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  • Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

    Bullet Riddled Buddies

    by Clay Coppedge

    Most people who met Charles Frazier met him either in prison or in the prison hospital. Frazier, one of a multitude of 1930s-era gangsters, was frequently in prison and he frequently showed up at the hospital complaining of gunshot wounds. He wasn’t faking it.

    Whitey Walker met Frazier in the prison hospital at Huntsville. The two men soon realized they had a lot in common, including gunshot wounds. Frazier had most recently been shot while trying to escape the Huntsville prison. The wound was believed to be fatal but Frazier pulled off a miraculous recovery. Walker had been wounded as part of the series of unfortunate events that led to his incarceration.

    At the time they met Frazier was already sort of a legend of the penal system. His career at that point spanned 16 years and included four different names and nine (!) prison escapes from three different prisons. In 1933 he was one of a dozen prisoners who broke out of Angola prison in Louisiana and was an important contributor to making that one of the bloodiest escapes in the state’s history. The law caught up with him in Texas but he avoided extradition to Louisiana by agreeing to a life sentence for a string of robberies in Houston County. Life sentences didn’t mean much to Frazier because he never planned to be in prison for very long.

    Whitey Walker was born in Rogers in 1897 and left home at 18 to become a criminal. He was either very good at it – he committed a lot of crimes – or he was not very good at it at all because he was also arrested a lot, too. He kept getting paroled or, in one case, pardoned by Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, joining hundreds of others with that distinction.

    At an Oklahoma prison Walker and some of his buddies got permission to go fishing but they never came back. They became known as the “Fishing Hole Gang.” Back in the free world, Whitey robbed a bank, got arrested and, not surprisingly, made bail, as might be expected from a bank robber. In another expected move, he left town.

    After a string of bank robberies in Central Texas, Walker and his cohorts, Blackie Thompson and Roy Johnson, left the state with their loot. They headed to Florida where things unraveled quickly and completely. Some stolen money was traced back to Thompson, and Walker took a shotgun blast to the shoulder during an ill-fated bank robbery in Tallahassee.

    Back in Texas, Walker and Roy Johnson were given life sentences and sent to the Huntsville state prison along with Thompson, who was sentenced to die in the electric chair known affectionately as “Old Sparky.” Whitey Walker was recovering from the shotgun blast when he met Charles Frazier in the hospital at Huntsville prison and mentioned how much he would like to see his buddy Thompson escape his death sentence.

    Frazier said he could make that happen.

    The escape from the infamous “Death House” at Huntsville was planned for the ninth inning of a baseball game between the Humble Oilers and the Prison Tigers. Frazier managed to get his hands on some guns, which he used to force a guard to unlock Thompson’s cell and then let condemned man out while the guard took his place inside.

    Frazier, Thompson and two other men joined Walker, Roy Johnson and Hub Stanley in a mad dash for freedom after first overpowering another guard and taking him prisoner. They used a pair of bolt cutters, supplied by an accomplice, to grab an extension ladder. They used the guard they had overpowered as a hostage, threatening to kill him if another guard interfered as they extended the ladder and began to climb the wall.

    Other guards at other lookout towers spotted the escape attempt and opened fire. The first bullet hit Charles Frazier as he tried to get over the wall. He fell to the ground with a thud that sounded final but he got up and tried to scale the wall again. Again, he took a bullet and hit the ground, this time dragging Roy Johnson with him.

    Halfway up the ladder, Whitey Walker called out, “God, it looks like we are gone!” A moment later he took a bullet to the lungs and he was sure enough gone. Three men, including Thompson, escaped but were later captured. Walker was buried in Rogers. Charles Frazier was carted back to the hospital, complaining of gunshot wounds.

    Frazier was put in solitary confinement, his condition deteriorating to the point that he became the poster boy for prison reform. Denied baths, haircuts and human contact and fed only bread and water, he was described as looking and talking “like a fugitive from the grave.” Other men, many much less incorrigible than Frazier, were in similar condition.

    Frazier was sent to Louisiana to serve a life sentence for his role in the Angola escape. In 1936, he tried to escape again. This time he was shot either nine times or six times – accounts vary – but he survived again.

    Theories abound as to what became of Charlie Frazier. One account claims he spent seven years at Angola before passing away in his windowless prison cell. Another puts his death years later, in 1959. In his book “Running with Bonnie and Clyde,” author John Neal Phillips wrote, “Years later Frazier was pardoned. By then he had converted to Christianity. He spent the rest of his life preaching.”

    But Cathy Fontenot with the Louisiana State Prison Museum at Angola said their records show that Frazier died in 1957, still an Angola inmate. He was a prison trusty at the time of his death. The legendary escape artist pulled his final vanishing act not inside a prison but at Charity Hospital – a site where, over the years, Angola inmates sent for treatment had staged dozens of escape attempts.

    © Clay Coppedge
    February 1, 2013 Column
    More "Letters from Central Texas"
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