Ralph Smith Fults was born January 23, 1911 to Audy Barlow Fults and Sophia Delia Bush Fults in Anna, Texas in Collin County. The couple resided in North Texas as early as 1900, per the federal census. Audy Fults was a mail carrier in Collin County and Ralph was the third of eight children born to the couple. Shortly after Ralph was born, the couple moved the short distance to McKinney.
As a youth, he was said to have been a poor or disinterested student in school. In 1925 at age fourteen, he was arrested for burglary in Aspermont, Texas. He briefly escaped from the local jail along with several other prisoners by making a crude key from a tin can. The others broke free, but Fults was recaptured, sent to the State Juvenile Training School in Gatesville, Texas, later known as the Gatesville School for Boys.
Fults served about two years at Gatesville. His day consisted of assembly for inspection, calisthenics and training followed by about half a day of school, after which the youths would work around the facility. Fults and several others escaped on April 16, 1927 by using pilfered hacksaw blades to saw though the bars of the dormitory windows. They went their separate ways and Fults managed to work his way west until he was caught and briefly confined in Duncan, Arizona. He rather easily escaped from the old jail and wandered away on foot, making his way to Tucson, Arizona where he was again arrested and he again escaped, this time heading to Oklahoma. There he briefly worked for a shooting gallery before he and some associates began stealing cars for local junkyard owner and parts dealer. Eventually after a few successful auto thefts he was caught and returned to Gatesville.
Back at Gatesville, he tried to maintain a low profile until he was caught talking in the chapel service and according to his biography, “Running With Bonnie and Clyde” by John N. Phillips, he was whipped by the unnamed camp officer. He served out his time but not before another failed escape attempt. He returned to Collin and Dallas counties in 1929 where the area was in the midst of the Depression. Fults was arrested in connection with the arrest of a Greenville, Texas grocer who was charged with selling stolen cigarettes. The grocer implicated Fults who was also arrested, tried and convicted. Fults was sentenced to Huntsville and a two year term. Condensing the story somewhat, in April of 1930, he escaped with two other prisoners from the Eastham prison farm. His freedom was short lived and a few months later, he was caught in a burglary in Missouri and returned to Huntsville, where he served about one more year before being paroled in the late summer of 1931.
Ralph was associated with the Barrow Gang for a little over two years and with Ray Hamilton during that period and afterward. Fults had met Clyde Barrow and Ray Hamilton at Eastham and kept up his acquaintance with them after that time. From 1932 until the 1934 deaths of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, Fults was in and out of events of the duo. He was arrested with Bonnie after a failed attempt at a hardware store burglary in Mabank, Texas. Barrow and Hamilton managed to escape but Bonnie and Ralph were apprehended. In connection with this case, Bonnie was released but Fults was tried, convicted and received a ten year sentence to the Texas state prison. He served about three years before being pardoned by outgoing Governor Miriam Ferguson in early 1935. During this time, the Eastham prison break was carried out by members of the gang. It is unknown whether Fults had any knowledge of the plans for the break, but he does not appear to have been directly involved. By the time of his pardon and release, Barrow and Parker had been killed, but he reunited with Ray Hamilton.
Over the next couple of months, Fults and Hamilton were involved in or suspected of several crimes in Texas, Oklahoma and Mississippi before they were separately arrested. Fults’ capture made the national news. Hamilton had previously been captured around the first of April and was returned to Huntsville where he was awaiting execution for the murder of a prison guard. On April 17, 1935, Fults was driving a stolen car taken from a Renner, Texas physician. Fults was also accused of holding a local youth as a prisoner. He had been wanted for a bank robbery in Prentiss, Mississippi but local authorities had matched his fingerprints and had been on the lookout for him. Fults was apprehended when he drove the stolen vehicle down a dead end road on what was called “Millionaire’s Island” which extended out into Lake Dallas (now known as Lake Lewisville) some seven miles east of Denton. At the time, he was twenty-four years old. He had led the officers on a chase before turning onto the lake road that had no outlet. Fults surrendered without incident and admitted to his and Hamilton’s recent crimes. A newspaper article said that Fults also admitted being on the way to attempt another bank robbery in Prosper, Texas when he was captured.
Fults was returned to Huntsville before being extradited to Mississippi where later that year, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to two fifty year terms in prison for the Prentiss bank robbery. At first, conditions in the prison were harsh, but at one point the prison manager was replaced and his successor took an interest in Fults, even putting Fults’ name forth for parole after a while. He served almost ten years before securing a conditional pardon and being released in 1944.
The Phillips biography, named above, mentions that Fults tried to enlist in the military shortly after his 1944 release, but failed his physical examination. He then got a job in a Mississippi shipyard. It was in Mississippi where he met his future wife. After their marriage, the couple lived in Mississippi for a few years until relocating back to Texas following death of his father in the late 1940s. For a while, Fults worked as a carpenter, including working on the then new Dr. Pepper headquarters east of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
His wife was raised in a protestant church and encouraged him to attend. He refused at first but after talking with the local minister finally agreed to attend. Fults embraced the Christian faith and message of the church and was surprised to be welcomed by the membership, including a former police officer who knew him from his criminal days.
Fults received his full pardon from the State of Mississippi in 1954. He and his family lived in Dallas and Fults began accepting unpaid speaking engagements to tell his story. At some point, he began to work at the Buckner Baptist Children’s Home. He continued to speak to various groups, encouraging listeners to avoid getting into a life of crime and was also involved in efforts to promote prison reform and former offender rehabilitation. By 1955, he was portrayed as the last surviving member of the Barrow gang. In 1960, he was involved in a locally broadcast television program called “Confession” in which panel discussions were carried out concerning crimes, punishment, rehabilitation of former offenders, and the like.
After a short bout with cancer, Fults passed away in 1993 at age 82 and his widow survived him another thirteen years. Both are buried in Grove Hill Cemetery.
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