On November 12, 1945, Life Magazine ran an unusual story. It was a photographic study of an FBI agent named Jelly Bryce drawing and firing his .357 Magnum in two-fifths of a second, faster than the human eye can follow. In the pictures Bryce dropped a silver dollar from shoulder height with his right hand then drew with the same hand and shot the coin before it reached his waist. What the article did not say was that Bryce could not only draw fast in front of a camera, but also in front of people who were trying to kill him. In fact, at that time, Bryce had already killed over 10 men in face-to-face shootouts as a city policeman and FBI Agent. In his era Bryce was undoubtedly the FBI's deadliest gun and may have been the best they ever had.
To paraphrase Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: who was this guy?
D.A. Bryce was born in 1906 in Mt. View, Oklahoma, a small town in southwest Oklahoma. There was a story that went around in later years that baby Bryce had been allowed to teethe on his daddy's pistol and had thereby imbibed some of his later ability with hand guns, a tall tale,obviously.
Not so, says Bryce's sister, Lila Dawson. "When he was a baby they let him teethe on Daddy's unloaded pistol. They propped him up with pillows there in the crib and let him go after it."
By the time of his retirement in 1958 Bryce had become so legendary among lawmen of the Southwest that a lot of apocryphal stories about him floated around, a surprising number of which turn out to be true. Two things about Bryce's childhood are certain: he was recognized early on as a prodigy with firearms and he was encouraged by those around him. In particular he was encouraged by a doting grandfather who furnished him with shotgun shells and Bryce himself once managed to save over a hundred dollars shining shoes which he then invested in ammunition. And in those days a hundred dollars would buy a barn-load of ammunition. In short, he practiced a lot, but there was more going on there than just practice. Bryce was born with an astonishing natural talent.
When Leah Rhymer met Bryce he was ten years old and owned a little .22 rifle he used for hunting rabbits and shooting tin cans. "And," she says, "he never missed."
Never? "No. Never. He was a perfect shot."
Bryce was the only kid that age she ever knew who had his own rifle and was allowed to use it unsupervised. He also had an air rifle he got a lot of mileage out of in town. He was seldom without one or the other. "He really just grew up down on the creek bank with a rifle in his hand," his niece, D.A. Dawson says.
In those days the army would hold something called a citizen's military camp and, after graduating from high school, Bryce attended one at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma along with several hundred other young men. While there he won first in pistol, first in rifle, and then went on to win the national rifle competition at Camp Perry in Ohio.
Out of high school, it was time to think about the future and gainful employment. More than anything in the world Bryce loved hunting and fishing so later that summer he became a state game ranger in Oklahoma. Apparently he grew restless with that, though, because after only six months he resigned and embarked for the University of Oklahoma where he planned to enroll. While en route he caught wind of a pistol contest where they were offering a hundred dollars in gold as first prize. That got his attention fast.
The contest was in Shawnee, Oklahoma and was being held as part of the annual Oklahoma Sheriff's and Peace Officers convention. Bryce drove down, found the firing range, got out of his car and approached Clarence Hurt, then the Night Chief of Police and a member of the Oklahoma City pistol team.
"This contest open to anybody?" Bryce asked.
"You think you can shoot, huh?" Hurt said, eyeing him skeptically.
"I think I can, yes," Bryce said. Hurt thought the whole thing kind of flaky, this Joe College in white slacks and a sweater approaching him out of the blue and besides that he was shooting an old smooth-bore .38 that was practically an antique. But the Oklahoma City pistol team didn't have much chance of winning that day and Hurt, their best shot, badly wanted his team to win. And who knew? Maybe this kid would be a decent shot.
Hurt led him behind a nearby hill to see what he could do.
"What do you want me to shoot?"
Hurt took out an old envelope and stuck it in the cleft of a tree trunk and walked off the regulation distance. "Shoot that."
"Can I draw and shoot? I'm better if I draw first than just stand still."
"Up to you."
Bryce drew and put six fast shots into an area the size of a silver dollar.
Clarence Hurt, for once in his life almost speechless, could only say, "You are now a member of the Oklahoma City Police Department."
Bryce won the hundred dollars in gold that day and the pistol team won, too, largely because of his shooting. More importantly he won a new career.
OKLAHOMA CITY POLICEMAN
The strangest part of the story, though, was what happened his first couple of days on the job. Bryce told it often in later years and Bob Oswalt, retired FBI, heard it more than once. After reporting for work in Oklahoma City, Bryce, in plain clothes, was leaving a restaurant in downtown Oklahoma City at high noon. Once out on the sidewalk he saw a man sitting in a nearby car that looked suspiciously like a face he had seen on wanted posters in the Oklahoma City area. What's more the man was behaving in a suspicious manner, peering around, acting nervous.
Bryce walked over to the car, around to the driver's door, and opened it. The man inside looked up, startled. He had some tools and it looked like he was in the process of trying to start the car without a key.
"What are you doing?" Bryce asked.
"Who are you?" the man snarled.
"A police officer."
Without another word the man drew a pistol from under his coat and tried to aim it at Bryce. Before he could fire Bryce drew and killed him. The man slid out of the car onto the cement, dead.
The whole thing amazed Bryce. He hadn't expected the guy to draw on him at all. But worse was yet to come. The police were phoned by onlookers and when they arrived Bryce was so new on the force that the captain didn't know him. Worse yet, Bryce hadn't been issued a badge yet. He was summarily arrested for murder and taken to jail. Fortunately Clarence Hurt, who had hired him, showed up that night and turned him loose. "The man is a police officer!" Hurt roared. Bryce was free, but not before his father heard reports of his arrest on the radio news. His father arrived in Oklahoma City that night with a lawyer.
Bryce's father was naturally relieved that no charges were going to be filed but still wanted his son to come home to the safety of small town life.
Bryce told him, "I've never disobeyed you before but this is what I want to do. I want to be a policeman."
To understand Bryces career in Oklahoma City it is necessary to understand the world of the peace officer in the late 20's and early 30's. It was anything but peaceful. In 1924, just three years before Bryce began, Bill Tilghman, last of the great lawmen of the old west, was killed in Cromwell, Oklahoma, while trying to disarm a drunk. When Bryce's career began, the wild west was not a dim memory but a living presence.
How wild was it?
On New Year's Day, 1934, the Oklahoma City Times joked that the economy was so bad even bank robbery was in a slump. There were only 30 banks robbed in Oklahoma in 1933 as opposed to 59 in 1932.
Fifty-nine bank robberies? That's more than one a week.
In 1926, Bryce's senior year in highschool, there were 211 homicides in the state. The media was glamorizing bank robbers and criminals and, in a sense, it was open season on police officers; there were nine killed in Oklahoma City just in the decade of the thirties. It was the first hint of the depression, dust bowl and economic upheaval waiting in the wings.
One night in 1927 Bryce, alone on night patrol, saw two men in an alley trying to jimmy the back door of a furniture store. He swerved his patrol car into the mouth of the alley, skidding to a stop with his two front lights trained on the two men. He jumped from the car. The two men spun and both opened fire at the same instant.
Bryce killed them both instantly with just two shots.
What happened next was later told by Clarence Hurt, then still Night Chief of Police in Oklahoma City. He was in his office when Bryce came and asked him to follow him downstairs. Hurt followed Bryce down to his car where he opened the back door and revealed two extremely dead burglars.
"What you want me to do with them?" Bryce asked.
Hurt, a small, barrel-chested man given to chewing a crooked little pipe, explained, "Take 'em to the morgue, son."
Then, in later years when Hurt told the story he would inevitably add, "And you know what that Indian did then? Went home and slept like a baby!"
Bryce had killed 3 men his first year, all of them attempting to fire first.
On Memorial day, 1933 eleven convicts escaped from the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing. One of them, Wilbur Underhill, proceeded to go on a bank robbing spree in a three state area. He was wanted for at least three cold-blooded murders, earning himself the nickname "tri-state terror" in the papers. Underhill was so mean he once killed a drug store employee during a holdup for not raising his hands fast enough.
RAID ON UNDERHILL
In late December of that year Underhill was spotted by police in south Oklahoma City and tailed back to Shawnee, Oklahoma, a town about forty miles east. A posse of federal and county detectives gathered quickly at the Shawnee police department and hurriedly mapped an attack strategy. The posse included Bryce and his old pal, Clarence Hurt.
By then it was dark. A scout car was dispatched to go and drive around the house where Underhill and companions were holed up. It was raining and the night was inky black but the officers reported a light was burning in the house and a drinking party was apparently underway. At three a.m. the police closed in, surrounding the house. The posse, under the direction of R.H. Colvin of the U.S. Investigation Bureau, consisted of six federal agents and eight deputies.
About three in the morning Hurt, Bryce and others took up positions at the rear of the house with the remaining officers positioned in the front and along the sides. A light came on in the rear bedroom. The officers approached. Hurt pressed his face against the screen and saw that it was Underhill and his wife. Hurt yelled, "This is the law, Wilbur, stick'em up
"Yeah, ok." Underhill said, raising his hands about halfway into the air. Then he suddenly whirled and grabbed two Lugers sitting on the nightstand beside the bed. Underhill and the police opened up at the same instant. Underhill was hit by a fusillade of bullets, knocked down, yet somehow managed to get up and charge out the front of the house through a pelting of gunfire, disappearing into the night. His wife fainted.
None of the officers were hurt but they knew Underhill had been seriously wounded, probably mortally. In fact, no one could believe he had managed to run away with so many bullets in him. Bloodhounds were summoned. They followed him. They found three places where he had fallen, full face down, in the mud.
A tip soon came in that Underhill was hiding in the back of a furniture store several blocks away, downtown. Hurt, Bryce and the others found him there, in bed, covers pulled up under his chin. He had been gut-shot with a gas gun several times. All the fight had leaked out of him. He surrendered meekly. Too mean to die, he clung to life for several weeks, finally succumbing in the state prison in McAlester, Oklahoma.
By 1934 the United States was truly in a crisis of lawlessness. After the Kansas City Massacre the FBI had been given the authority to carry firearms, the problem being they had few people well-trained enough with weapons to battle the more vicious criminals then operating. As one old lawman says, "You know, there's a lot of plain old sorriness around nowadays but, back then, there were some genuinely mean SOB's." Baby Face Nelson had managed to kill two FBI agents in one night in November of 1934, receiving mortal wounds himself in the process. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI went in search of lawmen skilled as "gunslingers."
Within 6 months they hired 3 detectives from the Oklahoma City pistol team - Jerry Campbell, Clarence Hurt, the Night Chief, and Oklahoma City's youngest detective, Jelly Bryce. Although Bryce had no college diploma, it was rumored that J. Edgar Hoover's mind was made up by the events surrounding July 18, 1934.
OUTLAW HARVEY PUGH
In fact, no story about Bryce has been told and retold more times or gained more mythical status among old-time peace officers.
Oklahoma City detectives learned that there were three known gangsters holed up at the Wren Hotel at 408 1/2 West Main in Oklahoma City. One was known to be Harvey Pugh, former companion of murderer and cop killer Clyde Barrow. Pugh himself was wanted for the murder of a police officer in McPherson, Kansas. Bryce and two other detectives were dispatched to arrest Pugh and question the other two men.
They arrived at the hotel at around 8 a.m. At the front desk was an elderly woman, Nora Bingaman, whose daughter owned the hotel. The officers asked to see the owner, Mrs Merle Bolen, 28 years old. Mrs. Bingaman agreed to take them to her daughter's room.
They followed the old lady up the dark stairs and down a dingy hallway to her daughter's room. The old lady knocked perfunctorily and opened the door. But before the detectives could enter the old lady looked startled and tried to step back and pull the door closed again.
Bryce jammed his foot in the door. "I told you we're police officers," he growled and shoved the door open. He stepped into the room.
Inside the room, lounged on the bed in skimpy pajamas, lay Mrs. Merle Bolen, the owner of the hotel, and J. Ray O'Donnell. O'Donnell was one of the gangsters the detectives had come to question. He was holding two automatic pistols. Bryce's .38 was still holstered on his hip under his coat. Without saying a word O'Donnell raised the pistols at Bryce to fire point blank. A single motion blurred with speed, Bryce drew and killed him before he could pull the trigger. Bryce's first shot entered O'Donnell's chin followed by four that struck him in the head area, the fifth going into the mattress of the bed. Screaming, the woman leaped to safety near a wash stand in the corner.
Bryce later said, "When I looked into the room there he was, up on his elbows with a gun in both hands, aimed right at me. He was lying on the near side, and the woman was on the other side of him. I jumped to one side, out of the line of fire, grabbed my gun and tore him up."
Both women were arrested along with one of the three men the officers were looking for, Tom Walton. Clyde Barrow's buddy, Harvey Pugh, was arrested shortly thereafter when he returned to pick up his automobile. The incident was told and retold time after time by law officers over the years and is probably as perfect an example of the "fast draw" in action as ever recorded.
So just how fast was Jelly Bryce, anyway? As stated earlier, in 1945 Life Magazine clocked his draw and fire at two-fifths of a second. O'Donnell probably never knew what hit him.
Ironically, on that day, Bryce was carrying a .44 calibre revolver that he called his "lucky gun" because its ivory handle carried an embossed black cat, a number 13 and a steer head on the opposite side. A newspaper photo at the time shows Bryce dapperly dressed in white slacks, hat and vest. In fact it was in Oklahoma City that his rather dandified way of dressing earned him the nick-name Jelly.
Bryce was always a fancy dresser. One oppressively hot Oklahoma City summer night he and his partner shot it out with a couple of crooks and one of them, wounded, crawled into a movie theater. In that era, before television, movie theaters were sumptuously decorated, vast air-conditioned palaces, complete with chandeliers, almost always packed with crowds in summer, people seeking relief from the heat. Bryce had management turn the house lights up. The mortally wounded gangster had crawled up a carpeted stairway where he had partially lost consciousness. Bryce went over and peered down at the poor soul. The dying crook looked up at him and said, "I can't believe I was killed by a jelly bean like you." Jelly bean was a term for a fancy dresser who might even be a touch sissified. The remark hit the papers and Bryce quickly became known as "Jelly", a name he grew to like.
It was also in Oklahoma City that Bryce perfected his quick draw, practicing facing a full-length mirror at police headquarters, sometimes for as much as 8 hours at a time. It was out of this practice that he developed the stance later adapted by most law enforcement agencies around the country. In the stance the weight is shifted slightly forward so that if the officer is hit he will fall forward and be able to keep firing.
In November, 1934 Bryce left Oklahoma City for the FBI. He was always a reticent man with details about his exploits. Although it is common knowledge that he killed several people while with the FBI specifics are not known. Bryce only confided in other agents. However, his name was quietly linked with the slayings of the Barker gang and others.
In 1941 his career entered a new level when he was appointed Special Agent in Charge (SAC) in El Paso. He also served as SAC in San Antonio, Albuquerque and Oklahoma City. Sometime during this period Bryce developed what came to be known as the FBI fast-draw holster.
For the first part of his career Bryce carried either the "lucky" .44 or the standard police issued .38 Special until Smith and Wesson gave him one of the first .357 Magnums.
During the 40's and 50's Bryce again received national attention, this time for the firearms demonstrations he conducted for various groups. He was able to do tricks with firearms that few could duplicate.
One of his more unusual was performed with a .22 rifle. He would have someone throw a Mexican peso in the air and he would hit it with the gun, but first he would announce that he would put the bullet "close to the edge" so that it would make a good watch fob. And he would. In fact, witnesses say that Bryce never missed a coin thrown in the air. Sometimes he would shoot one with a 30.06 for fun. Of course, the coin would just disappear. He always laughed about how they would shoot coins in cowboy movies with Winchester rifles. He would also drop a pill box off the back of his hand and shoot it before it got to his waist. He did a whole series of tricks involving clay pigeons. He would shoot them with his .357. Then he would shoot them holding the pistol upside down. He would take a pump shotgun, have somebody hold three clay pigeons, and put two more on the stock of his gun. Then they would throw all five up and he would bust them all firing from the hip, pumping between shots, and getting the last one about a foot off the ground.
He was fond of writing his name in the sky with a sub machine gun full of tracer bullets: DA Bryce. Then he would go back and dot the D. and the A.
Bryce's trademark was a big diamond ring he wore. He would have somebody put a clay pigeon on a fencepost then he would aim his pistol backwards over his shoulder, using the ring like a mirror, and bust it. And if he left a little piece sitting on the fence post he'd say, "Wait a second," and get it, too.
He had a joke he would play sometimes on the audience. He would borrow an expensive watch from someone then secretly switch it for a cheap one he had with him. Then he would "accidentally" shoot the expensive watch and the crowd would gasp. Bryce would then gleefully give the expensive watch back to the person he had borrowed it from.
In fact, for all the drama of his career, Bryce was an easy-going, relaxed, friendly guy. He was well liked by everyone who worked with him and extremely intelligent with a retentive memory. Other agents said he never forgot anything. He often joked that his ability as a gunman was topped only by his skill as a fisherman.
So, just how good were Bryce's eyes? An optometrist asked about it said, "It's impossible to measure beyond 20/10. It would be more than just the eyes, though; it would be the eye-hand coordination which would have to be almost unbelievable."
It has been known as historical fact that some human beings are gifted with eyesight that seems almost supernatural to the average man. Ted Williams, it was said, could read the label off a phonograph record spun through the air. General Chuck Yeager could see fighter planes coming 50 miles away. Bryce one day confessed to FBI agent Bob Oswalt that he could see the bullet leave the gun and his eyes could follow its trajectory to the target. That, he said, was why he could do the things he did. Before dismissing it out of hand, it must be remembered that Bryce could hit a Mexican peso thrown through the air with a .22 and he never, ever missed. Not only that but ten years after his retirement his niece says that he had long since quit shooting for fun but that, when called upon, he would demonstrate exactly the same level of skill as the day he retired. Like an aging Samurai in cowboy hat, he had transcended the need for practice of any kind.
Ultimately, though, Bryce's near mythical reputation among law-enforcement officers in the southwest is based, not upon trick shooting, but the number of people he killed in face-to-face confrontations. During his tenure as SAC in Oklahoma City, for instance, Bryce routinely delegated desk responsibilities to other agents. He spent his time hunting and fishing on his ranch in Kiowa County, Oklahoma, giving weapons training for law enforcement agencies, and firearms demonstrations to everyone from Army generals to cub scout groups.
Only when a dangerous arrest was to be made did he really go to work. He always personally made every dangerous arrest in his jurisdiction. He never knowingly asked anyone to make an arrest he thought to be risky. He was a highly trained specialist: the man who went to the door. It was during this period that Bryce was probably involved in the bulk of shootings that produced his awesome reputation.
Typically, one of America's most wanted might be spotted and trailed back to a cheap motel somewhere. He would be held under surveillance then and Bryce would be notified. Bryce would arrive and go to the man's door. If he resisted arrest, he would probably be killed.
If there was a stand-off hostage situation with a dangerous killer who was holed up under cover somewhere, Bryce would be summoned. He would be the "special negotiator" who would go inside to "negotiate" the man's surrender. If Bryce determined the man would not surrender, he would be killed.
In fact, some old lawmen came to irrationally believe in what they called the "Bryce-effect". It was relegated to the same class of phenomenon as rats leaving a ship before the ice berg is struck. It was based on the observation that in stand-off situations the mere arrival of Bryce on the scene would often suddenly and inexplicably precipitate the surrender of hardened criminals that no one thought would give up. The criminal would have no way of knowing who Bryce was or that he had even arrived. Yet, it was as if Bryce carried death in his aura, radiated such profound danger, that at some level of mind the criminal knew that death had arrived.
Does anyone actually know how many men he killed?
"I can tell you what he told me," ex-Oklahoma City chief of police Bob Wilder says. "Nineteen." Then he amends, "Well, he told me he was involved in 19 shootings." The implication being that Bryce never wounded anybody.
"Aren't you interested in bringing them back alive?" someone once quipped. "I'm more interested in bringing me back alive," he said.
He retired in 1958. In that era Oklahoma was a "dry" state. Unfortunately, alcohol was available everywhere. This led to widespread corruption on police departments and in government statewide. Bryce, the Fed, was disgusted by this and ran for governor on an independent "throw the bums out and clean house" ticket. He placed third but finished better than any other third party candidate in the history of Oklahoma. After that he did some private detective work but mainly just hunted and fished.
Back when he was in charge of the El Paso office, business had taken him one day to Roswell, New Mexico where he saw the most beautiful girl he had ever seen crossing a street. Bryce went up to her, introduced himself and said, "I just thought you'd want to know. I'm going to marry you."
And he did. Her name was Shirley Bloodworth and they were married July 27, 1944 in Carrizozo, New Mexico. Later, in 1945, they had one son, Johnny. After Bryce retired he and Shirley spent all of their time on their ranch in Mountain View. They were inseparable. Then, one afternoon in the early seventies, Shirley was alone in the car on her way home. There was a peculiar stretch of road on the highway, an S curve that went under an overpass then up over a creek. That afternoon the sun blinded her and she ran directly into an oncoming car. Her injuries were terrible in nature and she never fully recovered. About a year later, she had an aneurism and died on Sunday, April 15, 1973 in St. Anthony's hospital in Oklahoma City. Bryce was devastated. "It just killed old Bryce," one old friend remembered. The last year of his life he seemed dazed. The years had taken their toll, anyway. Bryce had no fear for himself but had always been haunted by the notion that someone would seek revenge against his child. One friend in Mountain View remembered a day after school when the little boy had gone off to play with a friend and Bryce and his whole family had gone into overdrive searching for him, fearing foul play.
Now the pressures of his life were catching up with him. He smoked too much. More than anything, he grieved for his beloved Shirley. He seemed lost.
Wherever he went, though, he was armed. His niece recalled that, taking a lesson from Bill Hickock, he never sat with his back to a room. He was always aware of the dark possibilities. His niece recalled that he bought one of the very first microwave ovens in the early seventies and managed to blow an egg up trying to cook it. He said upon hearing the pop that he thought someone had gotten into his house with a gun and shot him.
In May of 1974 there was a get-together of retired FBI agents held at the Shangri-la Lodge near Grand Lake. Bryce went, taking with him Shirley's little dog, a poodle, that he seemed particularly devoted to since her death. He seemed tired and faded that weekend. "I'm so tired," he told another old agent. "I've never been so tired in my life."
On Saturday night, after dinner, he went up to bed early. Sunday around noon, when everyone was checking out, he still hadn't come down. Two of his friends went up and knocked but assumed he was just sleeping soundly, then departed. On Monday morning the howls of his little dog finally brought the staff.
He had died in his sleep of a heart attack. It is a death that some in modern society call the angel's death, a death free from pain and suffering.
Jelly Bryce, that indestructible lawman, had been done in by something as simple as a broken heart. His funeral was the following Thursday in Mountain View in the same church where Shirley's had been, a mere thirteen months earlier. Afterwards they buried him beside her in the Mountain View cemetery.
Bryce had died with a clear conscience. He had never killed anyone he didn't have to kill. He had done his duty well indeed.