisters worked hard to attain good grades in school, Ralph became less and less attentive in class. He thought the curriculum banal. He seemed forever bored and restless, brimming with energy.
Fults grew combative, both verbally and physically. Perhaps he sought a vent for his energy, or possibly he resented being a part of such a large family and wanted to stand out in the crowd. For whatever reason, he soon developed a reputation as a vicious street fighter. At first he fought his schoolmates; soon he was battling grown men.
It is difficult to pinpoint the cause of such behavior. The Fultses apparently maintained a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. The family was never in want of anything. Without exception, Ralph's parents are described as having been gentle, soft-spoken people, easygoing and exceedingly humorous. Audie Fults was known throughout the county as a storyteller and wit. What, then, caused Ralph Fults to seek and apparently enjoy violence?
Some psychological studies indicate that perpetrators of violent acts had often themselves witnessed violence as children. Despite the ideal setting of his home life, Fults saw four violent deaths before he reached the age of sixteen. His first experience involved the last public execution carried out in McKinney.
The prisoner, a convicted murderer who had stuffed his victim into a water well, was led onto the scaffold. The thick rope, drawn tight against the condemned man's throat, looped upward behind his left ear. With a sharp jerk of the lever, the double doors opened with a horrible crash. The fall, grossly miscalculated, nearly tore the man's head from his body. Fults reeled away in horror, the image burned into his mind.
Within a week Fults would see a man gunned down in cold blood on the town square. Then, after he left home, the boy witnessed a shooting in Oklahoma, and later he saw the slitting of a man's throat in California. By the age of eighteen Fults was in prison, where death was an everyday experience. How could this happen to a child from a small town in America?
Fults came of age during the 1920s. Despite the popular image of flappers, jazz, and prosperity, the decade was one of contrasts, marred by riots, depression, and dire poverty. Scandals in baseball and in the administration of President Warren G. Harding, racial intolerance and the expansion of the Ku Klux Klan, coupled with the revelation that Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon had doled out $3.5 billion in corporate tax breaks during his tenure through three administrations, helped shape a generation of cynical, uneasy youths.
Parental control relaxed during this period as families became more democratic. The availability of automobiles made it easier for teenagers to escape the constraints of the family. Popular images created by radio, movies, and magazines furthered this trend. Political cartoonists and humorists made sport of bankers, big business, and politicians. Certain Sunday comics like "Slim Jim" made a hero out of an outlaw and reflected growing cynicism.
Ralph loved "Slim Jim." Appearing in most rural newspapers throughout the twenties, it depicted a clever young bandit who always managed to escape from the law, no matter how hopeless the situation seemed.
To an impressionable boy like Ralph, "Slim Jim" was a hero to believe in, something for a child from a sleepy North Texas town to seek as a model for excitement. It all seemed like a fun game—to live the life of an outlaw, a modern day Robin Hood, laughing at a corrupt world. Ralph wanted to be "Slim Jim."
This is not to say that Fults was indolent. Though amply provided for, the youngster nevertheless worked a number of odd jobs to earn extra money. He sold fireworks, worked in the local Coca-Cola bottling plant, and maintained a paper route. He spent most of his earnings on silent movies, particularly westerns in which the outlaw triumphed. When Fults was fourteen, he went to work for a local bicycle repairman, a man named Larson.
While in Larson's employ, Fults developed a keen interest in two of the repairman's other areas of expertise—guns and locks. The boy had never been around firearms, but under Larson's instruction he soon learned to handle and repair almost any weapon. Fults also acquired a basic working knowledge of locks, from the most common variety to complex systems like Mosler safes.
The boy began putting his newfound understanding of locks to practical use, as a game at first, hoping to emulate the character of "Slim Jim." A sudden rash of midnight burglaries swept McKinney. The sheriff suspected children because the items taken were candy and cigarettes. One Sunday he grabbed Fults by the arm.
"I know you've been breaking into these stores around here," he said. "Another kid's folks caught him with a bunch of cigarettes, and he said he got them from you. You bring your folks down to my office tomorrow morning so we can straighten this thing out."
"Yes sir," Fults said obediently. As soon as the sheriff was out of sight, the boy ran down to the railroad switching yard and hopped the first train headed north. Two years would pass before his family would find out what had happened to him.
Excerpted from Running with Bonnie and Clyde by John Neal Phillips. Copyright © 2002 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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