This is the tragic story of a man who seemingly had it all ...
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Millionaire oilman and Republican power broker Jake L. Hamon staggered down the stairway at the plush Randol Hotel in Ardmore on the night of Nov. 21, 1920, wincing and clutching his right side. Bob Hutchins — Hamon's friend and bodyguard — rushed toward his boss.
Hamon had been shot.
Hutchins grabbed Hamon as he staggered into the hotel dining room, where local surgeon A.G. Cowles awaited his dinner. Shocked by the sight of the bleeding Hamon, Cowles jumped from his chair and helped Hutchins escort Hamon to the Ardmore Sanitarium and Hospital two blocks away.
Along the way, Hamon offered his first explanation of what had happened. He claimed he had accidentally shot himself while cleaning a pistol. He planned to take the gun with him the next day on a trip to Texas.
News of the accidental shooting soon splashed across newspaper pages nationwide. Hamon had been prominently mentioned as a prospective appointee to President-elect Warren G. Harding's administration, possibly as the new secretary of the interior. Republican insiders credited Hamon with using his money and political muscle to secure Harding the party nomination months earlier, thus paving his road to the White House.
Harding was expected to return the favor.
Now Hamon's fate hung in the balance with a bullet lodged against his spine. The events that followed would shock and mesmerize a nation. A political scandal materialized with sordid details that involved a beautiful mistress, alleged gunplay and a murder mystery for the ages.
This is the story of a man who seemingly had it all …
ROAD TO POWER
Jake L. Hamon was born July 5, 1873, in Grenola, Kan. In 1898, just shy of his 25th birthday, Hamon graduated from the University of Kansas with a law degree and married Kansan Georgia Perkins. Three years later, they moved to Oklahoma Territory where they started a family in Lawton, welcoming their firstborn, Jake Jr., that same year and a daughter, Olive Belle, in 1909.
The lawyer embarked on a notorious political career upon his arrival to Lawton, a town established in the shadow of Fort Sill by the 1901 Land Lottery. Hamon served as Lawton's first attorney general, but his shady activities were questioned from the start. He reportedly extorted money from local gamblers, and voters responded by ousting him from office in 1903.
Those allegations of corruption would not be the last.
Seven years later, as Republican territorial chairman, Hamon faced charges of bribery. Sen. Thomas P. Gore of Lawton claimed on the Senate floor that Hamon attempted to bribe him into supporting attorney J.M. McMurray's land contracts with the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. McMurray held contracts with the two tribes to sell $30 million worth of lands in Oklahoma, and stood to make a 10 percent contingent fee upon those sales.
Gore — a Democrat — opposed the approval of those contracts. He claimed Hamon offered him $25,000 in his private Washington, D.C., office in exchange for withdrawing his opposition to the contracts.
A congressional committee investigated the allegation in the summer of 1910 — an event that quickly became a national scandal.
McMurray testified before the committee on a sweltering August day, and one member wasted no time to ask the question everyone wanted to ask: “It has been charged that you, through Jake L. Hamon, offered Senator T.P. Gore $25,000 or $50,000 as a bribe to influence him in congress to withdraw opposition to the approval of your contracts. Did you, or did you not offer Senator Gore such a bribe?”
McMurray coolly replied, “No.”
Hamon also denied the allegation under oath. In the end, the committee's report declared McMurray's contracts should not be approved. The report further stated there was no evidence to show Hamon was “an authorized agent for McMurray” or that McMurray was “responsible for the behavior of Hamon in Washington.”
Despite the controversy, Hamon never flinched. He instead engaged in a flurry of oil lease and railroad speculations that would forever change his life.
So would a beautiful, young store clerk from Lawton.
The 40-year-old Hamon first met 16-year-old Clara Belle Smith at Miller's store in Lawton. Smith captivated Hamon with her blue eyes, brown hair and dark complexion, and the two were soon in the throes of a passionate affair.
Clara also fell for Hamon's endless ambition and dreams of power.
Hamon paid for Clara to attend a business school in Lexington, OK, and then sent her to a finishing school before making her his personal secretary. She quickly displayed a sharp mind for business, as well as an ambition that rivaled her lover.
By then, Hamon had relocated to Ardmore with a plan to bring the Mexico and Pacific Railroad from Ardmore to the Healdton-Ragtown oil fields in present-day Ringling. He and Clara shared connecting rooms at the swank Randol Hotel. The adjoining suites featured the finest luxuries of the day, as well as leopard-skin rugs. To complete the picture, Hamon paid his nephew, Frank Hamon, $10,000 to marry Clara and then disappear to San Francisco. The bogus marriage gave Clara the Hamon name, and allowed her and Jake to travel as a couple with a facade of legitimacy.
Still, Hamon's abandonment of his wife was quite public.
Georgia Hamon initially fought for her husband, confronting Clara and even Clara's mother. Georgia's pleas were ignored. She eventually left the state with her two children and ended up living in Chicago. Yet, she refused to grant her husband a divorce, and the charade continued.
At the center of it all sat a pile of money.
WEALTH AND POWER
Hamon aggressively secured questionable loans to purchase leases and royalties in Carter County's Healdton-Ragtown oil fields, about 25 miles west of Ardmore. Hamon's wildcat speculations seemingly made him a millionaire overnight. Rumors were he made more than $3 million over a two-year stretch from his holdings.
Through it all, Hamon still clung to his dream of building a railroad. A fortuitous meeting in New York City soon ensued. The story is chronicled in a book titled “Gunman's Territory” by Elmer LeRoy Baker. As the story goes, Jake and Clara were staying at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. One day, Jake Hamon was in the lobby when a well-dressed gentleman walked in. Hamon asked the desk clerk to introduce him to the stranger.
The clerk declined.
“That is John Ringling, circus owner,” the skittish clerk declared. “Just forget about introducing you to him. He's too high-toned even to talk to.”
Hamon remained undeterred. He strode up to the circus tycoon and made the introduction himself.
“I'm Jake L. Hamon,” he said. “I used to work for your circus. I was a tent-sticker, swung a maul and drove stakes and stretched your tents; and you still owe me $3.50. Have you got that much in your pocket, Mr. Ringling?”
Ringling stood in amusement.
“I've been a circus owner all my life, and I know all your phrases,” he replied. “Just come out of the bushes, Mr. Hamon, and I'll play along with you.”
“All right,” Hamon said. “I am an oil man from Oklahoma, a chief politician in the state, and I'm going to build a railroad through the oil fields from Ardmore, OK, and name it and the terminal Ringling. I want you to come up to my room and meet my financial secretary. You'll like her, for she is a good sport to go my gait.”
“You can show her to me, too,” Ringling replied. “I want to gaze upon the female with enough nerve to go your pace.”
A partnership was born, and it was Clara who reportedly sealed the deal. Or so the story goes.
Soon, Hamon went in search of his next adventure. The allure of power once again brought him back into the political arena for a 1919 campaign. This time, he sought to become Oklahoma's Republican National Committeeman with the 1920 presidential election on the horizon. The post would not come without a bitter fight.
Republican opponents hit Hamon with a furious print campaign, taking out newspaper advertisements and circulating fliers aimed at destroying his character and credibility. Frankly, they had much ammunition. One flier claimed: “JAKE HAMON — Not a Resident of Oklahoma, So He Swears … PAYS HIS TAXES IN CHICAGO.” The same flier further claimed Hamon wasn't even a legal voter in Oklahoma, asking voters, “DO THE REPUBLICANS OF OKLAHOMA WANT A RESIDENT OF ILLINOIS TO REPRESENT THEM ON THE NATIONAL COMMITTEE DURING THE NEXT FOUR YEARS?”
The attacks became far more vicious — and personal — deeper into the campaign. Opponents called Hamon a womanizer in print.
Frustrated, and with the campaign in jeopardy, Hamon finally reached out to his wife in Chicago. He asked her to return to Oklahoma and join him on the campaign trail. She agreed. Hamon declared publicly that his marriage was on the mend and presented a portrait of a strong family man.
Oklahoma's Republican voters were sold. Somehow, some way, Hamon won the election. The victory catapulted him into a potentially powerful position in party politics, and so he was able to quickly put the nasty contest behind him.
Clara Belle Hamon would be another matter entirely.
The 1920 Republican National Convention. Photo provided
Jake L. Hamon had no intention of divorcing his wife. Too much was at stake politically.
If the thought ever seriously entered his mind, it may have vanished the day he first met Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding of Ohio in New York City. The meeting took place a few months before the 1920 Republican National Convention, and that was when he learned Harding's wife, Florence, was a second cousin to his estranged wife.
Hamon likely saw this connection as an opportunity. Yet, he wasn't prepared to cut ties with Clara, who continued to manage his oil holdings in Oklahoma while he made the rounds in Washington, D.C. Clara also increasingly pleaded with Jake to divorce his wife, perhaps sensing her future with him slipping away.
By the time the Republican National Convention opened at the Chicago Coliseum in June, Hamon had already impressed Harding's hard-nosed campaign manager — Harry M. Daugherty — with his sizable bankroll and pledge of Oklahoma delegation votes in exchange for the right offer. But Harding remained a clear dark horse behind Spanish-American war hero Gen. Leonard Wood of New Hampshire, Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden and California Gov. Hiram Johnson.
Hamon clearly went to Chicago with the intention of being a power broker. According to noted journalist William Allen White, he was not alone. White later recalled the mood in Chicago that summer in his autobiography, noting how he had never witnessed a presidential convention “so dominated by sinister economic forces as was this.” Of the Oklahoma oilman, White wrote, “Hamon was in Chicago to buy himself a cabinet position.”
Money undoubtedly changed hands.
Several accounts place Hamon at the center of the illegal activity. By June 11, no clear nominee had emerged after several votes. The proceedings were adjourned for the day, and party insiders met in what historians have since described as the “infamous smoke-filled room” at the Blackstone Hotel to hammer out a deal.
Hamon proved to be a pivotal player. After being bounced from Gen. Wood's room after an attempted bribe, Hamon teamed with the Harding campaign. He reportedly paid $250,000 to Pennsylvania Sen. Boies Penrose to release his state's delegates to Harding. Other reports claim Hamon spent more than $1 million to buy delegates.
Those deals allowed Harding to soar past Wood, Lowden and Johnson to clinch the nomination.
Five months later, Harding defeated Democratic presidential nominee James M. Cox to win the White House. Hamon, who served on the campaign's executive committee, again played a crucial role behind the scenes and was rumored to have been offered the cabinet position of secretary of the interior.
Hamon reportedly declined the offer.
The Oklahoman offered some insight behind Hamon's decision in a Nov. 12, 1920, article:
“As a power behind the throne, also, Hamon might exercise as great influence on the new administration as any in the official cabinet. … As a silent and inconspicuous influence, also, Hamon might shape administrative policy as nearly as possible to his own liking and still avoid the volume of criticism that comes to every public official, from justice of the peace to postmaster-general.”
Harding owed Hamon. That much was clear.
So, too, had become the fate of Clara.
Bob Hutchins, Hamon's friend and bodyguard, recalled decades later what Jake was expected to do. Hutchins said Harding directed Hamon to bring his “legitimate family” to Washington, D.C., and to leave his secretary in Ardmore.
Clara was out, but no one expected her to accept her fate without a fight.
ONE FATEFUL NIGHT
The Randol Hotel in Ardmore. Photo courtesy of The McGalliard Collection, Ardmore Public Library
The events of the night of Nov. 21, 1920, are murky at best. All except the gunshot wound suffered by Jake Hamon at the Randol Hotel in Ardmore.
The hotel manager later testified that Hamon was drunk “as usual.” Clara claimed Jake had been acting “beastly” and injured her with “ugly names.” Hutchins contended Clara had been “hitting the bottle” heavily, distraught over the fact she would not be going to Washington, D.C.
One of Harding's confidants was in town to chat with Hamon about the role he would play in the administration, and Hamon planned a special supper. Two wild ducks were shot and prepared for the occasion, but Clara was not invited to the dinner party. She showed up anyway — drunk.
Hutchins claimed she and Jake argued at the dinner table before Clara hurled a duck at his face. Hamon ordered her upstairs, and even threatened to call the police and have her arrested for disorderly conduct. Hutchins seized Clara and escorted her to her room where she supposedly fell asleep.
Hamon told Hutchins he would slip up to her room later to console her, confessing he had been mean to her. “Jake,” Hutchins warned, “don't go up there at all. I have been watching what has been going on here today. Your political enemies are striking at you through her. She is all torn up because you are going to Washington without her. She thinks you are giving her the brushoff. If you go up there now, you will come down on a death wagon.”
Hamon ignored the warning.
Later that evening, Hamon sat on his bed propped by pillows when Clara entered the room. Clara claimed Hamon began beating and choking her when she pulled a gun from her purse. As Hamon attacked her with a chair, the gun discharged.
Another account has Clara leaning in to hug Hamon as she pressed the gun against his side and squeezed the trigger.
Hutchins, who helped carry Hamon to the hospital, sat at his bedside as physicians worked on his wound.
“Hutch, stay with her,” Hamon said of Clara. “She didn't murder me, even if she did fire the fatal shot.”
Hamon faded in and out of consciousness. Finally, he opened his eyes.
“Hutch,” he said hoarsely, “take Clara home with you and send her to Mexico till this trouble comes to light, and, and, see that she comes clear in court.”
Within minutes, Hutchins was packing Clara's trunks.
“Hutch, I didn't mean to shoot him,” Clara sobbed. “The gun went off accidentally!”
Soon, they were on the first passenger train heading south. They changed trains at Fort Worth and headed toward El Paso — Hutchins' hometown. Upon arriving at El Paso, Hutchins escorted her across the border and into Juarez, where she was placed in the care of one of his old family friends.
Five days later, officials pronounced Hamon dead. His wife held his hand as he took his final breath.
Front pages of The Oklahoman's coverage of the trial on March 12, March 13 and March 16, 1921.
The Oklahoman Archives
By the time of Hamon's death, the local district attorney had already issued a warrant for Clara's arrest on the charge of shooting with the intent to kill. The charge was later amended to murder, and authorities soon traced her to Mexico. Upon her return to Oklahoma, Judge Thomas W. Champion set her bail at $12,000. Three millionaires immediately posted her bail, while others contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars for her defense.
Clara's defense team would include Joe Ben Champion, the judge's twin brother.
Oklahoma Gov. James Robertson assigned state Attorney General S. Prince Freeling the task of prosecuting Clara in what was already a high-profile case. Freeling hoped to send Clara to the McAlester State Penitentiary, but not everyone agreed.
“I want to see her sent to the electric chair,” Georgia Hamon said. “Every married woman, every mother should pray for her punishment. She is a terrible woman. No home is safe from her kind. No punishment is bad enough for her.”
The sordid details of Jake Hamon's relationship with Clara became national news during the trial. Newspaper articles appeared daily, chronicling her bogus marriage to Jake's nephew, their expensive lifestyle, their shared ambitions of power and fame in Washington and the mysterious gunshot that claimed Hamon's life.
Georgia Hamon — the widow — stayed home.
Finally, after eight days of testimony, the jury entered the Carter County courtroom after only 39 minutes of deliberation. Judge Champion asked, “Gentlemen, have you reached a verdict?”
Jury foreman B.F.C. Loughbridge answered, “We have, Your Honor.”
A silence veiled the courtroom. The clerk loudly read the verdict: “Not guilty.”
Clara Belle Smith walked out of the courthouse a free woman.
Had one night in November 1920 gone differently, Oklahoma oilman Jake Hamon might have been among President Warren G. Harding's cabinet members pictured here. Photo provided
President Warren G. Harding eventually named Albert Bacon Fall as his secretary of the interior in March 1921. Fall accepted more than $385,000 in bribes from two friends — oilmen Harry F. Sinclair and Edward L. Dohney — in exchange for lucrative, no-bid leases to drill at Naval reserves in California and Teapot Dome, Wyo. Fall also accepted a $100,000 loan to build a home in New Mexico.
The Wall Street Journal reported the scandal in April 1922 — an event that became popularly known as the Teapot Dome Scandal. An investigation found Fall guilty of conspiracy and bribery, and as a result, he ended up spending a year in prison for his role.
One can only wonder whether Jake L. Hamon would have shared a similar fate had he lived. Yet, answers to such questions, just as Hamon's political future, went with him to the grave.