The New York Times bestseller!
“Frank Hamer, last of the old breed of Texas Rangers, has not fared well in history or popular culture. John Boessenecker now restores this incredible Ranger to his proper place alongside such fabled lawmen as Wyatt Earp and Eliot Ness. Here is a grand adventure story, told with grace and authority by a master historian of American law enforcement. Frank Hamer can rest easy as readers will finally learn the truth behind his amazing career, spanning the end of the Wild West through the bloody days of the gangsters.”
--Paul Andrew Hutton, author of The Apache Wars
To most Americans, Frank Hamer is known only as the “villain” of the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. Now, in Texas Ranger, historian John Boessenecker sets out to restore Hamer’s good name and prove that he was, in fact, a classic American hero.
From the horseback days of the Old West through the gangster days of the 1930s, Hamer stood on the front lines of some of the most important and exciting periods in American history. He participated in the Bandit War of 1915, survived the climactic gunfight in the last blood feud of the Old West, battled the Mexican Revolution’s spillover across the border, protected African Americans from lynch mobs and the Ku Klux Klan, and ran down gangsters, bootleggers, and Communists. When at last his career came to an end, it was only when he ran up against another legendary Texan: Lyndon B. Johnson.
Written by one of the most acclaimed historians of the Old West, Texas Ranger is the first biography to tell the full story of this near-mythic lawman.
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About the Author
JOHN BOESSENECKER is considered one of the leading authorities on crime and lawlessness in the Old West. He is the award-winning author of Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez and When Law Was in the Holster: The Frontier Life of Bob Paul. In 2011 and 2013, True West magazine named Boessenecker Best Nonfiction Writer. He has appeared frequently as a historical commentator on PBS, The History Channel, A&E, and others. He lives in San Francisco, California.
Read an Excerpt
The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde
By John Boessenecker
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 John Boessenecker
All rights reserved.
A COWBOY OF THE HILL COUNTRY
Texas bred tough men, and none came any tougher than Frank Hamer. He was to the Lone Star State what Wyatt Earp was to Arizona and what Wild Bill Hickok was to Kansas. His iron strength was hammered on the anvil of his father's blacksmith shop. His iron will was molded in forty tumultuous years as a peace officer. His iron character was honed by his struggles against horseback outlaws, Mexican smugglers, the Ku Klux Klan, corrupt politicians, the Texas Bankers Association, and Lyndon B. Johnson. His iron courage was forged in the flames of fifty-two gunfights with desperadoes. In an era when crooked police were a dime a dozen, he could not be bought at any price. Though a white supremacist of the Jim Crow era, he saved fifteen African Americans from lynch mobs. He was the greatest American lawman of the twentieth century.
Hamer was a son of the Hill Country, that undulating expanse of live oak, mesquite, and cedar brakes that stretches through central Texas from the Balcones Escarpment north and west to the Edwards Plateau. Rugged and isolated, its rivers and creeks rise from headwaters in the Edwards Plateau and slice through jagged limestone, flowing to the Gulf of Mexico. In the 1840s and 50s, settlers from the mountains of Missouri, Arkansas, and Tennessee poured into the Hill Country, long the domain of Apache and Comanche. Their battles against Indian raiders would, for generations to come, help define the character of Texans as fierce and unrelenting warriors. After the Civil War, the Hill Country was wracked by civil violence. With fewer Indians to fight, Texans turned on each other.
Beginning in the 1840s, feuds — between families, neighbors, and political rivals — became a tradition in Texas. Feuding, like vigilantism, was a notion of primitive law. After the Civil War, animosity between Northern and Southern sympathizers was the cause of feuds large and small. During the 1870s, Texas was wracked by infamous vendettas like the Horrell-Higgins feud in Lampasas County, the Mason County war, and, most notably, the Sutton-Taylor feud, the longest and bloodiest of them all. It lasted thirty years and left at least seventy-eight men dead. Notions of personal honor, coupled with an armed citizenry, excessive drink, lack of strong law enforcement, and a belief that social problems were best solved by individuals instead of government, all contributed to the plethora of feuds in frontier Texas. These concepts and conditions continued into the twentieth century. As late as 1912, when the leading partisan in the Boyce- Sneed feud was acquitted of cold-blooded murder, the jury's foreman explained the reasoning: "We in Texas believe a man has the right to safeguard the honor of his home even if he must kill the person responsible."
The Hamer family — they pronounced their name "Haymer" — were relative newcomers to Texas. Frank's father, Franklin Augustus Hamer, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1853, and grew up in Ohio and in Pennsboro, West Virginia. As a youth he worked as a railroad brakeman, but he wanted adventure in the West. In 1874 Franklin enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army in Pennsylvania and was assigned to the Fourth U.S. Cavalry, stationed in Fort Clark, Texas. The Fourth Cavalry was commanded by Colonel Ranald S. MacKenzie, a brilliant leader and famous Indian fighter. Its assignment was to stop raids by Comanche, Apache, and Kickapoo from their hideouts in northern Mexico.
The elder Hamer, a colorful, hard-drinking character with an offbeat sense of humor, displayed the same courage and quick-witted thinking that would be the hallmark of his son's career. One day, exhausted and separated from his cavalry unit, Hamer dismounted and lay down in the brush to nap. A nervous snort from his horse startled him awake in time to see that he had been surrounded by a Comanche war party. Hamer knew that his life depended on what he did next. Lurching to his feet, he staggered drunkenly through the brush, foaming at the mouth. Alternately singing in a loud voice and mumbling incoherently, he wobbled toward the astonished Indians. As he danced, whistled, and laughed, the warriors lowered their weapons. One of the Comanches exclaimed, "Muy loco!"
The Indians quickly retreated from the crazed soldier, fearful of the evil spirit that had possessed him. Swinging onto their horses, they galloped off. Hamer kept up his act until they disappeared, then caught his horse and raced hell-for-leather to Fort Clark.
Army life did not agree with Franklin Hamer. He received a medical discharge after just five months and settled in Fairview, a tiny Wilson County village of about a hundred, situated forty miles southeast of San Antonio. There, he worked as a farmer and blacksmith and wooed twenty-year-old Lou Emma Francis. The two were married by a justice of the peace in her parents' home in Fairview in 1881 and promptly set out to raise a large family. Their first child, Dennis Estill Hamer, arrived ten months later. The second eldest, Francis Augustus, destined for a legendary life, was born in Fairview on March 17, 1884. More children followed: Sanford Clinton, called Sant, in 1886; Harrison Lester in 1888; Mary Grace in 1891; Emma Patience, known as Pat, in 1894; Alma Dell in 1898; and the youngest, Flavious Letherage, in 1899. The Hamer family were a mixture of Scottish, Irish, English, and German blood. Frank, to distinguish him from his father, was often called Gus (for Augustus) in his youth.
From his father Frank inherited a dry, sardonic wit and learned to speak in colorful and sometimes profane language. His father's heavy drinking was an attribute that the eldest son, Estill, inherited and that Frank was careful to avoid. As a young boy, Frank's most vivid memories were of his maternal grandfather, L. J. Francis. The old man, a jagged scar down the side of his face, regaled the youth with stories of his adventures on the frontier. In 1840, at age twenty-two, he accompanied an overland trade caravan from Texas to Chihuahua in northern Mexico. The traders were set upon by Indians, who killed seven of the party before Francis was shot in the head with an arrow. He was captured and almost killed but soon escaped. In later years he became a Presbyterian minister, and young Frank was inspired to follow his grandfather's religious life.
Frank's father had a roving disposition. As Franklin's sister-in-law recalled, "Mr. Hamer was a great hand for moving from place to place." In 1890, when Frank was six, his father brought his family to the Hill Country, settling at McAnelly's Bend (now called Bend), on the Colorado River, fourteen miles southeast of San Saba. There, he ran a blacksmith shop. In 1894 the elder Hamer moved his family south to Oxford, another small settlement, fifteen miles below Llano on the road to Fredericksburg. He opened another blacksmith shop in a two-story, barnlike building fronting the Llano-Fredericksburg road. Next to it was a simple, board-and-batten house, into which crammed the Hamers' growing brood. Estill and Frank helped their father, gathering firewood for the forge, pumping the bellows, and learning to hammer iron on his anvil. Years later, Frank and his good friend Bill Sterling, a Texas Ranger captain, happened to be traveling through Llano County. Recalled Sterling, "Hamer stopped our car in front of an old roadside blacksmith shop. He said that it had once belonged to his father. As a youth he had put in many hours of toil at the anvil, swinging a sledge hammer and working with other heavy tools. This was where Frank Hamer got his brawny arms."
Like most youths in the Hill Country, the Hamer boys also learned riding, roping, branding, managing cattle, and basic farming. When not helping out with chores, the older Hamer children attended the public school in Oxford. Frank was extremely intelligent, with a near photographic memory. But he was no scholar. He did excel in mathematics, and the teacher would ask him to help instruct the class from time to time. Frequently, he would solve arithmetic problems in his head. His teacher would ask, "Frank, why didn't you work out the problem? Where is your paper?"
Hamer invariably answered, "I don't know how to work it out on paper, Ma'am, but I can give you the right answer to the problem." On one occasion, however, the teacher insisted that he stand before the class and explain how he arrived at the correct solutions. "I told the teacher I did not know how I reached the right answers and I refused to get up and talk to the class. She did not like this and I did not remain long in school." In later years he would jokingly boast that he was "the only Texas Ranger with an Oxford education." In truth, Frank had no formal schooling after the sixth grade. As Captain John H. Rogers of the Texas Rangers later commented, "While he is not an educated man, he is bright and intelligent." Hamer himself freely admitted his paltry schooling, once saying, "The only education I got was on the hurricane end of a Mexican pony."
Religion was one of the greatest influences on Frank's early life. His parents were devout Presbyterians. Camp revival meetings, coupled with the example set by his minister grandfather, reinforced Frank's desire to follow a career in the cloth. For most of his youth, from age six to sixteen, Frank believed he was destined to be a preacher. Most rural Texas families owned but one book, the Bible. Frank was then not much of a reader, but in addition to the Bible he devoured Josiah Wilbarger's Indian Depredations in Texas, published in 1889. The book was hugely popular among Texans, for it detailed how their ancestors had wrested the country from wild Indians. Hamer was fascinated by the tales of Comanche fights and Texas Rangers. But instead of being inspired to emulate the Rangers, the youth was most impressed by the underdogs — the Indians. "I made up my mind," he later recalled, "to be as much like an Indian as I could." His admiration for the underdog and his concern for those too weak or too outnumbered to protect themselves would become essential to understanding his character.
Young Frank, when not working or attending school, and to escape the cramped confines of their tiny, crowded home, would often head alone into the hills. He took only his rifle, fishing gear, and bowie knife, exploring and living off the land. He recalled, "When a boy I liked to live in the woods ... one to six weeks at a time. I got along fine for I fished, hunted, and slept upon the ground at nights. I was greatly fond of studying the habits of small animals and birds. I built an altar in the woods so I could talk to the Old Master."
The Hill Country's heavily wooded slopes teemed with white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and fowl of every type. There, Frank became intimately acquainted with nature, from insects to rodents, birds, and small and large game. As his friend and biographer Walter Prescott Webb once explained, "He studied bird calls and the animal cries and practiced imitating them until he could call them to him. Almost anyone can call crows, but Frank can call quail, deer, road runners, fox-squirrels, and hoot owls." He became an expert trailer, able — like an Indian in the old adage — to "track a fly across a looking glass." Hamer later said, with little exaggeration, that as a youth he slept outdoors for eight straight years. He took great pleasure in mastering woodmanship, Indian lore, and survival skills, not recognizing that he was simultaneously learning self-reliance, patience, endurance, and independence. To him, the dense, isolated timber of the Hill Country was not lonely and forbidding, it was home.
Frank grew up around firearms. The Hamers, like all Texas families, kept a few rifles and shotguns in the house. All boys in rural Texas were expected to know how to load, shoot, and clean guns. Since the founding of the Republic of Texas, firearms had been a necessity to defend the frontier against raids by Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa Apache. Once the Indian danger was gone, Texans remained married to their guns. In the Hamer household, even the girls learned to use firearms. Frank's sister Pat carried a toy pistol as a child, wore a real one on her hip as a young woman, and in old age kept a handgun in her purse.
It was on his boyhood journeys that Frank Hamer became a dead shot. Money was scarce and ammunition expensive, so he learned to hit what he shot at. Careful practice enabled him to kill a running deer or a bird in full flight. In a place and time when dead shots were a dime a dozen, Frank Hamer's marksmanship would become legendary. He also learned to use a knife, both as a tool and as a weapon. He hunted armadillos by throwing his bowie knife with such force he could pin the animal to the ground. Frank ate what he hunted and thought that armadillo meat tasted like fine-grained, high-quality pork.
An extremely athletic youth, Frank excelled in both the high jump and the long jump. But organized sports did not interest him. The sports he liked most were horseback riding, hunting, fishing, and shooting. Other sports and leisure activities — football, bicycling, skating — became popular during the inaptly named Gay Nineties. Yet that 1890s America — of Frank Merriwell, of knickerbockers and celluloid collars, of baseball, pretzels, and beer, of tripping the light fantastic with Mamie O'Rourke — was utterly foreign to young Hamer. Instead, his boyhood in the Texas Hill Country was firmly grounded in the Old West, informed by the ethics and traditions of the Texas frontier. His heroes were not John L. Sullivan, "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, Cy Young, or Christy Mathewson — they were Captain Jack Hays, of the Texas Rangers, Colonel Ranald MacKenzie, of the Fourth Cavalry, and the Comanche war chiefs Buffalo Hump and Quanah Parker.
By his mid-teenage years Hamer was big for his age, tall and gangly, his sinewy limbs toned and hardened by long hours at his father's anvil. Quiet and modest, with a broad smile set off by large, even teeth, he possessed supreme self-confidence. With children and women he was gentle and caring; with strangers, awkward and bashful. At the same time, he was stubborn, hardheaded, and short-tempered, softened somewhat by a sardonic sense of humor. Early encounters with neighborhood tormentors made him despise bullies and ruffians, and his fighting blood was easily aroused. As an admirer once remarked, "At sixteen he was equipped with a personality forceful enough to impress a straw boss," adding, "He was the tall, silent youngster who invariably attracts the attention of schoolyard bullies." In those years both men and boys were expected to "kill their own snakes" — that is, to solve their own problems. Boyhood disputes would often be resolved by angry wrestling matches, or by fisticuffs.
Though Frank did not start fights, he became adept at ending them. Instead of punching his opponent, he would slap him with an open palm. He also learned to use his boots, said one observer: "He usually put a quick end to a scuffle with a mule kick to his opponent's groin." So adept was Hamer at fighting with his feet that his friend Bill Sterling thought Frank had been trained in savate, the French martial art. "From the way he performed," said Sterling, "I thought perhaps some adventure-seeking Frenchman had drifted into the Pecos country and shown him how it was done in France. His answer was that he had never taken any lessons other than those given by experience. In youthful fights, when older boys ganged up on him, he discovered that his feet could be turned into high powered weapons." Frank would later say, "My feet were always loaded."
Early on, Hamer learned the concept of personal honor. As he once explained, "I was born and raised in Texas. I was born and raised not to take an insult. Any time a man insults me he has to back it up." This notion of honor was a vital component of masculine life in the American West of the nineteenth century. Honor was embraced by men of all classes in the West and the South. Honor meant courage, character, loyalty, respect for womanhood, and especially a firm resolve to never back down from an enemy. It was manifest in the code duello of the southern planter, the code of the West on the frontier, and the refusal to run from a fight so common to Texas feudists. It was codified in the Western legal doctrine of self-defense, known as "no duty to retreat" or "stand your ground," which authorized a man to resist attacks, even verbal ones, with deadly force. A man possessed honor only if his peers said he did. If his peers failed to accept him as an equal, his honor was gone, and only an act of violent retribution or heroic valor could retrieve it. This concept of personal honor is central to an understanding of the character of Frank Hamer and would explain many of the actions in his adult life.
Personal honor was also an important component of Texas gun culture. The use of violence to resolve social problems was widely accepted on the frontier, especially in Texas. As a result, the Lone Star State became renowned for its plethora of gunfighters, feudists, and fast-shooting lawmen. A Texan who had "killed his man" proved that he could defend his honor and thus earned both respect and notoriety. From the anti-Hispanic racism of West Texas came the boast of gunfighters like John King Fisher, who bragged of killing twelve men, "not counting Mexicans." Texas gunfighter and killer-for-hire Jim Miller boasted, "I have killed eleven men that I know about. I have lost my notch stick on Mexicans I've killed out on the border." N. A. Jennings, who served with Captain Lee McNelly's Texas Ranger company in 1876, explained, "The taking of a Mexican's life by the white desperadoes was of so little importance in their eyes that they actually didn't count such an 'incident' in their list of 'killings,' as the murders were styled by them. Only white victims were reckoned by notches on their six-shooters."
Excerpted from Texas Ranger by John Boessenecker. Copyright © 2016 John Boessenecker. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
1. A Cowboy of the Hill Country,
2. Texas Ranger,
3. One Riot, One Ranger,
4. Marshal of Navasota,
5. From Houston to the Open Range,
6. The Bandit War,
7. The Johnson-Sims Feud,
8. Gunsmoke on the Rio Grande,
9. "This Ruffian Haymer",
10. The Lone Ranger,
11. Hell Paso,
14. The Ku Klux Klan,
15. Ma and Pa Ferguson,
16. The Hinges of Hell,
17. The Murder Machine,
18. Town Tamer,
19. Funerals in Sherman,
20. Bonnie and Clyde,
21. The Barrow Hunt,
22. "We Shot the Devil Out of Them",
23. Frank Hamer vs. Lyndon B. Johnson,
ALSO BY JOHN BOESSENECKER,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Frank Hamer was an outstanding lawman and Texas Ranger and John Boessenecker's biography has done him justice. His career spanned the era of horseback patrols against outlaws, border fights and feuds into the automobile and gangster era of the 1930's. He was a person of high moral caliber and even though he embodied the prejudices of the time he made sure that those he arrested always got a fair trial whether they were white, Mexican or African American. His only failure in this regard was losing an African American convicted of rape to a mob in Sherman, Texas. This riot and lynching turned out to be one of the worst in Texas history and was published in newspapers across the country. Frank Hamer's most famous accomplishment was the killing of the bank robbing duo of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. They were a ruthless and blood thirsty couple who had left a trail of robbed banks and bloody murders throughout the Midwest of depression America. Frank Hamer was given a bad image in the movie "Bonnie and Clyde" but John Boessenecker revives his reputation as an honest peace officer who ended their bloody and violent career.