- - Monday, August 1, 2016



By John Boessenecker

St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunn Books, $29.99, 514 pages

Sam Houston, a beloved founding father of what is now the state of Texas, set the tone for law enforcement there centuries ago when he intoned, “Never seek redress for a personal wrong in a court of law.” Houston supposedly emphasized his point by scratching his head with a .45 caliber revolver as he spoke.

Perhaps apocryphal, Houston’s attitude reflected the realities of life on a vast frontier with scant formal law enforcement. The Texas Rangers, founded in 1835, originally protected settlers from Indians. The paramilitary force gained fame as scouts during the Texas Revolution, and then in desert warfare during the 1840s war with Mexico.

For decades, the most renowned ranger was a brawny no-nonsense man named Frank Hamer, born in 1884 on a Hill Country farm south of San Antonio. As a kid Hamer learned how to fight — an open-palm slap to an opponent’s face, or a kick to the groin. As he stated his credo, “I was born and raised in Texas not to take an insult. Any time a man insults me he has to back it up.”

Hamer signed on as a Ranger in 1906 and worked in law enforcement for the next half-century. Politics and better pay caused him to stray from Ranger ranks on occasion, but it was as a Ranger that he earned John Boessenecker’s designation as “the greatest lawman of the twentieth century.”

Hamer granted few interviews and gave not give a hoot for the press. He once pistol-whipped an offending Houston reporter who accused him of graft (and lost his job as chief of police). But the author’s painstaking research in scattered newspaper files around the state brings forth an astounding story of a man who was involved in 52 “known gunfights” in which he killed at least 27 men.

An example: Working with Prohibition agents along the Rio Grande, Hamer asked why several lawmen had been killed. An agent replied, “When they come across, we stand up and holler, ‘Manos arriba’ [hands up]. But they always start shooting.”

“All wrong,” Hamer said. “I’ll show you how it’s done . When I give the word, do exactly as I do.” When the smugglers appeared, Hamer shouted “OK!” and began firing. Six smugglers died. Hamer told the other agents, “Now holler ‘Manos arriba!’ at those [expletives depleted] and see how many of them shoot you.”

On a more positive note, Hamer risked his life to break up several mobs bent upon lynching black Americans held in rural jails. As is true of many other Southern states, in early years my native Texas had an awful record of race relations — and law enforcement.

One reason is that Texas is composed of 254 individual counties, each of which has an elected sheriff as the chief law enforcement officer. Some were effective, others less so. Any elective official must heed local mores. Hence an often blind eye toward racial abuses.

Hamer and other Rangers stepped into the breach as outsiders. A Texas tall tale has a Ranger stepping off the train to bring peace to a riot-torn city. “But only one Ranger?” a surprised citizen asked. “You got only one riot,” the Ranger replies.

Hamer capped his career in 1934 when he was off the Ranger roster. The notoriously corrupt Gov. Miriam “Ma” Ferguson sacked the entire Ranger contingent to stave off an investigation. Whereupon the Texas Department of Public Safety tasked Hamer with tracking down the bandit duo of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, who had murdered nine persons, including six law officers, in a two-year spree of violent robberies of banks and small groceries.

A silly 1967 movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway depicted the couple as glamorous Robin Hoods. Reality was considerably different. Bonnie worked as a street prostitute in Dallas before hooking up with veteran criminal Clyde. “Often hungry,” Mr. Boessenecker writes, “they ate whatever they could get, slept in stolen cars, and bathed in muddy creeks.” Both were infected with gonorrhea.

Hamer tracked the pair in classic police work. He found a distant relative who was willing to pinpoint their location in a small community just south of Shreveport, La., in return for immunity for prosecution for his own crimes. Hamer and a posse shot them down on a rural road. Hamer had no remorse about shooting a woman. “If you are an officer sworn to do your duty,” he said, “you can’t afford to feel mercy for such murdering rats, whether they are male or female.”

A superb account of long-ago law enforcement in a rough environment.

Washington writer Joe Goulden was born May 23, 1934 — the day Bonnie and Clyde were killed 45 miles from his home near the Texas-Louisiana border.

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