W.A. “Tex” Thornton was a larger than life figure in the oil fields of Texas in the 1920s and 1930s, and as a result his murder and a trial that included tales of illicit sexual exploits grabbed headlines throughout the nation in 1949. His exploits were so legendary that it was almost impossible to separate fact from fiction, especially since Tex often acted as his press agent and he was famous for tall tales. Before the age of six, Thornton’s family relocated from Mississippi to Goree, Texas about halfway between Wichita Falls and Abilene. In nearby Electra, a major oil discovery sparked a boom, and Thornton, then 16-years of age, dropped out of school and went to work as a roughneck on rigs. Shortly afterwards he signed on with a torpedo company as a well shooter and displayed such a talent for the job, the company sent him to Ohio for training. It was there that he acquired the nick name “Tex.” In 1919 he shot out his first well fire near Electra, Texas, and within a couple of years he was the Panhandle branch manager of the U.S. Torpedo Company in Amarillo, Texas.

At a particularly difficult well fire, he devised a valve system that became an industry standard.  In 1924, in Hutchinson County, he shot out a fire that had been blazing for a week. The following year he extinguished six blazes that had resisted the most professional teams available. In 1926, the Borger, Texas oil field was discovered, and Thornton’s career skyrocketed. On April 11, 1927, a premature well shooting explosion killing three men, and badly injured several more. Tex was on the scene, and after racing into the blazing inferno to pull the injured to safety, was hailed a hero. Less than a month after his daring rescue, a major explosion and fire at Sanford ten miles west of Borger killed eight men. Two days later, clad in an asbestos suit of his design, Thornton shot the fire out. Less than 24 hours later, there was another well explosion and fire southeast of Borger, and Thornton donned his now famous asbestos suit, entered the fire, placed a charge, and extinguished the fire before an audience of several thousand people. On June 9, there was a well fire near Pampa. This time Thornton entered the fire zone and closed a still intact valve which extinguished the blaze. Soon he was being called to work well fires in throughout Texas as well as Oklahoma, and New Mexico.

It was in a bedroom at this motel on Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas that the legendary life of Tex Thornton came to an abrupt end. Photo Joe Sonderman

Thornton’s murder was tailor made for the fueling of a major media circus and speculative stories that lured readers back for updates the following day. As an example, Norton Spayde, an Amarillo Globe reporter, asked a question that resonated with everyone familiar with Tex Thornton, a legend in the oil industry, “How a young pair as described to officers could take advantage of Mr. Thornton is still a mystery. Both the young people are described as lightweights, and Tex had been schooled in the rough and ready oil fields.”

Thornton’s widow in an interview with police, claimed that he had left Amarillo on Sunday, June 19, 1949 for a job in Farmington, New Mexico with plans to return on Tuesday, June 21 and so law enforcement agencies along the Route 66 corridor in New Mexico were called upon to retrace Thornton’s steps and to  assist in the  search for Thornton’s Chrysler. The Amarillo Range Riders formed their own search teams to track the car after it left Amarillo. Between 4:00 p.m. and 5 p.m. on the 21st, Thornton had called Frank McCullough, sales manager of Meyers Motor Company in Amarillo, and said that he was east of Albuquerque, and was experiencing trouble with his distributor. Police determined that Thornton had spent the night in Albuquerque and theorized that he had picked up the hitchhiking couple between Santa Rosa and Tucumcari, New Mexico. Friday morning, 24-hours after discovery of the body, a Potter County grand jury returned murder indictments against John Doe and Mary Roe.

Members of the Range Riders followed leads east along Route 66 to Elk City, Oklahoma, and located a service station where the attendant identified the car, and the man and woman. Other witnesses were found in El Reno and Oklahoma City. A few days later, police located Thornton’s Chrysler abandoned in Dodge City, Kansas. In a field nearby, they found the keys, and a .45 caliber handgun that had belonged to Thornton. The discovery was front page news in the Saturday edition of The Amarillo Daily News.

Route 66 served as center stage for the story of Tex Thornton’s murder in 1949, a tale that I detail in my new book, Murder & Mayhem on the Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66. Today Route 66 is known for its neon, the catchy song made famous by Nat King Cole, the television program, and countless stories of fun filled adventures shared through the magic of social media. When this storied old highway truly was the Main Street of America, it was know as bloody 66. This reputation was well deserved resultant of the thousands of bloody wrecks that littered the highway from Chicago to Santa Monica. There was another facet to the highways association with death, quick, sudden, unexpected, and bloody. It was the stories of serial killer, murderers, and gangsters that often had an association with US 66, the Mother Road, that appeared in newspapers most every day.