A few weeks ago I blogged about the Pettys – Olahoma folks who married into my McAmis clan and Jess Petty, who became an MLB pitcher. Brother Del McAmis asked, “Didn’t we also have a Petty relative who was a criminal?” Why yes we did, as did most families in the 1920s-1930s.
Remember that in the U.S. in the 20s and 30s there was a lot of lawlessness – the bi-products of Prohibition and the abject poverty of the Depression. There was Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bugsy Moran, Al Capone, Wilbur Underhill, Jr. – and in our extended family, Tom Petty.
There were other miscreants, I am sure. Our family archives include a colt 45 attached to at least one murder (pay back for a beating). Many of the Scots-Irish were brawlers and this included some of our McAmis men. And then there was Jess Petty’s brother, Tom Petty (not to be confused with musician Tom Petty of Heartbreakers fame) a petty thief who operated in Oklahoma and Texas.
As the family story goes, Tom Petty and a cohort decided to rob a jewelry store – not exactly penny-ante stuff. Tom and his buddy climbed up on top of the roof and cut a hole. The accomplice lowered Tom on a rope ladder into the store to make the heist while he kept watch for the cops. At the sound of approaching sirens, the accomplice threw the rope down through the hole and beat it – and only Tom Petty was caught and prosecuted.
Sentenced to the McAllister State Prison in Oklahoma, Tom had a foolish habit of teasing and taunting others. While out on a work gang, he irritated a guard who hit him square in the head with a pick ax handle and left him for dead. Hours later Tom crawled to the prison doors, asking to be let back inside. He had a big crease in his head for the rest of his life.
Once Petty was out of prison and back home, he seemed to disappear from time to time. When he re-appeared he claimed he’d “been fishing” – although the family knew better from each new set of callouses, earned while working a road gang busting up rocks.
My Dad can remember when he was a boy in the 20s that Petty was visiting the McAmis family in Ft. Worth when noted criminal Wilbur Underhill, Jr. drove up out front in a fancy car. Petty wouldn’t let the kids go outside and he walked out alone, so Dad never knew the details of the exchange.
Underhill had been in McAllister State Prison at the same time as Tom Petty. Underhill was known for burglary, bank robbery, murder, and was finally sent to prison on a life sentence. He escaped in 1931 – which would have been the year my Dad was 11 – and that may have been about the time he visited Petty.
Tom Petty’s visiting privileges at the McAmis household was tenuous at best. When he stole my grandmother’ gun and threw it in a river, he became persona non gratis since the odds were he had used the gun in some criminal activity.
— Jonnie Martin