This week in Texas History: Saddle tramps botch bank robbery

By Bartee Halie

Two saddle tramps watched from the shadows of the Wichita Falls station on Feb. 25, 1896 as the Rangers boarded the one o’clock train for Fort Worth. With the state lawmen gone at last, the City National Bank was ripe for the taking.

Times Record News Archives City National Bank employees W.L. Robertson, L.P. Webb, Mr. Wheeler, P.P. Langford and O.E. Cannon work behind the bank counter in 1896, just a short time after a deadly bank robbery and public lynching in Wichita Falls.

Elmer “Kid” Lewis and Foster “Bill” Crawford earned their keep punching cattle before deciding crime had to pay better. But banditry demanded nerve and imagination, qualities each lacked, and they wound up worse off than when riding the range.

A big score was what the down-and-out desperadoes needed, and banks offered the most bucks for the bang. The City National in Wichita Falls came to mind, and they set out for the thriving town of 2,000 just south of the Red River.

With a few drinks in them, Lewis and Crawford could not resist tipping their felonious hand in a series of unsigned notes. Alarmed by the anonymous threats, the bank president wired the governor for help, and Charles Culberson answered his plea with five Texas Rangers under the command of Bill McDonald.

The larger-than-life captain had not built his legendary reputation baby-sitting banks, but orders were orders especially coming from the governor. After standing watch for ten uneventful days, he told the jumpy banker that the danger had passed and caught the next train for Cow Town.

The partners in crime had waited long enough. They parked their ponies at the St. James Hotel, walked down the alley to the City National and burst through two different doors with guns drawn.

P.P. Langford was so immersed in his exacting work that he did not hear Crawford shout, “Up! Up!” When the busy bookkeeper failed to raise his hands, the robber creased his skull with a six-shooter. 

The weapon accidentally discharged on impact sending a slug into the ceiling and causing confusion in the bank. Cashier Frank Dorsey bet his life on the distraction by reaching for the revolver in his desk drawer. He lost the risky wager. 

Both bandits fired, and a bullet struck Dorsey in the shoulder lodging in his neck. He slumped to the polished floor and bled to death in a matter of seconds.

A far more fortunate victim survived a point-blank blast with nothing worse than a badly bruised chest. The potentially lethal round glanced off a metal hypodermic case in his coat pocket.

The bookkeeper regained his senses and started crawling for the closest exit, but Lewis stopped the slow-motion flight by shooting Langford in the hip. 

Meanwhile, Crawford tapped the teller’s till for $410.60 and tried without success to open the vault. Knowing the gunfire was certain to attract a crowd, he gave his sidekick the high sign and they sprinted for their horses.

On the way out of town, one of the mounts was shot out from under its rider. Luckily he landed on his feet, joined his accomplice on the second horse and the bank robbers made their getaway.

The fugitives stole a fruit peddler’s mare at gunpoint and galloped across the Red River bridge in plain sight of their pursuers. Somehow they managed to give the posse the slip in the dense underbrush, and a deadly game of hide-and-seek ensued.

News of the bank job was waiting for Capt. McDonald at Bellvue, where he hustled his men onto a northbound flier. The Rangers arrived in time to take part in the late afternoon capture of the outlaws.

An ugly mob was on hand to greet the prisoners at the Wichita Falls jail. The murder of the popular cashier had transformed law-abiding citizens into vengeful vigilantes, who wanted to string up his killers right then and there.

An all-night vigil by the Rangers kept the sullen crowd at bay, but McDonald suddenly pulled out the following day leaving Lewis and Crawford at the mercy of the mob. He could have taken them to another county for their own protection, a common practice which also gave agitated communities the opportunity to calm down, yet for some unknown reason he failed to do so. 

The lynch mob regrouped soon after dark and broke down the jailhouse door. Lewis and Crawford were dragged kicking and screaming from their cell to the street corner in front of the City National Bank. 

They were bound hand and foot and forced to stand on boxes. Two ropes dangled from a telephone pole with nooses on one end and eager executioners on the other. When the spectators ran out of curses, the bumbling bank robbers were hoisted high into the air and left to slowly strangle. 

But that is not the end of the story. As late as 1993, nearly a century after Kid Lewis and Bill Crawford were buried together in the same grave, flowers regularly appeared on their plot. An unidentified woman questioned at the cemetery five decades ago would say only that her mother was the mysterious mourner until her death in 1953. 

Read all about the early years of the oil frenzy in “Texas Boomtowns: A History of Blood and Oil” Order your copy for $24.00 by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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