by Pat Rodgers
The year is 1932 and Ralph’s story unfolds in McKinney, a quiet little agricultural town 40 miles north of Dallas.
It was a typically quiet, rural Texas town in which the Fults family of six girls and two boys grew up. The parents, Addie and Sophie, were gentle, soft-spoken and hardworking middle-class parents.
Ralph, born in 1911, spent his childhood years in a country home outside of McKinney with his seven siblings. Audie, the dad, was a rural mail carrier.
Of the eight children, only Ralph developed a pattern of troubling behavior. He grew physically and verbally combative with a reputation as a vicious street fighter.
In 1925, when Ralph was 14, he began stealing cigarettes and candy. When confronted by the sheriff, he hopped a train and headed north, beginning a life of crime.
As an adolescent he escaped numerous institutions and jails. He was shot by an Oklahoma policeman and ultimately sentenced to the Texas State Juvenile Training School for Boys at Gatesville. The emphasis on labor and punishment hardened him.
Ralph was a five-year veteran of crime when he met Clyde Barrow. Together, they would form the Barrow Gang and terrorize the country in stolen cars. They robbed banks and businesses, broke out of jails and traded gun fire with the “laws.”
Bonnie and Clyde were killed in a well-executed ambush in Gibson, Louisiana, May 23, 1934. Ralph continued 10 years of crime with another well-known gangster, Ray Hamilton.
Together, they robbed a Beaumont armory and hid the guns with a bootlegger in McKinney. On February 24, 1935 the two men drove through Collin County to pick up the stolen guns.
They were ambushed by officers; however, both managed to escape.
Eventually, the law captured them and both went back to prison. Ray was executed and Ralph was placed on Death Row. After pleading guilty to a bank robbery, he was sentenced to 100 years in prison.
Daughter Pam’s Recollections
His daughter Pam reports that he was often visited by prison chaplains who encouraged him and gave him hope. Ralph told of a moment when he was in prison and was visited by “three laymen messengers from God.” They moved him with their personal testimonies and gave him a New Testament. He randomly turned to John 3:15 and read this passage: ”That whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but shall have eternal life.”
God saved Ralph for His greater purpose. In 1944, after 10 years in prison, he was given a conditional pardon. He worked in a shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi and saved his money.
Ralph met a young waitress named Ruth and eventually shared his story with her. She believed that he had truly become a changed man, and they married in 1947 and returned to McKinney.
Ralph found it hard to socialize in McKinney. Ruth, a devout Baptist, continually encouraged him to go to church with her and the children. He would say, “Those people won’t accept me; besides I ain’t been right with the Lord.”
The pastor of the Baptist Church encouraged him to visit. Ralph responded: “You don’t understand what I mean to these people, Pastor. A cop in your choir tried to kill me in an ambush in 1935. They won’t accept me. The pastor replied, “If they don’t accept you, I will resign.”
The next Sunday, the pastor introduced him to the congregation, and everyone welcomed him, including the officer.
In the 1960’s, Ralph was employed by Buckner’s Home for Boys. He was responsible for the boys assigned to grounds maintenance and identified in their wild and rebellious nature. He told them of his life at Gatesville and his days with Bonnie and Clyde. He emphasized the futility and waste of that kind of life. Ralph redirected their energies into sports activities.
After retirement, Ralph continued to lecture regularly to church and civic groups, fostering a greater understanding that would lead a youngster to imprisonment.
State officials would seek his advice on prison reform. His recommendation would bring about the separation of first-time offenders and hardened criminals.
Ralph Fults was a young gangster and a child of the Great Depression. He was caught up in the Texas Criminal Justice system, but he was redeemed for a greater purpose in life as a loving husband, father and grandfather. His children and grandchildren remember him with great love and affection. They are proud of the man he became and the legacy he left.