Jan. 9, 2021

The Tough Kid - Frank Hamer's First Fight

The Tough Kid - Frank Hamer's First Fight

It’s not every day that your boss offers you a hundred and fifty dollars to murder somebody. I think we can all agree that’s not a normal occurrence.

But then again, the tough kid wasn’t normal.

He was quiet, tall for his age, and – to be honest – a little weird. An old soul who spent too much time alone, up in the hills, with no one to talk to but his rifle.

And it wasn’t just the solitude. While the world around him was marching boldly towards the future from the gilded age to the progressive, the tough kid was more drawn to the old ways. And those old ways weren’t found in no classroom.

Not that he was unable read or cypher. He could. He just had a hard time explaining it. Make no mistake about it – the tough kid was far from stupid. Despite his lack of a formal education, he was sharp and had a near photographic memory.

But most of all, he was tough.

And he came from tough stock.

His father had chased Comanche once upon a time up on the Llano, under Mackenzie. And his grandfather before him, as a trader down in old Mexico. A job that earned him an arrow to the head and a short stint as a captive, but he survived.

And while there were no more wild Indians around for the tough kid to carry on that particular family tradition, that didn’t stop him from forming a youthful obsession with the Natives as he attempted to imitate their ways.

He learned to walk silently through the forest, how to stalk and track animals and mimic their calls. And how to make every bullet count.

And just like the Native Americans he so admired, the tough kid didn’t need a church to worship his God, his way. He built a kind of alter, there in the forest, so he could talk to what he referred to as “the old master”. Which, as odd as it sounds, isn’t that unbelievable considering he did have plans to one day become a preacher.

But when the tough kid wasn’t conversing with the almighty, he was mostly honing his skills as a woodsman. He even became damn near as proficient with a blade as he was with a long gun. Matter of fact, he took to hunting armadillos with nothing but his bowie knife. Said they tasted like fine-grained high-quality pork.

I’ll just have to take his word for that one.

Above all else, though - with all that time in the great outdoors - the tough kid was acquiring the patience that comes with being a hunter.

A skill that would serve him well later in life as he transitioned to stalking a different type of prey – of the two-legged variety.

But that was a few years to come. For now, the tough kid was just a kid. A mere boy of 16 years.

A boy who, when he wasn’t out in the woods hunting or pretending to be an Indian, could often be found working in his father’s blacksmith shop. Sweating over the bellow and forge, cussing and swinging a hammer and building up mana in heaven.

Or, depending on the time of the year, you might could find the tough kid working another man’s field as a sharecropper. Labor that and his little brother would often perform to earn a little extra cash for the family.

That’s how he first came to meet Mr. McSween, for it was his fields the kid was working when the old man offered him $150 to do the devil’s work.

A proposal that the kid initially assumed was a joke. Sarcastically asking who he had to kill for that kinda money.

He soon realized it was no joke, however, when mean old Mr. McSween upped the price to an even $200. Turns out he had a beef with a nearby rancher. Wanted the man taken care of and he figured this tough youngster would be up for the job.

An incorrect assumption on his part, as the kid essentially told the old man to go to hell. And what’s more, said he would warn the rancher of the nefarious plans.

“You say anything about this to anyone, I’ll kill ya” warned McSween. But like I keep saying, the kid was tough, and this aged malcontent didn’t scare him any.

In fact, he rode his horse over to the rancher’s house the very next day, warning the man to watch his back.

By the way, least you balk at the measly sum of $200; that equates to over $6,000 in todays currency. More money than the kid had ever seen. And more than enough to have most nearly anyone killed, even nowadays.

The tough kid might not have been scared, but he shouldn’t have just brushed off the incident, either. If Mean old Mr. McSween was willing to shell out that kinda dinero, his threats had to be taken seriously.

A lesson the tough kid learned the hard way a few days later when McSween caught up with him and unloaded a shotgun into his back.

And we ain’t talking bird shot. It was 6 rounds of buckshot that tore through the young man’s back and the side of his head. That might kill most men but, like I keep saying, he was a tough kid. Not only did he not die, but he had the presence of mind to pull his revolver and return fire, striking old man McSween at least once and sending him running for home.

With the help of his little brother, the kid made it to the tree line and then, with the help of a black field hand, was able to get to a doctor.

Taking a load of buckshot is no small thing. Even the doc advised the kid’s father that he wouldn’t make it, he’d simply lost too much blood.

But the physician underestimated the tough kid. Not only did he make it, but he went on to live a long, full life. Got married, had kids, his kids had kids, and he himself made it into the history books.

The tough kid named Francis Augustus, called Gus by his parents, grew up to be a tough man known to the world as Frank Hamer. The Texas Ranger who took down Bonnie and Clyde.

I’m sure many of you listening have heard some version of this story already, about how the tough kid squared things in the end with Mr. McSween. You may have even heard it from Kevin Costner himself, who played Hamer in the excellent 2019 movie The Highwaymen.

The story – as it’s often repeated – goes that once the kid was all healed up he paid Mr. Daniel McSween a visit. When the old man saw him, he said something along the lines of “I thought I finished you” to which Hamer replied, “I’ve come to settle accounts”. Legend has it that they then both went for their guns and, well, like I said…Frank Hamer lived a long life.

Cool story, and I hate to be that guy but….it’s more than likely not true. At least not that particular ending.

Hamer did spend a lot of time alone, hunting in the hills of central Texas, for weeks at a time. He was a helluva shot, could track, mimic calls, he did work his father’s blacksmith shop - the whole nine yards. And McSween DID offer Frank money to dip into those dark arts back around the year 1900. And Hamer DID turn him down, which resulted in him taking that shotgun blast to the back that almost killed him.

Only thing is, young Frank never did return to McSween’s place to set things right. In reality, his family sent him out west, for his own protection. You know, just fearing a second attempt by the mean old man.

Thus, the tough kid concluded his recovery on a ranch in Pecos county, Texas. A spread owned by the Ketchum family, friends of his parents. And yes, these Ketchum’s were kin to the famous outlaw Black Jack Ketchum.

And once Hamer was well enough, he began working the ranch. Herding livestock. He got to know the border country, how to cowboy, and, oddly enough, how to play the fiddle. In short, Frank’s time on the ranch was a type of finishing school for the tough kid who – instead of becoming a preacher – took to wearing a badge.

Five years after nearly being killed by McSween’s shotgun, Frank Hamer tracked down and apprehended a horse thief there in West Texas. A year later he joined the up with the Rangers, and the rest is history. I guess.

ODDS AND ENDS

You know, Frank Hamer really is legendary. And he’s one of those guys whose life story doesn’t require any of us to spice it up. It’s plenty exciting as it is. But, like many of our historical heroes, it’s often very hard to separate the man from the myth. And make no mistake about it, Frank Hamer has reached mythical proportions here in Texas.

As exciting as the story of him returning to kill McSween is, it turns out it's just something that Frank's brother Harrison made up. And since it sounds so cool it stuck and still gets repeated to this day. Both in print and on film.

It’s a story I first read about in an article aptly titled Frank Hamer’s First Gunfight by Mark Boardman. I emailed Mark and he was kind enough to point me in the direction of the book Texas Ranger: The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man who killed Bonnie and Clyde by John Boessnecker.

And, from what I understand, it was John Boessnecker who uncovered the truth of what really went down. How Daniel McSween ended up dying of natural causes a few years later in Kaufman, Texas.

I’m currently listening to the audio version of Boessnecker’s book and I did use it as a primary source of research for this episode. So far it’s pretty damn good.

But I do like to look at each subject I cover from different angles. And, well, it's like I always say on my podcast: History is complicated. And the esteemed Frank Hamer is no exception.

I mentioned the black sharecropper who helped save Frank’s life after he was gunned down. Hamer would later go on to declare that this fieldhand was his best friend saying “that man caused me to be living today”. 

And this was a time when race relations weren’t exactly at their best in Texas. Nevertheless, in the 1920’s Hamer worked in opposition against the Ku Klux Klan, putting his life at risk and stopping over a dozen lynching’s of African Americans. At least according to some sources I read.

And this was when a whole lot of black people were getting strung up, just for being black. And a whole bunch of white people – including lawmen – were turning a blind eye to it.

But not Frank Hamer.

However, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there are some who aren’t so convinced that Hamer was the most openminded when it came to racial equality. At least not when it came to serving and protecting.

I stumbled across an article from the Washington Post I thought I’d share, just in the name of fairness. And – you know - because I do enjoy a little bit of controversy every now and then.

The March 31st article titled How ‘The Highwaymen’ whitewashes Frank Hamer and the Texas Rangers was written by Monica Munoz Martinez, assistant professor of American studies at Brown University, author of The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas and cofounder of the nonprofit group Refusing to Forget.

And in this article Martinez writes about how Hamer’s “classic Texas story doesn’t push back on the white, masculine, Wild-West mythology that Texans cling to”.

I’m paraphrasing, but Martinez writes that the Texas Rangers, in particular, have a long history of racial violence targeting Native Americans, ethnic Mexicans, and African Americans - Frank Hamer included.

Martinez goes on to write that in Hamer’s time a lot of abuses took place, such as denying due process, torturing prisoners, even outright murder. And Texas Ranger Frank Hamer played a significant role in undermining investigations into these matters. To the point he even tried intimidating witnesses.

While I haven’t finished John Boessnecker’s book, I am curious to learn more about Frank’s life and see if any of these allegations are touched on.

A quick google search came up with an article from the Houston Chronicle where Boessnecker is quoted as saying that Frank Hamer’s biggest defect was his temper, citing an incident where the Texas Ranger physically assaulted a journalist. However, the author goes on to say that the moral courage Hamer displayed in saving 15 African Americans from lynch mobs, or in opposing the Klan, outweighed all the bad-tempered things he did.

So, like I said. I’m not an expert in all things Frank Hamer. I’m also not a history revisionist and I’m not taking any particular side. Just thought I’d throw these two different views out there.

Some people like to take a guy like Frank Hamer and shit all over ‘em. Make him out to be some violent corrupt foaming at the mouth racist, while others will put him up on a pedestal as the perfect picture of law and order and all things virtuous. But I’m of the belief we can both admire the good these historical figures did while at the same time condemning the bad. That we don’t have to highlight one aspect while ignoring the other.

Fun fact! If you ever get a chance to re-watch The Highwaymen, pay close attention to the ambush scene. It was filmed on location, in the exact spot where the real-life showdown took place. The now-paved road was covered in dirt to replicate the original look. At least according to an article that I found in USA Today from back in March of 2019.