Frank Hamer, Texas Ranger: Legendary LEO was a hard man to kill
When criminals were at their worst, Frank Hamer was at his best
Editor’s Note: The history of law enforcement seems to be told by people who have, at best, minimal understanding of, and at worst, malicious contempt for, this great profession. At PoliceOne, we aim to fix that. Below is the first in an occasional series of columns featuring an individual or an event in American’s long and righteous history of policing. If you know of such a story you’d like us to investigate, just send me an email. Meanwhile, please enjoy the story of Frank Hamer, Texas Ranger.
By some accounts, Frank Hamer would survive 50 gunfights in his lifetime. His first took place before he was a lawman, back when Hamer and his brother Harrison were sharecropping some land for a man named Dan McSwain.
McSwain approached Frank one day and offered him a special job for a great deal of money. Frank jokingly asked, “Who do I have to kill for that?” but quickly sobered when McSwain told him.
When Frank declined the offer to become a hired killer, McSwain warned him not to tell anyone about his offer or Frank and his brother would be dead men. Unsettled by McSwain’s warning, Frank took to carrying a pistol, while farming.
I Thought I Killed You
Frank’s instincts were golden. While Hamer was plowing one day, McSwain appeared with a shotgun and shot him in the back and the head. Hamer went down and as McSwain approached Frank Hamer pulled his pistol and shot McSwain. Harrison Hamer assisted in his wounded brother’s escape, while the wounded McSwain went after his buffalo gun.
Frank convalesced for some time and when he was healthy he saddled his horse and sought out McSwain, who when found said, “I thought I killed you.”
Frank replied that he had not and announced, “I’m here to settle our account.” With that said both men drew their pistols and fired. The account was settled.
Frank Hamer, Texas Ranger
Shortly after Frank became a hired hand for a ranch on the Pecos. It was at this time that Frank assisted a local Sheriff track and capture some rustlers. The Sheriff, who was much impressed, recommended Frank for the Texas Rangers. In 1906 Frank Hamer joined the storied Texas Rangers.
In the early years Frank rode trails near the Rio Grande, captured rustlers, smugglers, bootleggers and bandits with Company C of the Texas Rangers, Captained by John H. Rogers. He left the Rangers in 1911 to become City Marshall for Navasota Texas, but he rejoined the Rangers in 1915.
Domestic Violence, Texas Style
During his career Frank Hamer mastered and carried many firearms, but his personal favorite was “Old Lucky,” a Single Action Colt 45, C-engraved 4 ¾” blued revolver with pearl handles. He shared his philosophy on gun fighting with an interviewer once. Frank said that when he had a choice he preferred to fight with a rifle, but he also practiced long distance hand-gunning.
Frank said that he used his sights in a gunfight, because he could not see spraying the countryside with lead when one shot would do the trick.
Frank Hamer had one such one shot gun fight in Sweetwater Texas. On October 1, 1916, shortly after Frank married his wife Gladys Johnson, Gladys, her brother Frank, and his brother Harrison stopped on the town square in Sweetwater Texas. They were on a car trip and they pulled into town with a flat tire. Frank had been serving as a bodyguard for a rancher at the time, when two members of the opposition named McMeans and Phillips spotted the relaxed and unaware Hamer. They made an impromptu plan to kill their dangerous nemesis.
McMeans approached from the front and Phillips — armed with a shotgun — approached from behind meaning to do murder. As McMeans reached Hamer he drew his pistol and Frank reacted instinctively grabbing the weapon. During the struggle Frank was shot in the shoulder and the thigh. Shot twice, Frank was not yet out of the fight. He wrenched the weapon out of McMeans’ hand and began beating him with it as Phillips approached from behind with shotgun, unseen.
Hamer’s wife Gladys not only shouted “Look out!” to Frank, but the love of Frank’s life filled her hand with a pocket Colt and opened fire on Phillips. The swarm of bullets buzzed by Phillips’ head and caused him to fire wildly — striking nothing but the brim of Frank’s hat.
Harrison returned after hearing the gunfire and he armed himself while Frank drew his pistol. With the tide turned, the ambushers appeared to flee the battlefield.
As McMeans reached his car, however, he rearmed himself with a shotgun and swung it toward Hamer. Frank aimed, fired, and killed McMeans with a shot to the chest. Phillips abandoned the car and fled on foot. Harrison Hamer fired, but Frank knocked the barrel down, causing Harrison to miss. Frank determined that Phillips did not need to be shot dead, because the man did nothing but ruin a good hat.
While the gunfight was in progress there was a Nolan County Grand Jury in session. The Jury paused from their deliberation to watch the entire street battle from upstairs windows across the street. In a supreme example of the swiftness of Texas justice, while Frank was being treated by the Doctor for his wounds the Grand Jury convened in the matter of the death of McMeans.
In minutes it returned a no bill, ruling Frank Hamer’s killing of McMeans was an act of self defense.
Bonnie and Clyde
In 1933, Frank Hamer retired as a Captain from the Texas Rangers, but because of his reputation he was sought after as a peace officer where there was no peace, a bodyguard where someone was in dire danger, and probably most notably as a man hunter, when the safety of the community dictated that someone needed to be captured.
The most famous of these hunts occurred in 1934, when Frank Hamer was commissioned as a special investigator for the prison system to end the crime spree of the Barrow Gang. Frank studied their activity and movements and eventually Frank was able to contact the family of one Gang member, Henry Methvin. The family agreed to cooperate in the capture of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
Because Bonnie and Clyde were always heavily armed with automatic weapons and they had already killed 10 law enforcement officers, Frank sought and received help.
At 9:15 AM May 23, 1934 Frank’s plan was put into action as Bonnie and Clyde stopped their car for a ruse set up on a rural road near Gibsland Louisiana. Hamer along with other deputies called for the pair’s surrender, but with a car load of weapons at the ready Bonnie and Clyde made a move toward those weapons. Hamer armed with a Remington Model 8 semi-automatic rifle with a special 15-round magazine and his entire posse opened fire putting more than 100 rounds into the suspects and their vehicle.
As Barrow and Parker breathed their last breath, the entire country breathed a sigh of relief.
Frank Hamer Rides into the Sunset
In his later years, the mere presence of Frank Hamer seemed to ensure a peaceful outcome in a tense situation. In 1948, the living legend was a special guard during a hotly contested Senate race between Lyndon Johnson and “Coke” Stevenson. At one point there was trouble brewing when Frank pulled up to a polling place where two groups of armed men were facing off.
The 64-year-old Frank Hamer exited his car and strolled toward one armed group and merely said “Git.”
That task accomplished, he walked calmly over to the second group and ordered, “Fall back.”
Fall back they did.
Frank Hamer retired in 1949 and in 1955 the lawman who had survived being wounded 17 times died of natural causes. He was laid to rest in Memorial Park Cemetery in Austin, Texas next to his personal hero, his son Billy, who was a Marine killed in combat on Iwo Jima.
In the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde,” Hollywood portrayed Frank Hamer inaccurately and with great disrespect. Frank could not defend himself, but not to fear, just as she did that day in Sweetwater Gladys had his back. Gladys and her son Frank Jr. sued Warner-Seven Arts for defamation and received an out-of-court settlement.
Historians argue whether Captain Frank Hamer killed a dozen men and one woman or 70 men and one woman. With the deeds done and all witnesses now deceased, no one will ever know for sure, because in life Frank adamantly refused to rehash his gunfights.
Here are some facts, however. Frank Hamer willfully and deliberately pursued some of the most dangerous criminals of his day. Some came along peacefully, but many who chose to fight this righteously dangerous lawman, lost
No one kept score but God.
Texas Ranger Captain Bill McDonald was talking about men like Frank Hamer, when he said, “No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right and keeps on-a-coming.”
In life, Frank Hamer was a lawman who kept on-a-coming.