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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

J. Frank Norfleet

by Clay Coppedge

Anyone who has ever been ripped off can admire a diminutive and otherwise unassuming Texan named J. Frank Norfleet, who was born during the last year of the Civil War and died four years after the JFK assassination.

If Norfleet hadn't been gullible and trusting enough to get himself conned out of his considerable life savings in 1919 we probably wouldn't know much about him today. But he did get conned by some of the most cunning bunco men of the day, and his reaction to that is why his story survives and resonates almost a century later.

J. Frank Norfleet was typical of many of the early day cattle ranchers in Texas in that he had an atypical work ethic and determination, even for those laborious times. He was born in Lampasas County in 1865 while his father was fighting Indians on the frontier with the Texas Rangers. When he was 14 he joined one of the last buffalo hunts on the Llano Estacado and once drove 5,000 cattle from Central Texas to the High Plains around Muleshoe. Not long after that he became foreman of the fabled Spade Ranch.

In 1894 he married Mattie Eliza Higgins and stayed with the Spade Ranch for 10 more years until he saved enough money to buy his own land, eventually owning a 2,000-acre ranch in Hale County. He went to Dallas in 1919, when he was 54 years old, in hopes of selling one of his farms in order to buy a bigger one. That's where he ran into Big Joe Furrey, certainly one of the most creative con men to ever spot an unwitting dupe.

The whole charade that Furrey and four cohorts hoisted upon Norfleet is so complex and intricate that just half of it wouldn't fit in this space. You have to admire their creativity, if not their morals.

In broad outline, it happened sort of like this. In Dallas, Norfleet ran into a man named Reno Hamilton, who posed as a mule buyer - just the kind of man Norfleet had known and worked with all his life, sealing deals with a handshake and a promise. Hamilton introduced him to a W.B. Spencer, who expressed great interest in buying Norfleet's farm. That's about the time that Norfleet just happened to find a "lost" wallet stuffed with cash and belonging to a man named J.B. Stetson.

In reality, Stetson was actually Furrey. He tried to give Norfleet $100 as a reward for returning his wallet but, of course, Norfleet wouldn't hear of it. So Stetson, who said he was a stockbroker, offered to invest the $100 in stocks under Norfleet's name. Norfleet said that would be fine by him. That $100 turned into $800 after a single day and then multiplied itself to $28,000, a truly staggering sum of money in 1919.

Ah, but there was a catch. A man named E.J. Ward showed up and introduced himself to Norfleet as the director of the stock exchange. Ward told Norfleet that because he wasn't registered with the exchange, he would have to keep the $28,000 until Norfleet could establish the proper credit, which turned out to be $45,000 (about $500,000 in today's money) or, to put it another way, nearly every penny that Norfleet had managed to save in his 54 years on earth.

We know how the story ends, or we think we do. The scam played out in nine parts, culminating with Furrey and his cohorts skipping town with all of Norfleet's money. That's usually the end of such stories because the majority of people swindled in such a manner usually do everything they can to make sure no one ever finds out about it. They are ashamed, embarrassed.

Not Norfleet. He was outraged. He vowed to seek and destroy the lowdown varmints - Texas style. Cowboy justice. His wife encouraged him to go after the crooks, but she asked that he bring them in alive. She told him, "Any man can kill, but it is the part of a brave man to capture the criminals and let the court avenge his wrongs."

So Norfleet set out to find the men who scammed him out of his money. He spent all the money he had left and borrowed some more, traveling from California to Florida (twice) and once taking a hydroplane to Cuba. He went from Mexico to Montreal. One by one, he found the swindlers and brought them back alive to stand trial. They were all convicted.

As for Norfleet, he became a folk hero. He was asked for help tracking down other bunco men and claimed in a book he wrote to have brought more than 100 confidence men and other unsavory types to justice. Since he never got paid for bringing Furrey and the others to trial, he eventually had to sell his ranch and settle on a small farm near Hale Center, where he lived out the rest of his life. He died in 1967 at the age of 102.

Norfleet's story is told in two books. The first is the one he wrote. The second is The Mark Inside by Amy Reading, published in 2012. The stories are not exactly the same, but one fact remains undisputed: No one ever messed with Norfleet again.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
October 2 , 2015 column

Related Article:
Norfleet, Texas - Hale County ghost town. Named after J. Frank Norfleet

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