The Friday after Labor Day 1928 turned out to be a bad day for the Shook brothers. In fact, it turned out to be their last day. Lucian, 26, an oil field pumper, and Leon, 21, who was home from Tarleton and had come to visit his brother, went missing. Relatives finally went to the police on Monday, and by early Tuesday morning, the badly decomposed bodies of the two men had been found in shallow graves near Lucian’s shack. Within a few hours, Eastland County Sheriff John Hart had interviewed Thomas Francis Davis, 17, and his brother Woodrow Wilson Davis, 12. The Davis brothers admitted they were present at the murders but pointed the finger at friend Clyde Vernon Thompson. By Tuesday, the guilt-ridden young man who was all but illiterate had signed a written confession.
The First Murders
Clyde was born in 1910 during the original oil boom. Clyde’s family moved from Guymon, Oklahoma after Clyde was born, eventually settling near Leeray, Texas. While the 1920s might have been roaring in some places, most of the families in Leeray and other towns in Eastland County were hard hit by the bust that followed the initial glut of oil drilling. The Thompsons’ transience resulted in Clyde not starting school until he was eight, and his dropping out in fourth grade.
Some combination of poverty, youthful foolhardiness, boredom, and gang mentality prompted Clyde and the Davis brothers to seek out the Shooks. Clyde said the older men had insulted their sister. The confession he signed, based primarily on the testimony of Woodrow Davis, also included robbery as a motive.
Ultimately, Thompson and the Davis brothers lured the Shook brothers from their oilfield shack, a fight ensued, and the Shooks were beaten and shot. The county attorney announced he would seek the death penalty.
The First Trial
By the time Clyde Thompson and Thomas Davis were arraigned on October 15, the younger Davis brother had agreed to testify. By the following day, Clyde had been tried, convicted, and sentenced to die in the electric chair — the youngest man ever to receive the sentence at the time. Woodrow Davis testified that he heard Clyde say he shot the Shook brothers “just to see them kick.”
Five days later, Thomas Davis was also given a death sentence, but he ultimately received a five-year suspended sentence for one of the murders and a ten-year sentence for the other. Clyde, meanwhile, languished on Death Row.
Clyde’s second trial resulted in the same verdict as the first. Clyde was taken to the Walls Unit in Huntsville, where he was placed on Death Row and began the appeals process.
Many prisoners faked mental illness in hopes of being granted a reprieve. Clyde was no different. In one instance, he was hauled naked in front of a group of journalists and photographers, who intended to take a head shot. As they clicked their cameras, Clyde turned and bared his rear, then ran away laughing. These antics, however irritating to the news media and the guards, did nothing to convince the courts of his mental incompetence, and his death sentence remained in force.
Twice, Clyde was granted a 30-day stay of execution. Governor Ross Sterling was eager to see just how different the outcome might be for Thomas Davis. When Davis was given only a ten-year sentence, the parole board recommended that Sterling commute Clyde’s sentence to life. Just hours before Clyde’s execution, the governor agreed.
In his last-minute justification for the commutation, Sterling cited Clyde as having the “mentality of a child,” and also referred to the inequities of the sentences imposed on Thompson and Davis.
The Meanest Man
In the subsequent years of Thompson’s imprisonment, there were likely many times he wondered if it would have been better to have been executed. His imprisonment came in the days when prisoners were sent to work on prison farms. The conditions in the pre-reform era were grueling.
In 1932, while incarcerated at Eastham Prison Farm in Brazoria County, Thompson and three other inmates planned an escape. Inmate Tommy Ries alerted the guards of the escape, leading to the death of one of the inmates. Clyde vowed to avenge his fellow prisoner’s death by killing Ries, “the snitch.” He stabbed Ries seven times in the chest with a homemade shank. For this murder, he received another life sentence.
He received an additional life sentence in July 1935 after killing fellow prisoner Everett Melvin. The prosecutor asked for the death penalty in both the Ries and Melvin murders. Prison officials even gave radio interviews in which they labeled Thompson “the meanest man in Texas,” and the moniker stuck. However, the juries decided on additional life sentences each time, bringing the total number of life sentences Clyde was serving to three.
In Huntsville, he was placed naked in solitary confinement in an abandoned building that had previously served as the prison morgue, which contained only concrete slabs. He was brought food once a day.
Redemption and Legacy
In the weeks leading up to Christmas 1946, a pastor in Meridian, Texas, prompted his church members to send Christmas cards to prison inmates. Only Julia Perryman did so. She and Clyde began corresponding and developed a longdistance relationship.
Julia visited Clyde in prison a year later, and toward the end of that first meeting, he asked her to marry him. She lobbied extensively for his parole, visiting him in prison, intervening with the warden, writing to the parole board, and praying for his release.
Clyde was first eligible for parole in 1949 but was denied. Again in 1951 and 1953, he was turned down. Julia continued her tireless letter-writing campaign, pleading with officials on the basis of Clyde’s changed behavior and his potential to be a productive member of society. He had taught himself to read in prison using a Bible provided to him by the warden. Angry at God during his time in solitary confinement, Clyde had set out to read well enough to prove the Bible wrong. However, reading the Bible in solitary confinement changed him. He resolved to live his life, even if he never got out of prison.
The reform-minded manager of the Texas Department of Corrections was at first skeptical of Thompson’s newfound faith, having seen many jailhouse conversions during his tenure with the department. However, he became convinced over time that Thompson’s conversion was real.
The parole board eventually became convinced, too, granting him parole in 1955. Julia bought him a new suit and delivered it to the prison the day before his release. The two were married five days after his release.
Julia’s fears of Clyde bolting as soon as he was out of prison proved to be unfounded. The two were deeply in love. Years later, Clyde wrote, “All of these people underestimated the power of God and the influence of a good woman.” Clyde worked for two years at Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas, and served as a pastor in various churches. The couple also served at a New Mexico children’s home, where they were finally able to adopt a Navajo baby girl, Shirley Anne.
In the 1970s, the couple ran the Prisoner’s Aid Center in Huntsville before moving back to the Lubbock area for Julia’s health. In Lubbock, Clyde served as Chaplain of the Lubbock County Jail.
Clyde Thompson died of a heart attack on July 1, 1979, ten years before Julia. The couple is buried in Hillsboro, Texas. Clyde’s story is told in detail in Don Umphrey’s book, The Meanest Man in Texas, and an independent film of the same name was released in May 2019 at the Alamo Draft House in Lubbock.