Written in Stone: The Face and the Flier

You’d know his face in an instant but would walk right past his simple, flat tombstone:

On the other hand, you wouldn’t know her face but certainly might pause at her tombstone, with its résumé that hints at a life that was at least as interesting as his was:

Husband and wife Roy Roberts and Lillian Moore Roberts are buried side by side at Greenwood Cemetery. He was born on March 19, 1906 in Florida and died on May 28, 1975. She was born in Fort Worth on April 2, 1916 and died on October 25, 2001.

Roberts acted on the Broadway stage, then moved to Hollywood, where he became one of the most ubiquitous character actors in movies and TV during the 1940s-1970s: westerns and films noir in the 1940s, Oh, Susanna (Gale Storm Show) in the 1950s, dozens of westerns, dramas, and comedies on TV in the 1960s, Chinatown in the 1970s. He claimed to have been in more than nine hundred films and TV shows during a forty-year career.

For example:

roberts panel

From top to bottom, left to right: Bewitched, Chain Lightning, Force of Evil (with Paul Fix, future sheriff of Rifleman), Andy Griffith Show, The Enforcer (with Humphrey Bogart), He Walked by Night (with Jack Webb), House of Wax, Perry Mason, Petticoat Junction, Chinatown.

roberts 6-4-75 dmnClip is from the June 4, 1975 Dallas Morning News. The death date of May 23 is incorrect.

Lillian Moore Roberts was born in Fort Worth. As a child she was an avid equestrian. After her family moved to California, she had a short career as a film actress in the early 1930s, mostly in uncredited roles. But when World War II came, Moore found the role she was meant to play. She wanted to serve in the war effort. So, in 1941 she moved to Miami and earned a pilot’s license. She then became assistant to Jacqueline Cochran, a pioneer American aviator and organizer of the wartime Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Lillian Moore Roberts served as Cochran’s assistant until 1943, when Roberts herself joined the WASP, becoming one of the first women to fly for the military. The women flew as civilian pilots in an Army Air Corps experimental program to determine if women could serve as ferry pilots and relieve men for overseas duty. Twenty-five thousand women applied to join the WASP, but only 1,074 passed the training, which was the same training required of male Army Air Corps pilots. Part of the duty of ferry pilots was to fly planes to embarkation points such as Long Beach, California, and Newark, New Jersey. Between 1942 and 1944 thirty-eight WASP pilots were killed in service.

Lillian Moore Roberts trained at Houston’s Howard Hughes Field and at Sweetwater’s Avenger Field, then was stationed at Romulus Army Air Base in Michigan until WASP disbanded in 1944.

Her tombstone lists the aircraft she flew, including B-25, P-51, T-37 jet trainer, and C-47.

Roy and Lillian married in 1945. He was just starting his long acting career. She continued to fly and from 1978 to 1980 was president of the WASP alumni organization. In 2009 she and other WASP pilots were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their wartime service.

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Posted in Cities of the Dead, Heads Above the Crowd, Life in the Past Lane | 2 Comments

Suitable for Framing: A Picture-Perfect Crime?

In the spring of 1930 Fort Worth police officer John Frank Alsup was having trouble paying his creditors. Those creditors were complaining to the police department.

rob alsup photoAs a result, in March John Alsup was fired. Suddenly he had debts, and he had no income. But he had a plan.

rob alsup 30 censusAlsup knew that the Texas Bankers Association had put a price on the head of bank robbers during the Great Depression: a $5,000 ($70,000 today) reward for a dead bank robber. That reward money would get Alsup out of debt and then some.

But where, oh where, could Alsup find a bank robber to kill?
Why, he’d just hire one! Heck, why not hire two and double the reward: $10,000?

rob boyt 30 censusrob vincent 30 censusBut he’d need help. So, Alsup began to conspire with Augustus Penn Boyt, a barber, and Will Vincent, who worked as a servant on Chase Court. Alsup would pay Vincent, an African-American, to recruit two African-American men to rob the First State Bank of Polytechnic (founded by S. S. Dillow) on Rosedale Street. Boyt, for his cut of the reward money, would chauffeur the two robbers to the bank and drive the getaway car after the robbery.
But Alsup planned to make sure there was no getaway.
Meanwhile Vincent dutifully recruited Will Tate and George Terrell to be the dupes to rob the bank, promising them “quick work and easy money.”
Alsup continued to weave his tangled web: He knew that San Angelo Police Chief W. L. Zent was in town. Alsup arranged to meet with Zent and to have Zent talk with Will Vincent. Vincent told Zent that “two bad negro gunmen” planned to rob the Poly bank the next day. Zent suggested to Alsup that Alsup warn Fort Worth Police Chief Henry Lee about the planned robbery. Alsup, no longer being in the good graces of the police force, demurred and suggested instead that Zent tip off Chief Lee.
Chief Lee later testified that the next day he ran into Alsup, who then told Lee that Alsup had been the source of the tip about the planned bank robbery.
“I told him,” Lee recalled, “to go on out there [to guard the bank] and let him have a sawed-off shotgun loaded with buckshot.”
Chief Lee said Alsup, although no longer on the police force, retained his status as a “special officer,” which Alsup had been given during the Stock Show in January before he was discharged in March. This status gave Alsup the same rights as a regular officer.
Police detective J. W. Swinney, who also was assigned to guard the targeted bank, later testified that when Alsup was told how many police officers in addition to Alsup would be guarding the bank, Alsup complained: “If there are that many . . . there won’t be anything in it for any of us.” At the time, police officers were entitled to collect reward money.
At about noon on April 10, barber Boyt drove dupes Tate and Terrell to Poly and let them out of the car near Poly High School (then located on Nashville Avenue) two blocks from the bank.
Waiting inside the bank were police detective Ed Weatherford, perched on top of the bank vault with a shotgun and a pistol, and police detective Swinney. John Alsup was across the street in a drugstore with his sawed-off shotgun and two pistols.
The police had tipped local newspapers about the robbery, and reporters were waiting a half-block away.
Seems that everyone had inside information except Will Tate and George Terrell.
When Tate and Terrell entered the bank, assistant cashier J. M. Fry and vice president E. M. Perkins were sitting in an office.
“Stick ’em up,” one of the robbers demanded of Fry and Perkins. The two bankers raised their hands.

“Where is the money?” the robbers asked.
Fry, knowing that he was well protected by police, pointed to two teller cages behind him. According to the Star-Telegram, Fry said, “If you want the money, you’ll have to come after it.”
The bank had about $15,000 in cash on hand, the Star-Telegram reported.
Then the shooting began.

Detective Weatherford testified that Tate had a gun. Weatherford said he was not sure that Terrell was armed. Predictably, witnesses did not agree on who fired first. Fry said Tate did not fire first. Weatherford said he did not fire first. The Star-Telegram said Alsup, outside the bank, fired the first shot.
Regardless, in the next few seconds, witnesses recalled, Alsup, from outside the bank, fired twenty to twenty-five shots; inside the bank Weatherford fired seven or eight, and the robbers fired six. Weatherford, the Star-Telegram reported, wounded both Tate and Terrell.
Early in the fusillade, banker Fry was shot in the head. The Press reported on April 11 that Fry was hit by buckshot, which apparently was fired by detective Weatherford, struck a filing cabinet, and shattered, a fragment ricocheting into Fry.

Fry would recover to testify.

Perkins was slightly injured by glass fragments as bullets smashed the windows of the bank building.
Wounded, and with bullets flying in the small bank, robbers Tate and Terrell tried to flee from the busted robbery. But as they ran out of the bank door, getaway man Boyt was not there waiting for them. After dropping off Tate and Terrell near the bank, Boyt had driven the “getaway car” back to Arlington Heights and had gone back to work at a barber shop on Camp Bowie Boulevard.
But someone was waiting outside for Tate and Terrell: John Alsup. Alsup also was waiting for that $10,000 reward. From the street Alsup first shot Terrell, who staggered a few paces west and fell dead in a front yard. Tate, still armed, ran north on Annis Street (now Wesleyan Street). Alsup chased Tate on foot but on Annis Street jumped onto the running board of a passing car and continued to shoot at Tate, the Press reported. Alsup caught up with Tate on the steps of Polytechnic Methodist Church, then at the corner of Avenue E and Annis, where, the Press reported, a meeting of the Glad Hand Sunday School class was in session. On the church steps Alsup shot Tate dead.

rob press 10 pi with photosrob pi press 10 hunt poly bank raid 1rob st 10 piFront pages of the Press and Star-Telegram on April 10.

rob press pi map april 10The April 10 Press published a map of the crime scene. Avenue F is now Rosedale Street. Annis Street is now Wesleyan Street.

rob baker buildingThe bank building still stands, now owned by TWU.
The newspapers on April 10 reported that “special officer” Alsup was helping Fort Worth police in their investigation of the bloody attempted robbery. District Attorney R. A. Stuart said to Alsup, “You started this thing [with your tip], and I think you are the right man to clean it up.”

rob to get job back press 10On April 10 the Press reported that Chief Lee would reinstate Alsup. Note that the 1930 census (above) that lists Alsup as a policeman was taken on April 18—shortly after the robbery and his reinstatement as a police officer.
John Frank Alsup had pulled off a picture-perfect crime. Not only was he going to collect the reward money, but also he was being hailed as a hero, and he was back on the police force—and in a position of some status. His new job on the armed scout car required “nerve, experience and expert marksmanship.”
But John Alsup’s reinstatement would be short-lived.
Someone snitched.

rob press scarface man 12-1The police began to receive tips indicating that Tate and Terrell had been framed. Police began to look for a scarfaced white man. The face of accomplice Augustus Penn Boyt had been disfigured in an earlier auto accident. Clip is from the April 12 Press.

rob boyt admits st 17Police questioned Boyt. Boyt talked and walked: Boyt told police that Alsup was the ringleader; Alsup and Boyt were indicted for the murders of Will Tate and George Terrell; Boyt agreed to testify against ringleader Alsup; charges against Boyt were dropped. Clip is from the April 17 Press.

rob alsup acquitted beer 12-5-30 dmnAnd then began John Frank Alsup’s pinball journey through the legal system: conviction, acquittal, appeal, mistrial, retrial, and a courtroom tempest created when a witness testified that the prosecution had gotten star witness Boyt drunk in his jail cell. Defendant Alsup could hardly deny having killed the two bank robbers, but he consistently denied having duped them into robbing the bank in order to kill them for the reward. His favorite response to cross-examination by the prosecution was, “No, sir.”
In 1932, almost two years after his fake robbery fell apart, Alsup walked, just as accomplice Boyt had walked. Clip is from the December 5, 1930 Dallas Morning News.

rob boyt 40 censusAfter the dust cleared barber Boyt left town and returned to Hood County, where he was born in 1889. In 1940 he was caretaker of a cemetery (possibly Tolar Cemetery, where his parents were buried).

rob boyt death certAugustus Penn Boyt died in 1969 and is buried in Ector County. As his death certificate shows, he had later become a justice of the peace.

rob alsup 40 censusJohn Frank Alsup remained in Fort Worth, working at various jobs. In 1940 Alsup, who had lost his job on the police force in 1930 “because he couldn’t pay his bills,” was a debt collector. In 1942 he was a “guard” and was living in this much-remodeled house on Avenue G—just one block from the bank and the scene of his 1930 “heroism.”

rob alsup graveJohn Frank Alsup died in 1957 and is buried in Kennedale Cemetery.

If a tragedy can have a punch line, here it is:

rob no reward st 17On April 17, 1930 the Star-Telegram reported that the Texas Bankers Association would not have paid Alsup a reward because the robbed bank had not paid its TBA dues. Alsup did all that conniving and took all that risk—and two duped men did all that dying—for nothing.
(Thanks to retired police sergeant and police department historian Kevin Foster for the tip.)

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