Meet Ray Hamilton, thief, armed robber, kidnapper, escape artist, murderer. He worked with Clyde Barrow as part of the infamous ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ Gang before his out-sized ego caused him to strike out on his own. By his execution in May, 1935 (at the tender age of 22) he’d racked up no less than 362 years of unserved jail time and committed armed robbery, kidnapping, car theft, burglary, prison escape, petty theft, murder and general mayhem across Kansas, Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
He wasn’t even executed for any of his several known murders. Texas being Texas, in 1935 you could be executed for being an habitual criminal. With Ray’s enorgous criminal history in mind, probably wasn’t the Walker County District Attorney’s biggest challenge of his career. But while Bonnie and Clyde are still icons of modern popular culture, the 1967 film having given them a fictional (and entirely unmerited) glamour, their most senior cohort is almost forgotten except to crime buffs and a few very old Texans.
Ray was a more gifted criminal than Clyde. His armed robberies netted him more money than most of Clyde’s, though still not the big-time hauls of John Dillinger or Harvey Bailey. He also had a slightly smaller predilection for killing people unlike Clyde who was so quick to start shooting that he became known as the ‘Texas Rattlesnake.’ That’s not to say that Ray was a reluctant murderer. He was believed to have several notches on his gun, but had a cooler head than Clyde although their out-sized egos were about the same.
Therein lay the problem. Clyde was an egotist and control freak. He wanted everything done his way and everybody blindly taking his orders. Ray wasn’t minded to take orders from anybody, was equally arrogant, had a sarcastic, snippy, over-active mouth and one attribute that probably galled Clyde more than anything; Whenever he had Ray on a robbery there always seemed to be more money and less gun-play. They disliked each other almost from the start.
Born near Schulter, Oklahoma on May 21, 1913, Ray spent his childhood in West Dallas, then one of the worst slums in the entire country. In West Dallas he met Clyde Barrow and formed the ‘Root Square Gang.’ Nothing serious at first, just petty theft and shoplifting while they learned their trade. Clyde graduated to car theft and burglaries while Ray had a flourishing operation stealing cars in Texas and selling them in Oklahoma.
They both moved up to armed robbery, sticking up shops and small businesses and both serving time. They robbed their first bank together at Laurence, Kansas on March 19, 1932. They committed their first murder together at Stringtown, Oklahoma on August 5, 1932 when they shot a deputy sheriff at a local dance while on the run. After murdering a lawman in a death penalty State there was no turning back for either of them.
Ray soon ended up in the worst prison in Texas, Eastham Prison Farm, a prison where Clyde had already served time. Eastham was renowned for corruption and brutality. It wasn’t just one of the worst prisons in Texas, it was one of the worst in the entire country. Guards routinely brutalised inmates and inmates brutalised each other. The food was inedible, the daily work crippling, discipline was brutal and arbitrary and many guards regarded cruelty as a perk of the job.
Inmates routinely assaulted, raped and murdered each other. Clyde himself became a regular victim of lifer and serial rapist Ed Crowder, who singled him out for regular beatings and sexual assaults. It’s said that when Crowder was found beaten to death in the wash-house and inmate Aubrey Scalley convicted, that Scalley had taken the life sentence as a favour to the real murderer; Clyde Barrow.
Clyde suffered enough to develop an obsessive hatred of Eastham, vowing that he’d never be taken alive, would return to raid Eastham and start a mass escape. In 1932 he secured release through an ‘accidental’ injury when an axe slipped and removed two of his toes. Ray didn’t plan on staying any longer than he had to, either.
The Eastham raid was instigated by Ray. Arrangements were made via Jimmy Mullens (a drug addict and former inmate) and pistols were smuggled into Eastham. On January 13, 1934 Clyde, Bonnie Parker and Ray’s brother Floyd parked up near Hamilton’s work party while Hamilton and another inmate, a lifer named Joe Palmer, murdered guard Joel Crowson and wounded Guard Bozeman.
Hamilton, Palmer and two other inmates, multiple murderer Hilton Bybee and Henry Methvin (serving ten years for attempted murder) boarded the car and escaped. Another inmate, J.B. French, ran into nearby woods, but was recaptured a few hours later. Clyde hadn’t helped Hamilton because he liked him, he’d done it because (however much Ray needled him) he was still useful.
But not for much longer. Ray and Clyde performed a few more robberies together, but soon enough all the old sore points returned along with a particularly obnoxious new one. Her name was Mary O’Dare, disliked heartily by everybody in the Barrow Gang except Ray and sneeringly nicknamed ‘The Washerwoman.’ She was immature, demanding, rude, arrogant and, despite never taking an active role in any robberies, seemed to think she was entitled to an even share of the proceeds.
The Washerwoman was nothing but trouble and far more trouble than she was worth. Nobody except Ray found her anything other than a burden and a bitter argument between Clyde and Ray over whether she was entitled to a share from a robbery (she and Ray thought she was, everybody else disagreed) saw Ray and his moll strike out on their own.
The Barrow Gang went their way and Ray went his. He kept a relatively low profile while Bonnie and Clyde stole and shot their way to immortality. While they increased their body count and racked up a string of small-time robberies Ray and O’Dare hid in Louisiana living fairly quietly. After the Barrow Gang murdered yet another policeman, Constable Cal Campbell in Commerce, Oklahoma on April 6, 1934, Ray sent a letter to his lawyer, A.S. Baskett, denying all involvement. Proving the letter was genuine by putting an inky fingerprint on it, the letter claimed Ray now had nothing to do with Barrow and hadn’t for some time. According to Ray, he was a ‘Gentleman Bandit.’ By implication Clyde Barrow wasn’t.
With an ever-increasing list of murders and robberies and a huge, permanent search going on it was only a matter of time before the end came. Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed and shot to pieces near Gibsland, Louisiana on May 23, 1934. They’d been set up by Henry Methvin’s family, hoping to save their son from conviction and execution by trading a pardon for Bonnie and Clyde. Joe Palmer was recaptured in June, 1933 . So was Ray.
They were tried on capital charges, Ray for being an habitual criminal and Palmer for the murder of prison guard Joel Crowson during Clyde’s raid on Eastham. They were both convicted, condemned and shipped off to Huntsville Prison to await execution. Floyd Hamilton drew two years for his role in the Eastham raid and various Barrow and Hamilton relatives drew smaller sentences for harbouring the fugitives. Their run was almost over, but not quite.
Ray and Palmer might have been sentenced to die and confined at Huntsville’s notorious ‘Death House’, but they weren’t finished quite yet. A lifer, Charles Frazier, wanted to help a friend and condemned inmate named ‘Blackie’ Thompson escape Death Row. Few Texas inmates had successfully escaped from Huntsville and none at all from Death Row. On June 22, 1934 Hamilton and Palmer would be the first. Knowing a guard who was in serious financial trouble and easily bribed, Frazier managed to have three loaded pistols smuggled into Huntsville.
Out in the prison yard Frazier met with fellow lifers Roy Johnson, ‘Hub’ Stanley and ‘Whitey’ Walker. Together they forced their way into the Death House and, at gunpoint, forced a guard to open the cells of Thompson, Hamilton and Palmer. Taking hostage Guard W.G. McConnell, they used him as a human shield, stole an extension ladder from the prison fire engine, mounted the wall, entered a guard tower and ran down the outside steps and disappeared into downtown Huntsville.
Hamilton, Palmer and Thompson were free, the others had been shot dead or recaptured. Either way, it didn’t matter. After being sentenced to die Ray had proclaimed to reporters that he would escape from the Death House. The reporters put it down to criminal bravado at the time, as did the Texas prison system. Ray’s boast had now became a fact. For the first time in its history (though not the last) the Texas Death House had been successfully breached.
This did Palmer no good at all. He was recaptured and returned to Huntsville in early-August, 1934. Ray lasted until April, 1935 before being caught near Fort Worth, Texas and returned to Huntsville for execution. The Texas authorities were sick of them. Hamilton and Palmer had made two successful escapes from maximum-security Texas prisons within seven months, murdered a prison guard and then secured informal stays of execution by escaping from the Death House itself. Authorities had waited long enough to rid themselves of this troublesome pair and, with Raymond now in custody, were in no mood to wait much longer. Both he and Palmer would die just after midnight on May 10. Unlike so many Texas felons whose deaths bare;y rated a small squib in the Huntsville Item, if that, the death chamber would standing room only for Hamilton and Palmer. They were slated to die amid Texas newspaper reports recycling the Bonnie & Clyde saga as though Parker and Barrow were facing the executioner.
Neither the Texas courts or State Governor were remotely inclined to intervene. As they were already condemned men when they escaped there was no problem arranging the earliest possible execution date. Ray, always so cocky and arrogant, always needling Clyde about his superior skill and nerve, didn’t face his own end quite so bravely. He spent his final day growing progressively more fearful, prison staff fearing he’d have to be carried or manhandled on his final walk. Palmer was calmer and seemed more resigned to his fate.
When their time came, Ray broke down. He was so distraught that Palmer (wanting just to get it over with) even volunteered to go first while Ray composed himself. Hamilton eventually did. Palmer walked calmly into the execution chamber and sat down at 12:01AM. Guards moved quickly, securing the straps and electrodes without any resistance and Palmer was pronounced dead at 12:09AM.
With Palmer dead a strong smell of smoke and burned flesh permeated the crowded death chamber. Deputy Warden (and executioner) Joe Byrd left back through the little green door separating the chamber from Death Row. The support act had been and gone and it was time for the main event. Hamilton, for so long the cocky, sneering self-proclaimed ‘Gentleman Bandit,’ was about to walk his last mile at the tender age of 23.
Ray, by now having recovered some of his nerve, walked in at 12:19AM. When Byrd had walked the dozen steps from the chair to Hamilton’s cell the Depression desperado had calmed enough to ask if Palmer dead. On being told so and that it was his turn, just enough of Hamilton’s earlier bravado returned. Not much, granted, but enough too see him through to the bitter end. He managed a fixed smile and, with very forced casualness, his final words were plain and simple:
“Well, goodbye all.”
He was dead at 12:27AM.
But, again, this isn’t quite the end of the story. Brother Floyd Hamilton, having been involved in the Eastham raid, developed quite a taste for high-level crime. His own spree of armed robberies saw him listed as the Texas ‘Public Enemy Number One’ and earned him 20 years in prison including a stint at Alcatraz from which he tried (unsuccessfully) to escape. He was released in 1958 and afterward was a model citizen.
Ray’s sister Lillian Fairris and her two sons weren’t quite so well-behaved. In January, 1956 Lillian herself was serving a life sentence for second-degree murder and one of her sons was serving a ten-year sentence for burglary. The other was Hurbie Fairris. Lillian was taken from her prison in Texas to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at Mcalester to visit her wayward son, himself only hours away from a seat in what Oklahomans delightfully called ‘Sizzling Sally,’ for murdering Detective Bennie Cravatt during a bungled robbery.
Hurbie was only 20 years old, had spent his childhood surrounded by notorious criminals, had never had a stable upbringing (he remarked that his time on Death Row was the longest period in his life spent in one place) and seemed as indifferent to his own death as that of his victim. He faced his death with greater composure than his cocky, arrogant uncle. Standing by the chair he simply tapped his foot while the warden read out the death warrant and. When seated, strapped down and asked for his final words he said simply:
“What is there to say? Let’s get on with it!”