By Bartee Haile
After 13 months on the run, a former small-town police chief wanted for murder and armed robbery was captured in Tennessee on Sep. 20, 1929.
Had Tom Shook always been a crooked cop concealing his crimes behind a badge? If that was true, he sure had fooled a bunch of people during his eight-year career in law enforcement with different departments in North Texas. And the town council in Electra, the Red River boomtown northwest of Wichita Falls, would not had hired him as the new chief of police had he not come highly recommended.
Shook lasted no more than a year as Electra’s top cop. Whether he was fired or left of his own accord is unclear eight decades after the fact. It may be that the town elders got wind of his after-hours activities and elected to play it safe by terminating his employment or Shook simply resigned to pursue a life of crime full-time.
On the night of Aug. 10, 1928, the ex-chief stabbed to death a 42-year-old father of three. To save the sheriff the trouble of looking for him and to avoid any unpleasantness, Shook turned himself in before sunup.
The very next day, the grand jury indicted him on three separate counts: murder, armed robbery and burglary. The second charge stemmed from the “blowing of a safe” at an Electra movie theater on Jun. 18 and the third concerned his alleged role in the robbery of the desk clerk at the Jefferson Hotel the following night.
The judge denied bail and had Shook transferred to the county jail in Wichita Falls to await trial. But he had no intention of hanging around for his day in court.
Two weeks later, the disgraced lawman and five other prisoners jumped the jailer as he served them supper. They knocked him out cold, took his keys and helped themselves to a safe containing the cash and personal property of their fellow inmates before heading out the door.
During Shook’s yearlong absence, a jury gave one of his partners in crime eight years in the penitentiary for his part in the hotel holdup. Former Electra constable Ed Pryor was convicted on the testimony of the actual stickup artist, who swore under oath that the police chief and the constable had put him up to it and taken a third each of the loot.
Shook remained at large until September 1929, when he was arrested for the shooting death of a stranger in Decaturville, Tennessee. Upon discovering their suspect was a fugitive from Lone Star justice, the authorities told the Wichita County sheriff to come and fetch him.
Shook was soon back where he had started and under a 24-hour watch to ensure his presence at his next court date. Within the month, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to five years for the armed robbery. But that was merely the warm-up for the big event.
The obliging judge consented to a change of venue for the murder trial and moved it two counties south to Graham. Meanwhile, the defendant tried to throw a monkey wrench in the judicial machinery by pressuring the constable at tiny Harrold to serve subpoenas on three imaginary witnesses. Shook figured the proceedings would have to be postponed until the nonexistent trio was found.
The clever scheme might have worked, if the constable had not come to his senses and thrown himself on the mercy of the court. The judge, not at all amused by the ruse, jailed him as a material witness and started the trial the week before Christmas 1929.
No one expected Shook to beat the murder rap, and for once he did not disappoint them. The only surprise was the punishment. A 30-year prison term for a capital offense was comparatively lenient considering the rogue cop was eligible for the death penalty.
By the next March, Shook had lost his appeal and taken up residence in Huntsville. But eight months later, he was back in the headlines with a sensational escape attempt.
Along with 27 other inmates, Shook was being transported by truck to a work site. At a prearranged bend in the deserted road, four cons attacked their three armed overseers. In the struggle that ensued, two guards were overpowered and stripped of their pistols.
That left the lone shotgun guard, who patiently waited for an unobstructed target. When he finally got it, he put a load of buckshot in Shook’s stomach. The guard freed by the blast from the ex-chief’s bear hug retrieved his weapon and killed both of the armed escapees with head shots.
With that the bold bid for freedom was over in the blink of an eye. As for the convict cop, he was according to the Dallas Morning News “probably fatally wounded.” Shook did spend several days at death’s door but eventually recovered to resume serving his lengthy stretch.
In the fall of 1934, Shook’s 12-year-old daughter penned a personal appeal to the governor. “Please grant my daddy a pardon,” she wrote.
Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, always a sucker for a sob story, just could not resist. So in January 1935, Tom Shook strolled out the front gate two and a half decades early.
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.