Hogwire and Heroin: Dishonor Among Thieves

The third time just had to be the charm. Twice the gang had flubbed its plan to rob the mail train in Fort Worth. According to T. Lindsay Baker in Gangster Tour of Texas, one night three of the gang members had argued so long about which one of them would drive the getaway car that the mail train had rolled right past them unrobbed. Another night the gang member who had been appointed as getaway driver had gotten drunk and wrecked the getaway car.

But the night of February 21, 1933 was indeed charmed. It was golden. Acting on a tip from a retired postal worker, at 9:40 three members of the gang pulled women’s stockings over their heads and jumped out from behind a billboard beside the Main Street underpass downtown as two Railway Mail Service employees were transferring mail bags from a train at the 1931 Texas & Pacific passenger depot to the post office facility of the 1899 passenger depot. The Fort Worth Press said the robbers disarmed the two employees, then told them to “stick ’em up” and to lie down and “hug earth” for thirty minutes. The three robbers dragged seven sacks of mail to a waiting 1929 Ford on East Lancaster Avenue and escaped.

stevens main underpass s-t 22Star-Telegram photo of February 22, 1933 shows where the robbers hid on the east end of the overpass. Today that location is on the parking lot of T&P Lofts. The top of the 1931 T&P passenger depot can be seen in the upper left background.

stevens 3 papersThe robbery was not big news in initial reports on February 22 in the Press (top), Star-Telegram, and Dallas Morning News. “Loot believed small,” said the Press. The Star-Telegram said the amount of money taken was not known. But the Morning News conceded that some people believed the mail bags “contained a large money shipment.”

“Large” indeed. In fact, the mail bags contained $71,000 ($1.2 million today) in cash from the federal reserve bank in Dallas. The money had been destined for First National Bank of Fort Worth and several smaller banks.

After the robbery this telegram was sent to the chief post office inspector in Washington. Decoded, the telegram reads:

“Three bandits held up railway postal clerk [Conrad T.] Black and railroad employee handling mail on mail truck conveying mail between Texas Pacific Depot and Terminal R.P.O., Fort Worth, Texas, last night, nine-forty, securing six pouches registered mail containing over $70,000 currency. Inspector in Charge, Austin, Tex., with post office inspector investigating. Adamson”

Although Olin DeWitt Stevens, age thirty-nine, did not take part in the actual robbery, he masterminded the robbery as head of the gang. Stevens, a Handley pharmacist, was known by neighbors as a generous family man. In 1933 neighbors did not know that in the 1920s Stevens had been a bootlegger, burglar, and car thief and had served time in Leavenworth for a narcotics violation. (Photos from University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.)

stevens-1931Two years earlier Stevens had been arrested for armed robbery in Louisiana.

stevens 30 censusDuring the mail train robbery Stevens bided his time elsewhere to establish an alibi. But after the three robbers fled the scene of the robbery, they changed cars on the East Side and rendezvoused with Stevens at a house where Stevens and wife Orley and children had previously lived at 4921 Avenue E east of TWU. The 1930 census listed Stevens as a traveling salesman for a novelty company.

The mail train robbery, in the depth of the Great Depression, was Stevens’s grand slam score. All that loot! But all that loot was dirty. So, Stevens the traveling salesman traveled to Chicago and New York City to sell his dirty money. He paid a fence a steep commission for clean money: $250 for each $1,000, the Star-Telegram reported. Upon his return to Handley, the newspaper said, Stevens “spent money like water.”

One thing Stevens spent money on was the completion of his fine farmhouse on ninety acres on a hill in what was then a sparsely populated rural area northeast of Handley. (Today the farmhouse is at 1408 Morrison Drive just south of Interstate 30.) But this is not your typical Green Acres farmhouse. The sandstone used in its construction was blasted from the hill. The house has fortress-thick walls of sandstone and petrified wood, hidden rooms and compartments, a trick staircase, and sliding panels. A tunnel led from the house into a nearby wooded area.

stevens drugAs Stevens was masterminding the robbery and building his tricked-out farmhouse, he was also building this commercial building (also of sandstone and petrified wood) at Handley Drive and Lancaster Avenue to house his pharmacy. The pharmacy was a perfect front for his other business: illegal narcotics sales. Stevens financed construction of the farmhouse and the pharmacy with narcotics sales and money from the robbery.

On July 8—more than four months after the robbery—two of the three robbers—Jack Sturdivant of Abilene and Harry Rutherford of Eula (near Abilene)—came to Handley and confronted Stevens. With Harry Rutherford was his older brother Jewell of Dallas (see photo). Jewell had not taken part in the robbery but went along with Harry to confront Stevens just to look after his baby brother. Jewell Rutherford would pay dearly for his devotion to family.

Jack Sturdivant, previously convicted of counterfeiting, and Harry Rutherford demanded that Stevens fork over the bulk of their share of the robbery money. Stevens stalled.

That night at Stevens’s pharmacy Stevens drank and played dominoes with Sturdivant and the two Rutherford brothers. Then Sturdivant and the Rutherford brothers followed in their car as Stevens drove toward his farmhouse.

Late that night people at a neighboring farm heard three or four gunshots.

Soon after, Jack Sturdivant’s wife Melba and Jewell Rutherford’s wife Hazel became worried and left Dallas to search for their husbands. They went to the Stevens farm more than once but found no one. When the two women finally found Stevens in Handley he claimed to know nothing about the whereabouts of Sturdivant and the Rutherford brothers.

When the two wives returned to Dallas, police were waiting for them.

The news was not encouraging.

stevens bloody clothing 7-10-33 dmn Three sets of blood-stained men’s clothing had been found near the East 1st Street Bridge over the Trinity River about 4.5 miles west of the Stevens farmhouse. “It was a big bundle of hogwire,” E. M. Bilger Jr., seven, recalled in 1996 (the boy would grow up to be Bedford’s first full-time fire chief). “Wrapped inside it were clothes, boots, and jewelry. It was weighted down with two large red sandstone rocks, the same kind of rocks that the [Stevens] house was built out of.” Clip is from the July 10 Dallas Morning News.

stevens charge 5 7-11-33 stThe clothes contained identification, including a card bearing Jewell Rutherford’s Dallas address.

Jack Sturdivant’s wife Melba and Jewell Rutherford’s wife Hazel told police about the involvement of Stevens and William David May in the mail train robbery. May, previously convicted of shooting a federal officer, lived on a fifty-acre peanut farm next to the farm of Stevens. Stevens had deeded the fifty acres to May. May had been the third robber on the night of February 21, 1933. Stevens and May had met in Leavenworth in the late 1920s.

Investigators searched May’s farm and found hogwire. The hogwire that bound the clothes found in the river, the Star-Telegram reported, “matched exactly” the hogwire found at May’s farm.

Police arrested Stevens and May that day, and the search for the three missing men continued. Police officers and sheriff’s deputies searched the river and Little Fossil Creek. They also dragged a pond on the Stevens farm, and firemen pumped out a well beside the Stevens farmhouse.

stevens narcotics found 7-12-33 dmnIn searching Stevens’s intricate farmhouse for the three missing men, investigators found a cache of narcotics, including heroin. Clip is from the July 12 Dallas Morning News.

7-13-33 bodies found dmnOn July 11 the hogwire-bound bodies of Sturdivant and the two Rutherford brothers were found in the Trinity River at the East 1st Street Bridge not far from where their clothes had been found. Stevens and May had shot the three men in the head, hauled their bodies to the bridge in a flatbed truck, and dumped the bodies, weighted with bags of cement, into the river. Clip is from the July 13 Dallas Morning News.

stevens bodies found 7-13-33 stThe unclothed bodies of Jewell Rutherford, thirty, Harry Rutherford, twenty-eight, and Jack Sturdivant, twenty-four, were found in shallow water. Sturdivant’s killers had cut a “Jack” tattoo from his arm to make identification of the body more difficult.

The front page of the July 14 Star-Telegram featured photos of the case, including detective A. C. Howerton at Stevens’s Avenue E “mystery house,” which, like Stevens’s Handley “mystery house,” had trap doors and sliding panels and was built of similar stone; two wives of defendants; Stevens gang member M. T. “Blackie” Howard, who was one of thirteen people ultimately charged in the robbery (he was not indicted); a crowd at the East 1st Street Bridge, the hogwire-bound bodies; and a map of the area.

stevens narcotics 12-13-33 dmnOn December 13, 1933 the Dallas Morning News reported that Stevens had pleaded guilty to a narcotics charge. The News said the narcotics found in the Stevens farmhouse in July were valued at $25,000 ($444,000 today).

On February 24, 1934 William David May was found guilty of murdering Jack Sturdivant and given the death penalty.

stevens bulletsIn May 1934 O. D. Stevens went on trial for the murder of Harry Rutherford. Stevens was defended by four attorneys, including an uncle. In the courtroom Stevens was kept under federal guard after attempting to break out of jail twice: While he was in jail in Dallas saw blades were smuggled in to him, and while he was in jail in Fort Worth he was able to cut through the lock on his cell door.

Stevens claimed an alibi. The defense produced two witnesses who testified that on the night Harry Rutherford was killed, Stevens was drinking with them in a basement “bootleg beer joint” in downtown Fort Worth.

The jury didn’t swallow it.

Meanwhile, authorities claimed that Stevens, impressed by Clyde Barrow’s liberation of Raymond Hamilton from Eastham prison farm, had agreed to pay Clyde $18,000 ($340,000 today) to break Stevens, May, and Howard out of the Tarrant County jail. But Bonnie and Clyde had been killed before such a break could be attempted.

stevens guiltyOn June 15 Stevens was found guilty and sentenced to death by electrocution. Note that Stevens shared the front page with a story about Clyde Barrow.

may executed 9-6-35 dmnmay-death-certWilliam David May was executed in the electric chair in 1935. Clip is from the September 6 Dallas Morning News.

Stevens avoided the death penalty when his murder conviction was overturned in 1935 because of errors by the trial judge. But Stevens was sentenced to twenty-seven years for the mail robbery and a narcotics charge. He arrived at a new maximum-security prison—Alcatraz—about the same time as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly (who had a hideout on Mulkey Street in Fort Worth).

stevens alcatraz 9-13-36 dmnAs Stevens awaited a retrial on the murder charge in 1936, he had little good to say about the guest accommodations at “the Government’s Devil’s Island.” Clip is from the September 13 Dallas Morning News.

O. D. Stevens was acquitted of murder in his retrial and served only sixteen years in prison. He was released in 1950 and moved to Arkansas.

stevens-1953In 1953 the Star-Telegram noted the twenty-year anniversary of the robbery.

stevens tombstoneOlin DeWitt Stevens died at age seventy-eight. He is buried in his home state of Arkansas.

stevens 1976 for saleThe Stevens farm has long since been sold and subdivided, and the stone farmhouse has changed ownership several times. When the house was for sale in 1976 the Star-Telegram recalled the history of the “slaying site.”

Despite searches over the years, much of the unspent robbery money has never been found, and rumors that the loot is still hidden in the house persist.

If the old house knows anything, it ain’t talkin’.

But maybe someday an inquisitive four-year-old will get lucky: Today the farmhouse of Olin DeWitt Stevens is a Childtime preschool.

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30 Responses to Hogwire and Heroin: Dishonor Among Thieves

  1. Tina Roland says:

    I find these articles so very interesting.
    I have had the privilege of knowing Jack Sturdivants family and visiting his gravesite.
    There are several bits of information I would like to share with you.

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