Lawmen


Frank Hamer: The Tough Texas Ranger Who Brought Down Bonnie & Clyde

frank hamer texas ranger
A newspaper profile on Frank Hamer in The Baltimore Sun, June 17, 1934. Photo credit: Newspapers.com

In the early hours of May 23, 1934, Frank Hamer, a tough-as-nails Texas Ranger with a deep, authoritative voice and relentless drive to bring criminals to justice, hid his six-foot, one-inch frame in the thick bushes flanking a rural stretch of Highway 154 outside Sailes, Louisiana.

Hamer (pronounced “hay-mer“) was not alone. Hidden in the bushes with him were five of his fellow lawmen. Acting on a tip, Hamer planned an ambush to capture the notorious outlaw lovers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, to finally put an end to their well-publicized crime streak.

Just after 9 a.m., Barrow’s 1934 Ford Deluxe V-8 came rattling up the road. The six-man posse opened fire on Bonnie and Clyde’s vehicle, and the first shot struck Clyde in the head, killing him instantly. The Texas Rangers continued to fire, each one emptying their weapons into the car. When the dust settled, Bonnie and Clyde were both dead, their bodies and Ford riddled with bullets. Frank Hamer did what he set out to do: end Bonnie and Clyde’s infamous crime spree.

Bonnie and Clyde car
Photo of Bonnie and Clyde’s car after the ambush, taken by the FBI on on May 23, 1934. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

One might assume that Frank Hamer would be hailed a hero for taking down these famous outlaws and protecting the public from further crimes, but when it came to Bonnie and Clyde, things weren’t quite as black and white. Depression-Era newspapers had depicted Bonnie and Clyde as romantic, Robin Hood-like robbers and, in the aftermath of the police ambush, Frank Hamer was vilified for the brutal manner in which the darling lovers were killed.

Was Hamer guilty of using excessive force against Bonnie and Clyde? Was he an overzealous, gun-toting lawman with an overinflated sense of justice? Or was he an honest, hard-working public servant? Like Bonnie and Clyde, Frank Hamer was complicated, and his public image only made his story more complex.

A Natural-Born Lawman

Born in Fairview, Texas on March 17, 1884, Francis Augustus Hamer was one of five boys in his family. Four of the Hamer sons grew up to be Texas Rangers, including Frank. As a boy, Frank Hamer was fascinated by local history. He read all he could about the Texas Rangers and the Native American tribes of the region. He only attended school until the sixth grade, but Hamer was extremely intelligent and had a photographic memory — traits that would serve him well as a lawman.

A Teenage Killer

Frank Hamer spent his youth working at his father’s blacksmith shop, then took various jobs at some of the ranches in the area. In 1900, Frank, then only 16 years old, and his younger brother, Harrison, were employed by Dan McSwain, a local rancher.

McSwain had a proposition for Frank: he wanted to hire the teen to kill a man for him. Frank, who had always had a high moral compass, understood that this was wrong, and righteously refused. McSwain was afraid that the lad would tell the local authorities about his offer, so he shot Hamer as he walked away and rode off, leaving the boy for dead.

But the bullet didn’t kill him. Frank survived the wound and, once he made a full recovery, he returned to McSwain’s ranch to confront him. In the ensuing argument, 16-year-old Hamer shot and killed McSwain. Hamer was not charged with the death of McSwain, as it was proven that he acted in self defense.

Although he was not yet a legal adult, Frank Hamer’s legendary reputation began after this incident. Hamer was bold, brave, and tough — as well as an expert marksman. In fact, the shotgun wound he survived from McSwain was the first of many injuries he’d endure over his lifetime. According to legend, Hamer was shot a total of 17 times. Four of those times, he was left for dead, yet he lived to tell the tale.

Frank Hamer, Texas Ranger

In 1905, Frank Hamer was working as a ranch hand in West Texas when a horse thief made off with one of his employer’s horses. Hamer tracked down and captured the thief and returned the horse to the ranch.

Frank Hamer
FBI photo of Frank Hamer in early 1920s. Photo credit: FBI/Wikimedia Commons

When Hamer delivered the tied-up horse thief to the local authorities, the impressed sheriff sent in a recommendation for Hamer to join the Texas Rangers, a dream come true for the young man. He officially became a Texas Ranger in 1906 and, although he periodically left to take other jobs, Hamer spent most of his adult life with the Texas Rangers.

As a Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer laid down the law in the border city of Brownsville, Texas, and helped stop arms smugglers crossing the Mexican border. He also upheld the law during Prohibition, when bandits flooded the Mexican border with bootlegged alcohol. Hamer was also involved in numerous raids and shootouts with bootleggers and smugglers in and around El Paso.

evansville press sun frank hamer story
Evansville Press newspaper, July 15, 1934. Photo credit: Newspapers.com

During this time, Hamer cemented his reputation as a consummate lawman, and was viewed as the epitome of a Texas Ranger. The stoic and serious Hamer was often described as stone-faced, unwavering in his determination to track down criminals and fearless in the face of danger.

Once he set his sights on catching a criminal, he was relentless in his pursuit. Hamer was guided by a strong calling to protect the public and deliver justice to those who broke the law. He was admired by his peers and feared by criminals.

Frank Hamer Took on the Ku Klux Klan

Starting in 1922, Frank Hamer, now a senior captain with the Texas Rangers, took on the Ku Klux Klan in the Lone Star State. The Klan was experiencing a resurgence in popularity in the 1920s, fueled by post-World War I worries about how African Americans, immigrants, and modern viewpoints were changing traditional values.

Although the Klan was seeing an uptick across the country, Hamer was determined to curtail their activities in Texas. Throughout his career, Hamer personally saved 15 people from lynch mobs, however one failed attempt to prevent a lynching haunted him his whole life. In the town of Sherman, a black man named George Hughes was arrested and charged with raping a white woman. Hamer and a group of other Texas Rangers were tasked with keeping Hughes safe in the jailhouse until he could stand trial. The KKK, however, had other plans for Hughes.

They descended on the town, and the Rangers moved Hughes to the town’s courthouse building and locked him in the vault to protect his safety. The KKK mob attacked the courthouse — an event that later became known as the Sherman Riot of 1930. Hamer shot two of the mob members, but the KKK set fire to the courthouse. The Rangers, overwhelmed and outnumbered by the KKK, were forced to commandeer a car and flee the scene.

To Hamer’s despair, the flames prevented them from freeing Hughes from the vault. It is not known if Hughes managed to survive the fire, but it is known that the KKK used dynamite to blast open the vault and get to Hughes. The next morning, Hughes’ body was found hanging, strung up by the Klan.

Frank Hamer Versus the Texas Bankers’ Association

Bank robbing was a big problem in the 1920s and 1930s, and Texas banks were determined to solve the issue. The Texas Bankers’ Association came up with a plan in which they offered a reward of $5,000 for each dead bank robber. Even police officers were eligible to cash in on this reward.

So eager were Texas police officers to collect the sizable reward that they became trigger-happy killers and, in a very real sense, murderers for hire. Officers came up with a clever scheme: they would hire a helper whose task it was to entice men to rob a bank with him. The helper targeted alcoholics and drug addicts, down-on-their-luck deadbeats, petty thieves, gullible young men, and people of lower IQs, and lured them in with the promise of easy money.

The helper planned the heist and told the officer the location, date, and time of the robbery. The officer would lay in wait and shoot each would-be robber as he entered the bank. Afterward, the officer collected his $5,000 per dead bank robber, paid his helper a portion of the reward money, and began planning the next set-up.

texas bankers association newspaper clip
Lead Daily Call, March 13, 1928. Photo credit: Newspapers.com

When Frank Hamer learned of this racket, he confronted local police chiefs and the Texas Bankers’ Association. He called the scheme a “murder for hire” racket and claimed the banks were rewarding officers for murdering the downtrodden and dimwitted. Not surprisingly, police departments simply shrugged their shoulders at Hamer’s complaint. He got the same treatment from the Bankers’ Association.

Undeterred, Frank Hamer decided to make the public aware of the scheme. He penned a very detailed report outlining how the Texas Bankers’ Association had established a “reward ring” and how local police officers were exploiting it to entrap innocent men and set them up to be systematically murdered so the officer could line his pockets.

Hamer called the scheme the “bankers’ murder machine.” When he completed his report, Hamer marched it to the State Capitol’s press room and dropped off several copies to be printed in the newspapers. When the story hit the presses, the public was shocked and angered. The outcry prompted a thorough investigation and several men faced indictments. Word of the racket spread across the country, making Hamer a well-known name, in part because he stood up against corruption.

“In an era when crooked police were a dime a dozen, he could not be bought at any price,” John Boessenecker wrote in Texas Ranger: The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde.

Frank Hamer’s Questionable Marriage

Frank Hamer got married for the second time when he was 33 years old. His first marriage, which took place when he was a young man, lasted only a short time and ended in divorce. Hamer’s second bride, whom he married in 1917, was an interesting choice.

Her name was Gladys Sims, and she was the widow of Ed Sims of Snyder, Texas. After Ed Sims’s death in 1916, Gladys and her brother, Sidney Arthur Johnson, were arrested and charged with his murder. The charges were eventually dropped and months later, Gladys wed Frank Hamer.

We can only assume Hamer believed in his bride’s innocence, but there were plenty of people in the region who thought she was responsible for her first husband’s untimely death. One of those was Gus McMeans of Odessa, Texas. McMeans, himself a former Texas Ranger, was Ed Sims’s brother-in-law and was determined to make Gladys face justice.

On October 1, 1917, Frank and Gladys were traveling across Texas when they stopped to fill up their gas tank in the town of Sweetwater. McMeans, who had been following the couple, stopped too. A gunfight broke out and Hamer was wounded. Despite his injury, he managed to fire his pistol, shooting McMeans in the heart. Hamer did not face charges in the incident because McMeans attacked him first, and Hamer fired in self-defense.

Frank Hamer and Ma Ferguson

State politics in Texas in the 1910s and 1920s were rife with questionable deeds that teetered on corruption, conflicts of interest, and nepotism. One of these incidents involved Miriam A. Ferguson, affectionately known as “Ma” Ferguson.

Ma Ferguson was the wife of James “Pa” Ferguson, the governor of Texas from 1915 through 1917. A controversial politician, Pa Ferguson was impeached during his second term as governor, convicted, and banned from holding an elected office. Ma Ferguson ran for his vacant position and openly campaigned that she would be following the advice of her husband: Ma would be a figurehead while Pa was the person who was really in charge.

Miriam A. Ferguson
Ma Ferguson when she was First Lady of Texas. Photo credit: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Her term as governor was fraught with corruption. Ma Ferguson issued thousands of pardons and was soft on crime, angering Hamer and law enforcement officials around the state. When she was re-elected for a second term in 1932, about 40 members of the Texas Rangers — including Hamer — quit in protest. In an interview with the New York Times that appeared on May 24, 1934, Hamer said, “When they elected a woman governor, I quit.”

On paper, Frank Hamer may have quit the Texas Rangers, but the group’s commander granted him permission to retain a “Special Ranger” commission as an active Senior Ranger Captain, which would be a key distinction following the killings of Bonnie and Clyde.

The Crime Spree of Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were notorious criminals who became infamous for their crime spree during the Great Depression. The lovers committed bank robberies, held up gas stations, and racked up a string of violent crimes in the South in the early 1930s. Bonnie, a pretty girl from a poor Texas family, was barely 20 years old when she fell in love with charismatic bad-boy Clyde Barrow.

Clyde Barrow wanted poster
Photo credit: FBI.gov

Bonnie and Clyde’s crime spree took them from Texas to Louisiana, Missouri, and Oklahoma beginning in the early 1930s. Although the young lovers killed multiple law enforcement officers and innocent civilians while making their escapes from police, newspaper articles sensationalized their antics.

The duo were cast as tragic, romantic heroes who were targeting banks during a time when many people strongly distrusted and disliked banks. The public latched onto the story of Bonnie and Clyde, rooting for them to outwit the authorities.

Frank Hamer on the Trail of Bonnie and Clyde

Lee Simmons, the head administrator of the Texas Prison System, lost a few of his guards to Clyde Barrow’s gun and was determined to see the outlaw lovers brought to justice.

He knew just the man for the job: Frank Hamer. Although Hamer was no longer a Texas Ranger, he still had his special commission. Simmons pulled a few strings to get Hamer appointed as an officer of the Texas Highway Patrol — and a special investigator charged with apprehending Bonnie and Clyde.

Hamer put his detective skills to work and analyzed the movements of Bonnie and Clyde. He noted that heists often took place near state lines and the bandits took advantage of the fact that police officers could not pursue them into another state. He also noticed that the lovers traveled in a large circle that put them back in familiar territory every few months. Finally, Hamer learned that Bonnie and Clyde were often accompanied by other gang members, including a man named Henry Methvin.

Bonnie and Clyde portrait
Photo credit: FBI.gov

Henry Methvin’s father reached out to the sheriff in his community to report his son’s involvement with Bonnie and Clyde. He shared the type of car Clyde was driving and that the pair planned to attend a party in a remote part of Louisiana before staying at the Methvin house.

This information was passed on to Hamer, who put together a small posse of lawmen — including highway patrolman Benjamin Maney Gault, Dallas County deputy sheriffs Ted Hinton and Bob Alcorn, Bienville Parish Sheriff Henderson Jordan, and deputy P.M. Oakley — and plotted to ambush the outlaws as they approached the home of the Methvin family.

The intel proved to be accurate, and on May 23, 1934, Frank Hamer’s ambush successfully put an end to the crime spree of Bonnie and Clyde. The young outlaw lovers died when Hamer and the five over officers pumped their car with bullets.

“We just shot the devil out of them, that’s all,” Frank Hamer later said. “That’s all there was to it. We just laid a traip for them. A steel trap. You know, Bessemer steel, like gun barrels are made of.”

Vilified for Killing Bonnie and Clyde

Frank Hamer may have stopped Bonnie and Clyde’s murderous crime spree, but he faced backlash and public outcry for the ambush. Newspapers ran photographs of the couple’s bullet-ridden car and accounts of their horrific deaths.

frank hamer newspaper article
Daily News, May 27, 1934. Photo credit: Newspapers.com

Both Bonnie and Clyde were struck with so many bullets that the coroner had trouble embalming their bodies. Hamer was accused of using excessive force in his take-down of the couple, but defended his actions by pointing out that they repeatedly showed no hesitation in killing law enforcement officers. He argued that, had he not approached the incident with guns blazing, he may have lost some of his men in a shootout.

“Clyde and Bonnie did not get to fire a shot,” Hamer said, according to a news article in the Tampa Tribune on May 24, 1934. “Their car was filled with guns and ammunition, but they did not get a chance to use them.”

Life After Bonnie and Clyde

Frank Hamer remained involved in law enforcement and civil peacekeeping throughout the 1930s and, indeed, for the rest of his life.

Hamer rejoined the Texas Rangers in 1939 and he and 49 other former Rangers traveled to the United Kingdom in 1939 to protect King George VI in the event of a Nazi invasion. He returned to the Texas Rangers again in 1948 during a fraudulent state election.

Frank Hamer left the Texas Rangers once and for all in 1949. He died on July 10, 1955.

Sources & Further Reading

OldWest.org strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints when possible.

  1. Barrow, B. C. (2005). My Life with Bonnie and Clyde.
  2. Boessenecker, J. (2017). Texas Ranger: The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde. St. Martin’s Griffin.
  3. Frost, H. G., & Jenkins, J. H. (2015). “I’m Frank Hamer:” The Life of a Texas Peace Officer. State House Press.
  4. Guinn, J. (2010). Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
  5. Hinton, T. (2020). Ambush: The Real Story of Bonnie and Clyde. EAKIN Press.
  6. Phillips, J. N. (2002). Running With Bonnie and Clyde: The Ten Fast Years of Ralph Fults. University of Oklahoma.
  7. Schneider, P. (2010). Bonnie and Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend. Henry Holt.
  8. Simpson, W. M. (2000). A Bienville Parish Saga: The Ambush and Killing of Bonnie and Clyde. Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, 41(1), 5–21. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4233632
  9. Swanson, D. J. (2021). Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers. Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
  10. Webb, W. P. (1965). The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense. University of Texas Press.

 

Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University.

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