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
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
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
where he lived out the rest of his life. He died in 1967 at the
age of 102.