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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Charlie Hamby

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

In 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 a bottle.

"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 hand in.

Hamby's 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 Hamby.

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 shortly thereafter."

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 Avenue.

"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

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Ben Thompson Tombstone by C. F. Eckhardt
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