Claude Spicer, Dance Hall Killer

Claude Spicer was born in Waco Texas in 1897, the son of William Spicer from Ohio. His father died before 1910, and he was raised by his widowed mother Phoebe.

Claude made his criminal debut in February 1913, when he and his buddy Arteban Campbell held up another teen with an unloaded pistol and got away with $1.25. In January 1914 he was paroled for burglary, and on February 24 1915 he went to Huntsville Prison for theft. He was released in January 1917, and disappears from records for the next decade.

Zana Mae Reed was born in 1906, and married Alvie Hurst in Waco on October 9 1926. Their daughter Mary was born July 8 1927 and died April 21 1928. Zana and Alvie split, and later that year she was living with Claude as “Mrs Spicer”.

Zana Mae

On April 15 1929, Claude took Zana to the dance hall at Tours, a tiny town outside Waco. The number one song that week was “A Precious Little Thing Called Love”, with vocals by Ethel Shutta.

While they were dancing, 23-year old Martin Uptmore and his partner bumped into Claude and Zana three times.

After the third, Claude said “Come on outside with me.”

Martin replied “Let’s be friends and shake hands,” and they shook.

Zana said “If you shake hands with my husband, then you must shake my hand too.”

Claude then drew his pistol, shot Martin once in the leg, and threw his gun towards the door. Deputy Constable Will Girard was standing outside, and rushed in when he heard the shot, finding Claude and Martin fighting. Martin said “Will, he shot me.” Claude denied it, and Zana said “He didn’t shoot him, he hasn’t a gun.”

As Girard led Claude to his car, Herman Uptmore yelled “Where is the man who shot my brother?”, and attacked Claude with a knife, cutting him in the back.

Claude and Herman were both taken to jail, and Martin was taken to the hospital by a friend, where he died about 3AM. The bullet had grazed his femoral artery, and he bled to death.

Martin Uptmore

At the murder trial in October, Zana surprised everyone by claiming that she fired the gun.

“I shot Martin Uptmore”, cried Mrs. Claude Spicer, climaxing her testimony in defense of her husband. The plump little brown haired woman donned the cerise dress she wore to Tours on the night of the fatal dance, April 15; she took her husband’s .38 calibre revolver and thrust it into the bosom of her dress, to show how she carried it on the dance floor; and she drew it forth deftly and suddenly with her left hand to show the jury how she shot Uptmore. “He struck me, then hit my husband, and then he cut Mr. Spicer, then I shot him,” she told the jury.

“I was going to check the purse and the pistol while we danced, but the pistol wouldn’t go in the purse, and Mr. Spicer was around on the other side of the car, and a crowd of people were about me so that I didn’t want to call to him or make a show of having the gun, so I merely put it in my bosom to get it out of the way. That’s how it happened to be there. And when this man cut Mr. Spicer, I shot him.”

After multiple collisions on the dance floor, Zana said “I told them to shake hands and be friends, and they did, and I shook Uptmore’s hand, and then Uptmore tried to get Mr. Spicer to come outside with him and settle the argument. He caught him by the arm and was pushing him. I interfered, and put my hand on Uptmore’s shoulder to get him to stop, and he pushed me roughly away and struck Mr. Spicer, and then cut him. Then I shot him.”

“I dropped the gun, or threw it away, I don’t know which, and a lot of men grabbed Mr. Spicer and started toward the door with him, beating him and cutting at him. I hung on to his arm, telling them he didn’t shoot Uptmore, but someone pulled me away and knocked me down. Mr. Spicer was on the ground, and an officer was standing near. I ran to him and cried to him to stop them from killing my husband, and finally he pulled a gun and told the crowd to stop being fools, that Mr. Spicer was under arrest, and to let him alone.”

Waco News Tribune, October 4 1929

Herman Uptmore took the stand to testify about attacking Spicer after Martin was killed. “Yes, I was trying to kill him, because he killed my brother. I cut him three or four times, and stopped because Will Girard pulled a gun on me and hauled me away.”

Defense attorney Joe Taylor danced with Zana in front of the jury box, to illustrate her position when the music stopped and the gunfire started. No other witness saw events as Zana claimed, and the jury didn’t buy it. Claude was convicted, and sentenced to eight years.

Claude and Zana’s daughter Betty Jo was born March 20 1930, while his conviction was appealed. He won a new trial, was convicted again in December 1930, and finally went to Huntsville on March 21 1932.

Claude was given a conditional pardon by Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson and released on May 9 1933. Two months later on July 19, Claude, Munroe Summey, William Scott and an unnamed 4th man were riding in a car with a woman: Munroe stopped to burglarize the woman’s house, and then Claude cut William’s throat. No explanation was ever given for this attack. The gang then took William to the hospital, where he died two days later at the age of 33, leaving a widow and two-year old son.

Claude was charged with murder, his pardon was revoked, and he was returned to Huntsville.

Ma Ferguson

Ma’s prolific pardoning had become controversial, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorialized against her after Claude’s 2nd round of murder.

The McLennan County grand jury the other day returned an indictment against one Claude Spicer, charging murder. Murder indictments are not rare in Texas; nearly every grand jury session in any county produces one or more. But the public interest is invited to the Spicer case by the fact that a few weeks ago the killer was in the state penitentiary, where he had been immured by organized society for its own protection and in punishment for a previous murder. Spicer was released from the penitentiary on May 9 by order of the Governor of Texas. His prison haircut had hardly grown out before he had killed again. With Spicer in jail on the new murder charge, the Governor revoked the parole. This executive action came a trifle late, however, to benefit W. M. Scott, the second victim, who was in his grave, his throat cut by a butcher knife wielded by a man who, that act proved, ought to have been kept behind the bars where he had been placed by the law and the guardian courts of the State.

The power of executive clemency imposes a great responsibility upon the Governor who exercises it. Before turning a convicted criminal out of prison, the Governor has an obligation which can not be evaded: to make sure that thereby the ends of law and justice are not being defeated and that there is not being turned loose upon society an unregenerate criminal. One mistake of this sort by a Governor ought to call for extreme carefulness in issuing pardons and paroles. Several mistakes ought, if the Governor has regard for the duty of the office to society, lead to placing the matter of pardons and paroles entirely in the hands of others more qualified to deal with it in the interests of society.

The present Governor of Texas has not been a good custodian of the public interest in this respect, The list of freed convicts resuming criminal careers is far too long to be creditable to the State or to the Governor’s sentiments of “mercy.” It is well enough to talk of mercy to criminals who showed no pity to their victims. Mercy of the sort that looses a murderer to kill again evokes no applause from the family and friends of the next victim.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram July 30 1933

Claude was released on April 12 1936, and immediately took his faithful companion Zana to Oklahoma, where they were married on April 17.

Claude led a peaceable life from then, dying in Houston on July 25 1955. Zana married Sanford Wilson three months later, and lived until 1976.

No one was ever tried for the murder of William Scott. His wife Lois died in 1974, and his son Marion in 2002.

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