Pope, Lawrence Chalmous (1918–1989)

By: Paul M. Lucko

Type: Biography

Published: June 1, 1995

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Lawrence Chalmous Pope, banker, robber, convict, and criminal-justice reformer, was born on July 5, 1918, at Trinity, Texas, the son of L. C. and Ellen Kenner (Jones) Pope. The family resided briefly in Alpine, Texas, after his birth, but his parents divorced, and when he was three his mother took him and his younger brother to Huntsville. There they lived with his grandfather, a local banker, and his grandmother. Pope, who attended the Methodist Church as a youth, was a member of the Boy Scouts of America and in 1934 gave a speech at a ceremony dedicating a new facility for Scouts in Huntsville. In an address heard by former governor William P. Hobby and other dignitaries, Pope praised prominent Huntsville citizens for their interest in the future of their community's young men. He graduated during that same year from a training and demonstration school located on the campus of the Sam Houston Normal Institute at Huntsville. Pope and his wife, Geraldine (Vaughan), whom he married on June 18, 1939, were the parents of a daughter. The couple divorced during the 1960s. After Pope's graduation, he moved to Dallas to live with an uncle who was a banker in that city. In 1935, through his uncle's assistance, he secured employment as a clerical worker with the First National Bank of Dallas. Except for an interval during World War II, Pope remained with the bank until 1948. From 1944 to 1946 he served with the United States Army at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Fort Hood, Texas; he attained the rank of staff sergeant. While employed by the Dallas bank he attended classes sponsored by Southern Methodist University, the American Institute of Banking, and the Graduate School of Banking at Rutgers University.

From 1948 to 1951, Pope worked as an assistant national bank examiner for the Eleventh Federal Reserve District investigating banks in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Louisiana. He served as a cashier with the Farmers and Merchants National Bank in Abilene, Texas, from 1951 to 1953. From 1953 to 1958 he was executive vice president of the Security State Bank, which later became the Gulfgate State Bank in Houston. In 1958, supported by three other investors, he became part owner and president of the West National Bank in West, Texas, where he also served as president of the local chamber of commerce. Unknown to Pope, however, his partners sold their stock shares to a Dallas swindler and the West bank soon experienced serious financial difficulties. After bank examiners uncovered marginal loans and other questionable practices, the board fired Pope in 1960.

After the scandal at West, he borrowed money to purchase the Star, a weekly newspaper in Giddings. Pope, who never prospered during his lengthy banking career, planned to use the newspaper's press equipment to print banking forms for sale to financial institutions. When his acquaintances in the banking business reneged upon what he had perceived as promises to purchase forms from him, Pope became enraged. Armed with a .38 caliber snub-nosed revolver, on successive Saturdays in October 1960 he robbed banks in Thornton and Schulenburg. During these robberies he read bank ledgers to ascertain the amount of cash on hand and forced female bank employees to disrobe while he photographed them posing in lewd positions. He locked the employees in the bank vaults and threatened to give the photographs to local newspapers if his victims identified him. The two robberies netted him slightly less than $7,000, but he later explained: "It was not so much a matter of me being desperate for money as it was just being real damn mad at banks and bankers." Disillusioned and angered at what he regarded as fraudulent and unethical practices, Pope argued that "bankers have stolen more than all criminals have stolen."

Federal Bureau of Investigation agents arrested him in San Antonio, Texas, in November 1960. After federal and state courts rejected his temporary insanity pleas in 1961, he received concurrent federal and state sentences of twenty-five and fifty years respectively for his crimes. Pope, who had unsuccessfully attempted to escape while awaiting his state trial, entered the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, in October 1961 at the age of forty-two and remained there until sometime in 1968, when officials transferred him to another federal prison at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He remained there until September 1969, when authorities returned him to Leavenworth. While confined, Pope became involved in a prisoners'-rights movement that touched federal and state prisons across the country. He learned to file petitions or writs that asked federal courts to protect the civil rights of prison inmates. Pope won a major victory when Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall, a future United States Supreme Court Justice, ordered Leavenworth officials to permit the prisoners to correspond with a federal probation officer.

In March 1970, probably due to his involvement in the prisoners'-rights movements, federal authorities sent Pope to the prison system in Texas, where officials classified him as "a potential institutional adjustment problem and malcontent." Although he was fifty-two years old and suffered from bronchial asthma, administrators assigned him to arduous outdoor agricultural labor duties at the Ellis Unit, near his former hometown of Huntsville. For the next nine years Pope served time at various correctional sites and observed as well as experienced brutal treatment from prison employees and certain inmates. Favored prisoners, usually classified as "building tenders," actually supervised other prisoners, administered punishment, and received special privileges from officials. Pope witnessed beatings and other violent disciplinary techniques from the hands of the buildings tenders and guards; he also encountered overcrowded living conditions, poor medical care, and corrupt employees who stole state property and smuggled drugs into prison facilities. Such conditions, he believed, made "monsters out of people." "You cannot rehabilitate prisoners by brutality, and you cannot rehabilitate drug addicts if they can get drugs in prison," Pope later observed.

He protested against conditions of confinement and violations of individual rights in Texas prisons and continued to file petitions similar to those he had written while incarcerated in federal prisons. Pope assisted other prisoners in the writ-writing process, which challenged institutional practices such as restrictions on correspondence, access to legal materials and assistance, and retaliation against writ writers. He and other prisoners worked with Frances Jalet Cruz, an attorney who encouraged inmate litigation and handled their cases before federal courts. The most aggressive litigants, including Pope, received punishment from prison officials who maintained that courts should refrain from interfering with the internal management of correctional facilities. Officials placed him in solitary confinement for weeks at a time, where he received no food but bread and water; he also suffered broken ribs after a beating by a building tender.

Despite state resistance, Pope and other prisoners prevailed in many of their lawsuits, as federal judges ordered the Texas prison system to halt interference with inmate correspondence and legal assistance. Pope testified before the Texas legislature's Joint Committee on Prison Reform in 1974 and was the first witness for the plaintiffs when the Ruiz v. Estelle class-action trial began on October 2, 1978. The Ruiz case resulted in a federal court decision declaring that conditions of confinement in Texas prisons constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the United States Constitution. The chief counsel for the inmates selected Pope as the lead witness because of his ability to speak "more comprehensively and articulately than anyone."

After the Ruiz trial ended on September 20, 1979, the court ordered Texas authorities to transfer Pope to a federal prison facility at El Reno, Oklahoma, where he would receive protection from retribution by Texas prison officials. He remained at El Reno from 1979 until his parole to Austin, Texas, on July 2, 1982. In Austin he continued his reform activities by lobbying state officials, testifying before legislative committees, and speaking before university classes. "Prison reform is what I'm all about," Pope explained. For a brief period he worked at a monthly salary of two hundred dollars for CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants), but he found the organization's methods too pacific. After leaving CURE, Pope, who preferred a more combative approach to reform, persisted in his agitation against practices in Texas prisons and protested capital punishment by attending all-night vigils at the Capitol when executions occurred in Huntsville. Although at least one member of the Texas legislature characterized Pope as a "con artist," other state officials praised his "ability, intelligence, and courage." His health deteriorated after his parole until, on April 3, 1989, he died of cardiac arrest in Austin. He was buried a few days later in Huntsville. Pope left a massive collection of manuscript materials pertaining to prison reform and banking to the Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Dallas Times Herald, November 26, 1989. Steve J. Martin and Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Texas Prisons: The Walls Came Tumbling Down (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1987). New York Times Magazine, November 12, 1989. Lawrence C. Pope Collection, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.


  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Outlaws, Criminals, Prostitutes, Gamblers, and Rebels
  • Prison Administrators and Reformers


  • East Texas
  • East Central Texas
  • Huntsville
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

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

Paul M. Lucko, “Pope, Lawrence Chalmous,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 21, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/pope-lawrence-chalmous.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 1, 1995

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