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Footnotes in Texas History

Payback Time

When a Texas rancher was conned, he spent years tracking down the swindlers

Illustration by Dana Smith

The year was 1921. J. Frank Norfleet, after two years and 30,000 miles of pursuit, finally slapped handcuffs on “Mr. Stetson” in Florida. Stetson—real name Joe Furey—had swindled Norfleet out of $45,000 in North Texas.

“Well, you old trail hound, I never expected to see you out here,” Stetson said. “I thought we left you in Fort Worth, broke.”

Norfleet had no experience in law enforcement, city life or sophisticated cons. He was a rancher, a man who had always lived on the edge of the Texas frontier. So when he made up his mind to pursue the band of bunco men who conned him, he used the only tools he had: unfathomable patience, cutting for sign, camouflage by way of disguises and weaponry. He out-conned the con men.

Norfleet grew up on the Texas plains. He was a trail herder in his early days and eventually managed to buy his own ranch, near Lubbock. By the age of 54, he had finally accumulated some real wealth.

So he went to Dallas 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 with a man named Hamlin. Upon hearing Norfleet had a ranch to sell, Hamlin said he just happened to know someone who might be interested in his land. That person, Spencer, magically appeared and said they would need to go to the Adolphus Hotel to see another man.

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Texas Co-op Power · Payback Time


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 pocketbook “lost” in the crevice of the couch. Stetson was the name on an ID card inside. Spencer and Norfleet inquired at the front desk for a Mr. Stetson, got his room number and returned the pocketbook to him.

Stetson (Furey) offered them both $100 rewards. When 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’s how the hook was set. From there, Norfleet handed over his own money and eventually cash guarantees, hoping to grow his wealth in 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: “$45,000 gone, $90,000 in debt, 54 years old.” They stole nearly $750,000 in today’s money.

Norfleet tells the story of his cross-country pursuit of Furey—which took him all the way to Mexico, California, Canada and Florida—in his fast-moving autobiography, Norfleet, published in 1924. It’s a great adventure and demonstrates an old cowboy’s enormous creativity and grit. Or read a more modern version historically contextualized in Amy Reading’s The Mark Inside.

Whichever you choose, cinch up your saddles nice and snug. It’s a wild ride.