In the second mass escape in two weeks from the same Texas prison farm, eight more convicts bolted from infamous Eastham on July 8, 1937.
This was how the Associated Press reported the manhunt for the first bunch on June 23: “Nineteen ‘hard-boiled’ convicts who fled to freedom from Eastham prison farm sought to keep out of the reach of an army of men and bloodhounds searching for them in the scrub oak and pines of East Texas.”
The large work detail had just arrived at the designated field the previous morning, when the single guard put down his shotgun to roll a cigarette. Two alert convicts, Hilton Bybee and James Rice, quickly overpowered him seizing the shotgun as well as his pistol, uniform and horse. They rode off on the mount followed by 17 fellow inmates on the backs of mules.
The three additional guards assigned to the detail were running 20 minutes behind schedule. By the time they finally reached the scene, the fugitives were long gone.
The escapees were no Boy Scout troop on an innocent hike. Six, Bybee included, were doing life, and the average sentence of the remaining baker’s dozen was 33 years.
Hilton Bybee had been down that same road before. In January 1934, he hitched a ride with Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker during the wild jailbreak that reunited the couple with Raymond Hamilton, their baby-face partner-in-crime with stacked sentences that added up to two and a half centuries.
Clyde threw his usual caution to the wind and let Bybee and a second uninvited passenger, Henry Methvin, come along. With the Barrow Gang, a gang in name only after the death of his brother Buck, the capture of Buck’s wife Blanche and the defection of teenager W.D. Jones, he badly needed to replenish the ranks.
Bybee hung around long enough for the travel money that his share of an Iowa bank robbery provided. He parted on good terms with Clyde, Bonnie and the rest but lasted a scant ten days on his own before being apprehended in Amarillo.
Within a week, Bybee was back at Eastham, where his old job on the plow squad was waiting for him. He settled into the familiar routine and despite his recent escape gradually regained the trust of overseers, who once again regarded him as a model prisoner.
Three months after Bybee’s unhappy homecoming, he learned along with everybody else that Bonnie and Clyde had been slain execution style in an ambush on a Louisiana backroad. What he did not discover until much later was that star-crossed lovers were betrayed by Henry Methvin.
Authorities continued to beat the bushes for Hilton Bybee and three other fugitives still at large from the first break, when eight more staged another vanishing act on Jul. 8, 1937. This time the mass escape was not on the spur of the moment but instead carefully planned.
Two loaded rifles had been “planted” in advance along the path the inmates took to the fields that morning. After firing warning shots to show the guards they meant business, eight prisoners took off on foot for parts unknown.
The leader of this break was identified as Irving Charles Chapman, a once successful Arkansas contractor wiped out in the Crash of 1929. Rather than try to recoup his lost fortune by legitimate means, the intelligent and resourceful ex-businessman resorted to robbing banks.
Chapman had proved to be an escape risk four years before being sent to Eastham in 1936 for a nine-to-15-year stay. Nevertheless, he evidently did not merit a close eye because six months later he was gone again and robbing banks in northeast Texas and Louisiana. Wounded by armed bystanders in Atlanta, Texas, who objected to the looting of their local depository, he was remanded to Eastham for the next 60 years or his demise, whichever came first.
While Charlie Chapman was doing an impressive job of making himself scarce, Hilton Bybee was flunking that all-important test. Surrounded in an Arkansas forest by a posse of state cops and civilians, he made the fateful decision to shoot it out rather than surrender. A burst of machinegun fire ended his run and his life at the age of 26.
By early August, all the fugitives from both escapes were either dead or in custody – all, that is, except for Charlie Chapman. Even after J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, declared him Public Enemy Number One, he managed to dodge the law until 1942.
Trapped by a roadblock in the Mississippi county where he was born 46 years earlier, Chapman defiantly refused to exit his car with hands held high. “Go ahead and shoot, you bastards!” were his last poorly chosen words.
“Sure, he was a smart, slippery crook,” a police spokesman conceded at a press conference. “But today he’s just a body in the morgue.”
Read the complete story of the Barrow Gang and other Thirties outlaws in “Texas Depression-Era Desperadoes.” Get your signed copy by mailing a check for $26.30 to “Bartee Haile” at P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.