Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part Texas History Minute series on Frank Hamer.
By the 1930s, Texas Ranger Frank Hamer had spent most of his life in law enforcement. He had put down riots, been in gunfights, hunted rustlers on horseback in the scrub brush of West Texas, and raced after hardened criminals in dramatic car chases. He had become a respected law officer across the state, even inspiring his brothers to join the Rangers as well.
Hamer retired, along with dozens of other Rangers in late 1932, just as Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson prepared to become governor. Hamer did not trust the Fergusons, especially after the tangle of events that led to the impeachment of her husband, Gov. James Ferguson in 1917. With the Ranger force itself coming under increasing scrutiny for some of its own tactics, Hamer feared it would become a political tool for the Fergusons. Hamer had a reputation for loyalty and honesty, boasting that he had never betrayed a confidence – even one from a criminal — and stepped aside.
By early 1934, the crime spree of Clyde Barrow, his mistress Bonnie Parker, and his brother Buck had riveted the nation’s attention. Barrow, who had grown up in Texas, had been in trouble from a young age. He was imprisoned at age 16 for car theft in Dallas in 1926. He had met Bonnie Parker, a young, married waitress in Dallas a month before he was imprisoned in Waco for robbery. Parker managed to help Barrow escape by smuggling a small pistol for him. He was arrested again a short time later in Ohio for robbery. After his release in 1932, the Barrow Gang went on a rampage of theft and murder. Parker was briefly captured after a robbery in Kaufman but was later released. In the meantime, they held up gas stations, mom-and-pop grocery stores, and small banks already struggling against the pressures of the Great Depression. By the end of 1933, they had already killed three people.
In January 1934, the gang attacked an East Texas prison farm to free one of their accomplices, killing two guards in the process. Law enforcement officials were desperate to capture them and were searching from Texas to Missouri. Hamer still held a commission with the Rangers in honor of his service with them. Lee Simmons, prison superintendent, respected Hamer’s tracking and appointed him as a special officer for the state highway patrol with the single purpose of capturing the Barrow Gang. Hamer also included other officers in his efforts.
Hamer picked up the trail, realizing that to capture them, he had to understand how Barrow thought and reacted. Hamer knew that a pattern would emerge. “An officer must know the habits of the outlaw,” he said in a later interview explaining how he sought evidence.
He followed their carnage, from a bank robbery in Lancaster to a string of robberies in Iowa. Barrow would travel hundreds of miles in a day. Hamer found witnesses who discussed what they saw at crime scenes in Oklahoma and Arkansas and those who met them away from the crime scenes. He tracked them to Indiana and all the way back to a camp site outside Wichita Falls. Overall, they ran between Dallas, Northwest Louisiana, and Joplin, Missouri.
After two highway patrolmen were shot and killed outside Grapevine on Easter Sunday 1934, public outrage intensified.
In the last month of the pursuit, Ben Maney Gault, a veteran Texas Ranger and longtime associate and friend of Hamer, rode with him as they pursued the outlaws. They learned that Barrow had a hideout near the home of one of his gang members near Gibsland, Louisiana. By late May, they had located them and, with four local deputies, prepared to arrest them. They flagged down their car on a lonely stretch of highway on May 23 and ordered them to stop. Instead, Barrow and Parker pulled their guns. The officers fired in response, killing them both.
Hamer and the other officers at the scene were hailed as heroes for ending the Barrow crime spree. In the process, Hamer helped transform the Ranger tactics and reputation from old frontier-style direct confrontations to one of careful tracking and meticulous, modern investigations.
Hamer spent several more years working as security for different individuals and corporations. In 1948, he worked for Gov. Coke Stevenson in the bitterly contested primary election with Congressman Lyndon Johnson as both sides accused each other of ballot fraud. Hamer attempted to secure ballots and voting records as the contest focused on South Texas.
He retired for good in 1949 as he turned 65. However, he was weakened by years of injuries and the loss of his son in combat in World War II. He suffered a stroke in 1953 and died in Austin in 1955.
The Bonnie and Clyde legend grew in the decades after their deaths, portrayed on television and in movies several times. One of the most famous depictions was the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty and filmed in North Texas. Veteran actor Denver Pyle portrayed Hamer, but in 1968, Hamer’s widow sued the producers of the film for the depiction of Hamer, showing him as not only as having been captured by Bonnie and Clyde but also as clownishly incompetent and cruel. The case was settled out of court in 1971 with the terms sealed. A biography of Hamer, compiled from his own words and letters, was published as I’m Frank Hamer: The Life of a Texas Peace Officer in 1968. He was later inducted into the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com.