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 Texas : Features : Books Reviews
Book Review

Over the Wall
The Men Behind the 1934 Death House Escape

Patrick M. McConal

Eakin Press, 2000

Reviewed by John Troesser
Order Here
A welcome addition to the library of crime in 1930s Texas - Over the Wall delivers much more than is promised in the title. The author pays homage to John Neal Phillips' book Running with Bonnie and Clyde - a book that focused on the members of the Parker-Barrow gang that didn't get top billing. Both Phillips and McConal have managed to flesh out these lesser-known personalities without inflation, puffery or glamorization. Just the facts - but with rich details.

The reader may wonder what all the fuss was about Bonnie and Clyde - after reading about "Whitey" Walker and his gang. Walker and Company were much more successful than the Barrow-Parker gang, for one thing. Maybe it was their early start in the Texas Panhandle in the 1920s. Less impulsive than B & C and firm believers in prior planning, Walker and Company cleared nearly as much swag per job than B & C did during their entire career. They also employed some innovative tactics for buying get-away time at bank robberies. Looping leather belts around people's necks and nailing the ends of the belts to the bank floor was one.

Through interviews with people who were actually there - McConal touches on topics as varied as the parole policy of the Fergusons, the day-to-day brutality of the prison system and the "golden-rule" policy of the criminals who refused to lock bank-robbery victims inside air-tight vaults.

For lagniappe, the reader is treated to how Palestine got its one-way streets, the art of wrapping thumbs with copper wire and a practical joke that a morning newspaper played on it's afternoon rival.

The book also mentions forgotten historical tidbits such as Confederate veteran's checks being taken in holdups, and the primitive conditions of the roads of the era. The scarcity of automobiles allowed police to block the highway in Temple for infractions in Waco.

Your reading pleasure may be enhanced by having maps of Oklahoma and Texas near at hand. Just J. B. French alone was born in McAlester, Oklahoma, moved to Atoka and then Oklahoma City and then on to Denison, Texas. He stole a car in Pecos and was caught in New Mexico. After a stint in what was then a reformatory at Gatesville he spread himself thin over Grayson, Hunt and Lamar Counties. These men might've been criminals - but they certainly knew their geography.

Born William Jennings Bryan Walker, "Whitey" partnered with Irvin "Blackie" Thompson. They should've been famous for their matching nicknames alone. Working hard at their chosen field from the mid and early 20's, the gang broke free of the depressing lifestyle of tourist courts, marathon gin rummy and take-out sandwiches. They briefly enjoyed the good life by driving to Miami (Florida).

Their "working vacation" was cut short by a foolish mistake and then punctuated by a shotgun blast.

After presenting the detailed bios of these men - and a few others in other gangs, the book covers the breakout mentioned in the title and then follows the men as they leave the stage - either suddenly or slowly.

Joe Palmer's poignant thank-you letter to his captors - requesting that they attend his execution as "friends" is published for the first time and there's 60 photographs including some rare shots taken by a prisoner and smuggled out for developing by guards. The inmate, Hugh Kennedy, missed his calling as a photographer since the well-composed snapshots could easily pass for photos taken by Federal photographers documenting the Depression.

Other photographs were provided from albums of the principal character's families.

Surprisingly, this is Pat McConal's first book.


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