May 23, 1934: Frank Hamer Takes Down Bonnie and Clyde

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(Netflix has a new movie out called The Highwaymen about the efforts by Texas Ranger Frank Hamer that led to the deaths of the murderers Bonnie and Clyde.  It is a good film with a huge amount of period feel.  Kevin Costner plays Frank Hamer to a T, giving the best performance he has provided in decades.  Woody Harrelson gives his usual strong performance portraying B.M. “Mannie” Gault, another Texas Ranger who assisted Hamer.  The film takes the usual Hollywood liberties with history.  (No, Gault, a former Texas Ranger who had served with Hamer, was not a down and out drunk prior to the Bonnie and Clyde mission, but was rather a highly respected member of the Texas Highway Patrol, and after the Texas Rangers were reinstituted would go on to rejoin them and eventually retire as a legendary Captain.)  Having said that, the main story is correct, and Kostner and Harrelson provide a highly entertaining look at Depression Era America in rural Texas and the birth of modern celebrity mania, which turned two murderous outlaws into the darlings of all too many Americans who should have known better.  I am reposting this post from 2016 since a lot of people on the internet are apparently looking for information about Hamer, judging from the hits the post has been receiving the past few days.) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frank “Pancho” Hamer was the archetypal Texas Ranger:  tough, incorruptible, laconic and resourceful.  He despised criminals and had even less love for corrupt politicians.  Born in 1884 he joined the Texas Rangers at age 22 after capturing a horse thief while working as a wrangler on a ranch.  He would be in and out of the Rangers for the rest of his life, frequently resigning if a challenging law enforcement position was offered him.  He developed a reputation of rapidly being able to impose law and order on the most lawless communities, often to the dismay of corrupt local politicians.  He compared criminals to coyotes and crooked politicians to crawfish.

Hamer developed an uncanny ability to get inside of the minds of his criminal adversaries and defeat them by out-thinking them.  Having said that, he also survived about fifty gunfights during his career, although being wounded 17 times and left for dead four times.  He killed 53-70 criminals during these battles.

He retired from the Rangers as a Senior Captain in 1932, but he received an unprecedented Special Ranger commission after he left the ranks.

After the criminals Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker had achieved blood stained national renown for a series of robberies in the Midwest, Texas and the Great Plains, the Texas Department of Corrections called Hamer out of retirement on February 12, 1934 to track down Bonnie and Clyde.  Compiling a meticulous map of all sightings of the Barrow gang, Hamer trailed them, living out of his car.  He noted that the travels of the Barrow gang often centered on quick visits to family members.  Gang member Henry Methvin’s father Ivan lived near Arcardia, Louisiana and Hamer decided that he was about due for a visit from the gang.  Harassed by local lawmen, Ivan Methvin told the local sheriff that his son was coming to visit and the sheriff passed this news on to Hamer.

The Barrow Gang had slain nine lawmen, and Hamer took no chances with them.  He staged an ambush of Bonnie and Clyde at 9:15 AM on May 23, 1934, using Ivan Methvin as bait.  After Clyde Barrow drove up along with Bonnie Parker and stopped to talk to Methvin, Hamer and the other five officers with him jumped from ambush and riddled the car with 130 rounds.  Both of the gangsters received more than fifty shots, any one of which would likely have been fatal.  Upon inspection the vehicle proved to be an arsenal on wheels:  three BARs, Winchester 1887 10 gauge shotgun, Remington Model 11 20 gauge shotgun, and ten pistols, along with 1000 rounds of BAR ammunition and 2000 rounds of other ammunition.  Bonnie was armed with the Remington, a pistol taped to her thigh and a pistol in her purse.  Clyde was clutching a pistol with another stuck in his belt and a BAR and the Winchester in easy reach.

Hamer refused to write his memoirs, thinking that it was improper for him to reap a financial reward for merely doing his duty.  He continued to work in law enforcement.

One of his last official duties was accompanying Governor Coke Stevenson of Texas to Jim Wells County in 1948 to investigate charges of vote fraud.  Stevenson had won the Democrat primary against Representative Lyndon Johnson (D.Tx.) , and Johnson was in the process of stealing the election by stuffing a ballot box in the county with 202 fictitious votes.  Stevenson was seeking to examine the tally sheets for election box 13, the tally sheets being kept at the Texas State Bank in Alice, the county seat.  When the Governor and Hamer pulled up in front of the Bank, they were met by two angry armed groups of Johnson supporters.  Hamer, then 64, swiftly surveyed the situation, told one group to “Git” and the other group to “Back off”, quite a lot of words for the normally terse lawman.  Both groups looked at Hamer and decided that obeying him was the better part of valor.  (Despite overwhelming evidence of vote fraud, the Democrat State Central Committee certified Johnson the winner in a 29-28 vote.  Disgusted, Stevenson spent the rest of his life helping build up the Republican party in Texas.)

Hamer died in his sleep on July 10, 1955, the Grim Reaper obviously no more eager than most criminals to face Hamer when he was awake.  He was buried in Memorial Park Cemetery in Austin, close to his son Billy who died fighting on Iwo Jima.

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6 Comments

  1. May he and his son rest in peace.

    We just looked at a town with a “Bonnie and Clyde shoot-out” park last week– Dexter, IA. It was almost a year before this, which is odd since I grew up with much sympathy being drummed up for the two by mentions of how they were still injured from a prior ambush. (No, no mention of the folks they shot or robbed–sometimes not even a mention of what they did that was illegal!)
    https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/42539

  2. Thank you for posting this informative piece. I always wondered about the fascination with Bonnie and Clyde. They were nasty people. But I guess it started earlier than that, with sympathetic stories of Frank and Jesse James, Billy the Kid and other cowboy criminals, moving onto the Depression era gangsters like Al Capone and others. Maybe the public needed “excitement” and seemingly “underdogs” to root for thanks to the media of the time trying to sell papers….. I guess the media managed masses haven’t evolved much since then.
    I’d never read much about Mr. Hamer and the others who finally tracked down and stopped Bonnie and Clyde in their bloody tracks. All I ever heard was that they were ambushed. But this tells the true back story that few read. Thank you.
    May Mr. Hamer rest in peace. They don’t make ones like him much any more.

  3. Denver Pyle played Hamer in the Arthur Penn movie. For some reason I thought it was Ben Johnson.

  4. Hamer’s widow and kids sued the film studio for defamation and got an undisclosed settlement. The film depicted Hamer as incompetent and having been captured by the Barrow gang. Amazing that they used Hamer’s name in this work of fiction.

  5. Nor just one, but 3 Browning automatic rifles, with Bonnie and Clyde, accompanying them on their final day.

    Quail-hunting obviously.

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