Last week we found a program with a familiar name, “The Highwaymen” on Netflix and decided to watch it. For anyone not familiar with the movie, it is about the chase and ambush of Bonnie and Clyde.
Starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, I was a little surprised at how both had aged. They were the leading characters in the flick and pretty much the only stars.
I have done a little writing about the two in past years, but enjoyed seeing Costner and Harrelson portray the men who were instrumental in finding the two gangsters. Although he only appeared once in the movie, an early Grayson County sheriff, Lee Simmons, was given credit for pointing the two men in the right direction to set up the ambush. Bonnie and Clyde only appeared once and that was when they were driving down the road, confronted by a gang of lawmen who filled the car and the two desperadoes full of lead.
Simmons has been called a “law and order” sheriff of Grayson County, but he retired after two terms because he felt he had cleaned up the county in 1918. But his law enforcement career didn’t come to an end at that time.
Five years later, he became manager of the Sherman Chamber of Commerce. During that time, he also served by appointment from Governor Pat Neff as one of a three member committee to inspect the prison system and make recommendations.
Conditions were not good in the prison system and in 1927, a new prison commission was established. In 1930, Gov. Dan Moody called Simmons and insisted he take the job of “cleaning up the mess in the Texas Prison System.” At first he refused, but changed his mind and accepted the challenge.
Simmons combined the toughness of a lawman and his concern for human beings and quickly changed things, all the while commanding respect from the convicts and reducing the number of escapes.
In his book, “Assignment Huntsville,” Simmons talks about how he conceived the plan that brought Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker to the end of their terror in the Southwest in the 1930s. Simmons got a taste of Barrow when he learned that he was the leader of an outside raid to free Ray Hamilton and two other convicts, Henry Methvin and Hilton Bybee, who were working on the Eastham Farm near a road.
Hamilton’s father hid .45 caliber pistols in a culvert the night before and Hamilton and Palmer began firing at guards as Barrow drove up in an escape car. Bullets from his machine gun killed one guard and the other two fled.
Simmons was furious and was determined to capture and punish the escapees and Barrow. Simmons’ book relates the escapes of Barrow and Parker during the time of the Great Depression. He admitted he lost a lot of sleep trying to figure out how to capture escapees and Clyde and Bonnie.
A plan was worked out by Simmons that involved adding a new position as special investigator to the prison system. The governor and two other state officials signed off on the change, noting the investigator was to be “put on the trail of Clyde and Bonnie and to stay on it until they were either captured or put out of business. It was these two investigators who were portrayed by Costner and Harrelson in “The Highwaymen.” Bonnie, who appeared only briefly in the movie, was about the only woman seen in the film.
Texas Ranger Captain Frank Hamer (Costner) was appointed to the job and the appointment was kept secret. Miriam Ferguson was governor by then and she and her husband, Jim, agreed to grant clemency to any underworld informant who supplied reliable information leading to the capture. A $1,000 reward “dead or alive,” was offered.
The robbing and killing rampage in Texas and Louisiana continued with Hamer hot on their trail. About 8 p.m. on April 22, 1934, Hamer telephoned Simmons and said “The old hen is about ready to hatch: I think the chickens will come off tomorrow.”
The next morning, Simmons headed back to Arcadia, Louisiana. It had been 102 days since Simmons had appointed Hamer as his special investigator. That afternoon Bonnie and Clyde, along with escapee Henry Methvin, stopped at a restaurant in Louisiana and Methvin went in for sandwiches. When he didn’t come back, it is believed that Bonnie and Clyde figured he had been “jumped.” Clyde drove to Methvin’s dad’s house and left word that he would meet Henry on the road between Gibsland and Arcadia about 9 a.m. the next day.
Methvin went home and his dad got in touch with authorities who made their plans. On the morning of April 23, old Mr. Methvin was on the road with his logging truck and stopped on a rise of a hill. He was removing a tire when Bonnie and Clyde came along in a brown Ford that they had stolen in Kansas. Just as they slowed down, Hamer, who had his men hidden on the other side of the road, gave orders to fire, and they hit their targets over and over again.
After I wrote a column several years ago about Lee Simmons and his connection with the ambush of Bonnie and Clyde, I received an email from Patti Chapman Olmstead, a granddaughter of Simmons. One of her children is named after her grandfather and some other members have Lee as a middle name.
In my Lee Simmons file, I also found an undated letter written by Mrs. Nolene Simmons Chapman, Patti’s mother, who talks about her father and mother. She said he began writing the book four years before his death and passed away on Oct. 12, 1957, just nine days before the book was to be published. “He leaves a moral in the book to finish what you start,” she said.
Simmons wife, Nola Stark Simmons, died Jan. 2, 1953. “It is said you have to be dead to be a hero,” Mrs. Chapman wrote, adding, “I consider both my mother and my father heroes.”
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald and has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.