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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Who Was That Masked Man- Really?


 
Every night my wife nestles in the covers and watches re-runs of the Lone Ranger right before she goes to sleep. It is a great way to end the day, with the masked man and Tonto riding off into the horizon, crying “Hi- Yo Silver- awaaaay!”

The legend of the Lone Ranger has been around since Zane Grey, the prolific western novelist, wrote a book called the Lone Star Ranger. Recently I purchased some artifacts from his estate, including original Texas Ranger photos, a 1915 newspaper clipping provided by Henry Romeike Inc. of New York, and the proof sheet for Grey’s autographed dedication of the book to Captain John Hughes and his Texas Rangers...

 The proof sheet for the dedication by Zane Gray to Capt. Hughes and his Texas Rangers. From an unrelated collection, the bronze badge is very similar to ones worn by Texas Rangers during that period.
 
In 1923 Tom Mix starred in the silent movie version, then it was remade as a talkie, and eighteen years later Fran Striker adapted the character in his radio programs, and wrote many books featuring his character, The Lone Ranger.  Soon this popular American hero was being interpreted on television, and became a permanent American icon.
 
It has always been assumed that Zane Grey had been so smitten with Captain Hughes that he based his hero on the legendary Ranger captain after visiting Texas in 1913.  But the character he invented did not really resemble Hughes in any way. He writes in his dedication…

“It may seem strange to you that out of all the stories I heard on the Rio Grande I should choose as first that of Buck Duane- outlaw and gunman.

But, indeed, Ranger Coffee’s (Perhaps Ranger Bob Coffee?) story of the last of the Duanes has haunted me, and I have given full rein to the imagination and retold it in my own way. It deals with the old law- the old border days- therefore it is better first.  Soon, perchance, I shall have the pleasure of writing the border of today, which in Joe Sitter’s laconic speech, “Shore is ‘most as bad an’ wild as ever!”

 

In the book's dedication Grey reminisced about his sojourn with the Texas Rangers, about the legendary tracker Joe Sitters and others, whom he met probably in April of 1913, (Thanks to Ranger historian Mike Cox) as if he had made lifelong friends and found lasting heroes... at least he could say he had actually met real Texas Rangers... and name them by name...

“Gentlemen, I have the honor to dedicate this book to you, and the hope that it shall fall to my lot to tell the world the truth about a strange, unique, and misunderstood body of men-  The Texas Rangers…”

In the package I purchased were two snapshots of Texas Rangers, Captain Hughes and perhaps Sitters, and a larger post card-sized photo (see top) of a handsome “unknown ranger,” whom I immediately recognized. I never hesitated to pull the trigger on the BUY IT NOW button, as the unidentified ranger was none other than Frank Hamer, newly rejoined with the Texas Rangers in 1915 after policing stints in Navasota and Houston.


Six foot- three, Frank Hamer, City Marshal of Navasota around 1910

And here is where a new personal theory developed about the origins of the legendary “Lone Ranger.” One of the old tattered press clippings in my Zane Grey collection was a newspaper article about the tragic killing of former Ranger, Customs Inspector Joe Sitters and another ranger in late May of 1916, who were serving as “Rio Grande River Guards.” When asked by a reporter to comment on the double murder, Zane Grey mused that it  “was not so significant because it was the passing of the oldest and most famous of the Rangers, but because it typified Sitter’s laconic remark, spoken in conversation with the author a year ago, that conditions in the border country were “ 'most as bad and wild as ever.”

That observation by Sitters, in typical ranger style, became a deadly, self-fulfilling prophesy.

The Media of the day failed as usual to get the real story from Grey or the tight-lipped Rangers, but what happened before that had surely helped to forge the future legend of the “Lone Star Ranger.” In a seeming stroke of one writer's dumb luck, Grey  had met and travelled with some of the most deadly and notorious Texas Rangers who ever lived-  some soon to perish.

A hardened Ranger veteran who had impressed Grey, Joe Sitters became famous to the whole American reading public in the book's dedication, then ironically made the most foolish and costly mistake of his long and colorful career. Divided from the main search party, Inspector Sitters and Ranger Eugene Hulen had been shot, mutilated and robbed while tracking the notorious Chico Cano gang in the mountains of far west Texas, apparently about a year after Zane Grey had tagged along looking for excitement. This places Grey in Texas during the spring of the same year that Lone Star Ranger was published. The Lone Star Ranger was released in June of 1915, just a month or so after Zane Grey had made a second pilgrimage to Ranger country and visited with the legendary Joe Sitters and others in my photographs. This means the writer had pretty much written Lone Star Ranger  before he had gone to Texas for his second expedition. Perhaps he was researching another book, as he suggested in the dedication he wanted to write another book on the "modern day" Rangers.

The main character, Buck Duane, was supposedly a fictional character, forged from the depths of Ranger Coffee's arsenal of Ranger lore, but had amazing similarities to one of the rangers Grey obviously met on that trip. And the picture of the "unknown ranger" proves he was more than a little aware, even inspired by Frank Hamer, one of the most sensational rangers on the border; Buck Duane starts out as an outlaw, a natural killer, living in the wilds to survive. Later he becomes a Texas Ranger and dedicates his life to eradicating the thieving, murderous gangs of the Texas border. A magazine book review released by Harper & Brothers offers that the story was “easily paralleled in real life.” But by whom?

A fact revealed much later in his biography, Ranger Frank Hamer actually was caught up in a bank robbery scheme when just a teenager, although he backed out at the last minute. He killed his first man, an employer who shot him first, in a wild reprisal when he was just sixteen. And it seems the parallels won't quit, as the legend grew... After that first killing, Hamer reportedly went to his mother and exclaimed...

 “Mother I wanted to be a preacher, but from this hour on I’m making a vow to God I will pursue outlaws relentlessly and bring them to justice.”

Could this vow have inspired the various creators of the Lone Ranger legend to have their character make a similar one?

Frank Hamer later mused how different his life might have been had he gone through with his youthful fantasies, and had not the Rangers discovered him and offered him a legitimate expression of his predatory inclinations. And Lone Star Ranger seems to be the exploration of that question.  After his first deadly gunfight, Buck Duane spends much of his time hiding and surviving in the wilderness, hard to track, impossible to capture, against incredible odds. Hamer was known to identify closely with Native Americans, to even live and think like an Indian, with remarkable abilities in riding, hunting, tracking and shooting. Walter Prescott Webb described him thus: “Nature became an open book to Hamer and he became more and more like an Indian.”  

When just twenty two, the lawman prodigy was recognized and recruited by two legendary old-time rangers, Captains John Hughes and J. H. Rogers. Hamer quickly established himself as a fearless, deadly gunfighter, and was almost as quickly assigned by the Governor to go subdue the warring town of Navasota in 1908.

In Navasota young Frank Hamer immediately had to square off with one of the town's ruffian leaders, a hell-bent-for-leather Texas Aggie named Brown... whom he kicked and rolled in the street-mud and humiliated... and who became a lifelong foe in the process. All through Lone Star Ranger, a villain Brown is mentioned and pointed to as a devil, the brain trust for evil. He is just a dead-end sub-plot however, almost irrelevant to the story as it turns out, and never brought to justice. The rascal Brown almost appears to be a private, subtle acknowledgement to Frank Hamer's real struggles, and a suggestion that they were ongoing.

 If that is true, it would have been painfully correct. After trying jobs in law enforcement in urban Texas, taming Navasota and exposing corrupt bankers in Houston, Hamer was let go after he had a run-in with a big city journalist in 1913, and brought embarrasment to the Houston Police Department. He returned to Navasota for a short while to serve under his old deputy, Marshal M. E. Bailey. He cleverly broke up a car-theft ring, and then began to negotiate his return to the Texas Rangers in April of 1915, when around 31 years old. Convenient for my theory, he ended up on the Mexican border with Company C, chasing bootleggers, banditos and gun runners. It is very possible he had already struck up a friendship with Zane Grey by this time.

Whether he had already met Zane Grey by then, who followed his subject to his new job, or met him there in the middle of nowhere, will have to remain a mystery for now. But a casual read of Lone Star Ranger suggests a deeper relationship, as it brings up numerous parallels to the legendary Frank Hamer. Buck Duane is young, very handsome, a lady killer, has to duck to get through doorways, wears two guns... one high on the left, one lower on the right, and he speaks only when he has to. He is a crack shot with a handgun, an instinctive killer, an alpha male in a man-created hell. Buck Duane  was either a writer's echo of Ranger Frank Hamer, or Hamer patterned his life after the book... which is not likely. And if I am right, Grey knew how to pick 'em!

In fact, Hamer had been recruited back into the Rangers for a purpose. There was trouble on the horizon and the rangers needed the best men they could assemble.

Right after the visit by Zane Grey in 1915, in early August large bands of mounted Tejano banditos determined to execute the “Plan of San Diego” began to attack south Texas ranches. The Plan of San Diego was a Mexican conspiracy born in San Diego, Texas to aid the Germans in WWI by causing havoc on the border with the ultimate, horrifying goal of killing all white males over 16 years of age, and retaking Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and California for Mexico.  Not surprisingly, a small war ensued between the banditos and the combined but very limited forces of the U.S. Army and Texas Rangers.

The Ranger and Army defenders killed a number of banditos at a wild battle at Norias Ranch.  After a band of around one hundred Mexican terrorists assaulted the Brite Ranch near Valentine, in a wild killing and robbing spree, Sargent Hamer and ten Rangers tracked them back to Candelia, Mexico.  At nightfall when the banditos began to party and celebrate, The Rangers opened up on them and left many dead. It must have been scores of casualties, as this little-known International incident was the end of the lesser-known "Plan of San Diego."
 
Protecting the Texas Border; Captain Monroe Fox and Sgt Hamer at Norias Ranch. They hold a white flag between them, often used by the banditos to coax the Texans to let their guards down. This time it did not work.

If Zane Grey met Hamer at this time in his life, he was already known as a top-gun Ranger, a deadly gunfighter and a man of considerable ability in desperate situations. It seems incredible that Hamer, perhaps the real lone ranger, was protecting American borders from an organized military incursion even as Lone Star Ranger hit the bookstores. In “I’m Frank Hamer” biographers Jenkins and Frost not so subtly title the chapter on Hamer’s border work “The Lone Ranger of the Rio Grande.”

And this was absolutely true! As fate would have it, in another uncanny coincidence, not long afterwards, when border interdiction did not fit the long-range goals of the powers in Austin, some of whom may have been Madero sympathizers, ( or were profiting from illegal gun sales to revolutionaries) Captain Hamer was abandoned on the border to enforce the law all by himself. Strange, unexplainable orders from Austin sent all other Rangers elsewhere, and left Captain Hamer in reality, the lone ranger along ninety miles of river border. This was not just an attempt to make him vulnerable, but probably to set him up for failure, if not for being killed.

The wily Ranger merely joined up with the Mexican border guards and successfully led them as he would his own men. Webb claimed for the rest of his life Hamer always preferred “to run in a herd all by myself.” He was the proverbial "lone wolf" often spoken of in Lone Star Ranger. This term existed long before Ranger "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas was given the nickname in the 1920's.

 If ever there was a case of "art imitating life... and life imitating art," imitating life...

A cropped view of a previously unknown photo of Captain Frank Hamer, (top) from Zane Grey's personal collection. (bottom) Marshal Frank Hamer while working in Navasota.
The natural good looks, carried by a six-foot-three frame, and the keen senses and unparalleled abilities of Frank Hamer must have made him an irresistible subject to write about. Just like the Lone Ranger, Hamer also had two brothers in the rangers, and later a son. It was a family of warriors. And while the Lone Ranger was found nearly dead by Tonto and nursed back to health, Hamer had once been shot and left for dead and found by a black man and taken to a doctor.

The famous bluesman Mance Lipscomb, who at twelve years old was the young Navasota Marshal’s buggy driver and guide, once recalled a conversation with Marshal Hamer where he told this story… in his own dialect of course...

  “Now look. A colored man was the best friend I ever had in my life. Listen, I don’t want ya’ll to be mistreatin’ these colored folk.  Cause I been a Ranger. A colored man picked me up, while the Carr boys shot me down. Shot my guts out, an’ left me layin’ there. An’ a colored man came along, an’ my guts was hangin’ out.  An’ toted me, an rested, an carried me to a hospital. And let ‘em wash the sand off my guts, and sewed me up, and I’m livin’ today.”

An said, “I want ya’ll to be surer than hell to respect ‘em. That’s been done over fifteen years ago. That colored man caused me to be livin’ today. No white folks didn’ get me here. They left me layin’ there…”

Although Lipscomb must have gotten some of the story confused over the sixty years between hearing it and telling it, there is no doubt about the basics of this account. It is true that Hamer worked on the Carr ranch in 1905 right before he became a Ranger. In fact it was his proficiency for catching and turning in horse thieves there that got his invitation to join the Texas Rangers. The name Carr was indelibly written on the musician’s memory, and he could not have known it otherwise. But it is very possible, even probable, that Mance got this story confused with Hamer’s TWO shoot outs with his first boss Dan McSwain. Young Hamer was nearly murdered by McSwain after he informed an intended victim of his boss’s plans to assassinate him. McSwain came up from behind him and shot him in the back with a shotgun, and left him for dead. Although Hamer's brother Harrison was nearby, and (as the story goes) largely responsible for saving his life, it is possible he commandeered the black man to borrow his buggy to take the wounded brother to town.

It was after finally killing McSwain in the second gunfight that Frank Hamer made his vow to fight criminals. Buck Duane also had two confrontations with his first nemesis... before ending it in a shoot out. This was the beggining of his outlaw saga... and the legend.

After reading Mance Lipscomb’s (mostly accurate!) biography, it is easier to vision the unlikely pairing of this Texas lawman with the black “Good Samaritan” and a little black boy... and find interesting comparisons with the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

 

Tom Mix poses with one of his personal inspirations.... Ranger Captain Frank Hamer
 
It seems that Frank Hamer might have been the inspiration for the Lone Ranger, or there was an unbelievable coincidence, where Zane Grey and Fran Striker created the Lone Ranger over a twenty year period, whose story amazingly paralleled the young Texas Ranger. Zane Grey probably met Frank Hamer in 1913… The “unknown ranger” whose photo I purchased on Ebay…  the quiet, dangerous manhunter who impressed somebody enough to take his picture while ranging at the ends of the earth… Perhaps Grey… or Captain Hughes, and somehow his unmarked photo ended up in Zane Grey’s souvenirs… along with photos of his peers... not surprisingly his Ranger Captain, John R. Hughes...
A previously unpublished photograph of Captain John R. Hughes, probably taken by Zane Grey, and found in his personal collection.
Paradoxically, Hamer was the quiet Ranger who seemed to become an instant legend. After being nearly killed (again!) in a deadly shoot-out in Snyder, Hamer took some time off to heal and went to California in 1918... and went to visit his friends and contacts there. Being a leery, non-communicative cop, I always wondered  how he knew anyone in Hollywood.  But somehow he and his wife were entertained by the most popular cowboy actor in the world. In fact Tom Mix begged him to become a Hollywood actor and bring the real thing to the silver screen. How the two got hooked up and became friends has been a mystery... until now, and we have to consider Zane Grey as the go-between. Hamer and his wife refused an acting career and five years later, unable to bring the Ranger out of the closet, Mix filmed Zane Grey's Lone Star Ranger anyway. 

Here the obvious question leaps forth, why the resistance to fame and wealth? Hamer was a very smart man, and he knew his talents and his mission, and it was not acting like a western lawman, but being one. And he had seen what happened to his mentor Joe Sitters when the very mention of his name in famous circles seemed to bring the end of his luck... Hamer must have talked to Zane Grey, in depth, but made him swear to never divulge his source. He chose to always be the mysterious man... behind the mask.

And that promise has been kept by Hollywood... Although there have always been plenty of clues. I think it is safe to tell now!
Hamer was a Ranger considered by many lawmen, historians, and not a few crooks to be one of the greatest of all time… whose life would make the Lone Ranger story seem what it was… a mere child’s fairy tale… a tribute to a greatness untold, and perhaps a mysterious friendship, lost over time in the muddy currents of the Rio Grande.

 "Where to, Marshal Hayman?"

 

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