Texas Ranger: The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde by John Boessenecker
Frank Hamer (not “Hammer”) was a storied Texas Ranger whose career spanned four decades, from the days of six-guns and long riders to the days of tommy guns and V-8 Fords. Though Hamer’s life was the stuff of legends, his principal claim to fame is bringing down Bonnie and Clyde in 1934, something the title reminds us of unnecessarily. The author is a lawyer who has forged a successful second career writing about the wild-and-woolly West with an emphasis on law enforcement. This is his ninth book and maybe his best.
Boessenecker is clearly impressed with Hamer, a lawman who was incorruptible [End Page 268] and tough-as-nails, an “action hero” before there was such a term. However, Boessenecker seems to go overboard in calling his subject “the greatest American lawman of the 20th century” (5), a claim that Melvin Purvis and “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, among others, might have disagreed with. Besides putting an end to Bonnie and Clyde, Hamer battled the Ku Klux Klan, Ma and Pa Ferguson, and, late in life, Congressman Lyndon Johnson. He lost only to LBJ.
Boessenecker has the rare ability to turn a mass of historical fact into a good story without compromising scholarship. The book has thirty-nine pages of endnotes, which should satisfy most readers, but as a fellow historian, I still think a bibliography is an absolute must for any work of scholarship.
If the book has a weakness, it is that the author is too much in love with his subject. He writes in superlatives: Hamer gets credit for ending lynching in Texas, standing up to the Klan (single-handedly?), facing down mobs without firing a shot, and intimidating murderers into following him meekly to jail. And when it came to African Americans, Hamer, we are told, had a “lifelong empathy” (281) for them that put him far outside the mainstream of Texas lawmen of his day. Surely some of these stories were embroidered. The fact that most came from admiring newspaper reporters and Hamer’s wife Gladys may explain some of the larger-than-life claims.
Boessenecker is not the first biographer to take on Hamer. In 1968, Gordon Frost, an El Paso teacher, published I’m Frank Hamer: the Life of a Texas Peace Officer, which had the impeccable timing to come out a year after the Arthur Penn movie Bonnie and Clyde, which had Hamer playing third banana to the homicidal lovebirds. Boessenecker’s timing is not so good considering that the Gordon book was reprinted in 2015, a year before his book. Both works seem almost obsessively focused on Bonnie and Clyde. To this reader’s thinking, the most exciting episode in Hamer’s career was not chasing that pair down, but facing the Sherman riot of May 1930. However, since capturing Bonnie and Clyde is what Hamer is best known for, that episode gets three chapters, while the Sherman riot gets just one. Hamer, like some of his western contemporaries (e.g., Wyatt Earp and Cole Younger), flirted with the movies late in life. However, Hollywood did not do him any favors. Penn’s classic portrayed him in such a negative light (as played by the actor Denver Pyle) that his family sued. The producers settled out of court.
Texas Ranger is a rewarding read for anyone interested in true crime, Texas social history, or the bad, old days of law enforcement. Plus we have to thank Boessenecker for dusting off poor ol’ Frank Hamer and saving him from being relegated to a Hollywood stock character. [End Page 269]