Decker, James Eric (1898–1970)

By: Gerald Saxon

Type: Biography

Published: December 1, 1994

Updated: May 29, 2020


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James Eric (Bill) Decker, law officer, son of James A. and Cecille T. Decker, was born in Dallas, Texas, on August 31, 1898. He grew up there and attended local schools before dropping out to find work. On July 21, 1916, he married Clyde Ryals of Galveston. Four years later he became an elevator operator at the Dallas County Courthouse. In 1923 Decker joined Constable Murray Fisher's staff as deputy constable. In 1933 he was named chief deputy to Sheriff Richard A. (Smoot) Schmid, a position he held until Schmid lost the 1946 election. Decker resigned from his position as chief deputy and ran for sheriff in 1948, when he defeated incumbent Steve Guthrie. Decker was sheriff until his death in 1970. Throughout his twenty-two years as sheriff he never faced another opponent in an election.

Decker became somewhat of a legend as a Texas lawman. His relentless pursuit of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker and his capture of hardened criminal Raymond Hamilton focused national attention on him in the 1930s. Even greater attention was focused on Sheriff Decker in November 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas (see KENNEDY ASSASSINATION). During the trial of Jack Ruby, the killer of alleged Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, five prisoners escaped from the county jail. Criticism was leveled on Dallas law enforcement as a result. Decker, in his typically calm manner, answered the critics, saying that "Dallas will survive all this, partner." As sheriff, he modernized and expanded the department and led his staff with a low-keyed dignity.

He and his wife had no children; they raised his cousin, William Tennant Decker. Decker received numerous awards during his lifetime but always maintained that he was no hero, just "a professional law-enforcement officer trying to do a job." He died on August 29, 1970, and was buried in Dallas.

Dallas Morning News, August 25, 26, 1970, November 17, 1978. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

Categories:

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Law Officers

Time Periods:

  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II

Places:

  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas
  • North Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Gerald Saxon, “Decker, James Eric,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 20, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/decker-james-eric.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1994
May 29, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects:

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