Today begins a two-part guest post by Holmes, who blogs with Piper Bayard over at Author Piper Bayard‘s site. His specialties are history, crime, war, and international intrigue. Here he talks about real life detective Jelly Bryce, a crack marksman who found his skills were very much needed in the 1920s and 30s gangster era. Enjoy!
Supercop Jelly Bryce
In Hollywood movies and television, we often see crime genre episodes that present a policeman or policewoman who possess special instincts and the ability to shoot the bad guy before the bad guy shoots them. In real life, most police department employees never fire their weapons in anger, and few of them ever get the chance to solve an interesting, high profile case. But one law enforcement legend, Delf A. “Jelly” Bryce, was an exception to this rule, and had a career that read more like a movie script than a typical real life story.
Delf A. Bryce was born In Mountain View, Oklahoma in 1906. According to legend, his father would unload his pistol and let baby Bryce teethe on it. The story sounds like an exaggeration, but Bryce’s older sister claimed it was factual.
Bryce was known in law enforcement as a legendary quick draw whose first shot never missed. Shooting accurately takes some talent and a lot of practice. Shooting fast takes a little talent and a lot of practice. Being the fastest shot and being very accurate while being fast requires a lot of talent and tons of practice. Bryce had both the talent and the practice.
According to family members, young Delf was encouraged by both his father and his grandfather to develop a passion for shooting. By age ten, he had his own .22 rifle and was provided with ammunition for constant practice. Residents from his area who knew him in his youth remember him always practicing and claim they never saw him miss.
When Bryce graduated high school, he traveled to Fort Sill, Oklahoma to compete in an Army sponsored “citizens marksmanship competition.” Bryce beat out all of the region’s well know shooters in both rifle and pistol competitions.
Bryce then accepted a position as a State Game Ranger, but after six months, he resigned and left for college. On his way to Oklahoma University, he saw a flier advertising an annual State Sheriffs Association Shooting Contest in Shawnee, Oklahoma that offered $100 for a first place prize. Bryce found the range near Shawnee where the competition was being held and introduced himself to Clarance Hurt, the Night Chief of the Oklahoma City Police Department.
Hurt was skeptical of this college-bound kid in white slacks with his old revolver. He took Bryce to an area away from the range and set up a small target for him. Bryce drew and quickly fired six shots, all within a one inch group. Hurt told him to forget college and that he was now a member of the Oklahoma City Police Department. Not surprisingly, Bryce went on to easily win the match that day.
Bryce reported for work in Oklahoma City. On his second day on the job, he was exiting a downtown OKC restaurant at lunchtime when he noticed a nervous looking man sitting in a car. Bryce thought he might have seen the face on a wanted poster, and he approached the man. Bryce opened the driver’s door and saw that the man was in the process of hot-wiring the car. Bryce remembered to explain that he was a policeman, and the startled car thief committed a fatal error. He drew a pistol. Before the thief could fire Bryce drew his own pistol and shot the man dead.
Delf Bryce was in a bit of shock. He had not imagined having to actually shoot anyone. Nearby observers phoned the police. The uniformed police arrived and did not recognize the new employee. He had not yet received his new badge. They arrested him and placed him in a holding cell awaiting investigation. Bryce’s father heard a radio report about his son being arrested for murder and headed for Oklahoma City with his lawyer in tow.
That night Clarence Hurt arrived at the jail and had Bryce released. Bryce’s father wanted him to return home with him and forget about law enforcement. Bryce told him that he wanted to stay and be a policeman. He stayed.
That same first year of his a career, Delf Bryce was involved in another shooting incident. He was parked in an alley while on duty one night when he saw two men attempting to break into the back door of a business. Bryce drove his patrol car up and exited his vehicle. The men drew pistols, and Bryce shot them dead.
Still without any real training, the young cop put both bodies in his trunk, drove to the station and asked Night Chief Clarence Hurt that he was supposed to do with them. Hurt had him take them to the morgue and explained procedures for any further shootings.
In 1933, infamous gangster Wilbur Underhill and ten cohorts escaped from Kansas State Prison in Lansing, Kansas and went on a tri-state bank robbery spree. Underhill was considered to be one of the most vicious and violent criminals in the nation. In December of that year, an OKC policeman spotted Underwood and tailed him to a rural house near Shawnee, Oklahoma. A posse of Federal State and county detectives including Bryce and Clarence Hurt was formed in Shawnee.
That night, it rained, and the posse used the darkness to scout the house with a single vehicle. The scout reported that a drinking party was taking place at the house. The posse let them drink and waited until three in the morning. Then they surrounded the house and closed in.
When the trap was sprung, Underhill raised his hands to surrender, but when the police approached he turned and grabbed two 9mm Luger pistols. Several policemen fired, and Underwood was knocked down. He then got up and bolted and managed to run off.
Bloodhounds were used to track Underhill to a furniture store in Shawnee. Underwood was badly wounded when they found him, and he surrendered without further struggle. He died a few weeks later in prison in McAllister, Oklahoma.
On July 18, 1934, Bryce and two other Oklahoma City Police detectives tracked Clarence Pugh and two other wanted gangsters to a hotel in OKC. Pugh was wanted for the murder of a policeman and multiple bank robberies. He had been a sidekick of infamous gangster Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde infamy. Pugh was considered to be the most trigger-happy and ruthless of the Bonnie and Clyde gang.
A desk clerk led the three detectives to the owner’s room, and when the door was opened, they saw gangster Ray O’Donell laying on the bed with two Colt 1911 pistols leveled. As O’Donell took aim Bryce, drew his revolver and put five shots into his head before he could fire.
Monday: Jelly Bryce’s FBI career, and later years
Thank you, Holmes, for this account of an interesting and unconventional detective from American history. And Piper, thank you for helping make this happen. We’re looking forward to Monday!
Do you have a favorite real-life crime-fighter? I’d love to hear from you.
Until next time,