[Above: Standing 6' 2", Texas Ranger Frank Hamer was the reality that Western actor John Wayne could only pretend to be.]
Everyone has heard of John Wayne... a man who acted brave and dangerous. We have heard of Pancho Villa, a man who brought terror and destruction. We have heard of Wyatt Earp, who broke the law repeatedly to kill his enemies, and was prosecuted for it. But strangely, we Americans have rarely edified men who truly deserved our praise and admiration. We have made famous the beautiful, the controversial and the scandalous, gave fame to those who desired it, and usually overlooked the real heroes of our generation.
History is full of great men and women who never became famous. Texas history is especially blessed with many notable characters who never captured the eye of the myth makers of Hollywood, who have picked our heroes. Frank Hamer is one of the best examples of larger than life Texas heroes who are known well in small informed circles, in his case enthusiasts of Texas Ranger history, but virtually unknown to the average citizen. After you have read this, perhaps that miscarriage of fame may begin to change.
Everyone has their own idea about who should be famous and why; Soldiers for winning battles, politicians for winning elections, athletes for winning competitions. We like winners in our history. We like pathfinders, innovators and those who left a mark on their own generation, and perhaps still challenge our own. We like those who were the best in their fields, record-setters and the firsts of human accomplishments. We like our history to offer up attractive, successful, standard setters who still amaze us. Frank Hamer was all of these.
Frank Hamer was named by historian and western author Walter Prescott Webb as "…one of the three most fearless men in Western history." If you have not heard of him, you probably have never studied the history of law-enforcement in Texas, or the most respected of Texas Rangers, the man who stopped the murderous crime spree of the infamous “Bonnie and Clyde.” Frank Hamer was all of these too. In one of life’s ironies and absurdities, several movies were made about them, always minimizing their hunter and slayer, and making romantic heroes of them. One movie even made Frank Hamer out to be a blundering fool. So let’s get the story around Frank Hamer straight, and right a little bit of history if we can. And I will do it as briefly as I can, as I know most people do not like history and have little patience for it… Unless it is a warped and sexy version with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in it.
Born in 1884, Frank Hamer grew up in the western half of Texas, in the 1890’s, where the Indian Wars were still remembered and cowboy culture was the predominant lifestyle and Mexican banditos were still a daily threat. The West had been “won,” but had not been tamed. Many men in Texas still wore a sidearm, and used it whenever it seemed necessary. All of the stereotypes of the “Old” West were still very much in activity, and men who were the sons of the pioneers, the cattle drivers and the outlaws were still trying to walk in their father’s footsteps. Frank Hamer was engaged in his first kill-or-be-killed shootout with a corrupt and angry boss when just sixteen years old. He suffered multiple gunshots and was almost killed. When he recovered from his wounds, he returned to his former employer and finished the exchange, killing his first badman. This was the unwritten “code of the West,” where men settled deadly differences with their six-shooters and often faced little if any, legal consequences.
If Frank Hamer had been anything less than an authentic Western alpha-male, he would never have seen his seventeenth birthday. And he was not through with danger. When twenty years old, he tracked down and arrested some horse rustlers and took them to jail. Later he tracked and captured another horse thief for the local Sheriff, who began to see potential in him, and contacted the Texas Rangers. The Rangers saw in him the mettle necessary for taming the West. He was hired as a Ranger when just twenty-two years old. Enlisted as a Private in Company C and based in Del Rio, he was soon chasing Mexican bandits and impressing his superiors with his mental and physical ability. During this first assignment he showed extreme bravery and shooting skill during a shoot-out with a desperate killer, who had commandeered a home and would not be taken alive. In a hail of gunfire, Private Hamer fearlessly positioned himself near the window where the outlaw’s shots were originating. One of his lever action Winchester bullets had entered the crazed gunman’s left jaw and ended up in his heart. The legend had begun.
In 1908 when the Navasota City Council approached the Governor of Texas for assistance in quelling the violent and lawless forces in their town, the Rangers looked no farther than Frank Hamer. Although the incorrigible town of Navasota had been unable to keep lawmen very long, because they would always be intimidated or bought off, Hamer came and conquered. Blues legend-to-be Mance Lipscomb, just 12 years old, was hired to be his buggy driver. He drove the young lawman around Navasota proudly, and remembered the new Marshal to be fair and brave and a terror to outlaws with his feet, which he used to kick them all the way to jail. His “feet were always loaded,” and Marshal Hamer was known to put down his guns and whip any defiant punks who challenged him, and would often use vicious kick boxing techniques to subdue his foolish challengers. He avoided the use of firearms, and for the first time, absolutely forbade sidearms on the streets. Marshal Hamer thwarted train robbers, shot robbers and even contentious dogs, and shut down the gun play that had ruled the streets. He was feared and respected and in the end, loved by many who saw the town transformed into a decent place to live. By 1911, Navasota had been tamed, and like the Old West, became a kinder and gentler version of its former self. But Texas was big and there was still great work to do.
He went to work in Houston for the Mayor as a special agent, where he tracked down and captured a cop-killer called “Mississippi Red.” He captured an escaped convict and outran a drunken sideshow entertainer billed as the “Wild Man of Borneo” and disarmed and arrested him. He busted up a burglary ring. He even arrested a fellow policeman who beat a man unnecessarily. And then, caught up in reckless accusations by a Houston Press reporter, Special Agent Hamer lost his cool and smacked the culprit. Soon he became a political liability to the Mayor, who quietly appreciated his resignation.
Frank went back where he belonged… to west Texas. By 1915 he was back in Company C, this time defending the Texas border country against a poorly organized invasion of sophisticated banditos executing an insurgency known as the “The Plan of San Diego.” On the verge of WWI, the Germans were aiding and abetting these Mexicans in their attempt to reclaim the American Southwest. Towns and ranches were raided and innocent travelers murdered. Many manhunts and shootouts and even some wartime style martial law was used to protect Americans and their property. One battle led by Sargent Frank Hamer at Candelia, Mexico ended the dispute, when dozens of the banditos were killed in a bloody firefight.
This is where those sensitive to Hispanics might question Hamer’s methods. But history is never so neatly understood, or our heroes so predictable. Soon The Carranza regime of Mexico had proven it would not be allied with Germany, and even welcomed help in fighting its revolution led by Pancho Villa’s “Villistas.” The Mexican Government plead with American authorities to stop the flow of arms across the border, which only equipped the revolutionaries. American law forbid this anyway, but many gun runners continued to sell arms to the Mexicans. The Texas Rangers were told by “higher ups” to act as if they were policing this smuggling nuisance, but in reality to ignore it. Many Rangers obeyed their orders, but Frank Hamer continued to enforce the law. Since Captain Hamer could not be overtly stopped, those interested in helping the revolution arranged to have all the Rangers relocated except one. Frank Hamer alone was left to enforce the laws he was sworn to uphold. And that he did.
Left to his own devices to patrol hundreds of miles of border, and therefore quite vulnerable, Hamer turned the tables on International relations and law enforcement. He crossed the border and joined forces with the Mexican police, who were more than happy to be allied with the legendary Ranger. Soon he led a small army of Mexican lawmen, who made his goals safer and more attainable. Hamer led a successful war against American gun runners from the other side of the Rio Grande, and enjoyed reciprocal assistance from Mexican authorities from then on. Frank Hamer was not ever against anything but lawbreakers, of any race or nationality.
Their corrupt schemes frustrated at every turn, authorities in Austin had Ranger Hamer yanked from his cooperative with the Mexican officials and assigned to the Hill Country to harass cattle rustlers for Texas cattlemen. That was just fine with him, as the border was an immense, wild bad land, where law enforcement was like stomping around an acre of ants. Rustling rustlers would be like eating ice cream.
By 1918, World War I was winding down, and a new enemy had risen on the horizon; Prohibition of alcoholic beverages... and its enforcement. Many law enforcement officers walked away rather than be forced to arrest their friends, family and neighbors. But Frank Hamer figured that anybody that knew how to bootleg whiskey, and was willing to play the game of crime was probably bad company anyway. The formidable Ranger was recruited to help with State prohibition efforts. He was reassigned to border duty, where he excelled at catching Mexican smugglers who were bringing caravans of tequila and Mexican moonshine into west Texas.
In 1921, Captain Hamer organized a fateful rendezvous with a notorious robber and killer named Rafael Lopez. Lopez had killed five men in Utah before hiding out in Mexico with the Villistas. Then Lopez and his men had robbed a train and killed 19 people in the process. When a man had offered to betray the bandito, Hamer and his men stepped into a devilish assassination scheme. But just in time the legendary Ranger smelled the double cross and moved his men to a safer position. When a hail of gunfire poured into the spot where he had just been standing, he returned the lead and took out one of the worst killers in Western history.
Frank became the star witness in a murder trial in Abilene. The defiant defendant hired a gang of professional killers to kill him and keep him from testifying. As a local Grand Jury watched most of the bloody scene play itself out below their window, he and his family were jumped and he was shot in a couple of places, but managed to forever silence his enemies in the shootout. Wounded seriously, he still had the presence of mind to stop his enraged brother from shooting one of the fleeing assailants in the back. The stunned and thankful Grand Jury no-billed him, and even thanked him for his admirable ethics.
But then something happened to the Ranger service Frank Hamer could not stomach. In 1925 the “Governors Ferguson” returned to power after James Ferguson had been convicted and banned from office. His wife was elected Governor and aggressively renewed their painful dynasty of corruption and nepotism and cronyism and a pervasive lack of professionalism. Ma and Pa Ferguson had a policy of giving anybody they liked a Ranger badge. The Texas Rangers organization became an embarrassment to all law- abiding people. “Ferguson Rangers” were typically local yokels, slovenly and unprofessional, who used their office for personal aggrandizement. Hamer threatened to resign, but cooler heads enticed him to stay for the good of Law and Order. Hamer bounced around trying to find other employment he could feel right about, and finally officially left the Rangers in 1932 out of protest and personal pride, even as his brother Harrison was being sworn in to take his place. Even the Ferguson's believed that you had to have a Hamer on the Force to have any credibility.
In 1928, Hamer was hired as a bounty hunter in Houston and exposed an insidious murder for hire ring, inadvertently sponsored by Houston banks, where outrageous rewards were being offered to kill bank robbers. No rewards were offered for live ones. Money greedy bounty hunters had found the perfect crime. Vagabonds and loiterers were set up as stooges and then killed, so crooked bounty hunters and even some lawmen could collect large rewards. The Texas Bankers Association had become a law unto itself, and many lawmen just shrugged at these methods. But Frank Hamer took the story to the newspapers, and defied them to take action against him.
But perhaps the most telling account concerning Frank Hamer’s career in law enforcement was during the so-called “Sherman Riots.” In 1930 A black man named George Hughes had been accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. A lynch mob, said to have been numbering in the thousands, had gathered outside of the Grayson County Courthouse and had come to administer their own brand of Western justice. It had been rumored that the Governor had forbid anyone being shot at during the protection of this defendant. In other words, if the mob comes, let them have him. It is easy to imagine that Hamer’s enemies in Austin had sent him to Sherman knowing they were throwing him into the lion’s den. So Captain Frank Hamer, now the Texas Ranger always called upon in the worst situations, had been assigned to protect Hughes, a foolish and deadly and probably impossible task. And not surprisingly, Hamer had not gotten the memo. He was the lion in the den. He would do his job, and stop any person who threatened those in his custody, even a man suspected of sexually assaulting a white woman.
Unfortunately, most of the east Texas vigilantes had never heard of Hamer, and did not know what kind of lawman they were dealing with. Frank Hamer and his Rangers stood at the Courthouse steps and backed down the angry mob, who had developed considerable courage because of the supposed statements from the Governor. Hamer warned them to stay back, and argued that these supposed orders were not true, and assured that anyone who advanced towards them would be shot.
Frank Hamer did not care whether the Governor’s alleged statements were true or not, he was there to enforce the law. When finally the mob decided to take their chances, and charged the Rangers, the Rangers leveled their guns on them.
This may have been one of the few times in the early Twentieth Century when white Southern lawmen shot white lynch mob members in order to protect a black prisoner. In most other cases, the law would usually step aside and let the mob have its way, out of fear for their lives. But Frank Hamer had not been assigned to those details. Unable to have their way, the mob waited until later and then burned the Courthouse down, in order to kill the prisoner who had the luck of being escorted by Ranger Frank Hamer. But they dared not face the Ranger and his men again.
Ranger Frank Hamer may be the only lawman to have so blatantly challenged equally the worst criminals of the day and the powers that be in Austin, and anyone who broke the law, to his own demise. More than once he turned on his fellow lawmen, or his employers, and he repeatedly ignored the state powers in Austin, as he did his job, often against impossible odds, and consistently challenged lawbreakers of every race or social class, and shed light into the darkness, no matter who was implicated, and no matter the cost to himself.
The cost? After some fifty plus gunfights, Frank Hamer was a bundle of scar tissue. In the process of exchanging gunfire with around 20 men and one woman, in life or death battles, and countless garden variety scrapes, he was injured in the line of duty 23 times. His body was a half-Century collection of bullet and knife wounds and shotgun pellets under the skin. Hamer was forced to resign or was reassigned to keep his job numerous times. This was a big sacrifice for him and his family as they moved around a great deal. There were many inconsequential attempts on his life, which had to take a psychological toll on his family. How do you put a value on such sacrifice? Most people would not have lasted, but surely few would ever have done what he did for such pay. And yet, there are those who say he was cold-blooded, arrogant, even a law unto himself, not very likable, and much worse. So-called historians and latter day pundits judge Hamer by modern, perfect-world, if not down right impractical standards, and dare question his goodness or integrity.
That too is the cost of public service; A naive, thankless and critical citizenry, who could never walk in his boots, would ignore or denigrate his amazing service because it required so much... violence. Yet it was a barbaric and violent society that demanded such a Ranger, such a hero as this... Frank Hamer.
Frank Hamer was the only man who could have walked that walk, and many Texans thanked God that he was out there, chasing, and yes killing those bad guys. Those that challenge him one hundred years later, would be the first to run to him for protection if they were to chance upon the kind of overwhelming evil that ruled this place then.
I have only mentioned a few outstanding cases, but Hamer’s life reads like a super hero. But it is obvious to me that tracking down and exterminating Bonnie and Clyde was just a small part of his life. After spending some time with him, Hollywood cowboy actor Tom Mix encouraged him to become a Western hero on film, as he was already the real thing. Ranger Commander Hughes said he may have been one of the bravest men he had ever seen. Other writers have proclaimed him one of the greatest Texas Rangers of all time.
So it is fitting that there was a movie being created about him. It may never see the theatres, but there is no reason why the people of Texas should not venerate this great man. A bronze statue of him is long overdue. One erected in Navasota, the town where he cut his teeth and began his lifetime of public service would be real Justice in my mind, if not poetic justice for me.
You see, this great lawman was an acquaintance of my father's. He first met him late one night when Captain Frank Hamer carried a bleeding, unconscious relative into my grandmother’s home after he received serious injuries during a Strike riot on the docks in Houston. Hamer had been there to bust up the Strike, and caringly brought one of his helpers home to be doctored. Many historic characters graced my grandparents home, but he was always considered one of the greatest. Later my father interviewed him when working as a writer for the Texas Highway Department. Their magazine wanted an interview, but Hamer would not give one. My father, ever outgoing, used his family connection to get the interview. As usual it was pretty gruff and uninteresting, as one writer later recalled, Hamer was “as talkative as an oyster.” But for my father, who became a published author, it was a personal triumph, and a highlight of his writing career.
I grew up hearing about the big Texas Ranger, who knocked down rows of men with his huge paws like a bear, who hardly ever used a firearm in the line of duty, but could shoot the eye out of a flying bat at night, if he wanted to. A lawman who never backed down and never lost a fight, and who never showed favoritism. A man who kept to himself, raised a pet javelina, and shot tin cans down the road with deadly precision with his six shooter while driving, for sport. As you can tell, I have only gotten warmed up about Frank Hamer. Even though it would be fitting to sculpt a monument honoring this Texas hero, the fact is, no artist, and perhaps no movie could ever do him justice. But of course, I would still like to try.
To read more about this amazing Texas Ranger, click below;
There is also a page of articles on Frank hamer:
Note: I want to thank the City of Navasota for the commission. This blog is now full of entries of the sculpture process, which is now another chapter in Frank Hamer's history. To read about that, click below: