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The program offered a cash reward of $5,000 for the killing of bank robbers—or alleged robbers, as was often the case.
The late 1920s was a perilous time for banks, especially in rural areas where only a constable or marshall patrolled a large territory. Texas banks were being robbed at a rate of three or four a day.
In the fall of 1927, the Texas Bankers Association (TBA) declared it would pay $5,000 to anybody who killed an individual 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 offer met no formidable opposition when it was announced.
“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. “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. A scout for the Gulf Oil Company was shot and wounded one January night in 1928 while driving to Post, southeast of Lubbock. The men who fired on him with shotguns and rifles—they parked beside the road and waited for a criminal on the run—thought he might have robbed a Sylvester bank earlier that day. Most of the bullets were fired at where the victim’s head would have been if he hadn’t leaned down in the front seat and kept driving when the shooting started.
The president of the West Texas Oil Scouts Association sent a telegram to Gov. 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 environment strode Frank Hamer, an already legendary Ranger who would go on to track down and ambush real bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde. Hamer quickly learned that bank robberies were increasing and that some who were slaughtered had been tricked into ambushes by local officers, who then split the rewards.
But 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 any more,” he told 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 described a robbery in Stanton, northeast of Midland, where four Mexican laborers were picked up by a deputy sheriff and one of his friends under the pretense of offering them work. The workers were let out in Stanton and told to wait by the Home State Bank. When a church across the street from the bank mysteriously caught fire, drawing the attention of most of Stanton’s 1,200 or so inhabitants, the deputy and his friend rushed up to the laborers and started shooting. Two were killed, and a third was seriously wounded.
The deputy and his friend who staged the murders (they claimed they saw the men preparing to rob the bank) were eventually prosecuted for their crimes, and the TBA reworded its reward program to include only legally killed bank robbers.
As for the bank robbers, they continued to enjoy what has been called a Golden Age of Crime. Between 1920 and 1929, the Travelers Insurance Company reported that property crime—from bank robberies to drugstore stickups—jumped from 17 to 965 in its Dallas office alone. The trend continued through the Great Crime Wave of 1933-34 and ended when bank robberies became classified as federal crimes, and the FBI got involved.
In 1964, almost four decades after Texas’ dead robber reward was instituted, it was quietly discontinued altogether.
Clay Coppedge frequently writes history stories for Texas Co-op Power.