Chapter Four: Frank Hamer Tames Navasota


IV

Finally, Navasota gets its ass kicked

 

Drawbacks in Grimes County’s ill-conceived new form of one-party democracy were soon painfully obvious. Almost all of the intelligent, freedom loving, Democracy protecting, true blue Americans, who respected the rule of law were either dead or gone. The rest shrank to a posture of fear and silence. Beleagered Sheriff Scott, The unique son of the South that one day might have rewritten Southern history, as he successfully led whites and blacks in a unified government to govern a Texas county, was instead licking his wounds in a hide-out in Louisiana. There would be no statue, no historical marker for Garrett Scott. Good had become evil, and evil took the conscience of tbhe community by force, and injustice filled the air. The White Man's Union nestled into the County government with virtually no political opposition. But satisfied smiles of long desired vengeance soon became smirks of consternation.

Suddenly it became a matter of course throughout the region for any politicians who had fallen from approval to be shot down like dogs. The Pinckney brothers had served Texas gallantly during and after the Civil War, and in 1905 had gathered with others at Hempstead to rally for the prohibition of alcohol.  Both of them attorneys, Tom still lived in Hempstead while his brother John had been serving as a U. S. Congressman.  At a public forum that was provided right before a referendum was to be held on the issue, Tom spoke first. When his brother, Congressman John Pinckney arose to speak and clinch the issue, gunmen stood up on all sides and emptied their six-shooters into the Pinckneys and their allies. The Pinckneys and two others were killed that night, shot by terrorists in front of a huge crowd for speaking publicly for Prohibition. But with all of the people there, nobody could name the perpetrators!  Although the Southern terrorist cell at Field’s Store (once in Grimes County) was a prime suspect, no one was arrested or prosecuted for these crimes.

Hundreds of blacks in Navasota had met with fowl play. Joe Cole Jr. lived just 21 years, and was prematurely and suspiciously dead by 1904.

Navasota and its region of white supremacy had earned quite a reputation. Even during the Civil War, General Nathan Bedford Forrest had sent his mother for safe-keeping to Navasota, Texas, known to be a bastion for the Southern cause (Ironically, she died from a freak accident upon her very arrival). Whereas black Baptists chose to cancel their annual convention there after the horrible violence in 1900, Hood’s Brigade chose to have their Confederate reunion there in 1907.  Navasota had waged a veritable war against Northern occupation, the Union league, the carpet baggers and scalawags, black Republicans and even the damned Populists and Prohibitionists, and won.  Navasota had lived up to its reputation of old, a tough town built and bolstered by outlaws, scoffing at the weak and mindless who lacked the backbone to shape and defend their future.

As might be expected in such a lawless environment, saloons, gambling houses and whorehouses had become Navasota’s stock and trade, and by 1908, even the pillars of the community were tired of the lawlessness and danger on the streets. The same men who had taken the county by force might continue to keep it by the same means. In March of that year unbridled vigilantes hung John Campbell. The Navasota City Council had some soul searching to do.

                  The epitome of white supremacy, southern independence and hospitality, Navasota was the site of the 1907 Hood’s Brigade reunion.

They had sworn an oath to protect the people, but no City Marshal would dare face down the gangsters and thugs who ran the streets. Many were members of the White Man’s Union. Every locally bred lawman remembered too well what happened when the last one ignored this single controlling political party of Grimes County.  Soon not everyone was enamored with White Man’s Union methods and especially their results. But who could stop them?  Charles Kirk, the Mayor of Navasota and two of his Councilmen were authorized to find a wonder-worker, and they in turn wrote the Governor for help.  It is hard to believe that there is not a special, time-worn file on Navasota in the Governor’s office.  According to local legend J. T. Evans was sent to Austin to personally deliver the urgent request.  Navasota needed a keen-eyed, fearless Marshal who had the guts to stand up to the town bullies and gang bosses, and somebody that was crazy enough to try. This was a job for Superman.

Ranger Frank Hamer was the next best thing. Newly commissioned by the Texas Rangers, the Governor requested the best man they could spare. Being one of the bottom men on the Ranger totem pole, and amazingly capable for his level of experience, young Frank was elected.

 
     Frank Hamer and Duke Hudson pose behind their commanding officers in the Texas Rangers.
Frank Hamer was an excellent choice for several reasons. Raised in far west Texas, he grew up in a place where the Old South was a vague reality. Wild Indians were his idols and savage Mexican banditos were his daily enemies. Many Germans had settled in central Texas, and most of them were unsympathetic to the Southern cause. Perhaps thousands tried to escape serving the Confederacy by fleeing to Mexico. There were still local memories of how the newly mustered Confederates hunted them down like criminals and killed many of them in a terrible slaughter on their run to the border.  Frank Hamer shared little loyalty to these kinds of Texans, from the eastern half, who were considered to be creatures of a different world.  And after several deadly gunfights with desperate outlaws, Ranger Frank Hamer was not likely to be scared or bought out by east Texas rowdies. He gave up his commission and took the challenge.

 
Built in 1903, Navasota City Hall and the little jail behind, was where Frank Hamer would have headquartered his peacekeeping operation. 

Like a scene out of the Old West, Hamer and his deputies sharpened their boots and kicked butts and wiped up the streets with them. Marshal Hamer was always ready to drop his guns and rumble. So brutal and effective was Hamer’s brand of law enforcement, he was known to just tell outlaws to meet him at the jail, and they went obligingly rather than face his wrath.
 
                     Lifetime friends, Hamer and Hudson would both serve in Grimes County.

Hamer fearlessly stood up to the town troublemakers, and one day soon after he was hired, one of the testiest looked him up.   W. H. Brown, a feisty lawyer and plantation owner, came ready to spit in his eye and teach him some manners. Brown was quite likely to have been one of those who had expunged Sheriff Scott. One of the first graduates from Texas A & M, the cocky redneck bragged that this greenhorn Hamer had to be shown who was really the boss. Navasota men just didn’t suffer uppity lawmen. The middle-aged bearded pompous ass threw his head back and filled the street with a blood curdling Rebel yell. This sound used to puncture the hearts of feint-hearted Yankees during the war and the Reconstruction era. But the young Marshal was not amused.

The new Marshal stepped out and teased, “I’m Frank Hamer, the new Marshal…” and proceeded to tell Brown he was disturbing the peace, and if he didn’t stop, “I’ll have to arrest you.”  The fellow cracked a smile and began to yell again, but ended up face down in the muddy street, as Marshal Hamer slammed him to the ground like a helpless sheep. Standing around six foot three, he looked bigger now, as he beckoned any other comers. He made good on his threat, placing his boot right in the mud-faced Rebel yeller’s butt, and threw the overgrown punk in jail, showing his gang who was really, really the boss. Soon the streets were quiet for the first time in years.

 
 
 Navasota streets were calmed during the reign of Marshal Frank Hamer.

It was time to regroup.

Later it was explained to the new Marshal that some of the high brow thugs considered themselves above the law.  The Marshal was hired and tolerated to keep the “Darkies” in check. They were drinking hard and bragging in the local saloons that they would never allow their kind to be arrested. This claim in itself seems to suggest that they had already pondered the fact that they might be considered part of the crime problem in Navasota. One night doing his street patrols, Hamer strolled into a saloon and caught one of them drunk and behaving disorderly, and dragged him off to jail. “I hear you don’t allow your kind to be arrested,” he kidded, as he stared back at the rest of the man’s cronies. It was obvious that this big confident lawman had the nerve and the physical ability to take them out one at a time, and that is what he did.

Soon he managed to get the Navasota City Council to pass an ordinance forbidding the wearing of “sidearms.” This simple measure reduced the number of possible foes he might face at a given time, and allowed him to focus on those who dared to defy the law by carrying sidearms, who were probably going to be problems sooner or later.  There was much complaining, but quickly Hamer reduced this threat to peace and general safety. Hamer was known throughout his career to rarely need to use firearms anyway. Instead, open-palmed like a bear he would fearlessly knock whatever weapon was produced by his victims from their grasp and then proceed to kick the living nonsense out of them.

A Navasota dance hall personality known as “Miss Neola.”

Once a Navasota thug stupidly taunted the Marshal and called him a coward because he carried two Colt revolvers on his hips. The Marshal calmly unbuckled his gunbelt, laid down his pistols and then proceeded to kick the living nonsense out of him too. Hamer used to remark, “My feet were always loaded…”

He plugged a prominent hotelier’s bulldog, when it became a threat to other dogs, and the owner ignored his warnings. He chased down a fellow after a considerable distance to avoid firing on a crowd of passers-by, showing admirable athleticism, and concern for public safety. Those boots could run too. He did not seem to need a gun or a horse. And it seemed like he was everywhere.

Only much later did Navasotan’s learn he had dressed Charlie Becker, an Anderson farmer with similar looks and height, with pants and hat to look very much like him, as he waited for outlaws to step off of the train at the depot. No matter which end they chose to detrain, he was always there. For Becker, a firstborn American of German descent, it was the thrill of a lifetime, but he never wanted to quit his day job, as this assignment has some deadly side effects. There was only one Frank Hamer. It was just that sometimes his reputation was big enough to keep two men busy.

When the circus came to town, City authorities would make them set up right under their nose. Note the large crowd on the bottom right attending a sideshow.
 

                                      Marshal Hamer leads a parade in Navasota, 1910.

Young Mance Lipscomb, then just a teenager, drove Hamer’s buggy for him, and saw much of the legendary lawman in action. Bad about remembering names, and just an unschooled boy at the time, Lipscomb referred to him as “Charlie Hayman,” but his descriptions of the gallant lawman could have only been Frank Hamer, given the time period and the wonders attributed to him. Lipscomb claimed “Hayman” was kind and sort of adopted him because he was openly afraid of him. But it soon became obvious that he had nothing to fear.  But outlaws? “When you git tired of him kickin’ you, why, you done got to the jail…” 

Lipscomb noted that Hamer was racially colorblind, and treated all people the same. If anything, he was pictured as more patient and even compassionate towards the blacks, even teasing one burglar that he would not have shot him if only he had not tried to run away.  If only he had known who he was!

About thirteen or fourteen at the time, young Mance saw in the figure of Marshal Hamer a champion of what was good and right. The young Marshal may have been a minnow swimming upstream, but Frank Hamer became every boy’s hero, black or white. One very young white boy asked his mother if he could change his given name to Hamer. His mother gladly consented. Hamer Wilson would tell me years later how he named himself, with is mother’s permission, after seeing Marshal Hamer clean up the town.  “We loved him so much for what he had done… He was simply magnificent. I wanted to grow up to be a man like that!”

In a lifelong search for more homegrown heroes, Hamer Wilson made his own permanent mark on Navasota history later when he contributed in the researching and writing of the Biography of Jesse Grimes, which ultimately was used E. L. Blair’s 1930 publication of the Early History of Grimes County.

In a strange way, Marshal Hamer did what the Federal Occupation Army had failed to do. Navasota was as “reconstructed” as it ever would be.  By 1911, Hamer made plans to take an assignment in Houston. His task was accomplished. 

A hopelss gun culture, Hamer’s first blow was to take Navasotan’s handguns away from them.

Still, Navasota continued to be a wide open, dangerous town for decades.  In 1913 Frank Hamer returned to Navasota, his old stomping grounds (literally!), to serve as an interim,  and ended up busting a burglary ring, capturing several men wanted in Houston. His great instincts and keen eyes just seemed to expose criminals like an X-ray machine. This was when a local attorney presented him with the engraved Colt single action 45, he called "Old Lucky"  which he treasured all through his career. That handgun served him well through scores of gunfights, where he is believed to have killed several dozen outlaws in the line of duty.  After a celebrated career, Frank Hamer became nationally famous for tracking down and killing Bonnie and Clyde in a desperate show-down on a country lane near Arcadia, Louisiana.  After cutting his teeth on Navasota, Bonnie and Clyde were just a couple of punks!

Sad to say, the White Man’s Union would rule Grimes County for another forty years. But they had been humbled and shown to be human. Many of them wore Hamer’s boot prints from being humiliated by His French foot-fighting style of herding troublemakers. And blacks gained quiet validation and encouragement from Hamer’s years in Navasota. They now had a picture of justice. Both sides knew if things got out of hand, the Texas Rangers might send in a head-knocker that would make everyone tremble.

Marshal Frank Hamer, around 1911.

A straight lawman had given Grimes County blacks a shred of hope in America. For some of them, this may have been the first time during their sojourn out of Africa, so clouded by gloom and storm, that they were able to see the light of day. They could dare to hope, and unleash their talents with new and defensible optimism. These were the only sparks necessary to help launch a new art form.  And as blacks discovered the power of economic pressure, even though they dared not try to vote, they found limited degrees of power and self-expression through the church. And for some of them, like Mance Lipscomb, the bigger discovery was the power of music.

 
An abandoned black church in the Brazos bottoms.

 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a great article about a great man. I admire Mr. Hamer even more hearing that he was fair-minded, regardless of race. I read elsewhere recently that he nearly gave his life trying to keep a black man from getting lynched.

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