At five-foot-five the “Little Tiger of Hale County” was not physically imposing. Nonetheless, James Franklin Norfleet was the sort of man who created the “larger than life” image of Texans.
J. Frank Norfleet was born in 1865 in Lampasas County. By 1870 the family was living in Williamson County.
As a young man Norfleet worked as a buffalo hunter, cowboy, and drover before starting his own ranch in 1904 near Plainview in Hale County. By 1919 he was a middle-aged rancher.
And he was about to begin a five-year odyssey of first gullibility and greed and then gumption.
And, finally, justice.
One morning in November 1919 Norfleet left his ranch in Hale County and traveled to Dallas to sell one of his farms in order to buy ten thousand acres of ranchland from Edgar Dick Slaughter, son of Christopher Columbus Slaughter, the “cattle king of Texas.” (Photo from Norfleet’s 1924 book Norfleet.)
Enter conman 1: At a hotel in Dallas Norfleet met Reno Hamlin, who presented himself to Norfleet as a mule buyer. Hamlin introduced Norfleet to W. B. Spencer (conman 2), who said he might want to buy Norfleet’s farm. (Photo from Norfleet.)
Then Norfleet just happened to find the “lost” wallet of J. B. Stetson (Joe Furey, conman 3) and returned it to Stetson. A grateful Stetson offered Norfleet $100 as a reward, but Norfleet refused to take it. Stetson, who claimed to be a stock broker, offered to invest the $100 in stocks under Norfleet’s name. Norfleet consented. That $100 earned Norfleet $800 in a single day. What luck! In turn, that $800—invested in the stock market for Norfleet by Stetson—quickly grew to $28,000 ($378,000 today).
J. Frank Norfleet was on a roll—a bankroll!
But then enter conman 4: E. J. Ward showed up posing as secretary of the Dallas stock exchange. Alas, Ward told Norfleet, because Norfleet was not registered with the exchange, Ward would have to impound the $28,000 in easy money until Norfleet established the necessary credit.
Norfleet watched that bankroll roll out the door. Norfleet the fish was hooked.
To reel in their fish, the conmen moved the sting to Fort Worth: to the Terminal Hotel (a Winfield Scott hotel opposite the 1899 T&P station) and the Westbrook Hotel. In his book about his experience, Norfleet later wrote:
“The next morning we went to the Terminal Hotel to see Stetson [Joe Furey]. As usual he was deciphering coded messages. He would often give stock quotations before they were printed in the daily papers, and without a single exception he always quoted them right, thereby convincing me that he had advance information.”
In Fort Worth Norfleet compounded his gullibility in a sting that—with our hindsight—seems like a farce, a farce of greed and audacious acting, a farce that included:
• one personal fortune entrusted to strangers
• one fake conniption fit
• one (more) fake stock exchange secretary (Charles Gerber, conman 5)
• one fake stock margin slip
• one solemn oath sworn on bended knees
• one Bible waved
• one pistol drawn
• one Masonic secret distress signal flashed
• one safe-deposit box found empty
The above excerpt from Norfleet shows how complicated the sting was.
Exit five conmen, stage left. And with them, exit Norfleet’s money, which by then was $45,000—a half-million dollars in today’s money.
Norfleet later wrote of how he felt when he realized he had been suckered: “Sickening fear choked me. . . . Forty-five thousand dollars gone. . . . Fifty-four years old. ‘My God! My God!’ I cried out.”
And that’s when J. Frank Norfleet got mad.
Norfleet set out—at age fifty-four—to bring the five conmen to justice. He strapped on two revolvers.
But “Bring them in alive,” his wife Mattie urged him. “Any fool can kill a man.”
Norfleet the rancher became Norfleet the manhunter, following leads, wearing disguises, dodging crooked lawmen. Early on he swallowed his pride and described the conmen and their con to the press. His alarm brought quick results: Within weeks he found Charles Gerber and E. J. Ward, the phony secretaries of the Fort Worth and Dallas stock exchanges, in jail in California.
Two down, three to go.
Norfleet then trailed Joe Furey (alias J. B. Stetson) from California to Florida.
After a bloody brawl in a cafe, Norfleet captured Furey and brought him back to Fort Worth, where it had all begun two years earlier. Furey was the ringleader, the one who mattered most to Norfleet.
Three down, two to go.
Norfleet pressed on, a man obsessed. He eventually caught up with Reno Hamlin and brought him back to Fort Worth. Hamlin had chosen Norfleet as the mark, setting the sting in motion.
Four down, one to go.
Now only W. B. Spencer (alias Charles Harris) remained at large. In Dallas Spencer had seduced Norfleet by promising to buy his farm. Norfleet tracked Spencer to Canada and literally had hold of his coattail, but Spencer escaped after a bloody fight in the snow.
Eventually Norfleet found Spencer in jail in Utah. Spencer said, “I’d rather go to hell tonight than live as I have since I met Norfleet. Every knock on the door, every telephone bell, every stranger in the night has raised hell with my nerves.”
Five down, none to go. Score settled.
Yes, after four years, $18,000, and 30,000 miles across North America and Cuba, J. Frank Norfleet had settled the score. In his book he acknowledged the law enforcement officials who helped (photo from Norfleet). Although Norfleet spent a small fortune of his own money in his pursuit, those he pursued spent far more—an estimated $82,000 in protection money to law enforcement officers, attorney fees, and cash bonds forfeited.
All five of the men Norfleet pursued went to jail. One (E. J. Ward) committed suicide in jail. Ringleader Joe Furey (alias J. B. Stetson) died in jail in 1922.
While Norfleet was pursuing his own conmen, he was instrumental in the arrest of Lou Blonger, king of the bunco kingpins. In Denver Blonger ran a sting involving a fake telegraph office and a fake betting parlor that would have made Newman and Redford tap their noses knowingly. (Photo from Wikipedia.)
Norfleet was congratulated by William J. Burns, who was known as “America’s Sherlock Holmes” and was head of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (predecessor of the FBI). (Photo from Norfleet.)
J. Frank Norfleet became a popular public speaker as he promoted his book. In 1924 he spoke at the church of another J. Frank (Norris): First Baptist Church.
James Franklin Norfleet, who was born during the Civil War and died during the Vietnam War, lived to age 102. Although he carried a gun and more than once was tempted to use it, the “Little Tiger of Hale County” always, as his wife had implored him, brought them in alive.