Sunday, April 26, 2009

Miss Hattie's legacy

In 1935, a middle-aged Dallas church worker read a newspaper story about a hardened criminal who'd been sentenced to die in the electric chair in a few days. His mother was visiting him for one last time at the penitentiary.

For the last few years, the papers had been filled with stories about Ray Hamilton and the murderous crimes he committed with Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, before they were gunned down by a posse. The Barrow gang had sprung him from jail in 1934, and since then he'd gone on a crime spree of his own, robbing banks and shooting it out with the law. He'd finally been captured in April of 1935, and was sentenced to die.

Raymond Hamilton

Though there was no doubt the man deserved justice, the church worker was moved to tears by his mother's grief, and the hard realities of the poverty in West Dallas that would lead a man to pursue a life of crime.

She was no stranger to disadvantaged people. She'd just returned to her family home in Dallas after working for several years at the Methodist Mission in San Antonio. There, she'd ministered to unwed mothers, alcoholics, orphaned children.

She got into her car, a Model A Ford, and drove to West Dallas, to the home of Ray Hamilton's mother, Mrs. Steve Davis, and knocked on the door.

According to a Dallas Morning News story written seven years later, Miss Hattie knocked on the door and Mrs. Davis tried to turn her away. She persisted, saying, "My heart aches for you. I want to pray for you." Mrs. Davis opened the door.

During the days that followed, Miss Hattie comforted and ministered to the grief-stricken woman. She prayed with the family during the long night of Ray Hamilton's execution, and helped arrange his funeral.

Miss Hattie stayed in West Dallas and rented a small house across the street, and began to hold church services and Sunday school classes there. She went door to door in the rough neighborhood, encouraging people to attend and send their kids. By the end of the summer, over 100 people were attending services at the Eagle Ford Mission, including Mrs. Henry Barrow, the mother of the deceased bandit Clyde Barrow. She promised to bring with her "a gang of people who never saw the inside of a church."

The mission flourished, and as Miss Hattie raised more funds, a new building was built and the Eagle Ford Mission was renamed Rankin Chapel in her honor.

Miss Hattie continued to minister to people whose lives were hard, and to those who were outcast by mainstream society. It wasn't enough for her to simply bring them to the Lord, she wanted to make sure they had something else in life besides crime. A missed opportunity that led to tragedy strengthened her efforts.

Some of the neighborhood boys promised they'd come to Sunday school if the chapel sponsored a team. Miss Hattie did her best to raise money for equipment, but was unsuccessful. The team remained nothing more than a wish. A few weeks later, she opened her morning newspaper to see that four of the boys had gotten into trouble, brawling and beating an old man to death with a beer bottle. They were charged with murder.

As she wrote in a letter to the editor: "Folks wonder why so many West Dallas boys turn out to be criminals.... they haven't a dog's chance to be anything else. We have no parks, no playgrounds, no handy schools, no lights, no water, no gas. The dogs in Dallas are housed better than our boys and girls."

Miss Hattie was my father's Aunt. His mother was her baby sister. My father's parents had divorced, and my grandmother needed help caring for him. She and her two unmarried sisters still lived in their family home on Swiss Avenue. In 1935 my father would have been eleven years old, just approaching the age when a young boy could get into trouble. Perhaps Aunt Hattie felt that he was in need of spiritual guidance, so she took him with her on her trips to West Dallas - my father used to tell stories about riding in Aunt Hattie's Model A Ford to West Dallas during the time when many police officers were afraid to go there.

Floyd Hamilton was on the loose, running from the law. Floyd was even more notorious than his brother Raymond had been. He had run with the Barrow Gang, but then broke with them, wanting to pull off bigger and grander jobs. He and his partner terrorized the South, killing police officers and robbing banks, stores, and even a Coca-Cola bottling plant near Nashville.

But Aunt Hattie had no fear of Floyd Hamilton. When she began her Sunday School services, she had borrowed his back yard to hold classes. She remained friends with Floyd Hamilton after his arrest in 1938, and corresponded with him while he was incarcerated at Alcatraz.

Photo, Texas filling station 1931, Library of Congress

In 1941, James A. Johnston, warden of Alcatraz prison came to Dallas for a law enforcement conference, and spoke about the issues of Youth and Crime. He said that most of his charges shared a common background of poverty, abuse and lack of education. "We find a record of broken homes, poverty, gangsterism in mere children. There is no escaping the fact that they suffered from lack of training for good citizenship."

According to those who knew him, Clyde Barrow's motivation for the Barrow Gang's murderous crime spree was the brutal treatment he received at the hands of the Texas juvenile justice system, and the tendency of police to blame poor kids from West Dallas for all crimes. His rationale may be self-serving - but by the late 1930's many voices were calling for reform of the Texas prison system.

In 1936, Aunt Hattie knew instinctively what criminologists and sociologists accept as truth today - that lifting young people out of poverty fights crime as effectively as armed posses and electric chairs.

In 1943, Floyd Hamilton and two other men attempted a daring escape from the high security prison. He did not succeed. Surviving the cold waters of the bay, he hid in an onshore cave before sneaking back into the prison, where he was apprehended and returned to his cell. Aunt Hattie continued to write him.

In 1951, another warden from Alcatraz, E.B. Swope, came to Dallas. The Dallas Morning News reported that he visited Aunt Hattie, crediting her with Floyd Hamilton's rehabilitation. "Your counsel and spiritual advice have changed the man immeasurably."

Floyd Hamilton was later released, and lived a quiet life until his death in 1986.

The Wesley Rankin Community Center still serves West Dallas today. The city of Dallas' Hattie Rankin Moore Park in West Dallas provides a recreation center and swimming pool for local kids.


Tristan Robin said...

wow - terrific post! fascinating stuff

shrink on the couch said...

What a colorful heritage with a time worn message of hope. Your great great (?) aunt Hattie was a social worker to the core.

Gilly said...

What a wonderful family heritage! Miss Hattie was obviously a most determined woman. We need more of her kind!

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful story. Very brave and yet heart-warming. I wish everyone has a little of miss Hattie's courage and perseverance and most of all faith.

As a child, you father must have instilled in you also virtues and beliefs - things he may also have been taught to by his Mom and his Aunt. Thanks for sharing

blognut said...

This was just awesome. I really enjoyed reading this, and I wish there were more people like Hattie in the world.

HiHo said...

very cool read, glad I was delayed for pink saturday. Heidi

tom said...

Nicely done.

Warden Johnston had been delivering the same message you reference since 1911, when he was Warden of Folsom Prison and San Quentin in California.

Floyd returned to Alcatraz in the mid 1970's with Chaplain Ray to take a look at Alcatraz after the National Park Service took over.


revisitingalcatraz at

Anonymous said...

Glad I came across this post. World needs more Hatties. It is the determined fearless leaders like Hattie who change the world. It also points the importance of each one of us to see something is done to alleviate the suffering of young men and women for no fault of theirs and have no vision of the possible.

braswell said...

I new Floyd after he became a real person not a gangster he showed his wife and grandson and mother in law great love and respect he cooked and helped mildred take care of her family i do remember Xmas at there house was wonderful we always went by to see them i have sweet memories of those people

Cori Lynn Berg said...

Good morning! I'm an artist commissioned to do a gigantic street puppet sculpture of Miss Hattie for the Parade of Giants Celebration for the opening of a new bridge in West Dallas this March. I'd love, love, love to be able to talk to you if at all possible to help her come to life as much as possible for me. Please email me your contact info at if you're willing. Thanks so much! This story really drew me in. I chose her out of a number of others because of her belief in forgiveness and hope. Blessings, Cori Berg

c said...

I wish we could get that pool up and running again.

@Cori loved the giant Hattie Rankin. Saw a great picture of her next to a giant Clyde Barrow in the community paper.

Sam said...

Dr. W. A. Criswell loved Hattie Rankin Moore and talked about her in over a dozen sermons from the pulpit of First Baptist Church Dallas. He several times recounted the prison-cell conversion of Floyd Hamilton, as here:

Texas History Notebook said...

I hope you are still able to enjoy comments for this nice story from 2009. I happened on it while researching the life of Floyd Hamilton. Hattie had long since passed away by the time I first met Dr. Criswell, but I am sure that I heard him speak of her.