Texana Book Reviews -- June 1996
(by Mike Cox)

The Indians of Texas
(June 28, 1996)

Pick up any book dealing with Texas Indians, turn to the bibliography and scan down the listing of sources to authors whose last names begin with "N." Chances are strong that one or more of those entries will be for a book by Newcomb, Dr. W.W. Jr.

The title most likely to be cited is "The Indians of Texas From Prehistoric to Modern Times." First published by the University of Texas Press in 1961, the 436-page book remains in print at $14.95 in paper, $29.95 in hardback. More than 80,000 copies of this book have been sold and it still is considered the definitive source of information on the Indian cultures which inhabited Texas before those of European descent took over.

"The book needs to be updated," Newcomb said, "but UT Press has never seemed too interested in doing it. And I'm more interested in writing another book."

In fact, now in his mid-70s, the retired UT professor is at work on something new, a book that won't need a bibliography: a novel. Newcomb's first venture into fiction deals with a little known aspect of Texas Indian history, the important role of Delaware Indians as scouts.

A bit of Newcomb's history: He grew up in Michigan, where as a youngster his father introduced him to Henry Ford. "Nice looking young man," Newcomb recalls Ford's comment.

Newcomb got his three degrees from the University of Michigan. He came to UT in 1947 and stayed on the faculty for 40 years.

For 20 of those years, from 1957 to 1977, Newcomb was director of the Texas Memorial Museum. In addition to his own writing, he oversaw a vigorous museum publishing program and produced -- by mimeograph machine -- a funny and informative monthly newsletter, "The Mustang." Unfortunately, "The Mustang" trailed off into the sunset when Newcomb stepped down as museum director.

Newcomb did almost all the writing for the free monthly publication, though he occasionally ran items under the by-line of "J. Frank Adobe," a gentle spoof of J. Frank Dobie.

"We weren't close friends, but he came by the museum once in a while and I sat in his back yard with him a couple of times, Newcomb said. "Occasionally I went to Barton Springs with Dobie, (Dr. Walter Prescott) Webb and (Roy) Bedichek. They used to tell some great jokes, none of which are repeatable in polite company."

Of course, they discussed philosophy and other lofty things, too, he said.

The year Newcomb came to UT was the year the regents saw to it that Dobie was fired from the faculty in a political dispute involving then President Homer Rainey. Despite that turmoil, Newcomb recalls the late 1940s as a great time to be a teacher.

"There were a lot of GIs back from the war," he said. "They were motivated. They wanted to learn. By the time I retired, the main thing that seemed to motivate the students was to get a good grade."

As a writer, Newcomb does not seem to have had a problem getting motivated. In addition to his "Indians of Texans," Newcomb is the author of "The Rock Art of Texas Indians" (UT Press, 1967) and, with Mary S. Carnahan, "German Artist on the Texas Frontier: Friedrich Richard Petri" (UT Press, 1978.) He also has written numerous journal articles and reviews.

"The Rock Art of Texas Indians," with artwork by Forrest Kirkland, has been out of print for years and is a highly sought book, expensive when found. But UT Press is planning to reprint the book, Newcomb said. (It will be out this fall, available for $70 in hardback, $34.95 in paper).

Some of the material in "The Indians of Texas" may be dated, but it's easy to see why the book has stayed in print for 35 years. Newcomb's summary chapter contains some passages which, like aboriginal flint tools, have not succumbed to time. They deal with the conflict of cultures, a process which continues around the world:

"The actions of cultural bodies, whether savage tribes or literate, civilized states, should not, cannot, be judged in terms of individual morality. Cultures are not and never have been 'moral' in their dealings and relations with one another. Their treatment of one another is and has been ultimately determined by their relative strengths and the nature of their cultures, not by whatever their internal ethical or moral institutions happen to be."

Bonnie and Clyde
(June 21, 1996)

About 8 p.m. on May 22, 1934, former Texas Ranger Capt. Frank Hamer called prison director Lee Simmons in Huntsville from Arcadia, La.

"The old hen is about ready to hatch," Hamer told Simmons when he came on the line. "I think the chickens will come off tomorrow."

Simmons acknowledged the information and hung up, according to the later-day memoir of a Dallas County sheriff's deputy, Ted Hinton.

The "old hen" was Hamer's cagey description of his efforts on behalf of Simmons and the State of Texas to catch up with the "chickens," Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. They were wanted for the murder of two Highway Patrol motorcycle officers near Grapevine and for other crimes.

The next day, the Texas outlaws were dead in their gray Ford, riddled with bullets from the rifles and shotguns of Hamer and five other law enforcement officers.

Whether Bonnie and Clyde were legally slain by officers in fear of their lives or whether they were simply executed continues to be debated. For the record, Hamer said the Texas couple were loudly afforded the offer to surrender before the lead started flying. Others maintain that it was a foregone conclusion that Bonnie and Clyde would never stand trial if Hamer caught up with them.

Three recently-published books deal with the story of Bonnie and Clyde. Each has a different take on some aspects of the storied case. All are very readable efforts and well-researched, but none amounts to a definitive look at the Bonnie and Clyde saga. In all fairness, however, a definitive book may not be possible in this case. Some of the key participants never talked in detail about what happened and law enforcement officers of the era were not overly burdened with report writing.

What the authors of these three books -- and other authors before them -- were left with were contemporary newspaper accounts, several published memoirs, a smattering of correspondence and interviews with people who had a perspective on the story. No blue ribbon commission was appointed after the demise of Bonnie and Clyde to determine the full facts of the case. Extralegal or not, the two outlaws had been blasted into eternity and legend. Other Texas criminals have done more evil things than Bonnie and Clyde, but thanks to Hollywood and the enduring fascination the public seems to have with them, this young couple killed more than 60 years ago should be assured the distinction of being Texas' best known 20th Century outlaws.

The more ambitious of the three books, and the most interesting, is John Neal Phillips' Running with Bonnie and Clyde: The Ten Fast Years of Ralph Fults. Published by the University of Oklahoma Press, the 395-page book sells for $29.95.

Few today have heard of Fults, but he was a contemporary of Barrow, serving time with him as the Eastham Prison Farm, a facility known to cons back then as Bloody Ham. Fults, unlike Barrow and his other associates, who came to be called the Lake Dallas Gang, lived until 1993. Phillips was able to interview him in depth for this book, which plows the most new ground of the three new Bonnie and Clyde books.

Also from an academic press (Southern Illinois University) is The Lives and Times of Bonnie and Clyde by E.R. Milner. The 187-page book sells for $24.95.

Surprisingly, coming from a university press, the book does not have a bibliography, but it is footnoted. These notes reflect that the author relied to a large extent on contemporary newspaper accounts, magazine articles and books, but they also show several personal interviews he conducted with people having some knowledge of the story.

The final member of this trilogy of new Bonnie and Clyde books is Sid Underwood's Depression Desperado: The Chronicle of Raymond Hamilton. Published by Eakin Press, the 232-page book is available at $16.95 in softcover.

Hamilton was an Oklahoma-born, Dallas-raised thug who ran for a time with Barrow. After Barrow's death, Hamilton had the distinction of being one of the only three people who ever escaped from Death Row in Huntsville and became the most sought-after man in the country. But he was recaptured, went back to Death Row and died in the electric chair in 1935.

The author does a good job telling Hamilton's story, benefiting from 25 interviews in addition to correspondence and secondary sources.

Underwood began his preface with a phrase he said he heard often from older relatives as he was growing up: "They's a lotta meanness back in them days." His book on Hamilton, and the other two books on Bonnie and Clyde and Ralph Fults show those old timers knew what they were talking about.

Early Movie-Making in San Antonio
(June 14, 1996)

Tourists coming to San Antonio for the first time may see the Alamo, the other old Spanish missions, Fort Sam Houston's quadrangle and the Buckhorn Saloon and think every venerable landmark in this historic city has been preserved for posterity.

But they would be wrong.

Off South Prensa Street on the edge of the city is a piece of private property where visitors are not welcome. If fact, a caretaker with dogs is on the premises not to answer questions in a friendly way, but to keep people off the property.

What the caretaker is guarding are the ruins of the old Hot Wells Hotel, a place that earlier in this century was one of the Alamo City's prime resort spots.

People seeking restored health or just an enjoyable soak came from across the country to the Hot Well bathhouse and hotel. Among the visitors were Teddy Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Rudolph Valentino, Tom Mix, Cecil B. De Mille and many others.

But today, as San Antonio and the rest of the world races toward the 21st Century, nothing is left of Hot Wells but the sulphurous water and burned ruins.

With the skill of the screenwriter he is, Frank Thompson sets the scene at Hot Wells at the beginning of his interesting and well-written new book, The Star Film Ranch: Texas' First Picture Show. Published by the Republic of Texas Press, the 243-page softcover sells for $12.95.

Thompson's book is a study of the first movie company to do any substantial business in Texas, Star Film Company. Owned by Gaston Melies, the company came to San Antonio in January 1910 from New York.

The movie industry was in its infancy, but the American appetite for film already was hearty. Feature films were about 15 minutes long -- or 1,000 feet of film -- and long runs in theaters were unheard of. As Thompson explains in his book, people did not go to see a particular film, they "went to the movies." They expected to see a mixed bag of entertainment, drama, comedy, news, travel, and come back soon for something new.

This demand necessitated year-round shooting, but since almost all shots had to be made outside during these early years, movie companies based in the Northeast had to find places where the weather was better for winter filming. Most companies went to California, and a couple of companies filmed in Colorado and Utah. But Melies chose San Antonio, where he set up shop adjacent to the Hot Wells Hotel.

From early 1910 to April 11, he did some 80 movies -- mostly Westerns -- in San Antonio, including a minor classic, "The Immortal Alamo." Unfortunately, because of the nitrate used in early film, only a few have survived. Aside from these scratchy one-reelers, all we have are a collection of movie still shots, movie summaries from trade publications, and a smattering of later-day recollections from earlier interviews of some of the people who were there.

The people connected to Texas' first brush with the film industry are all gone, too. Thompson found no survivors of this era, none connected with the film industry and none in San Antonio, during his research for this book.

Despite a paucity of source material, Thompson has done a fine job in reconstructing the story of Star Film Ranch. Four full chapters are devoted to this early segment of Texas' cultural history, followed by a synopsis of each of the movies filmed in San Antonio.

Given the cultural and historical importance of old movies, as Thompson wrote, it is "a melancholy task, trying to recapture a lost era" when so little evidence of it has survived. But out of this melancholy has come some good. With this book, Thompson presents what amounts to a well-composed still shot of a little known aspect of Texas' cultural history.

Book Reviews from Previous Month: (May 1996)

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