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Written in Blood: The History of Fort Worth’s Fallen Lawmen, Volume 2

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In 2010, Written in
Blood: The History of Fort Worth's Fallen Lawmen, Volume 1, told the stories
of thirteen Fort Worth law officers who died in the line of duty between 1861
and 1909. Now Richard F. Selcer and Kevin S. Foster are back with Volume 2
covering another baker's dozen line-of-duty deaths that occurred between 1910
and 1928. The stories are grouped into two sections: When Blood Ran in the
Streets, 1910-1919 and Life Was Cheap, 1920-1928. Not counting the two
officers who died of natural causes (meningitis and drowning), these are more
tales of murder, mayhem, and dirty work from all branches of local law
enforcement: police, sheriff's deputies, constables, and special officers,
just like in Volume 1

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1 Police Officer James R. Dodd (January 27, 1912)

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Police Officer James R. Dodd

(JANUARY 27, 1912)

“Fidelity, Bravery, and Unfailing Courtesy”

Officer James Dodd is the odd man out among Fort Worth’s fallen officers because he was the only one to die peacefully in his own bed. He was a victim not of bullets or natural disaster but of the killer microorganism that causes meningitis.

James R. Dodd, wearing the old-fashioned bobby-style helmet from the 1910 FWPD montage. Dodd was one of only two officers in this book who did not die violently. (Courtesy Fort Worth Public Library, Central Library, Genealogy, History and Archives Unit)

Meningitis is an infection of the brain usually caused by a virus or bacteria. The germs are commonly spread by sneezing, coughing, shaking hands, or any close contact with an already-infected person. The virus or bacteria attacks the brain through the membranes (meninges) surrounding it, eventually causing the brain to shut down. Death is quick but hardly painless. Meningitis is one of the great infectious killers of history—like polio, tuberculosis, and rheumatic fever—which come mysteriously, do their dirty work, then depart just as mysteriously. Bacterial meningitis is the most lethal form of the disease. Nowadays, it can be treated with antibiotics, but those were not available until the 1930s. In 1912, the only known treatment was Flexner serum, developed six years earlier by Dr. Simon Flexner at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City. In the event of an outbreak, the local health department ordered a supply of the serum from New York and doled it out to the community’s physicians and druggists. The success rate of serotherapy treatment was only about 50 percent. The only other public response was to quarantine the victim until he either died or recovered.1

 

2 Police Officer John A. Ogletree (May 15, 1913)

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Police Officer John A. Ogletree

(MAY 15, 1913)

“A brave officer who died in pursuit of his duty”

Tommie Lee was a bad man; there could be no doubt about that to the Fort Worth police. But they saw him as something even worse: a “bad nigger,” which in the Jim Crow era was perhaps the worst epithet in police vernacular.1 The authorities knew him as an unregenerate gambler, thief, brawler, and killer. He was a tyro at the first two, but a master at murder and mayhem. He had already killed two or three men even before the events of May 15, 1913.

Officer John A. Ogletree, a big, burly man, posed for this formal studio shot in front of a canvas backdrop. Barely visible: the bobby-style helmet that would go out in 1915. Ogletree’s brother is cropped out of this family photo. (Courtesy Stephen E. Ogletree)

His full name was Tom Lee Young, but for his own reasons he shortened it to “Tom Lee” after moving to Fort Worth. The local newspapers that gave him his fifteen minutes of fame, however, insisted on calling him “Tommie Lee.” (One of the reasons for using the diminutive was because “Tom Lee” was a fairly common name among whites; “Tommie Lee” distinguished him in public reports from white men with the same name, a subtle form of racism.) Whatever name he was called, he did not go through life quietly. Being deferential toward “the Man” was not in his makeup; he had an attitude especially when he had been drinking, and although Fort Worth may have been a Western town on the map, the white population was thoroughly Southern in its attitude toward race. Confederate veterans held a reunion in Fort Worth in 1913, and the Klan had never completely died out. The Fort Worth Record had no problem labeling Tom Lee a “bad nigger.”2

 

3 Police Captain George Frank Coffey (June 26, 1915)

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Police Captain George Frank Coffey

(JUNE 26, 1915)

“One of the best men in the service . . . a clean, Christian man”

Sometimes what initially seems to be a line-of-duty death does not stand up to close scrutiny, usually because the officer himself provoked the fatal chain of events either in pursuit of a personal vendetta or out of simple belligerence. Afterwards, the true cause was buried with the officer, but in a few cases the embarrassing details came out in public proceedings. This is what happened in the case of Frank Coffey.

A very youthful-looking Officer Frank Coffey, about 1913, in old-fashioned bobby-style helmet with new-style (1912) badge bearing badge no. 15. (Kevin S. Foster’s collections)

Coffey was a captain with the Fort Worth Police Department working out of the North Fort Worth substation when he met his end. Fort Worth officers shared a two-story brick building on North Main with the North Fort Worth waterworks and cooperated with the tiny Niles City force in policing the area of the packing plants and stockyards.

 

4 Police Officer Peter Howard (August 16, 1915)

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Police Officer Peter Howard

(AUGUST 16, 1915)

“A brave officer, a bighearted noble man, and a loyal friend”

The story of Peter Howard is one of murder, mayhem, and manhunts. More importantly, it is also the story of Fort Worth’s changing ethnic makeup and the failure of the Fort Worth Police Department to keep up with the changing times. By 1915, Fort Worth was three different communities: black, white, and brown.

Jug-eared Officer Peter Howard, approaching his twenty-year anniversary with the FWPD, as he appeared in this 1915 Department montage. The black Stetson came from Washer Bros.; the wreath adornment was standard FWPD issue. (Courtesy of Fort Worth Public Library, Central Library, Genealogy, History and Archives Unit)

On the last day of 1915, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram characterized the past year as “a busy one from a police standpoint.” It was far worse than that; it was the sort of year no department wants to experience. Three officers died in that twelve-month period: Robert Hollowell as a result of a motorcycle accident; Frank Coffey, shot to death; and Peter Howard, whose death may have been the most shocking of all.

 

5 Constable Robert Emmett Morison (November 8, 1916)

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Constable Robert Emmett Morison1

(NOVEMBER 8, 1916)

“Died a martyr to his duty”

Robert Emmett Morison was the first Tarrant County constable to die in the line of duty, a victim of old-fashioned “lead poisoning,” as they used to call it. But demon rum was just as much to blame. The Constable’s death was an example of what happens when strong personalities mix with strong drink and guns.

This rough sketch, handed down through the family, is the only known representation of Emmett Morison. Date and artist unknown. (Courtesy of Terry Baker)

Morison, who went by his middle name, was a career lawman who wore several badges during a long career but never strayed far from home. He was first elected town marshal of Mansfield in 1881, nine years before the town was incorporated. Under state law, unincorporated towns could not have a marshal, so his title was unofficial; he really functioned more as a “regulator” than a regular marshal.2 On November 5, 1912, he was elected constable of Tarrant County Precinct No. 8 (Mansfield) and was re-elected in 1914.3

 

6 Police Commissioner C. E. “Ed” Parsley (September 29, 1917)

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Police Commissioner C. E. “Ed” Parsley

(SEPTEMBER 29, 1917)

“He was an ideal peace officer . . .”

In the spring of 1917, the nation’s attention was focused on the war in Europe, now in its third year. On April 6, the United States had entered the war, and mobilization shifted into high gear. Locally, the U.S. Army was getting ready to open Camp Bowie out beyond the western edge of town. And on April 3, municipal elections had brought C. E. “Ed” Parsley into office as the new Police and Fire Commissioner. Parsley, a former assistant chief of police, had broad support in the places that mattered: he was politically acceptable to city fathers and quite popular with the men on the beat, who considered him one of their own. His rival on the April ballot was Canadian-born Hugh Jamieson, although, as a matter of fact, the outcome had been decided five months earlier in the Democratic Party primary; the municipal elections merely confirmed the primary results.

 

Introduction

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Introduction

By the 1920s, local law enforcement had become highly compartmentalized: the lines between police and sheriff’s departments were firmly drawn, and constables were nearly irrelevant when it came to fighting crime. Relentless urbanization put the policeman on the front line of local law enforcement. The police department was now the largest and most important agency in the mix. The sheriff still had jurisdiction over the far reaches of the county, including small, rural communities without city status, but he was no longer the first lawman most citizens thought of when they were victims of crime. As for the constables, they had ceased to have any meaningful law enforcement duties because their jurisdiction, the precinct, had ceased to have any significance except at election time.

The most significant local changes during the decade occurred in the Fort Worth Police Department. By 1921, the FWPD was organized into four “bureaus” that reported directly to the Police Chief: detective, traffic, motorcycle, and patrol. Gone were the old bicycle and horse-mounted sections (although bicycle patrols were reinstated in 1925 and the horse still filled a limited role). For administrative purposes, the city was carved up into four geographic divisions: Central (business district), East Side, North Side, and South Side, each with its own station house.1

 

7 Police Officer George Gresham (April 8, 1920)

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Police Officer George Gresham

(APRIL 8, 1920)

“No braver or more loyal man ever wore a police uniform.”1

Any year an officer is killed is a bad year for law enforcement; two in the same year constitutes a disaster. In 1920, two officers were gunned down on the job, one of them a special policeman, the other a nine-year veteran of the regular force.2 The veteran was forty-three-year-old George Gresham, who had worn a badge for eleven years through six administrations, including the annus horribilis of 1917. His death was one of those shocking random acts that occur periodically in law enforcement to remind us that a man should always keep his affairs in order because he never knows when his number might come up.

Police Officer George Gresham, ca. 1913, in the bobby-style helmet with the 1912 “panther” badge (no. 16) on his coat. Gresham would have been about thirty-five years old at this point and a two-year veteran of the force. (Kevin S. Foster’s collections)

 

8 Special Officer Joseph Burch Loper (October 20, 1920)

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Special Officer Joseph Burch Loper

(OCTOBER 20, 1920)

“A Sad Tale of Murder and Redemption”

Five months after George Gresham went down, violence claimed its second victim that same year. The second officer killed was Joseph Burch Loper, known to friends and colleagues as “Burch” or “J. B.” At the time of his death Loper was a special officer, commissioned by the city of Fort Worth but on the payroll of the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway (“the Frisco”). Even as a security cop, Loper was still part of the close-knit fraternity of lawmen so his demise was treated as a “death in the family.”

Watercolor portrait of Officer Joseph Burch Loper by Robin Richey taken from poor-quality 1920 newspaper photo (only image known to exist today). (Courtesy of Fort Worth Police Officers Association)

The railroads were the biggest employer of special officers. The Frisco, as one of the last lines to come to Fort Worth, had been a local presence ever since acquiring the old Fort Worth and Rio Grande Railway in 1919. Loper went to work for them soon after that. The job entailed a lot of long, lonely nights patrolling the rail yards. The Frisco’s freight office was located in the Texas and Pacific Reservation on Railroad Avenue (now Vickery Street). Its main yards were on Eighth Avenue just south of downtown.

 

9 Police Officer Jeff Couch (December 20, 1920)

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Police Officer Jeff Couch

(DECEMBER 20, 1920)

“He sacrificed his life to the cause of law and order.”

“Will the circle be unbroken?” is a classic gospel hymn whose sentiment also happens to describe the powerful bond existing among members of the law enforcement fraternity.1 The fraternal ties binding officers together make them like an extended family. Sometimes, those ties are ethereal; at other times there is actual blood kinship, as in the case of the Couch family. The fact that the hymn was already popular at the time our next officer was killed makes it even more appropriate to his story.

Jeff Couch in a family photo, dressed in his best for a studio portrait, date unknown. A very distinguished young man, one of the new breed of officers joining the FWPD after World War I. (Courtesy of Charles Mullins, Covington, Texas)

Jeff Couch was born Abner Jefferson Couch on February 20, 1894, the first child of Charles and Susan Couch of Fort Worth. Almost from birth, it would seem, he was destined for a career in law enforcement. His father, C. D. “Charlie” Couch was a member of the Fort Worth Police Department (1892–93) before retiring to go into the saloon business. One of Charlie’s fellow officers and a good friend away from work was Sid Waller who chose to make a career with the FWPD. Waller would become Jeff’s stepfather, the man who raised him after Charlie’s untimely death. Susan Couch, Jeff’s mother, was the daughter of a Galveston barkeep but was adopted and raised by Abner Dean, a Fort Worth barkeep, who was co-owner with Charlie Couch of the Novelty Saloon. Jeff’s first name came from his maternal grandfather, although he always preferred his middle name or the diminutive thereof. He had a sister, Sadie, born to Charlie and Susan in 1899.2

 

10 Special Officer Webster C. “Jack” Gentry (April 25, 1922)

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Special Officer Webster C. “Jack” Gentry

(APRIL 25, 1922)

“A Texan in heart as well as name”

Webster Gentry was an officer who just happened to be working in the private sector at the time of his death. He lost his life performing one of the countless duties that are all in a day’s work for the average lawman. The fact that he was only a provisional, or “special,” officer pressed into service during a natural disaster does not make him any less a policeman-hero. In death he earned the right to be placed on the honor roll of the Fort Worth Police Department’s fallen officers.

Webster C. Gentry in happier days in his doughboy’s uniform, ca. 1917–1919, probably taken while he was in training at Camp Bowie before going off to France. He came home physically and mentally much the worse for his service. (Courtesy of Richard Opseth, Gentry family descendant)

Nature killed Officer Gentry. It all started on Monday, April 24, 1922, when the skies over Fort Worth opened and a torrent of biblical proportions poured down. Nine inches of rain fell in the next twenty-four hours, causing the Trinity River to rise 36.7 feet, topping the record of the previous biggest flood—the 1908 deluge—by a foot. The Clear Fork, which looped around the downtown area from east to west before heading south, was transformed into a millrace, sweeping everything before it. The city’s levees strained to contain the “avalanche of water” pressing against them. Late Monday night, after most citizens were asleep, the floodwaters began inching up toward the top of the levees. People awoke Tuesday morning to find their electricity out and water lapping at their homes. For many, it was too late to evacuate; all they could do was climb up on their roofs and wait for rescue. Hardest hit were the city’s poor, many of whom lived down in the river bottoms, out of sight and out of mind.1

 

11 Deputy Constable Bob Poe (December 23, 1925)

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Deputy Constable Bob Poe

(DECEMBER 23, 1925)

“Square and unafraid”1

The automobile put policemen on wheels, but it also created new fields of criminal enterprise: the fast getaway, drive-by shootings, selling stolen vehicles and their parts. There was, for instance, a highly profitable black market for automotive parts. Criminals follow the money and lawmen follow the criminals. And when confronted, the new breed of criminals were just as disinclined to being arrested as their horse-stealing ancestors, a fact Constable Bob Poe discovered to his misfortune in 1925.

The only known image of Bob Poe is the poor-quality photograph that appeared in the Fort Worth Record-Telegram at the time of his death—a studio shot contributed by the family. This artistic representation is taken from that picture. (Courtesy Robert A. Smith)

Robert Franklin Poe was the Tarrant County Constable for Precinct No. 1, the same office held by some distinguished men before him. He was born in Alabama on January 9, 1883, and after marrying Lela Rigney, they moved to Fort Worth in 1906. She had been married before and brought two children into the marriage. By 1925, they had three children of their own, all boys ranging in age from eighteen to seven. He also had two brothers and two sisters who all lived within a day’s journey of Fort Worth. His father, G. A. Poe, lived with Bob and the family at 2265 Evans Avenue.2

 

12 Deputy Constable Mordecai Hurdleston (October 9, 1927)

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Deputy Constable Mordecai Hurdleston1

(OCTOBER 9, 1927)

“I’m done for.”

Occasionally a man comes along who is head and shoulders above his peers figuratively speaking. Mordecai Hurdleston was such a man. During a career that lasted only sixteen years, he dragged the Fort Worth Police Department kicking and screaming into the twentieth century. He was an innovator and reformer who accomplished most of his reforms during a brief tenure as Police and Fire Commissioner (1915–1917). He was the fifth man to occupy that office after the changeover to the commission form of government in 1907. Unlike most men who occupied the office before and after, Hurdleston was proactive in addressing new forms of criminal activity and adopting the latest in technology and methodology. He was the most progressive official to head up the Police Department in the first quarter of the twentieth century, perhaps ever, even though he lasted less than two years. The man whom friends called “Mord” or “Maud” was not highly educated, but he was a breath of fresh air at the head of the FWPD and accomplished some remarkable things before city hall politics brought him down.

 

13 Police Officer George Turner (May 20, 1928)

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Police Officer George Turner

(MAY 20, 1928)

“A Traffic Stop Gone Terribly Wrong”

George Turner hired on with the Fort Worth Police Department in October or November 1927; the record is not clear. The vagueness about the date is appropriate to any discussion of his career. His was not a passionate commitment to law enforcement; he needed a job, any job, and the FWPD was hiring. It was a decision he had reason to regret just a few months later.

George Turner in his World War I doughboy’s uniform. Ironically, he spent longer in khakis than he did in the uniform of a Fort Worth policeman. (Photo courtesy of Fort Worth Police Historical Association)

George was born March 18, 1895. His family’s roots going back two generations were German. At some point they had anglicized the name from Thurner to Turner to better fit into their adopted country. His parents, James B. and Louise Catherine Hafner Turner, were both Louisiana-born. They immigrated to Texas before George was born, settling at Murphy in Collin County, near Dallas. The Turners were conservative, patriotic, farm folks. James raised cotton while Louise tended to Küche and Kinder, especially the latter; they had nine children by the time George was fifteen.1

 

Conclusion: Better Days to Come?

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Conclusion

Better Days to Come?

“You, the community, may not always understand the job, or who the people who choose it are, but you care when we get hurt doing it.”1

—Sgt. Steven Benjamin, FWPD December 2005

By the 1920s, modern machines were becoming as much a threat to life and limb as old-fashioned bad guys. Between the time the first motorcycle cop (Henry Lewis) took to the roads in 1909 and the mid-1920s, four Fort Worth Police Department officers died in auto or motorcycle accidents. Motorcycles and cars simply added another element of danger to an already dangerous job. Regardless of the manner of death, men died, and every death left a hole in the community.2

Then there was the fate of those they left behind. The initial tragedy was compounded by that fact that there was no financial safety net for the family. Officers had no health coverage, no pensions, and no death benefits. There was no one looking out for their interests until 1898 when the Police Benevolent Society (later, Police Benevolent Association, or PBA) was formed.3 It was something less than a labor union but more than a fraternal order. Now when a policeman died, the organization swung into action. First, they drafted a press release, which typically took the form of “suitable resolutions” commending the dead officer, mourning his passing, and, if necessary, defending his good name. They also comforted the family and provided pallbearers and an honor guard for the funeral. Their involvement guaranteed a wreath on the coffin and a large turnout of fellow officers at the funeral. They always took up a collection to help ease the family’s transition to living without a breadwinner. If necessary, when an officer had no immediate family locally, they made all the funeral arrangements. In cases of serious injury, the organization helped defray medical costs. To pay for all this, they collected dues from its members and raised additional money with an annual Police Ball. Ticket sales for the ball targeted the city’s public officials and well-to-do, not the rank and file of the FWPD.

 

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