By W.F. Strong
The year was 1919. J. Frank Norfleet, after two years of pursuit, finally slapped the handcuffs on Mr. Stetson in Florida. Stetson – real name: Joe Furey – had swindled Norfleet out of $90,000 in Dallas and Fort Worth two years before. Stetson was shocked to see him and paid him a backhanded compliment. He said, “Well, you old trail hound. I never expected to see you out here. … I thought we left you flat broke in Fort Worth.” Please don’t take me back to Texas, Norfleet … your “damnable hounding” has already cost me “as much money as I have made” off of you.
Stetson’s surprise at having Norfleet slap handcuffs on him is equal to the surprise that most people have when they first hear the incredible story of the old rancher’s dogged and ultimately successful pursuit of his swindlers. I’m not spoiling the story by telling the ending because the joy of this story is in the chase.
Norfleet had no experience in law enforcement, big city life or sophisticated cons. He was a cowboy and a hunter, a man who had always lived on the edge of the Texas frontier. So when he made up us his mind to pursue the band of bunco men who conned him, he used the only tools he had, which were unfathomable patience, cutting for sign, following the trail no matter how faint, employing camouflage in the way of disguises, always being well-armed, and being willing to withstand all nature of hardship to win in the end. Norfleet out-conned the con men. He seemed to be operating under the motto of Texas Ranger Capt. Bill McDonald: “No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right who just keeps on a-comin’.”
Norfleet was born in Lampasas and grew up on the Texas plains. He was a working cowboy trail herder in his early days and later managed to buy his own ranch out near Plainview. At 54, he had finally accumulated some real wealth. So he went to Dallas and Fort Worth with the intent of selling his ranch to buy a bigger one. It was there that con men ensnared him in their sophisticated plot. It went like this:
Norfleet got into a seemingly casual conversation about mules in the lobby of the St. George Hotel in Dallas. He said that “to one of his upbringing, the most lonesome place in the world is a large city.” So he was happy to find someone of similar tastes and interests. This man, Hamlin, upon hearing Norfleet had a ranch to sell, said he just happened to know someone who might be interested in his land. That interested party, Mr. Spencer, magically appeared and said they would need to go to the Adolphus to see another man. When they sat down in the lobby to wait, Spencer cleverly steered Norfleet so that he’d sit in just the right place to discover a man’s pocket book “lost” in the crevice of the couch. The pocket book had “$240 in cash and a cashable bond for $100,000 dollars.” Mr. Stetson was the name on the Mason’s card inside. Spencer and Norfleet inquired at the desk for a Mr. Stetson, got his room number, and returned the pocket book to him.
Mr. Stetson – AKA Joe Furey – offered them both $100 reward. Norfleet refused. Stetson told him that he was a stockbroker with the Dallas exchange and said, “Would you mind me placing that money on the market and would you accept what money it might earn?” Later that day Stetson gave Norfleet $800 as the amount his $100 earned. And that is how the hook was set. From there, much more money was made and eventually cash guarantees required by the fake exchange. When the con men cleared out on the last round, absconding with all of Norfleet’s money, he was left repeating to himself in a stunned haze, “Forty-five thousand dollars gone; $90,000 in debt; 54 years old.” If it happened today he’d be saying, “Seven-hundred-thousand-dollars gone; $1.5 million in debt; 54 years old.”
Most swindled people keep quiet about it. Some report it to police but just suffer the loss and go about rebuilding their lives. Furey, who conned many an Englishmen said that the British always handled the loss with such poise. But he resented Norfleet for taking it so personally.
So here is where you will want to pick up the book and get on the trail with Norfleet. He logs 30,000 miles pursuing these con men. Its’a great adventure and demonstrates an old cowboy’s enormous creativity and grit. He just wouldn’t quit. You can read his own telling of the story in his fast-moving autobiography, “Norfleet,” published in 1924. Or, you can read a more modern version historically contextualized by Amy Reading in “The Mark Inside.” Whichever you choose, cinch up your saddles nice and snug. It’s gonna be a wild ride.