Thursday, November 16, 2017

Bootleggers & Gangsters: A Day in the Life of Robert E. Howard By Todd B. Vick

Prior to Robert E. Howard owning an automobile it was his custom when no ride was available, and he wanted to go somewhere, to simply start walking down the road until he could hitch a ride with a willing passerby. This practice is confirmed by his father, Dr. I.M. Howard, in a June 21, 1944 letter to E. Hoffman Price. Dr. Howard told Price, “[I] have known him to start hitchhiking to Ft. Worth or Brownwood to see a fight before he owned a car of his own. And when he was just [a] slender youth.”[1] Going to fights was not the only reason Robert would take off down the road attempting to hitch a ride to his destination. He also hitched when he wanted to go see friends, movies, and on occasions when he just wanted to explore.

East Pecan Street
Coleman, Texas; circa late 1920s
In a September 5, 1928 letter to Harold Preece, Robert describes how he and Tevis Clyde Smith “walked out on the highway, with no program in view, no idea or especial wish.”[2] On this occasion, Smith and Howard simply wanted to see where the road took them. They were out exploring, and agreed to accept a ride from the first car that stopped, no matter who it was. They were eventually picked up by a friend, “a most interesting man, who was in his younger days a rover and a wanderer, a detective, a tramp, and other things better left unmentioned.”[3] This friend was driving around with a young school teacher (neither of whom are named in the letter). The friend and teacher were basically doing the same thing as Smith and Howard: they wanted to see where the road took them. So, Smith and Howard jumped into the car and the four of them drove around the countryside for a spell until they arrived at Coleman, Texas. Coleman is a “town some thirty miles west of Cross Plains.” They “spent some time at a bootleg joint just outside the outskirts of town, both going there and returning thence.”[4]

While at this bootleg joint, Howard ran into an old-timer, who was around 80 years old, whom Howard had known for some time. Howard bought the old-timer a beer and listened to his stories while everyone else did their own thing. The place was probably hopping with a few locals who knew the joint existed. When I initially read Howard’s account it struck me as odd. First, in Central and West Texas in the middle of Prohibition, bootlegging operations were simple and small, located in areas in the sticks away from any town and difficult to reach. Second, these operations typically contained only a small distillery run by one or two people. And they were intentionally located in hard to reach places to keep others away, such as a small hole in the sides of hills, or the walls of creek and/or river beds. This was also to keep the outfit hidden from the Texas Rangers who were busy shutting these small operations down. Moreover, the alcohol that was made at these small operations were bottled on site and distributed away from the operation itself. So, for Howard and his friends to be at a bootleg joint that was large enough to serve people on site was extremely rare. It also probably meant the local police were aware of the place and were paid in cash and alcohol to look the other way. I found this interesting enough to include it in a research road trip I was doing in and around Coleman, Texas. What I managed to dig up is, to say the least, quite intriguing.

Bootleggers in the early 1930s
Robert E. Howard did not give the exact date for this road trip to Coleman. Even so, it had to be sometime prior to September 5, of 1928 (the date of his letter to Harold Preece). My best guess is that it probably happened in the middle of August 1928, just a few weeks prior to the date on the letter. This also meant the event was still fresh on Howard’s mind. I had two questions on my mind as I was researching the facts surrounding this bootlegging joint: “who owned the place?” and “how did they—Howard and his companions—know about it?”

Just a few months before Howard and his companions arrived at this bootleg joint, some interesting things occurred in Coleman, Texas. However, to understand these ‘interesting things,’ we must go further back in time. I did just that, and this is what I discovered.

In 1904, Lera Cleo Brooks (who eventually went by the name Kathryn[5]) was born in Saltillo, Mississippi. By the age of 15 she married a laborer named Lonnie Frye. While the marriage did not last, they nonetheless had a daughter named Pauline. The couple divorced, and it was around this time Lera Cleo Brooks began calling herself Kathryn. She thought the name sounded glamorous, though it was probably for different reasons pertaining to crime.[6] Kathryn then briefly married a man named Allie Brewer, ending in another divorce. “Around this time Kathryn's mother, Ora Coleman Brooks, also divorced, married Robert. G. Shannon.  Nicknamed "Boss" Shannon. He was a political power in the Democratic Party in Wise County, Texas.”[7] Apparently Ora Coleman Brooks (Kathryn’s mother) and Robert G. “Boss” Shannon used Shannon’s political clout and took up bootlegging to earn extra cash. This was around Paradise, Texas where the couple also owned a ranch “which they rented out to criminals on the run for $50 a night.”[8] Divorced from her second husband, Kathryn helped her mother and step-father in their bootlegging operations. By this time Prohibition was in full swing and “Boss” Shannon’s bootlegging business was thriving. Sometime in 1927, Kathryn met a fellow bootlegger named Charles G. Thorne. Thorne owned a small restaurant in downtown Coleman, Texas called the American Café, and a ranch just outside the city limits of Coleman where he had a small bootlegging operation or “joint.” He also owned a home in Coleman and in Fort Worth, Texas.

Kathryn (Thorne) Kelly
From all accounts I’ve managed to dig up, Charlie and Kathryn had a tumultuous relationship. Charlie Thorne’s history is almost nonexistent, on paper anyway. He was born in 1900 to a poor family in Coolidge, Texas (in Limestone County). He was also uneducated and therefore illiterate. It is not known where Charlie and Kathryn met, and it is unlikely they were married in Coleman, Texas.[9] The marriage only lasted a year, from sometime in 1927 until May of 1928.

In an attempt to collect as much information as I could about Charles and Kathryn Thorne, I traveled to the Coleman County Courthouse, in Coleman, Texas on October 26, 2016.[10] It just so happened that the 2016 presidential primaries were in full swing, so voting booths were set up at the courthouse, and a table was being operated by several locals to help voters. As I searched through files in the County Clerk’s office, I struck up a conversation with the Coleman County Clerk. She took an interest in my research and suggested places to look in their records. She also mentioned that one of the town historians was helping operate the table where the voting was taking place just outside her office, and recommended I go speak with this person. After digging up all the information I could find, I went and spoke with an 89-year-old woman about Charles Thorne. She knew right away about the bootlegging joint that was outside of town on a man’s property, she thought she remembered her elders calling it a ranch. She explained that the place had a strong but well-guarded reputation in the area, she just could not recall the name of the man who owned the land and ranch. When I mentioned Charlie Thorne’s name she said she thought that was correct. All she could remember was that the man who owned the place supposedly killed himself. She then told me about another local historian, Ralph Terry, who she thought would know more about Charlie Thorne than she did.

1920s Street/Building schematic of
Pecan/Commerce in Coleman, TX
At the courthouse, I managed to get several land deeds for Charles and Kathryn Thorne. I also obtained Charles Thorne’s death certificate and a schematic of the American Café and the surrounding shops on South Commercial Avenue. Moreover, one of the land deeds I obtained confirmed that Charles Thorne owned 15.54 acres of land just outside of town and a home in the town limits of Coleman. It was looking more promising that this Charles Thorne was, in fact, the owner of the bootlegging joint where Howard and his friends visited. I left the courthouse with all my documents and with Ralph Terry’s contact information.

It wasn’t too long before I called Ralph Terry and, sure enough, he knew about Charles Thorne. In fact, he established the page for Charles G. Thorne at the Find A Grave website. He also had several newspaper clippings about Thorne and confirmed that he was a bootlegger. So, one of my questions got answered: who owned the land? Charlie Thorne owned the land and according to the recorded land deed, it was located Northwest of what was then the town limits of Coleman, Texas. Today, the land is within the city limits because Coleman has grown since the 1920s. The American Café was located just south of the courthouse at 200/202 South Commercial Avenue. Back then the building was a single large unit.

1929 Building Schematic of the American Cafe
South Commercial, Coleman Texas.

As my research unfolded, another item of importance popped up. Charles G. Thorne had supposedly died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his temple on Sunday, April 30, 1928, only four months prior to Howard and his crew showing up to Thorne’s bootlegging joint. I say “supposedly” since there is more to this situation than what is recorded on Thorne’s death certificate. Based on the 89-year-old town historian at the voting table just outside the County Clerk’s office, this confirms Charlie Thorne was the man she had in mind but could not remember his name. Ralph Terry told me, when he gave me several pieces of information about Thorne, that he allegedly died of suicide, but that was probably an inaccurate report. Terry mentioned that it had been suggested by Thorne's friends and family members that Kathryn, Charlie’s wife, probably killed him. 


Thorne's new headstone (as of 2016). No one knows who
or exactly when it was placed

It is at this point in the history of Charlie and Kathryn Thorne where things get very interesting. The death certificate for Charles G. Thorne indicates the cause of death was a gunshot wound, self-inflicted. The incident took place at the Thorne’s home on South Frio Street. A hand-written suicide note was found on or near him. These are the “facts” recorded for Charles G. Thorne’s death. However, family and friends who knew the couple testified that Charlie Thorne did not know how to read or write, so how could he have “written” a suicide note? Moreover, the occupation listed for Thorne was “stockman,” which seems odd since he at least owned the America Café in Coleman. In an historical account written by Charlie Royall, a relative in Kathryn’s family, based on newspaper articles, family stories, and researched books about Kathryn (who will later become a famous outlaw married to a well-known gangster), Royall cites crime historian Rick Mattix: “While Kathryn was away visiting relatives once, she got word that Charlie was cheating on her. On the way back home she stopped to get gas and told the station attendant, ‘I'm bound for Coleman, Texas, to kill that God-damned Charlie Thorne.’ The next day Thorne was found shot to death.”[11] Today, this account is circulated widely in the research about Kathryn and her fourth infamous husband. It is also located in the FBI archives. Over the decades, family and friends have testified to the idea that Kathryn killed Charlie, and his death was wrongly documented as a suicide.

Shortly after Charlie Thorne’s death, Kathryn put her husband in an unmarked grave in the Coleman City Cemetery and began selling off their property, businesses, and land. This took her a little over a year to accomplish. When Howard and his companions arrived at Thorne’s bootlegging joint just outside Coleman, Kathryn was actively working the joint and trying to sell it. This means it is highly likely that Howard and Smith crossed paths with Kathryn Thorne. By early 1929, Kathryn managed to sell the American Café on South Commercial Street to C.M. Henderson and J.T. Lane of Coleman. It is unclear when she sold the 15.54 acres along with the ranch and bootlegging joint. Piecing together the evidence I collected, she probably managed to sell it toward the end of 1928, possibly to Clay Huffman with a down payment of $6500.00 following four payments of $250 each.[12] By mid to late 1929, Kathryn lived in Fort Worth, where she and Charlie Thorne owned a house, and she was working as a manicurist. A few months later, she got involved with another bootlegger in Oklahoma, through whom she met and married her fourth husband, who was none other than George Kelly Barnes (a.k.a “Machine Gun” Kelly).

George "Machine Gun" Kelly
handcuffed & shackled, being led under heavy guard
from Shelby County Jail to the Memphis airport 
Robert E. Howard would write extensively to H.P. Lovecraft about George “Machine Gun” Kelly and his wife (Kathryn) who masterminded one of the most notorious kidnappings in history. Kathryn plotted and planned with her husband to kidnap Oklahoma millionaire and oil tycoon, Charles F. Urschel. The kidnapping, while initially successful, eventually failed and managed to get the Kellys caught and indicted. During the manhunt for the couple, the FBI in their investigation ended up searching for the Kellys and for Charles F. Urschel in Coleman, Texas. Apparently, Kathryn, in her haste to sell off Charlie’s property, kept the house on South Frio, where she likely killed Thorne.

I pored through the FBI archives, and several things about Kathryn (Thorne) Kelly, surfaced. Shortly after she left Coleman in 1929 and lived in Fort Worth, a businessman got involved with Kathryn. This businessman told the FBI about his experiences with her. “J. Edgar Hoover quoted the businessman years later as telling a friend: ‘Remember that innocent little girl I was going to show a good time? She took me to more speakeasies, more bootleg dives, and more holes in the wall than I thought existed in all of Texas. She knows more bums than the Police Department. She can drink liquor like water. And she's got some of the toughest women friends I ever laid eyes on!’”[13] One of the speakeasies Kathryn and this businessman frequented is located just down the road from where I live, called Top O’ Hill Terrace. Today tours are currently provided of the place. Something I have added to my “things to do list."

Kathryn Thorne Kelly FBI ID Card

Little did Howard and Smith know at the time that the bootleg joint just outside of Coleman, Texas was owned by non other than the infamous Charlie Thorne and his soon to be notorious wife Kathryn (Thorne) Kelly. And while there is no hard and fast evidence that they did in fact cross paths, the circumstances certainly indicate they probably did. Of course, if they did, they would have not known her at the time, she would have been just another woman to them.

The last question I was wanting to answer—how did Howard and his companions know about the place?—Thorne's bootlegging joint was apparently popular enough for those who needed to know such things. The way Howard described the man who picked him and Clyde up, it's likely he knew about the place. In his letter to Preece, Howard did not seem concerned at all, at the height of Prohibition, about getting caught at the place, which may also indicate that Howard might have heard about the place, and knew it was not a lawful threat to hang out there.
_______________________
Notes:

[1] Howard, Isaac M., Dr. "Loose Ends 1939-1944." In The Collected Letters of Doctor Isaac M. Howard, edited by Rob Roehm, 205. Plano, Texas: Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2011.
[2] Howard, Robert. "1928." In The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, edited by Rob Roehm, 223. Vol. 1: 1923-1929. Sugar Land, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2007.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid. 224.
[5] Kathryn has also been spelled “Cathryn” on official court documents I discovered in Coleman, Texas.
[6] See details about this here: http://listsearches.rootsweb.com/th/read/ARFAULKN/2007-04/1177336375, this link was given to me by Kathryn’s son, Glen Horn. Kathryn’s identity will be revealed a little later in this article. It has also been suggested that Lera Cleo Brooks had been called “Kate” or “Kathryn” from an early age.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid. There is some debate amongst local historians about the truth of these bootlegging claims regarding “Boss” Shannon and his wife Ora. Unfortunately, bootleggers did not keep records, for the most obvious reasons of incrimination if caught at their craft.
[9] I found no record of marriage for them at the Coleman, County Courthouse, so they were likely married elsewhere.
[10] I was in the middle of researching information for my upcoming REH biography, so Coleman, Texas was just one of the places I visited in a 4-day period in and around Central Texas. I spent two days in Coleman at the Coleman County Courthouse.
[11] See the article here: http://listsearches.rootsweb.com/th/read/ARFAULKN/2007-04/1177336375
[12] This information is based on a land deed I found that has several dates on it from 1923 to 1928. It seems Charlie Thorne’s land changed hands several times between those two dates. The land deed indicated that Charlie and Kathryn were the last owners of the property before Kathryn sold the land to Huffman.
[13] Ibid.
__________________
Afterword

As is to be expected, there is so much more interesting information about George "Machine Gun" and Kathryn Kelly. I certainly recommend, especially if you have an interest, poking around the available sources (a few are listed below) and reading more about them. While doing my research, I corresponded with Kathryn Kelly's son, Glen Horn. Glen gave me contact information for a man who was writing a biography about Karthryn Kelly, this researcher's name is Richard H. Mullins and he is the author of the book, Real Oklahoma Outlaws: Major Crimes, Prison Time & Jail Breaks—The True Story of the Justice & Davis Crime Families. Mullins and I exchanged information and data we had collected and he pointed me in several directions I did not think to look. The issue with Charles G. Thorne's headstone is a mystery. The Coleman City Cemetery does not keep records of headstones, so anyone can place a stone on a grave site without their permission. This seemed odd to me, but that is what the managing groundskeeper at the cemetery told me. He told me that it was possible the state may have provided the headstone, but that seems unlikely.

FBI archives for 1920s and 30s high profile criminals, gangsters, etc. have been available to the public for some time now. Much of it is dry and boring standard desk documents, but there are a few really good criminal cards with fingerprints, and historical records that are worth the time and effort to pore over. Below are some books and internet sites of interest about George and Kathryn Kelly.

Links:

FBI Archives for George "Machine Gun" Kelly

Books:

Gangster Tour of Texas by T. Lindsay Baker (Texas A&M Press 2011)
This was one of the best books I found on George and Kathryn Kelly (Charlie Thorne and a small amount of those details are included) The only issue I had with the section on George and Kathryn was Baker's claim that Kathryn's family had moved to Coleman, Texas when she was a child. I found no proof for this whatsoever, so I am uncertain where Baker got this information (it is not cited).

J. Edgar Hoover and His G-Men by William B. Breuer (Praeger Publishing, 1995)
This book is very interesting but must be read with several grains of salt. Breuer plays loose with several facts. Breuer claims that Kathryn Killed Charlie Thorne at their ranch with her gun. All local reports say Charlie died at his house on Frio Street.

Kathryn Kelly: The Moll Behind Machine Gun Kelly (Gangland Mysteries) by Barbara Casey (Strategic Media Books February 1, 2016)
Author and researcher Richard H. Mullins told me about this book. It is apparently the reason he is writing his account. He warned me that the material in it is not too trustworthy but recommended I read it. Glen Horn (Kathryn's son) also told me Casey played loose with some of the facts and speculated too often without evidence. So, keep all that in mind if you decide to read this one.

Below are two newspaper clippings. The one on the left, provided by Ralph Terry, is the local account of Charles G. Thorne's death in 1928. The one on the right, provided to me by Richard H. Mullins, is from The Waco News Tribune in 1933, shortly after George and Kathryn were captured by the FBI. It is J.F. Thorne declaring that Kathryn killed his son, Charles G. Thorne.



The Waco News Tribune Wednesday
Oct 11 1933 pg 1 col 3


4 comments:

Rusty said...

Wonderful! I love all this stuff. Good detective work, Todd.

Bobby Dee said...

Great sleuthing, Todd!

Mark Finn said...

Todd, this is an excellent bit of sleuthing, and a great write-up of the speakeasy and the surrounding situation. The whole set of events absolutely speaks to the kind of environment that was rural Texas in these "fast and loose" times. Well done, sir.

Todd B Vick said...

Thanks, guys. This article was a blast to research.