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Voices across the decades

The Ross E. Beard Jr. Collection comes to Camden

Posted: March 14, 2013 4:20 p.m.
Updated: March 15, 2013 5:00 a.m.

The author's grandfather, Clarence Hurt


On the afternoon of February 15, 2013, the famed Beard Collection began to arrive at the Camden Archives and Museum. On March 5, the last large load arrived around 1 p.m. and the archives was a beehive of activity, with police and firemen carrying collection items in from trucks, cars and vans. As our new curator of collections, Rickie Good, and I checked items in, Mr. Beard told stories and related anecdotes about each one while it was being photographed by the police camera man. This significant collection represents many voices through the years it spans -- from 1514 to the end of World War II and into the Cold War era. Through the items here, we hear the voices of the Revolutionary War, both British and patriots. We explore the American west with Lewis and Clark and see the frustration of the Native Americans as their land began to change. We understand the convictions which led to the American Civil War -- and we experience the sadness of the lives lost and changed during that monumental event. We march with the men in World War I -- the “Great War” -- and we see how technology evolved and changed the way we fought those wars. We faced the horrible realization that “the War to end all Wars” did not end world conflict as we were shocked by Pearl Harbor and the advent of the Second World War. But one voice that spoke to me came as a surprise from my past -- it was that of my grandfather, Clarence O. Hurt. That voice came from Ross Beard’s collection of Gangster-era weapons and memorabilia from the 1920s and 1930s.

Eighty years ago, our country was dealing with a war on our native soil -- not the war on terrorism that we face today. This war was the war on crime against homegrown bank robbers, murderers and kidnappers. The wanted were the likes of John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker and her gang, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Al Capone, Wilbur Underhill and Alvin Karpis. J. Edgar Hoover was the head of the new Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and President Franklin D. Roosevelt charged him with winning the “war on crime.” Things weren’t going so well for Hoover. In 1933, Hoover reorganized the focus of the agency by placing Melvin Purvis as senior agent. He also began hiring new agents who were trained to shoot and to kill -- “gun slingers.”

My Grandpa Hurt was a “gun slinger.” He’s been called “a formidable force in his own right.” He joined the Oklahoma City Police Department in 1919, after serving in World War I. He quickly rose to the rank of assistant chief of police, becoming the youngest chief in the department’s history. The department loaned him to the Oklahoma Department of Justice as an investigator in 1926 to solve murders on the Osage Indian Reservation. Afterward, he joined the detective bureau as an investigator. In 1933, Hurt accompanied federal agents and helped lead the raid on Wilbur Underhill’s hideout. He was the front man at Underhill’s window, yelling at him, “This is the law Wilbur, stick ‘em up!” Underhill aimed a Luger at him and Hurt fired his tear gas gun, hitting Underhill in the stomach and agents behind Hurt shot into the room in a hail of machine gun fire, taking Underhill down. “Too mean to die,” the wounded Underhill somehow escaped and led them on a chase, dying in prison shortly thereafter. In 1934, Hurt was hired as an agent with the FBI.

In 1934, my Grandpa Hurt became one of the three agents, along with Charles Winstead and Herbert Hollis, who shot and killed John Dillinger at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Grandpa was part of the squad who shot it out with Pretty Boy Floyd in 1934. As a member of the 14-man squad that captured Al Karpis, “The Last Public Enemy,” in New Orleans in 1936, Agent Clarence O. Hurt made the actual arrest of Karpis. Karpis was driven to the Bureau’s New Orleans office by my Grandpa, accompanied by J. Edgar Hoover and other agents.

Grandpa Hurt remained in the F.B.I. until 1955, when he retired to his ranch in McAlester, Okla., and became the sheriff of Pittsburg County. That’s when I remember him as a little girl who adored her stout, pipe-smoking, cowboy-boot-wearing cattle rancher Grandpa. He taught me to ride a horse. He tried to teach me to milk a cow -- didn’t work! He let me play with the newborn calves, even though the stock weren’t ever to be treated as “pets.” He showed me the Indian paintbrush flowers growing in the fields and the roadrunners racing alongside our truck on dusty roads. He let me “drive” his World War II surplus Jeep, when truth be told, he was really driving. I just thought I was. We fished in his pond and gazed at the Oklahoma sunsets from his back porch. When I asked him if he really ever carried a machine gun and ran along the top of train cars to capture bad men, he paused, chewed on his pipe stem, and quietly said, “Yes, Kathy, I did that.” And then he would quickly move the conversation to the curious-to-me wonders of the Oklahoma countryside -- how the coyotes wouldn’t come near the house and why I didn’t need to be scared of the tarantulas crawling near my Grandma May’s clothes line. (I was anyway!)

There, in Ross Beard’s collection, is my Grandpa’s voice speaking to me about his career as a G-man. Dillinger’s hat worn when he was shot at the Biograph. Dillinger’s Colt Model 1903 32-caliber pistol. Handcuffs used on Pretty Boy Floyd. Al Karpis’ image. Thank you, Ross Beard, for bringing your wonderful collection home to Camden, where it can speak to all of us in many different ways.



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