No one ever expected Ward Augustus Thornton to die in bed.
Given his chosen profession, it was much more likely that Thornton, who went by the nickname “Tex,” would be blown to bits on the job. He was known as the “king of oil field firefighters” years before the most famous hellfighter of all — Red Adair — came on the scene.
Thornton made his living by hurling nitroglycerin and TNT bombs into geysers of flame, a technique that effectively snuffed out raging infernos.
Still, Tex Thornton did die in bed, but it was not a matter of peacefully drifting off to a final sleep.
On the morning of June 23, 1949, a maid at the Park Plaza Motel, along Route 66 near Amarillo, Texas, opened the door to cabin 18 and found the renowned firefighter, naked, his head crushed and a shirt knotted around his neck.
Around 12 hours earlier, a very drunk Thornton had checked into the motel, which was not far from his home, along with a red-haired man in his 30s and a pretty, young blonde.
Later that night, Thornton’s companions took off in his car. Police found it in Dodge City, Kan. two days later.
Police had fingerprints, descriptions of the couple, and a signature — E. O. Johnson — on the motel register. But within six months, the investigation had fizzled out like the hundreds of blazes Thornton had extinguished during his career.
Born in 1891 in Mississippi, Thornton dropped out of school to work in oil fields. A 1912 marriage produced a son — Charles Bates Thornton — but the couple soon divorced. Over the years, Thornton rarely saw his son, wrote Clay Coppedge in his book, “Texas True Crime Miscellany.”
By 1923, he was living in Amarillo with his second wife and developing a reputation as a fearless oil-field firefighter in Texas and Oklahoma. He used a relatively new method — deploying explosives to suffocate the flames.
Newspapers loved him, sometimes devoting full pages to his exploits.
“‘Tex’ Thornton Defies Death as He Walks Into Flaming Wells,” the Fort Worth Star-Telegram breathlessly reported in 1927. A photo showed him in his suit of inch-thick asbestos, carrying canisters of nitroglycerin and TNT.
“It’s the thrill of the game,” he said when asked why he did it. It also made him a millionaire.
Scores of leads about his murder went nowhere. Then in February, newspapers reported that a “shapely gum-chewing blonde” had gone to Washington, D.C. police with a story.
Diana Heaney Johnson, 18, said her husband, Evald Johnson, 32, was the killer.
They were hitchhiking and Thornton, returning home from a business trip in New Mexico, offered them a ride. That led to an evening of wild drinking, paid for by Thornton from a wad of cash. He was known to always carry thousands of dollars.
At the cabin, Diana said she stepped out for a moment. When she returned, she saw her husband on top of Thornton, beating him with a pistol.
They left the corpse on the bed, grabbed his gun and cash, about $3,000, and fled in the victim’s car.
Police found Evald at his sister’s home in Michigan. His family said the WWII veteran had always been a good boy. His troubles began, they said, when he met his future wife.
Diana’s family said Evald was the problem, too lazy to work and pushing his wife into prostitution to support him.
Both were charged with murder, but Diana’s case was quickly dismissed for lack of evidence.
At her husband’s trial in May 1950 prosecutors said the motive was robbery. But the defense offered another theory.
On the stand, Evald’s attorney asked him how he felt about his wife.
“I love her,” he told the court.
The question was the heart of the defense strategy.
“Killer Pleads Written Unwritten Law” was how the Daily News explained it on May 14, 1950. True, he had confessed in writing to beating and choking Thornton. But there was a good reason.
Evald said he found Diana and Thornton naked in bed together.
“I was running toward him when he rolled over on his back and started messing with the pillow,” Evald said. “He hollered at me, ‘I’ll kill you.’ “
Evald saw a gun in Thornton’s hand and grabbed it.
“I came at Thornton because he was makin’ my wife,” he yelled during prosecution questioning. “She was my wife. My wife. Not his, but mine.”
At the time, Texas still had its “paramour law,” which made it justifiable homicide for a husband to defend a cheating wife’s honor by killing her boyfriend. The defense strategy worked.
“Jury Acquits Evald Johnson of Tex Thornton Slaying” was the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s lead story on May 17.
Evald and Diana were later found guilty of stealing Thornton’s car and given four-year sentences, prompting this editorial headline in The Canyon News, “Steal a Car and Go to Pen; Kill the Owner — Goes Free.”
Thornton was more or less forgotten after that, although the crime story made it to Hollywood. Al Dewlen, the Amarillo Times city editor and first reporter on the scene, turned it into a 1961 novel, “Twilight of Honor.” The 1963 movie based on the book received three Academy Award nominations.
And the name of Tex Thornton lived on in the child he left behind with his first marriage. Charles Bates Thornton, who also used the nickname “Tex,” became a titan of American industry, honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom shortly before his death in 1981.
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