Faced with an epidemic of bank robberies without a corresponding number of captures in 1920s, the Texas Banking Association decided to pay the citizens of the state $5,000 to kill any bank robbers they might come across. The Texas Rangers eventually got involved with this business of the dead robber bounty, but not on the side that we might expect.
The late 1920s was a perilous time for banks, especially in rural areas where only a constable or marshall patrolled a large territory. Robbers hit Texas banks at a rate of three or four a day. In an era of increasingly sophisticated firearms and fast cars, the bad guys simply cruised into town, took the bank with a show of force and sped away before law enforcement even found out about the crime. It’s a wonder one fleeing group never crashed into another one, such was the rate of getaway traffic on Texas backroads in those days.
In the fall of 1927 the Texas State Bankers Association made an astonishing announcement. The Association declared it would pay $5,000 to anybody who killed a bank robber caught in the act of robbing a bank. To clear up any misunderstanding this might have caused, the association added that it would not pay a single penny for live robbers.
Today we can easily view the dead robber bounty as an extreme and risky measure but the dead robber bounty met no formidable opposition when it was announced. Newspapers of the day generally supported the move and the people did too.
“It was a gesture born of and worthy of the frontier society that had spawned most of the Texas bankers of the day,” A.C. Greene wrote of the “dead robber” reward in his book, The Santa Claus Bank Robbery about a bank robbery in Cisco. “It was the kind of retribution, the old-timers said, that the criminal mind could understand and would waver in the face of.”
Inherent flaws in this kind of carte blanche retribution were soon revealed. An oil scout for the Gulf Oil Company was shot and wounded as he drove the Sweetwater to Lubbock highway one January night in 1928. The men who fired on him thought he might have been the fellow who had robbed a Sylvester bank earlier that day, and they had shot to kill. The President of the West Texas Oil Scouts Association wrote a letter to Governor Dan Moody noting that the $5,000 offered for dead bank robbers prompted the fusillade. Moody decided to have the Texas Rangers look into the matter.
Into this volatile situation strode Frank Hamer, an already legendary Ranger who would go on to track down and ambush some real bank robbers and murderers, Bonnie and Clyde. Hamer wasn’t too impressed by the bankers’ bounty when it was first announced, and subsequent events did nothing to change his mind. Not only did banks continue to get robbed, the number of robberies actually spiked.
The fact that many of the recent robberies were staged at night also troubled Hamer. The Cisco robbery, pulled off by real bank robbers, was an exception. Hamer’s investigation sufficiently revealed what he had feared; these dead bank robbers were being tricked into an ambush by local officers and the reward was being split among them. Rather than thanking Hamer for bringing such a grave miscarriage of justice to their attention, the bankers refused to withdraw the bounty, arguing that anybody who could be convinced to participate in a bank robbery should be killed.
At his wit’s end, Hamer did something he had never done before and would never do again – he held a press conference.
“I can’t keep silent anymore,” he told the reporters. “I have seen too much. I know too many of the so-called ‘bank robbers’ who have died over this state who were nothing more than pigeons, sent to their doom by grasping, dishonest men who are much worse than any of the bank robbers they profess to want to see die.”
Hamer turned over much of his evidence to the reporters then turned them loose on the story. “Hamer next set forth to bring to justice the culprits in the cases he had described in the press release,” Robert M. Utley wrote in Lone Star Lawmen: The Second Century of the Texas Rangers. “He secured grand jury indictments of three men in two of the cases and then extracted written confessions. Eventually the bankers relented and modified their offer to suit Hamer’s demands.”
Bank robberies continued into the 1930s as part of what has been called a Golden Age of Crime, culminating in the Great Crime Wave of 1933-34 that brought us John Dillinger. Machine Gun Kelly and others, but also more sophisticated crime fighting methods and weapons.
As for the dead robber reward, it wasn’t discontinued until 1964.