the early 1970s, Austin
still had a few police officers who had been on the job since the
days of Depression-era outlaws Bonnie
Parker and Clyde Barrow.
On a slow news day, one of those longtime cops told me I ought to
write about Charlie Hamby. That man, he said, just might have been
the meanest fellow who ever walked Congress Avenue, and that list
would include gambler, gunman and gadabout Ben Thompson -- bad man
turned Austin city marshal in the early 1880s.
Also in the '70s, about the time East Sixth began its transformation
from a rough and tumble downtown street to a trendy thoroughfare
lined with trendy bars and good eating places, another person told
me about Hamby. A beer joint proprietor, his family had come to
the U.S. from Lebanon and through hard work and clever merchandising
had found prosperity in the classic rags-to-riches way. He'd been
on Sixth Street since starting out as a shoeshine boy at 12.
Godfather like, while merely a friendly local businessman who owned
property and paid taxes, he always knew who to see if you needed
something. Maybe information concerning a recent crime, or where
to score a little weed or a grainy 8 mm girlie movie for a bachelor
party. He even knew a guy who provided low-cost "guacamole" for
your Tex-Mex restaurant - a sans avocado mixture of mashed canned
green peas and bottled salsa.
Appreciating the value of a free, fair and impartial press, this
bar owner didn't mind standing a young reporter a longneck or two
during an interview. Of course, back then beer only cost 35 cents
"He killed a man one time right outside this place," the "Godfather"
said of Hamby.
He said the soon-to-be-dead man's only offense had been the color
of his skin. And that would not be the only killing Hamby had a
father, William T. Hamby, had fought in the Civil War and never
got over it. Son Charles, born in 1872, inherited his father's political
and social views. Charlie's oldest brother even had a legal name
reflective of his father's sentiments, General Stonewall Jackson
The elder Hamby died when Charlie was 11, leaving his widow to raise
him and his six siblings. By the 1890s, Charlie's brother General
Hamby operated several businesses on Sixth Street, including the
Big Four Saloon, and Charlie had become a denizen of the street.
But unlike his brother, Charlie preferred law enforcement to business.
By the early 1900s, he had gained election as Precinct 1 constable.
When Hamby patrolled his part of Austin,
no person of color could get any closer to Congress Avenue than
Red River Street.
Nor was a white man who supported equal rights safe around Hamby.
In 1919, when NAACP national secretary John R. Shillady came to
Austin to meet with state
officials then vigorously trying to shut the civil rights organization
down in Texas, Hamby and two other men assaulted him outside the
Driskill Hotel at Sixth and Brazos streets.
"The assault left the once robust, cheery Irishman infirm and traumatized,"
an online NAACP history notes. "Shillady resigned in 1920 and died
If Hamby was even charged with the crime, he went unconvicted.
In the spring of 1922, Hamby ran unsuccessfully for sheriff against
incumbent W.D. Miller, who according to an Associated Press article,
had "admitted to the grand jury...that he was a member of the Ku
Klux Klan." During the campaign, Hamby maintained that he opposed
the KKK, "which, he charged, seeks to take the law into its own
hands." Whether he winked when he said that was not reported.
Another Austinite who knew Charlie Hamby was Pee Wee Franks, a Louisiana-born
wrecking contractor who in the days before historical preservation
tore down much of old Austin to make way for new buildings. He said
he met Hamby in the 1930s at the old Market Café at Sixth and East
"He was a mean SOB," Franks said. "He was tougher than Frank Hamer."
(Hamer was the former Texas Ranger captain who presided over the
bloody demise of Bonnie
and Clyde.) That said, Hamer once disarmed Hamby at the Capitol.
Why, Franks didn't recall. What he did remember was that like Hamer,
Hamby never sat with his back to a window or door. "I've got too
many damned en - E - mies," he'd say.
A sharp dresser, Hamby wore silver-toed boots. When Franks asked
why he favored such foot wear, he replied that they were "made to
kick [human posteriors.]"
While Hamby clearly had no concept of civil rights when it came
to people of color, he was pro-active in performing his law enforcement
duties. One time, Franks said, Hamby walked into a bar on Sixth
Street and noticed that a man eating oysters had stuck a rather
dangerous looking knife into the bar near his plate. He apparently
was using the long bladed weapon as an eating utensil.
"Hamby pulled his pistol, stuck the barrel down into an oyster and
said, 'Eat it off this.'"
Hamby's ability to keep the peace on Sixth Street was made easier
by public knowledge of his skill with the wheel-gun he carried.
Unconcerned with the city ordinance against discharging a firearm
in the city limits, he would get down in Waller Creek near Sixth
and Red River and take bets of any amount on his ability to place
a .45 caliber slug through a silver dollar or into an egg. Franks
said he rarely missed.
Age, in time, robbed the old gun-toter of his ability to shoot and
perhaps mellowed his disposition. He died in 1960 and is buried
in Austin Memorial Garden. For someone as well known as he was,
no one ever placed a marker on his grave.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" September
1, 2016 column